Rising powers India and Vietnam celebrated 45 years of a fruitful friendship and close bilateral ties last year, but the links – be they economic, cultural or religious – between the two lands and peoples have existed for more than 2,000 years.
Today, Vietnam and India are not only close friends, but strategic partners. In fewer than 40 days, both Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (in late January 2018) and President Tran Dai Quang (early March) visited India to give new shape to the Vietnam-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
What will be the future direction for this strong strategic relationship?
President Quang gave some hints about this direction in his historic speech made at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi on March 4 during his three-day visit to India, which began on March 2.
“First, we need to strengthen economic and trade connectivity as a pillar and driver of the Vietnam–India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Accordingly, we need to overcome the mentality of protectionism, promote trade/investment liberalization, and upgrade infrastructure, maritime and aviation connectivity in both the bilateral context and the framework of sub-regional and regional plans,” Quang said
Trade, investment, infrastructure and connectivity are vital for the booming economies of both India and Vietnam, whose economies have been growing more than 6 percent on average for more than 10 years.
Vietnam badly needs fast-growing markets like India. Last year Vietnam set a new record with US$213 billion worth of exports. But the trade between India and Vietnam, based on Indian statistics, remained at around $8 billion in 2016. Both India and Vietnam have set a trade target of $15 billion by 2020.
India mainly exports machinery and equipment, seafood, pharmaceuticals, cotton, automobiles, textiles and leather accessories, cattle feed, chemicals, plastic resins, fibers, steel, fabrics, ordinary metals and jewelry and precious stones to Vietnam while it imports mobile phones and accessories, computers and electronics hardware, machinery and equipment, chemicals and rubber from the Southeast Asian nation.
So far Indian investors have invested around $1 billion in Vietnam.
Quang welcomed Indian businesses expanding their oil and gas exploration and exploitation business activities on land and on the continental shelf and in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Vietnam.
The growing strategic ties between Vietnam and India come at an important time when Asia is fast changing and becoming the global geo-political, economic and cultural hub. Vietnam wants India, as the second-biggest nation in Asia, to play a bigger role especially in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, comprising the Indian Ocean region and the Asia-Pacific region.
“The ever-closer economic, political, and cultural ties between the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean will create a new driver for growth and help transform the Asian Century into the Indo-Asia-Pacific Century,” Quang said in his speech.
“ASEAN and India shall become an integration hub with an essential role in the region’s future development.”
Vietnam also wants India to play a bigger role in East Asian regional mechanisms and the ASEAN Connectivity Master Plan. With the rise of Chinese domination in the region, ASEAN wants to establish close links with India as a bulwark against Chinese influence.
“ASEAN has strong faith and great expectations in the vigorous growth of India, a power that is deeply aware of her responsibilities and duties toward the international community. India shall become a new pole of development, an important engine for peace, prosperity and integration both in the Indo-Asia-Pacific and the world at large,” Quang said.
The South China Sea (SCS) conundrum is a major security threat to ASEAN countries as China claims more than 90 of the SCS maritime area. Vietnam is the second-biggest claimant of the SCS and Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei also claim some parts of the area.
During his visit, Quang clearly emphasized that there was an urgent need for complete compliance with international law, especially the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), maintenance of freedom of navigation and over-flight in the SCS, full respect for diplomatic and legal processes and peaceful settlement of maritime disputes.
India reiterated its position on a rules-based mechanism and peaceful resolution of all maritime disputes and conflicts. Both Indian and Vietnamese leaders said in a joint statement that they strongly supported “the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the East Sea [DOC] and look forward to an early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea”.
Quang expressed his country’s gratitude to India, which has been a strong supporter of Vietnam’s rise since the latter’s freedom struggle. After the liberation of Hanoi from colonial rule in 1954, then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, at the cordial invitation of Vietnam’s revolutionary hero as well as first president Ho Chi Minh, visited Vietnam. Nehru was the first foreign head of government to visit Vietnam at that time.
All these years, the relationship between Vietnam and India has been a problem-free relationship.
“Political, defense and security cooperation have all been expanded and become strategic pillars in our bilateral relations. Economic and trade cooperation is growing dramatically as well. Development cooperation and joint efforts in education, training, culture, tourism and people-to-people exchanges are deepening, creating an enduring social foundation for our bilateral ties,” Quang said.
During the visit, several agreements were signed in the fields of nuclear technology, agriculture, trade and investment.
In 2016, during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Vietnam, the strategic partnership was upgraded to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
“The goal of our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership is nothing other than a strong and prosperous Vietnam that develops sustainably; a powerful India with growing prestige and status in the international arena; and our joint contribution toward the maintenance of peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region and the world,” Quang said in his speech.
The growing ties between Vietnam and India are vital not only for both countries but also for the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Now we are in the midst of the Asian Century. The strategic ties between India and Vietnam will become one of the strong pillars in transforming the Asian Century into the Indo-Asia-Pacific Century.