By Major General P K Chakravorty (Retd.)*
Vietnam lies in the Asia-Pacific region which has of late become a major witness to a phenomenal rise of China, which as a country is not only the world’s second largest economy, but is also a nation with the largest armed forces. The United States, concerned with the increasing might of China, especially its military power, is trying to rebalance its forces in the region.
It is pertinent to note that most of US imports come from this region and with regard to exports, the Asia-Pacific is the second largest destination for the US. The US also has its military bases in Japan and Republic of Korea, as also friendly port facilities for US warships in Singapore, Thailand and Philippines. Agreements with Australia have seen the stationing of US Marines at the port of Darwin. But despite its mammoth military presence in the Asia-Pacific, the US preaches freedom of navigation in this area against the Chinese maritime claims in the East China and South China Sea. The East China Sea disputes are with Japan and the South China Sea disputes are with Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
While China has an unsettled land border with India, what surprised India was China’s objection to drilling for oil by ONGC Videsh in two oil blocks donated by Vietnam. India rightly stated her right to undertake commercial activities in what it considers are international waters. This bold step by the Indian and Vietnamese governments led to China’s silence on this issue. Further it strengthened the bonds friendship between these two countries.
New Waves of Strategic partnership
Shakespeare had aptly written in his play, Julius Caesar, that “coming events cast their shadows before”. China aspires to be a future world power and India has two major issues with the country. The first is the border issue and the second pertains to the supply of nuclear weapons to Pakistan. Vietnam too contests the Chinese claim on the islands in the South China Sea, and which has consequently brought this country close to India so much so that they are now invested in an intense strategic partnership.
India and Vietnam enjoy strong strategic relations which had emerged with the first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Defence being signed in 1994, followed by formal Defence Protocol in 2000 and the Strategic Partnership in 2007. Ever since, India has had an annual Strategic Defence Dialogue with Vietnam in which the the Indian Defence Secretary represents the country. Considering the intensity of our relations, the upgradation of these talks to the Ministerial levels would certainly become more impactful and beneficial for both India and Vietnam.
Cam Ranh Bay has been often described as one of the jewels of Vietnam. The long protective seaward peninsula, natural inner and outer harbours form what many believe to be possibly the best deep water port sea port facility in the entire world. There is also an Air Force base with excellent runways for state of the art aircraft. The usage of these facilities by the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force would help India to strengthen its strategic partnership with Vietnam and and enable us to undertake actions to protect our economic assets in the South China Sea. The area is being quietly considered between the two countries.
Based on Vietnam’s requirements, India could provide Dornier surveillance aircrafts, mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), upgraded T-72 tanks and indigenously manufactured Artillery equipment once the same has proved trials and few of our old ships of the Indian Navy. Vietnam has been provided a US $ 100 million Line of Credit to possibly purchase four Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) from Goa Shipyard Limited.
Vietnam is impressed with our Missile development and is keen to purchase our supersonic cruise missile BrahMos which could be used on land and sea. The issue merits serious consideration as there are no objections from the foreign joint developer. Vietnam is also keen that opportunity be accorded to train their scientists.
Vietnam admires the professional training of our Armed Forces and looks forward to assistance in training in the areas including, conversion training for SU-30 pilots of the Peoples Vietnam Air Force by the Indian Air Force; submarine crew training of the Peoples Vietnam Navy by the Indian Navy; training in Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare with the Indian Army; training in English language.
The Vietnamese President as also the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Tr??ng T?n Sang and Nguy?n Phú Tr?ng, respectively had visited India and were frank about strengthening defence relations with India. Vietnam would like to cooperate in the field of training as also gaining knowledge in the field of rocketry and missiles. It would be in India’s interest to cultivate Vietnam and cooperate in strategic aspects to dissuade China from undertaking a misadventure.
Vietnam is looking for cooperation in areas of outer space with India. They have already launched two satellites and are planning their own navigation satellites. Cooperation with India would be mutually beneficial to both countries. All these were discussed during the recent high level visits conducted by the Indian President and Foreign Minister to Vietnam.
It is of interest to note that a new satellite monitoring station is expected to be activated in Vietnam and linked to another neighbouring facility in Indonesia. This is important due to Chinese assertiveness in this area. China has currently built airstrips and their aircrafts are undertaking surveillance and logistics operations in the area. India has set up a Data Reception, Tracking and Telemetry Station at Ho Chi Minh City. This will be activated soon and would be linked up with another station at Biakin, Indonesia. The latest facility will assist India to track our satellites and receive data from them. Similar facilities exist in Brunei.
India with this resource will be in a position to track Chinese activities in the Spratly group of islands where China has currently constructed airfields for Chinese aircraft to undertake operations. As India is undertaking oil exploration in the South China Sea, it is essential to obtain real time inputs regarding Chinese military activity in the region. This would facilitate a suitable response if required in conjunction with the Vietnamese Armed Forces. Indeed this is a step which further intensifies strategic cooperation between the two countries.
*Major General P K Chakravorty (Retd.) is security and strategic affairs analyst with a specific focus on India’s maritime interests. He can be reached at: [email protected]