During security consultations held in Beijing on February 21, China and Russia agreed on enhancing communication and collaboration on arms control and non-proliferation and reinforcing their comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination – the highest level of diplomatic engagement for China.
Behind the curtain of Sino-Russian officialdom, however, words do not reflect the facts. The Kremlin is in fact continuing to arm India and, through military cooperation with Delhi, other Chinese adversaries in the Indo-Pacific region – a dynamic that once again questions the real substance of the much-trumpeted entente between the Chinese dragon and the Russian bear.
Apart from the huge amount of lethal weapons that Moscow keeps selling to Delhi, the Indo-Russian duo is also moving forward with the buildup of sophisticated weapons in concert. And to China’s dismay, these jointly developed arm systems will not only beef up the Indian armed forces’ capabilities, but those of other Asian-Pacific countries as well.
In particular, China’s People’s Liberation Army will have to monitor developments regarding the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile and its possible impact on geopolitical hot spots such as the Himalayan region, the eastern Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, where Beijing’s strategic interests overlap with those of India and a number of Southeast Asian neighbors.
BrahMos is one of the world’s fastest anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles. It has been co-developed by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Russia’s Machine-Building Research and Development Consortium, which launched the BrahMos Aerospace joint venture in 1998, and has a range of 290 kilometers. An upgraded variant of this cruise projectile, with a range of 450km, will be tested on March 10.
At the recent Aero India exhibition, DRDO chairman S Christopher said a further version of BrahMos was under development. In his words, it will be capable of hitting a target 800km away and be ready for production within two and a half years.
BrahMos can currently be launched only from land or sea, but Delhi and Moscow are test-firing a new variant mounted on the Su-30 MKI fighter aircraft. If testing proves successful, it will probably be inducted by the Indian Air Force this year. Furthermore, in the Indo-Russian plans, a lighter version of BrahMos will be integrated on Russia’s fifth-generation T-50 PAK FA fighter jet once operational, according to Russian sources.
Among other advantages, BrahMos’ improvements would strengthen India’s ability to penetrate deep into China’s (and Pakistan’s) territory, which has already been ramped up with the purchase of five Russian-built S-400 long-range air defense missile systems.
BrahMos in the South China Sea
It is now emerging, however, that China could end up grappling with BrahMos’ significant potential in the South China Sea, as some littoral countries in the area that are locked in territorial disputes with Beijing have reportedly shown interest in acquiring the Indo-Russian supersonic cruise missile.
Moscow’s approval is required for the sale of BrahMos missiles. An informal go-ahead in this regard was given by Alexander Leonov, chief executive of the Machine-Building Research and Development Consortium, on January 27, when he stressed that Russia and India might start exporting BrahMos cruise missiles to third countries.
BrahMos Aerospace spokesman Praveen Pathak recently upheld Leonov’s comments. Speaking to Russia’s Sputnik News at Aero India, he revealed that seven countries equipped with Su-30s, including some from the Asia-Pacific region, would be keen to buy BrahMos missiles. And all clues point to Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, which all have Su-30 fighters in their fleets. Last year, Russian news agency TASS singled out the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand as other potential Southeast Asian buyers of BrahMos projectiles.
Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur are both claimants to islands in the South China Sea, along with the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei, while Jakarta has a more neutral position on the territorial row against mainland China there. Still, Chinese claims to waters around the Indonesian archipelago of Natuna prompted Jakarta to stage military exercises off these islands last autumn.
In this context, Indian arms sales to Vietnam are of particular concern to China. Indeed, India has been in talks on selling its Akash missile defense system to the Vietnamese government, in what would be Delhi’s first ever missile transfer to a foreign nation; but it is actually BrahMos’ export to Hanoi that would heighten the level of confrontation with Beijing.
Challenging China’s patience
India’s arms-sale approach toward Southeast Asia is consistent with its “Look East” policy, devised to deepen economic and security cooperation in the region to counter China’s growing clout. The Russian contribution to this scheme is apparently contradictory because of its close relations with Beijing, but Moscow appears willing to run the risk of irritating its Chinese “strategic partner” in order to increase arms sales, which are Russia’s only export driver along with natural resources, and the triangulation with India could help the Kremlin expand its presence in the Southeast Asian security market.
Until now China has been largely silent on Russia’s “defense affairs” with India, at least officially. It remains to be seen how long Beijing will tolerate this situation, especially if its contenders in the South China Sea start to amass more lethal and cutting-edge Indo-Russian arms in their warehouses.