India's Expanding Defense Diplomacy in Southeast Asia
India has made progress in arms exports and needs to invest in R&D for reliable defense supply. Collaboration with South China Sea states is crucial amid regional challenges.
Recently, Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo's visit to India held significant importance for various reasons. After discussing a wide range of regional and global issues, Manalo and his Indian counterpart, Dr S. Jaishankar, issued a joint statement expressing support for the Arbitral Award regarding the South China Sea.
Notably, this signaled a shift from India's past stance, which generally supported the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) without explicitly backing the Arbitral Award.
India's change in position on the South China Sea matter is seen in the context of its evolving defense partnership with Southeast Asian nations. It has been expanding military cooperation with these nations by providing significant defense equipment, engaging in joint production, and participating in naval exercises. India views Southeast Asia as a pivotal element of its Indo-Pacific Vision and a crucial aspect of its ambition to become a net defense exporter.
Recent Progress in Defense Cooperation
Given its growing material capabilities and economic interests in the region, India is actively working on establishing a substantive defense presence in the South China Sea. India secured a substantial defense export deal with the Philippines by supplying them with Brahmos cruise missiles, marking its most significant defense export deal. Similarly, India signed a government-to-government agreement with the Philippines for defense-related deals.
During Vietnam's Defense Minister Phan Van Giang's visit to New Delhi, India bolstered its military exchanges with Vietnam. India's gift of the missile corvette INS Kirpan to Hanoi marked a notable advancement in their defense partnership. Discussions between the two nations included training Vietnamese military personnel operating submarines and fighter jets. Additionally, negotiations commenced for a potential purchase of the Brahmos cruise missile.
Vietnam's strategic importance lies in its potential to facilitate a more substantial Indian defense presence in the South China Sea. This significance was underscored during Defense Minister Rajnath Singh's visit to Hanoi, resulting in a military logistics pact and a Joint Vision Statement on the India-Vietnam defense partnership until 2030. This pact enables their respective militaries to access each other's bases and expands joint production possibilities.
In a noteworthy move to enhance maritime interoperability, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conducted a war simulation exercise in the South China Sea in May. This multilateral exercise involved various cross-deck landings, surveillance, and communication drills. Undeterred by the presence of Chinese research vessels nearby, India and ASEAN showcased their shared commitment to maintaining freedom of navigation in the region. Additionally, the elevation of India-ASEAN ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, agreed upon the previous year, opens doors for India to strengthen maritime security cooperation with ASEAN as a unified entity.
Convergence of Interests
India’s and ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific strategies are underpinned by shared commercial and energy exploration interests in the South China Sea, emphasizing the importance of upholding freedom of navigation to preserve open and inclusive regions. India and ASEAN recognize the need for a rules-based order in the region due to their shared interests in fostering a multipolar world. This could enable patrolling and joint exploration rights, aiding the South China Sea littoral states in effectively countering China’s grey zone tactics.
The evolving strategic landscape, exacerbated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, has prompted shifts in the strategic outlook of ASEAN and the South China Sea claimants. Russia, a major arms supplier to the region, has seen its market share decline. The urgency to find alternative sources of weaponry has heightened since the war in Ukraine began. Concerns about the quality of Russian weapons led Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines to cancel existing orders. India, with its ambitious defense export goals, aligns with the aspirations of these Southeast Asian nations. India views becoming a global defense manufacturing hub as crucial for advancing into a developed economy. In turn, ASEAN countries recognize India's advancing defense capabilities, notably the Tejas jet fighter, which is esteemed in its class.
While India has boosted its arms exports by modernizing its defense industry, it is still in the early stages of this process. Most of its exports to Southeast Asia consist of parts and non-lethal equipment. India needs to expedite its defense indigenization efforts by investing more in research and development to establish itself as a reliable arms supplier and compete with major exporters. South China Sea littoral states and India are exploring trilateral exercises and white shipping agreements to strengthen their bonds. The volatile geostrategic environment, China's military stance, and the alignment of Indo-Pacific strategies offer significant incentives for India and the South China Sea claimants to advance their defense cooperation further.