India, aware of the Chinese String of Pearls around it in South Asia, has been steadily cranking up military relationships with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries through combat exercises, training programmes and now increasingly, weapons sale supplies. y
That was the main thrust of Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s two-day trip to co-chair the maiden India-ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting to commemorate 30 years of India-ASEAN relations. He also attended the Ninth ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on November 21.
Singh held bilateral meetings with US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, advocating "a free, open & inclusive Indo-Pacific region", a euphemism aimed at opposing Chinese meddling in the South China Sea.
In another meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence of Cambodia, Gen TEA Banh, Singh took note of the shared cultural and historic linkages between India and Cambodia, notably the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.
"While China is a concern, these meetings, including defence agreements, must also be seen as part of larger diplomacy,” Ashok Kanth, Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, told Moneycontrol. He is a former Indian Envoy to China and Sri Lanka.
Extensive defence ties
In the last few years, the Modi government has pushed for extensive defence ties with ASEAN countries under the Look East policy. In early November, India conducted the SIMBEX naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal and the Agni Warrior exercises, both with Singapore.
India will soon conduct another round of Operation 'Harimau Shakti’ with Malaysia, an exercise which was first held in 2018-19 in the dense forests of Sengai Perdik, Malaysia. On the cards is a similar exchange, `Garud Shakti’, with Indonesia this December.
After inking the $375 million (Rs 2,770 crore) contract to export the 290-km-range BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to the Philippines in January 2022, India is now looking for more such deals with other ASEAN countries like Indonesia and Vietnam.
Selling military hardware
An official said that both Indonesia and Vietnam are favourably inclined towards buying Indian military hardware.
India also plans to sell the indigenous Akash missile systems, which can intercept hostile aircraft, helicopters, drones, and subsonic cruise missiles at a range of 25 km to Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and other ASEAN countries. New Delhi also provides military supplies and submarine training to sailors from Vietnam.
Major General AK Siwach, former head, Territorial Army, told Moneycontrol: "It’s a win-win situation for all. Tejas and Prachand light combat helicopters, the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile systems and other world-class Indian defence indigenous products are much in demand in a region, where smaller countries have been at the receiving end of Chinese trepidations in the South China Sea. India is now producing arms, which it needs to sell.”
India became the dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1992 and the inaugural ADMM-Plus was convened in Hanoi, Vietnam on October 12, 2010. Since 2017, the ADMM-Plus ministers have been meeting annually to further the dialogue and cooperation between ASEAN and the Plus countries.Rajnath Singh also held bilateral discussions with defence ministers of the participating ASEAN countries.