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India’s Growing Defense Diplomacy in Southeast Asia

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India’s Growing Defense Diplomacy in Southeast Asia

New Delhi sees the ASEAN nations as amenable strategic partners, and potential customers for its nascent defense industry.

India’s Growing Defense Diplomacy in Southeast Asia

Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo shakes hands with India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar during his visit to New Delhi, June 29, 2023.

Credit: Twitter/Enrique A. Manalo

Last month, Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo visited India. The trip that was notable for a number of reasons. After discussing a range of regional and international issues, Manalo with his counterpart Dr. S. Jaishankar issued a joint statement that expressed support for the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea, which invalidated China’s expansive claims over the contested waterway. This was a first for India, which on the South China Sea disputes has never gone beyond broad expressions of support for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The shift in the Indian stance should be viewed against the backdrop of its evolving defense partnership with Southeast Asia, particularly its supply of major platforms, and growing joint production and naval war drills with the nations of the region. Sanctions on the region’s traditional arms supplier, Russia, and reducing anxieties about an aggressive China, have pushed South China Sea littoral nations to bolster their security by reaching out to like-minded countries, including India. New Delhi in turn views Southeast Asia not only as a focal point for its Indo-Pacific Vision but also an important part of its ambition to become a net defense exporter. Lying at the heart of these defense ties is China’s aggressive behavior in both the Himalayas and the South China Sea.

Upscaling Defense Cooperation: Recent Developments

With rising material capabilities and economic stakes in the South China Sea, India seems to be gearing up to create a substantive defense footprint in the region. After concluding a deal to supply the Philippines with the Brahmos cruise missile, its largest defense export deal to date, last year India signed an agreement with Manila providing for government-to-government defense-related deals. The Philippines has also shown an interest in procuring Tejas multirole fighter, the Dhruv advanced light helicopter, and the Akash missile system.

During Manalo’s visit from June 27 to 30, both nations expressed a keen interest in upgrading defense ties including through the opening of an Indian Defense Attaché office in the country and the expansion of joint exercises. Recognizing China’s presence in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as a “major challenge,” Manalo stated his intent to consider the concessional line of credit offered by New Delhi to support defense requirements of Philippines, including acquisition of naval assets.

India’s military exchanges with Vietnam received further stimulus during the Defense Minister Phan Van Giang’s visit to New Delhi last month. India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh announced the maiden transfer of the missile corvette INS Kirpan to Hanoi as a gift. The two sides also discussed training for Vietnamese military personnel operating submarines and fighter jets. The two nations, which established a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016, have also started negotiations on a potential purchase of the Brahmos cruise missile. Vietnam could potentially provide an opening to the establishment of a greater Indian defense footprint in the South China Sea with the major breakthroughs achieved during Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Hanoi in June 2022. Over his visit, the two countries signed a military logistics pact and announced a “Joint Vision Statement on India-Vietnam defense partnership towards 2030.” This would enable their militaries to access each other’s bases and enhance the scale and scope of joint production respectively.

Last year, India also secured a contract with Indonesia to deliver 40 mm naval gun systems, making it the first defense deal between the two strategic partners, which just concluded negotiations on the purchase of the Brahmos missile system. In 2018, the two signed a new defense cooperation agreement and inculcated a warfighting aspect to their bilateral naval exercises, including anti-submarine operations.

Meanwhile, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh recently inaugurated the regional office of the state-owned defense firm Hindustan Aeronautics Limited on his visit to Kuala Lumpur on July 11. This is significant for tapping into the arms market in Southeast Asia. Singh with his Malaysian counterpart Mohamad Hasan approved amendments in the MoU on Defense Cooperation that the two countries signed in 1993. This change is considered instrumental for expanding defense cooperation and realizing the full potential of the Enhanced Strategic Partnership that the two nations established in 2015.

In another maiden development aimed at furthering maritime interoperability, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conducted in May a war simulation exercise in the South China Sea. The multilateral exercise included various drills including cross-deck landings, surveillance and, communication. Unfazed by the presence of Chinese research vessels just a few miles away, India and ASEAN’s deployment of warships demonstrated a shared commitment towards maintaining freedom of navigation in the region. Besides, the elevation of India-ASEAN ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, agreed upon last year, presents India with scope to reinforce maritime security cooperation with ASEAN as a bloc.

A Convergence of Interests

China’s dramatic rise and its reverberations have seen the economic and cultural linkages between India and ASEAN broaden to include defense cooperation. Owing to a faith in India’s rising material capabilities, ASEAN today views India’s potential “swing role” as the key to maintaining a regional power equilibrium. On the other hand, New Delhi intends to supplement the defense capabilities of Southeast Asian nations out of a recognition of the growing power asymmetry with China in the maritime domain. The militarization of islands in the South China Sea has lent Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) a means to project power into the Indian Ocean, which New Delhi regards as its front yard.

China’s posture in the South China Sea and across the disputed territories with India has become increasingly aggressive since the waning of the COVID-19 pandemic. After occupying areas on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LAC) in May 2020, the militaries of China and India are still engaged in a border stand-off. China has ramped up military infrastructure and troops across the LAC while blocking access to traditional patrolling points in India.

Similarly, China’s attempts to disrupt the energy exploration activities of the littoral states in the South China Sea have gathered steam, while it has deployed armed drone submarines to its base on Hainan island. Beijing’s establishment of administrative units on the disputed islands has furthered anxieties in the region. Both India, and the South China Sea claimants – the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei – have reacted to China’s expansionist behavior by adopting a moderate position and avoiding direct retaliation. At the same time, they have taken certain measures that indicate their concerns about Chinese actions. India has introduced economic measures aimed at Beijing, while Vietnam and Indonesia have granted port access to China’s adversaries, namely the U.S. and India. Meanwhile, the Philippines has expanded its defense relationship with Washington, stoking Beijing’s worries.

To be fair, China’s external posture is not the only factor nudging defense exchanges between India and South China Sea claimants. In contrast to the region’s growing distrust toward China, India is increasingly being perceived as a trustworthy partner, one that not only champions international law but also one whose military is an asset for global peace and security. This perception and India’s participation and contribution in ASEAN-led regional fora including the East Asia Summit (EAS), and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) has given an added thrust to India’s Act East policy. Originally conceived as an economic initiative, the policy’s scope has been broadened to include a strategic dimension. Cooperation in maritime security between the two partners has started gaining ground on the back of convergences between India’s Indo-Pacific Vision and the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

With shared commercial and energy exploration interests in the SCS, the Indo-Pacific strategies of India and ASEAN emphasize on freedom of navigation as the basis for the preservation of a region that is free, open, and inclusive. Due to the common interest in the creation of a multipolar world, the respective strategies of the two partners underline the necessity of upholding the rules-based order for the region.

The AOIP, while acknowledging the risk of open conflict, seeks cooperation for the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. This call for cooperation aligns with India’s vision, which calls for nations to engage in dialogue and avoid the use of force. Moreover, India’s position on the ongoing negotiations between ASEAN and China for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea is akin to that of the ASEAN. Both have stressed that the negotiations for COC should be consistent with the UNCLOS. It remains in the interest of both India and the SCS claimants that the final draft of COC should not only be binding but inclusive of all contested islands, while also granting rights to extra-regional powers. If provided to countries like India and the U.S., patrolling and joint exploration rights could help South China Sea littoral states better deal with Beijing’s “gray zone” tactics.

The turbulent strategic environment aggravated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen much of the world shift its strategic outlook. The same is true of ASEAN. Russia, for years a major arms supplier to the region, has steadily lost market share, even before the beginning of the war. South China Sea claimants started diversifying their arms imports after the U.S. promulgated its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which threatened penalties against nations trading with Russia.

But the need to find other sources of weaponry has become urgent since the onset of war in Ukraine. Concerns over the quality of Russian weapons have prompted Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines to cancel existing orders. Inadequate indigenous manufacturing capabilities and the desire for affordable weaponry have intersected with India’s ambitious defense export goals. New Delhi, which considers becoming a global defense manufacturing hub crucial to its objective of maturing into a developed economy, identifies ASEAN among the markets with the most export potential. Complementing this, ASEAN is taking note of India’s advancing defense prowess, with the Tejas jet fighter recognized as one of the best in its class.

India might have made significant headway in boosting its arms exports by modernizing its defense industry, but it’s still at a nascent stage. The majority of exports to Southeast Asia constitute component parts and non-lethal equipment. To gain recognition as a reliable arms supplier and compete with major arms exporters such as Russia, India needs to expedite its defense indigenization by investing further in Research and Development. While this might be a long term process, signing mutual logistics pacts with Indonesia and Malaysia would go a long way in establishing a “credible distance seas presence.” The South China Sea littoral states and India could also consider exploring trilateral exercises and white shipping agreements to consolidate “bridges of friendship.” The volatile geostrategic environment, China’s military posture, and convergences in the Indo-Pacific strategies of the two civilizational partners provide India and South China Sea claimants sufficient complementarities to drive the continued progress of defense cooperation.