When asked specifically about the acquisition of the BrahMos, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Thi Thu Hang said on August 18 “the procurement of defense equipment by Vietnam is consistent with the policy of peace and self-defense and is the normal practice in self-defense.”
India’s External Relations Ministry said reports of BrahMos cruise missiles reaching Hanoi were “incorrect” August 22.
Whether the deal has been completed could have major strategic implications. First, the short-range ramjet supersonic cruise missile has a 600-kilometer range that puts some Chinese-owned features in the South China Sea in range. The level of tension between Hanoi and Beijing peaked recently when the People’s Liberation Army threatened to attack Vietnamese posts in the South China Sea if a joint venture between Hanoi and Madrid to explore oil fields there wasn’t called off.
Secondly, Beijing and New Dehli have only just ended a chilling military standoff at the Doklam Plateau that began in mid-June. With bilateral relations between China and India already sensitive, the shipment of the fastest missiles on Earth to Vietnam could spark unwanted rifts.
The BrahMos is made jointly by India’s Defence Research and Development Organization and NPO Mashinostroyenia, which was formed by New Dehli and Moscow in 1998.
Vietnam remains a central aspect of India’s Act East foreign policy initiative to build influence in Southeast Asia. In the same way Beijing has cultivated ties with Pakistan, a country perennially at odds with India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought deeper relations with Hanoi, the Diplomat reports. In 2016, Modi made the first trip by an Indian prime minister to Vietnam in 15 years as the countries’ leaders toasted to 10 years of strategic partnership.
On August 10, US Defense Secretary James Mattis announced that a US aircraft carrier would drop anchor off Vietnam’s coast in 2018 as Vietnam becomes a more important counterweight to Beijing. And just on Friday, the Wall Street Journal broke news that the Pentagon had finalized a schedule for the US Navy to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea “to create a more consistent posture to counter China’s maritime claims there.”
Beijing has routinely bashed FONOPs, though Washington views them as a way to highlight its excessive claims in the South China Sea. US Pacific Command has completed the finishing touches on a plan to conduct two or three FONOPs over the next few months, unnamed US officials told the WSJ.