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Indian missile deal with the Philippines is a game changer

Source : Nikkei

Indian missile deal with the Philippines is a game changer
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After years of negotiations and uncertainty, the Philippines and India have finalized the much-ballyhooed BrahMos supersonic missile deal. With a price tag of $375 million, it marks a milestone for India’s burgeoning defense industry, especially as the South Asian powerhouse tries to reduce its dependence on large-scale arms imports.

For the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, the deal represents its biggest defense acquisition in years and is a major step toward developing the country’s strategic arsenal. Versatile and relatively inexpensive, the BrahMos, which has a range of up to 290 km, can be deployed from warships, fighter jets and submarines.

But while no match for China’s state-of-the-art missile batteries installed along its chain of South China Sea artificial islands — not to mention its nascent next-generation hypersonic missile technology — the deal represents the first step in India’s increasingly determined Look East policy. As India ramps up its defense production, New Delhi is developing its next-generation defense technology in collaboration with Russia, Japan and Western powers as part of its deepening military cooperation with front-line states across Southeast Asia.

Historically, India has had a tempestuous relationship with Southeast Asia, which has often suffered from strategic neglect and mutual contempt.

As a champion of anti-colonial struggles in Asia, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, emphasized a “common nationality” for India and Southeast Asia. A decade later, Nehru proactively supported Indonesian leader Sukarno’s call for a global Non-aligned Movement in opposition to the excesses of both East and West.

Then came the rude awakening of Konfrontasi, Indonesia’s war against the fledgling Malaysian Federation, which tore the fabric of regional solidarity asunder.

Singapore’s subsequent expulsion from Malaysia further alienated the Indian leadership, with Nehru going so far as to dismiss Southeast Asia as a bunch of unruly, pro-American “Coca-Cola governments” that lacked both strategic autonomy and ideological conviction.

Over the following decades, as India consolidated its leadership in South Asia and tilted increasingly toward the Soviet Union, Southeast Asia’s U.S.-aligned nations constituted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Hemmed in by Pakistan and China and beset by economic troubles at home, India squandered a perfect opportunity to rekindle ties with ASEAN following the end of the Cold War.

On one hand, India’s strategic reticence undermined initial attempts to export advanced weaponry to countries such as Vietnam. New Delhi also remained woefully dependent on foreign military purchases, with India accounting for a staggering 10% of global defense imports between 2016 and 2020.

Amid rising territorial disputes with China, the nationalist Modi administration has gradually overhauled the country’s strategic orientation by enhancing high-end defense cooperation, expanding naval deployments across the Indo-Pacific, and ramping up India’s defense exports to like-minded states in Southeast Asia.

In 2018, India became only the second country, after Australia, to host all ASEAN leaders, including the pro-Beijing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, for a special bilateral summit in New Delhi. During the historic confab, both sides agreed to not only expand trade and investment ties but defense cooperation as well, with a particular focus on maritime security.

Under the so-called Delhi Declaration, both sides affirmed their commitment to “maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, and other lawful uses of the seas.” The Indian media described the event as “the most significant exposition” of the country’s Look East policy, a turning point that has paved the way for the landmark BrahMos deal with the Philippines.

Intent on developing a minimum deterrence capability against China, the Philippines is now in the midst of a multibillion-dollar, 15-year-long military modernization program. Manila is especially focused on the acquisition of strategic weapons and enhancing its long-neglected navy and air force.

Having relied mostly on U.S. military aid in the past, the Philippines’ purchase of a few batteries of BrahMos cruise missiles is likely just the start of increased defense cooperation with alternative powers such as India. The missiles, which partly rely on Russian technology, put the Philippines in a strong position to acquire BrahMos II, a collaborative hypersonic missile project between India and Russia.

For India, the BrahMos deal is a crucial springboard for expanding defense exports to other key regional states, especially Vietnam and Indonesia, amid a massive regional arms buildup in response to China’s increased maritime assertiveness. Backed by a growing military-industrial complex, India aims to raise defense exports to $5 billion by 2025, with a particular focus on ASEAN.

The geopolitical implications for the Indo-Pacific are considerable. As a global leader in vaccine production, India is a key member of the Quad’s efforts to counter Beijing’s own vaccine diplomacy efforts in Southeast Asia.

Leveraging its affordable and highly skilled workforce, India can steadily transform itself also into a global leader in the production of relatively inexpensive weapons systems and put itself in a strong position to assist Quad-led efforts to empower smaller nations grappling with a resurgent China. After decades of strategic marginality, the BrahMos deal is a vital icebreaker for a new era of Indian foreign policy, with new partners in East Asia and a resurgent China in focus.

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