India says in talks with Vietnam for first missile sale

India's "Akash" missiles, mounted on a truck, are displayed during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi January 26, 2007. REUTERS/B Mathur (INDIA)

BENGALURU, India (Reuters) - India is in talks to sell short range surface-to-air missiles to Vietnam, the head of India’s defense research agency said on Wednesday, in what would be its first transfer of such weapons to the Southeast Asian country.

India has been helping the Vietnamese military with training and patrol vessels, but a further deepening of ties with missile sales could draw criticism from China that has been locked in a territorial dispute with Hanoi in the South China Sea.

New Delhi is currently talking to a number of countries for sales of its surface-to-air Akash missiles, said S. Christopher, chairman of state-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The move is in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to establish India as an arms exporter.

“We are talking to countries, one of them is none other than Vietnam,” he told a news conference on the sidelines of an air show where the DRDO is showcasing its missile programs and other key projects, including a home-grown light combat fighter.

Christopher did not provide any details of how many Akash missile batteries the government planned to supply Vietnam.

Vietnam is in the midst of a quiet military buildup that analysts say is designed as a deterrent, to secure its 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone as China grows more assertive in staking its claims in the South China Sea.

Experts say Vietnam is in the market for fighter jets and more advanced missile systems, in addition to the kilo-class submarines it has bought from Russia.

India, which is also sparring with China over a border dispute, has in the past considered the sale of its Brahmos supersonic missile with a range of 290 kms to Vietnam and has been steadily helping Hanoi beef up its defenses.

Last year, Modi announced a $500 million credit line to Vietnam to buy defense equipment, on top of a $100 million given previously to help it buy patrol boats. The two sides have also agreed for training of Vietnamese air force pilots to operate Su-30 Russian fighter planes.

Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Himani Sarkar