India has begun negotiating for the possible sale of Akash surface-to-air-missiles to Vietnam, a move that would significantly step-up the present military relationship between the two countries. New Delhi already extends cooperation in areas like the maintenance of and training for fighters and submarines. The subtext in such discussions would be the two governments’ common concern about China’s increasing assertiveness towards its neighbours, especially those with which it has territorial disputes. Two places Beijing says it has a “historical claim” to are the South China Sea and Arunachal Pradesh. Vietnam is the main victim of the first claim, India in the second.
India is a new player in the area of arms exports. It sold over $300 million worth in 2015 and the sale of the Akash would be a fillip to these efforts. But more than any other variety of export, arms sales have ramifications that go beyond normal vendor-buyer relations. One, any exporting nation must be careful to ensure that the weapons or technology it sells do not end up in the wrong hands — whether a non-State actor like a terrorist group or a potential enemy nation. Two, it must work out the geopolitical messaging that it will be sending by providing high-end weapon systems. Any country that sells an offensive weapon to another country must recognise that the latter’s enemies will deconstruct such a sale for implicit hostility to them as well. There are fewer degrees of separation in the business of cross-border weapons sales.
India would clearly like such a message to be sent to China. However, it is one without exclamation points and capital letters. The Akash would not affect the strategic balance in Southeast Asia. This would not be the case, for example, if India is able to provide Vietnam with the Brahmos cruise missile — a weapon that would markedly undermine China’s military position in the South China Sea. But such a move is not as easy as it sounds. All of China’s neighbours hedge with Beijing, including India and Vietnam. China is too economically important and geographically dominant in much of the Asia-Pacific for any single nation to declare itself as an enemy. This is especially true since the United States’ stance regarding China has become increasingly unclear.
Each neighbour tries to manage its relations with Beijing with a mix of carrots and sticks. It also cannot assume that other governments will not decide to change their tune on China in future. Hanoi, for example, allowed a Chinese-backed firm to kill a multi-billion Indian industrial investment in Vietnam. India cannot presume that Vietnam will always be hostile to China. Which is why New Delhi must be careful to calibrate the mix of diplomacy, military relations and, now, arms sales when it tries to manage what will probably prove its most difficult long-term strategic relationship — the one with, China, the new imperial power of Asia.