Showdown Over the Himalayas—and the South China Sea?
The BrahMos is a new game piece in India’s tense relationship with China. Chinese troops invaded India’s Himalayan border in a 1962 war that is still bitterly remembered in India. In the last decade, the Chinese border garrisons began to rapidly increase in size, leading to similar escalation on the Indian side. China’s close relationship with India’s historical enemy, Pakistan, and its development of military base in Gwadhar, Pakistan—seen as an attempt to encircle India—are another source of tension.
In the fall of 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India in order to improve relations. However, a group of Chinese border troops appeared to have disregarded the civilian leadership and launched an embarrassing (though fortunately nonviolent) standoff that cast a shadow on any progress made.
The BrahMos cannot reach very far into Chinese territory. Although China is upset about the BrahMos missile’s presence on its border, it probably should be more worried that India is announcing it is close to a deal for selling the weapon to Vietnam.
Suffice to say, relations between China and Vietnam have a very long and complicated history, including a war in 1979. They recently have chilled over Chinese claims to the South China Sea. A particularly low point came with a Chinese oil expedition in 2014 that began drilling in Vietnamese-claimed waters, causing violent protests and a naval confrontation.
The Vietnamese Navy isn’t going to match China’s rapidly expanding flotilla any time soon. But small Vietnamese ships with BrahMos missiles could pose a major threat to China’s larger military vessel. Thus, if Vietnam does acquire the weapon, this would affect the balance of power in the Pacific.
Therefore, India may attempt to cultivate an alliance with Vietnam in order to counterbalance China.
Other countries interested in the BrahMos include Malaysia, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, South Africa and Indonesia.
Reading the Cruise Missile Tea Leaves
The politics of the BrahMos system also highlights the limited potential of a Chinese-Russian alliance. Russia historically has strong ties with both India and Vietnam. It’s relationship with China has been more complicated (notice how that word keeps showing up?) After an energy agreement in 2014, there has been much speculation of a Chinese–Russian alliance based on shared authoritarian ideology and a desire to counterbalance the United States. However, the sale of the BrahMos missile to India and Vietnam illustrates that while Russia wishes to remain on good terms with all three countries, it is not yet committed to an alliance with China the expense of its economic interests or its own concerns with its powerful neighbor.
What can China do in response to the threat posed by the BrahMos missile?
Simple! It can de-escalate the conflict with India. India is a democracy with all the messy internal political deliberations that implies—it’s not about to launch a massive surprise invasion of the Himalayas. A well-managed de-escalation wouldn’t have to carry a huge political cost. The average Chinese citizen likely doesn’t have strong feelings on the precise boundaries of the McMahon line.
Disputes over lightly populated Himalayan mountains shouldn’t constitute a truly substantive conflict of interest between the two countries—but they have been allowed to flourish into full blown military competition. It is obvious the two Asian powers are wary of each other. But both would be better served by reciprocated détente, allowing billions spent fortifying the border to be redirected to the economic needs of the two countries.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article is being republished due to reader interest.