India-Vietnam relationship is one of the significant bilateral relationships in Asia, besides India-Japan partnership. Over the years, in particular since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two on 7 January 1972, this bilateral tie has assumed robustness, ranging from politic–strategic, defence to economic areas and culture, education, training, entrepreneurship development, etc.
There have been exchanges of visits of top leaders between the two countries on regular basis further cementing the ties and seeking means to explore new vistas so that both can maximise mutual gains. It would not be wrong to say that no other country within the ASEAN grouping has received the kind of importance and attention by India than Vietnam. That makes India-Vietnam relations something very special.
The coming year shall mark the 45th year anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations and 10 years of Strategic Partnership, which was elevated to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam in September 2016. These two are significant milestones. Since the days of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Rajendra Prasad, almost all top political leaders of India – President, Vice President, Speaker, many senior Ministers, etc. – have paid visits to Vietnam over the years, underlining the importance India attaches to Vietnam.
These visits have been happily reciprocated by Vietnam as well. The founder of Vietnam Ho Chi Minh is held in high reverence by the people of India. In continuation to these on-going dialogues, the first week of December saw two important visits by high-level delegations from Vietnam to India as a first step for celebration of 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 2017. Vietnam’s Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich visited from 3 to 5 December and held talks with his counterpart Manohar Parrikar, besides having met Prime Minister Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
The purpose of Gen Lich’s visit to India is to further deepen bilateral defence cooperation with India. Underscoring the importance of the visit, Gen Lich was accompanied by a mega 30-member delegation, the largest so far to have accompanied him on a foreign visit, including the Chiefs of the Air Force and the Navy and the Deputy Chief of General Staff.
The possible sale of BrahMos missiles by India to Vietnam that has been on the table for quite some time again came up for discussion. Vietnam has evinced interest to acquire this weapon system from India and India is committed to strengthen Vietnam’s defence capabilities as the security environment in the region has been deteriorating rapidly.
Vietnam is involved in a territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea (SCS). India too is engaged in oil exploration activities in the areas of the Sea that Vietnam claims and therefore has stake to defend its economic interests if those come under threat from an outside power. In principle India has agreed to sell the missiles to Vietnam over which negotiations are still on. Vietnam is keen to possess these supersonic missiles that can be fired from land, water and under water. India produces this weapon system in partnership with Russia and Russia shall have no objection if India enters into a commercial deal with Vietnam on this.
Other issues that came up for discussion included the much delayed project to train Vietnamese pilots on the Su 30. Hanoi’s request to train its pilots of Russian-built Sukhoi fighter-jets had been hanging fire due to financial constraints and logistical issues. Vietnam recently acquired 36 Su-30MK2 fighter jets from Russia. Since India has considerable expertise, after Russia, as it operates a large fleet of Su-MKIs, an Indian variant, Vietnam was keen that India trains its pilots. As expected, Gen Lich’s talks with Parrikar figured this issue. Finally, the agreement to train Vietnam’s Sukhoi-30 pilots was reached between Gen Lich and Parrikar on 5 December.
Though both India and Vietnam operate Russian Su-30 jets, the two countries’ models differ slightly in their configuration. India operates over 200 Su-30 MK1 fighters “air dominance jets” and has considerable expertise. Details of the training will be worked out between the two Navies soon and the training is likely to start from 2017 onwards. A memorandum of understanding was signed on peacekeeping as well as exchange of delegations. Parrikar offered “India’s partnership as a reliable player in terms of transfer of technology and building a local defence industry”. The two defence ministers also discussed the regional situation and took note of their converging interests.
The programme for cooperation between the Air Forces also included exchange of experts, repair and maintenance, besides training of pilots. Following the agreement on pilots’ training, Vietnamese pilots will begin arriving in India from early 2017 onwards to get both basic and advanced training on the Sukhois of the Indian Air Force.
India has announced two lines of credit – $100 million and $500 million – for defence purchases. India has also offered 50 slots to Vietnamese defence personnel under the India Technical and Economic Cooperation programme. Under the strategic partnership, India has already trained 550 Vietnamese submariners to operate nine newly-acquired Russian-built Kilo-attack diesel electric submarines during the past three years. Vietnam began inducting and operating Kilo class submarines since 2014. India already uses several Kilo submarines. Within the rubric of the comprehensive strategic partnership framework, Gen Lich sought replication of the success of cooperation between the two navies with the Army and Air Force as well. As a strategic partner, India is open to Vietnam’s ideas.
Following the agreement, the defence secretaries of both the countries shall meet in early 2017 to identify military projects and equipment under the new $500 million defence line of credit announced by Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Vietnam in September 2016.
Even while India was preparing to roll out a red carpet welcome for Lich on 3 December to further deepen bilateral military cooperation following up-gradation of the Strategic Partnership into Comprehensive level, Vietnam’s ambassador in India Ton Sinh Thanh was allowed by the Indian Navy to visit the under-construction Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) being constructed by the Cochin Shipyard Limited, underlying the high level of trust both countries share on defence matters. There could be a possibility of Vietnam opting for India-made aircraft carrier sometime in the future.
The other important visit from Vietnam was by the Chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan from 8 to 11 December. She and her Indian counterpart Smt. Sumitra Mahajan will ink a Memorandum of Understanding, which would expand exchanges of parliament delegation and training program with a view to push the existing Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the countries. It may be recalled that Smt. Mahajan led a 8-member delegation of parliamentarians to Hanoi to take part in the 132nd Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. During the Assembly, two MPs from India were elected unanimously to the Bureaux of the First Standing Committee of the IPU on Peace and International Security and the Second Standing Committee of the IPU on Sustainable Development, Finance and Trade, separately. The four-year term of the two MPs on these Committees ends in 2018. Such visits further contribute not only to the mutual understanding but help define new contours in the bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
With a view to reinvigorate its economic engagement with the ASEAN countries and the larger Asia, the Modi government has broadened the earlier “Look East policy” and has given a new candour by naming it “Act East policy”. In this Indian strategy, Vietnam finds a special place. India is among the top ten trading partners of Vietnam. After the elevation of the Strategic Partnership to a Comprehensive level, the economic component of the relationship now assumes a strategic thrust too. In particular, the key thrust areas where expansion is envisaged are garment and textile, pharmaceuticals, agro-commodities, leather & footwear and engineering.
In terms of trade, both countries are working to increase the bilateral trade volume from around $7-8 billion to a target of $15 billion by 2020. Indian investment in Vietnam is also increasing with many Indian companies registered with 23 new projects with a capital outlay of $139 million in areas such as food processing, fertilizers, auto components, textile accessories. Cooperation in the IT sector also looks promising.
While growth in the economic realm is making incremental progress, defence cooperation is the most significant pillar in the strategic partnership between the two countries. In this respect, the visit of the Defence Minister Lich assumes significance. Indian ships regularly make friendly port calls to Vietnam. For the first time, a Vietnamese Ship participated in the International Fleet Review at Vishakhapatnam, India, in February 2016. The objective of such cooperation between the two Navies is to maintain order in sea and secure maritime commerce from threats such as from piracy, terrorism, etc. By engaging with Vietnam at Sea, India wants also to convey the message to its other friendly countries that it is committed to global norms and to promote peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, including the resolution of disputes in the SCS.
Indeed, the Indian Ocean is now more important than ever and maritime security issues become important to many countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Peace and stability in the Indian Ocean is crucial to economic development to many Asian countries. In particular, the behaviour of China in the Pacific and Indian Ocean has a direct impact on regional geopolitics. As a result, many countries in this region are readjusting their strategic foreign policy to deal with the new situations. In this perspective, India-Vietnam defence cooperation is a critical pillar in the strategic partnership and thus justifies its comprehensive character.
In view of its “Act East policy” in which deepening economic engagement with the ASEAN is the biggest component, India’s stakes are equally high though it is not a claimant as its economic interests are exposed to vulnerability and therefore have to be protected. Apart from its limited direct economic interest, India cannot overlook to the fact that the SCS is an important waterway for its trade and commerce with not only with the ASEAN countries but also with Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.
In principle, India upholds the importance of safeguarding the freedom of navigation of the seas, the right of over-flight and the importance of peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). In several joint statements that India has issued with countries such as Vietnam, Japan and the US, India has reiterated this position, cited its own experience that it accepted the tribunal’s verdict relating to its maritime boundary with Bangladesh and therefore expects China to show the same sentiment regarding the verdict of 12 July 2016 relating to the SCS.
For India, it is important that Code of Conduct related to the SCS should be signed at the earliest when the rules based order is required by China’s increasing militarisation. In that way, instead of asserting itself as the rising power, China should become a responsible power as is expected of a permanent member of the Security Council and as a signatory to the UNCLOS.
India is a regional power with benign intent and needs to take into consideration to sensitivities and requirements of other friendly countries in Asia if it wants to play the role of a balancing power and security provider. Such a role shall help India enhance its regional profile and maintain peace and stability in the Asian region.
Indeed, it is not Vietnam alone but the rest of the ASEAN member countries look at India for a greater role towards the peace and stability in the region. At times, China has erroneously interpreted India’s position on the South China Sea as if to suggest that India endorses China’s position on the South China Sea. In order not to give such leeway, India need not feel shy to articulate its position strongly and argue to uphold the UNCLOS as the basis of the legal order of the sea. China rests its arguments by referring to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which says that “all related disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned”, and therefore finds flaws in Philippines’ move to approach the tribunal for arbitration and therefore says invalid.
India is awakened to the emerging seriousness in the situation because of China’s attitude and has broken shackles to take a strong position by finding common grounds with Vietnam, where its own economic stakes are under threats as it is involved in oil exploration in the sea off Vietnam. Against this background and because of historical linkages dating back to its Buddhist roots, India and Vietnam have found commonality of interests, which is why bilateral ties have expanded in all domains – economic, security/defence and even culture. Apart from exploring the sale of BrahMos missiles, India is helping Vietnam to beef up its capability by capacity building, training and maintenance of equipment and port calls and exercises between the navies of the two countries. India’s decision to offer Vietnam a $100 million loan to purchase Indian-made defence equipment was based on this larger perspective of beefing up Vietnam’s defence capability.
Therefore, besides in accordance with the rubric of India’s “Act East policy”, deepening ties with Vietnam would contribute to promote peace and stability in the region. Indeed, Vietnam can be a critical player in the global production chain within the ASEAN and this complements India’s strategy of “Act East policy”. Furthermore, through Vietnam, India can seek to project its core national interest and articulate its strategic outlook in the Indo-Pacific region.
In conclusion, the “Act East policy” has outlined India as a responsible stake holder in the region and Vietnam is the most important anchor for this strategy. In this perspective, the two recent visits of senior leaders of Vietnam to India are significant, which help define new contours in the bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with exploring potentials in strategic, defence and trade cooperation, among others. It may be noted that it is not only India that backs the principle of rule of law in the SCS to stabilise the area, Japan too is committed to boost the maritime security capabilities of the ASEAN member countries. So, India, Vietnam and Japan can explore trilateral understanding in strategic, defence and trade cooperation for peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and at large.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India.