Money aside, New Delhi also stands to gain geopolitically from the sale of the supersonic cruise missile to South-east Asian states locked in territorial disputes with China

According to Swedish think-tank SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), India is the world’s largest importer of arms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also one of the world’s smallest exporters of military equipment.

Between 2017 and 2021, India imported a staggering US$15.4 billion (S$20.6 billion) in military kit. But its defence exports amounted to a piddling US$302 million, making it a veritable minnow in the global arms business.

Exactly half of those exports went to one country: Myanmar (almost all of it bought on a line of credit extended to Naypyitaw by New Delhi). In contrast, during the same five-year period, South Korea rang up arms sales to South-east Asia worth US$1.9 billion, France and Russia US$1.4 billion each, and America US$1.3 billion.

But the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile may be the first step to changing India’s relative position in the global arms market.

BrahMos is a joint venture established by India and Russia in 1998 (when Russian design bureaus were short of cash and needed injections of foreign currency to keep the lights on). The missiles were designed in Russia, but most of the hardware (and software) is manufactured in India. The name of the joint venture, as well as the missile itself, is a portmanteau of the Brahmaputra River in India and the Moskva River in Russia.

To be sure, BrahMos is a formidable weapon. Primarily an anti-ship missile, it can be launched from the sea, under the sea, on land and in the air. It is a ramjet-propelled supersonic weapon, which means it can pack a much more destructive punch than subsonic missiles such as America’s Tomahawk cruise missile. It hurtles through the air at Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, making it very difficult for anti-missile defence systems to knock it out of the sky.

Although BrahMos has been in service with the Indian armed forces since the 2000s, it was not until very recently that a foreign country opted to buy it. In January 2022, the Philippines signed a US$375 million contract to buy three batteries for the Philippine Marines. Delivery is scheduled for later in 2023.

The Philippines has bought the on-shore version of BrahMos. What Manila will get is a fairly inexpensive sea-denial capability – in other words, a missile system that can be used to target hostile warships within 300km of the coast.

Though Manila would never say so explicitly, it was clearly bought with China in mind, as the two countries have been locked in a tense territorial dispute in the South China Sea for decades. Hence, the missile batteries are likely to be deployed to Luzon and Palawan Island, both of which face the South China Sea.

Other South-east Asian countries are reportedly in talks to buy BrahMos: Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar. The first three also have overlapping territorial and jurisdictional claims with Beijing in the South China Sea. India appears to be on the verge of selling BrahMos systems to one or more of those countries – most likely Indonesia or Vietnam.

South-east Asian interest in BrahMos is music to New Delhi’s ears.

Money is one factor. Troubled by India’s dependence on foreign arms imports, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promoted the development of the country’s indigenous defence sector, and set a target of US$5 billion in arms exports by 2025. This is a very ambitious goal, but further BrahMos sales to South-east Asia would certainly nudge sales in the right direction.

Increased defence sales to South-east Asia would also help thicken India’s strategic ties to the region, as well as facilitate Mr Modi’s “Act East” policy.

BrahMos missile sales to South-east Asian states also garner geopolitical pluses for New Delhi. Much to India’s chagrin, its great power rival China has, for decades, been arming Pakistan, forcing the Indian military to devote significant forces to its western border.

Supplying BrahMos missiles to the South-east Asian claimants would be partial payback. It would complicate Beijing’s expansionist policy in the South China Sea, and make it think twice before annexing any of the atolls under dispute.

China is probably displeased about South-east Asian countries acquiring such a potent deterrent. The PLA-Navy cannot have failed to draw lessons from the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva in April 2022 by two Ukrainian subsonic cruise missiles. Although the PLA-N’s warships are a lot more modern and sophisticated than the Moskva, the incident highlighted how relatively cheap missiles can be used to devastating effect.

As noted, BrahMos is a joint venture between India and Russia. Both countries must agree on sales to third parties. But, as India holds a majority stake – 50.5 per cent of shares against Russia’s 49.5 per cent – Moscow does not appear to have a veto over who can buy it. It is unclear if Russia’s “no limits” partner China has leaned on the Kremlin to try and forestall BrahMos sales to South-east Asia. If it has, then clearly in the case of the Philippines, it failed. Vietnam may be the next interesting test case of China’s influence over Russia, and Russia’s over India.

America probably has mixed feelings about BrahMos. On the one hand, it is trying to attenuate India’s defence ties with Russia by expanding United States-India defence technology cooperation. In theory, Washington could also apply sanctions against both the makers of BrahMos and any of their customers. The 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) allows the US government to impose sanctions on countries that have dealings with Russia’s military-industrial complex. So far, Washington has used CAATSA very sparingly.

On the other hand, any support that India can provide to the South-east Asian claimants to prevent Beijing from flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea is likely viewed in Washington with quiet satisfaction. It certainly did not oppose BrahMos sales to the Philippines, and probably will not stand in the way of further transfers to the region.