NEW DELHI • India has stepped up efforts to sell an advanced cruise missile system to Vietnam and has at least 15 more markets in its sights, a push which experts say reflects concerns in New Delhi about China's growing military assertiveness.
Selling the supersonic BrahMos missile, made by an Indo-Russian joint venture, would mark a shift for India, the world's biggest arms importer, as it seeks to send weapons the other way in order to shore up partners' defences and boost revenues.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ordered BrahMos Aerospace, which produces the missiles, to accelerate sales to a list of five countries topped by Vietnam, according to a government note viewed by Reuters and previously unreported.
The other countries are Indonesia, South Africa, Chile and Brazil. The Philippines is at the top of a second list of 11 nations including Malaysia, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates, countries that had "expressed interest but need further discussions and analysis", said the undated note issued earlier this year.
A source at the Defence Ministry said India was hoping to conclude negotiations on the supply of BrahMos to Vietnam by the end of the year. The Indian government is also considering a proposal to offer Vietnam a battleship armed with the BrahMos missiles instead of just the missile battery, the source said.
New Delhi had been sitting on a 2011 request from Hanoi for the BrahMos for fear of angering China, which sees the weapon, reputed to be the world's fastest cruise missile with a top speed of up to three times the speed of sound, as destabilising.
Indonesia and the Philippines had also asked for the BrahMos, which has a range of 290km and can be fired from land, sea and submarine. An air-launched version is under testing.
"Policymakers in Delhi were long constrained by the belief that advanced defence cooperation with Washington or Hanoi could provoke aggressive and undesirable responses from Beijing," said Mr Jeff Smith, director of Asian security programmes at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.
"Prime Minister Modi and his team of advisers have essentially turned that thinking on its head, concluding that stronger defence relationships with the United States, Japan and Vietnam actually put India on a stronger footing in its dealings with China."
India's export push comes as it emerges from decades of isolation over its nuclear arms programme. It is poised to join the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) after talks between Mr Modi and US President Barack Obama in Washington this week.
BrahMos' range means it does not exceed the 300km limit set by the voluntary group.
India's accession to the MTCR may strengthen its case for joining another non-proliferation body, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a move which China has effectively blocked. Both groups would give India greater access to research and technology.