Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership 2012: A Contextual Analysis

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By Dr Subhash Kapila

“ In the current context, cooperation in this field(strategic ties) should be enhanced to cope with challenges, such as terrorism, transnational crimes, maritime security and safety, including the increased friendly exchanges between the two armed forces”. — Vietnam President Truong Tan Song, October 09, 2011

Introductory Observations

The year 2012 is a highly significant one in terms of the Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership as it marks the 40th year (1972-2012) of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. It also marks the 5th year (2007-2012) of the Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership.

This is an appropriate time therefore contextually to view the Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership in a closer and deeper analytical framework so that futuristic initiatives could be better envisioned. More importantly, with the India-ASEAN Summit due in New Delhi next week, the substance of the Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership could come under closer scrutiny for ASEAN leaders to enable how far and how much India is capable of investing in a ‘Strategic Partnership’ with ASEAN as a regional grouping on India’s eastern doorstep.

More than half a dozen Papers stand devoted by me on the value and strategic significance of close strategic ties between Vietnam and India from 2001 onwards.  In between the initial and vigorous thrust by the NDA Government there was a noticeable lesser momentum, but it did pick up in the last few years.

In 2012, India needs to decide whether the evolving strategic and security environment needs greater impetus in the real “strategic dimension”. The impression, that one gains from the perusal of the coverage of various high-level two way meetings and the commemorative events this year, is that military matters stand relegated and find mention at the end of the coverage giving the impression of India being apologetic about a military relationship with Vietnam.

In my opinion this arises from the over-deference that the Indian Establishment gives in its formulations to China’s strategic sensitivities. The conflictual security environment that China is in the process of inflicting on South East Asia and Asia in general suggests that India should break out of this straitjacket distorting India’s strategic vision.

India’s strategic stature took a big hit in Vietnam’s perceptions and also in ASEAN’s perceptions by two strategic blunders of the Indian policy establishment. The first one pertained to India withdrawing from joint prospecting in the South China Sea waters under Vietnamese sovereignty after objections by China.

The second strategic blunder by the Indian policy establishment pertains to devaluing or discrediting the assertions made by Indian Naval Chief that Indian Navy is ready to provide protection in the South China Sea oil prospecting by Indian firms. It was a legitimate assertion by India’s Naval Chief and should have been respected as such and  should have been reiterated by the Indian National Security Adviser.

On both counts the Chinese Dragon was lurking behind the  Indian policy decisions and thereby India’s strategic timidity stood unmasked.

The Contextual Strategic and Security Environment Meriting a Realistic Strategic Template in Indian Policy Formulations

China’s military rise and Chinese aggressiveness and military brinkmanship have affected India, South East Asia and Japan in military terms escalating military tensions. In the case of Vietnam the Chinese military focus is more hostile.

Contextually, the following factors merit dictating the imperatives of a realistic strategic template in Indian policy formulations:

  • China looms large over South East Asia in terms of security concerns as a result of its increasing and threatening posture especially in the maritime domain. South East Asian countries are looking for countervailing powers and regional balancer States to balance China.
  • The United States has certainly made a strategic pivot to Asia Pacific but feels inadequate in South East Asia due to stretched military commitments.
  • The South East Asian countries have increasingly begun to view India as a ‘regional balancer’ in the region.
  • The United States too seems to have a similar strategic convergence with South East Asian countries.

Global interdependence economically is an established fact. Global and regional military interdependence also merits recognition by India in Asia where an aggressive military power like China now threatens the whole region extending from The Himalayas to the South China Sea.

Contextually, India needs strategic and military support of Vietnam and ASEAN as they would need likewise from India. Is India ready for such a challenge?

India’s existing strategic ties with Vietnam now need to be put on a higher level than the platitudes on economic, cultural and scientific cooperation. The crux of the matter in the Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership is strategic and military.

Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership: The China Threat Cannot be Wished Away

India’s promiscuous proliferation of “Strategic Partnerships” has virtually robbed and emptied the Indian policy establishment of the true import of a “Strategic Partnership” in the current strategic context.

In terms of the Vietnam-China Strategic Partnership the underlying aims from both sides, even if not overly stated, has been The China threat that plagues both India and Vietnam.

For a decade or so The China threat stood subdued but it has now scrambled with redoubled vigour menacing Asian security as a whole. The statements of China’s incoming President that China’s military must be prepared for war and China’s war preparedness should be honed, or words to that effect, do not augur well for peace and security in Asia.

This is the harsh strategic reality that both India and Vietnam face. It cannot be forgotten that India and Vietnam figure high in China’s military calculus as countries that need to be ‘taught a lesson’ militarily.

Increased Chinese military intrusions on the India-Occupied Tibet border along with other provocations and China’s military aggressiveness in the South China Sea against Vietnam should be “wake-up calls” for India and Vietnam to intensify the strategic and military dimensions of their relationship. Vietnam perceptionaly seems to be open for it: it is India that needs to take more bold and audacious steps towards this end.

Therefore, it is high time that India adds more strategic substance and weight to the Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership in terms of its futuristic course.

India: The Way Ahead in Furthering its Strategic Partnership with Vietnam

India has a legitimate strategic interest in the stability and security of Vietnam. India’s cardinal precept in this direction needs to be reiterated that it is in India’s national security interests to ensure that Vietnam’s does not end up as buckling down or becoming susceptible to Chinese coercion and pressures.

Diplomatic platitudes by India will not help building Vietnam’s military capacity to withstand Chinese political and military coercion and brinkmanship. India has to actively engage in capacity building of Vietnam’s military forces

It also needs to be stressed that Vietnam is no economic’ basket case’ and is capable of affording its own military requirements. Also Vietnam is a valiant nation militarily which fought to stalemate the present leading military powers—United States, China and Japan. Vietnam is the only nation which militarily repulsed Chinese aggression in 1979 with its border forces only. That is the mettle of the Vietnam military.

Russia is already engaged in providing advanced military weaponry to Vietnam especially submarines and now reports suggest that of joint production of missiles. Russia’s military capacity building of Vietnam should be an eye-opener for the Indian policy establishment in that there is no gainsaying the fact that any military capacity building of Vietnam is China Threat-centric. If Russia in a deep strategic relationship with China can build up Vietnam’s military capacities what stops India from doing so when both India and Vietnam face a menacing China Threat?

India must extend and invest in substantial capacity building of the Vietnam Navy and the Vietnam Air Force which would be required in a big way to defend its maritime domains from Chinese onslaughts. India’s advances in the ballistic missile field could be of assistance to Vietnam.

Contextually in 2012 with the exception of China the entire international community would welcome if the Indian policy establishment could gird up its strategic will to embark on assisting Vietnam to build up its military capacity to withstand China’s military brinkmanship.

Strategic logic should dictate all ASEAN countries and India too, that Vietnam provides potential as their respective first-line of defence against China.

Concluding Observations

India’s traditional friendly relations and evolving strategic partnership must now be fast-tracked and be put in overdrive towards maturing into a substantial Strategic Partnership where the ‘strategic and military component’ far outweighs the other components of the theoretical parameters of comprehensive security. It is an imperative of the contextual security and strategic imperative of 2012.

Vietnam has supported India internationally on issues close to the Indian heart, namely Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council and the Asia Pacific Economic Community. India too unequivocally needs to make policy declarations on the South China Sea in more unequivocal terms rather than generalised statements of freedom of navigation in maritime waters.

Lastly, the Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership need no longer be confined to the bilateral context but should provide a vehicle for a greater regional strategic partnership with ASEAN as a whole.

Dr. Subhash Kapila

Dr Subhash Kapila combines a rich and varied professional experience of Indian Army Brigadier ( Veteran), diplomatic assignments in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Bhutan. Served in India's Cabinet Secretariat also. He is a Graduate of Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley, UK, Msc Defence Studies from Madras University and a Doctorate in Strategic Studies from Allahabad University. Papers have been presented by him in International Seminars in Japan,Turkey, Russia and Vietnam. Credited to him are over 1,500 Papers on geopolitical & strategic topical issues and foreign policies of USA, Japan, India, China and Indo Pacific Asia. He has authored two Books : "India's Defence Policies & Strategic Thought: A Comparative Analysis" and "China-India Military Confrontation: 21st Century Perspectives"

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