By Amruta Karambelkar
The year 2012 is being hailed as the Indo-Vietnam friendship year. Apparently this also coincides with the fifth anniversary of the Strategic Partnership agreement. While Vietnam has been of strategic importance in India’s Look East Policy, defence ties between India and Vietnam are developing into strategic ones only in recent times. What are and how do the commonalities motivate the two countries to extensively cooperate? Is India being pro-active in Southeast Asia?
Nature of Cooperation
Defence relations between both countries took off in 2000 following the signing of a protocol. This move broadened and institutionalised defence cooperation and exchanges between the two countries. The 2007 Strategic Partnership agreement paved way for further deepening of cooperation in defence.
Defence cooperation between the two countries is founded on mutual benefit, commonalties of perception and strategic outlook. The changing geo-political configurations drive India and Vietnam to closely cooperate with each other. Vietnam is rekindling its older ties with India in the event of rising Chinese assertiveness in the region. Two incidents (cutting of cables of a Vietnamese exploration vessel and INS Airavaat incident in the South China Sea (SCS)) occurred last year that seem to influence closer and rapid cooperation in defence. India’s commercial project (OVL exploration) came under scrutiny amidst multiple sovereignty claims in the region. Thus India has a stake in maintaining peace in the SCS.
India and Vietnam defence relations are characterised by high level bilateral visits, training of personnel, assistance in defence production, sharing of intelligence and joint exercises. A joint working group on terrorism was established in the framework of strategic partnership agreement. Terrorism is a challenge for India where it is benefitting from Vietnam’s expertise in counter insurgency and asymmetric warfare. India and Vietnam are maritime neighbours having common concerns like piracy and security of sea lines of communication. At ADMM+ 8 meeting in 2010, amongst intensifying overall military cooperation, Defence Minister Antony laid special emphasis on bolstering naval ties through regular port calls to Vietnam. A biennial dialogue on security issues between home ministries of both countries has been institutionalised. In October 2011, both countries signed an extradition treaty.
Defence equipments of both the countries are largely Russian make allowing bilateral cooperation to extend further. India undertakes servicing and maintenance of Vietnam’s military hardware and naval ports. India also supplies spare parts to Vietnam’s warships, submarines and missile boats. In September 2011, India has agreed to provide intensive training in submarine operations to Vietnam. The latter has reciprocated by providing permanent berthing facilities at Na Thrang port in southern Vietnam. On account of its strategic location, the port paves way for a sustained Indian presence not only in the South China Sea; but also enables India to keep a check on vital sea lanes of communication in the region. India has great interest in the security of sea routes in the SCS given its economic interests and trade with Southeast Asia and East Asia. It is believed that this move notably privileges India as no other foreign navy has been awarded berthing facilities beyond traditional locations.
Indian media carried reports of a possibility of equipping Vietnamese military with the BraHmos missile. It is believed that the BraHmos aerospace, joint venture between India and Russia has shown interest in selling the fastest supersonic missile to Vietnam. Reportedly, informal talks are in process. Should this move be realised, it would make significant value addition to Vietnam’s military arsenal. Again, if the deal is struck, it would be for the first time that a third country to receive BrahMos.
Mutually Beneficial Relationship
India and Vietnam experience commonalities in their relationship with China, which saw further convergence of interests and strengthening of mutual defence ties. Harsh Pant, Professor at King’s College argues that India’s foremost interest in Vietnam lies in the realm of defence. New Delhi looks at Vietnam as counterweight to China. Both countries are concerned with China’s rise, for India it is China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean and South Asia while Vietnam is alarmed by China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Besides, China’s growing military might is also a common concern.
However China cannot be the sole pivot for India’s engagement with Vietnam. SCS has attracted attention from major powers for its strategic location and natural resources. A power vacuum exists in the SCS region. Keeping these developments in mind Vietnam is attempting to take things in its stride. Vietnam’s economic growth is impressive, making some analysts believe in its potential as a powerful player in the region. Given its history of victories in wars against powerful states, Vietnam looks at itself as an important power in the region. Vietnam would also want to match its economic prowess with military strength. India appears to be a suitable partner at this point of time, as military doctrine of both countries is defensive in nature. By ambitiously engaging with Vietnam, Indian foreign policy seems to be getting pro-active and opportunist.
The year 2011 saw significant bilateral visits and important developments. The relationship is getting strategically responsive in recent times. Vietnam expects India to play a larger role in maintaining peace and stability in the region. For India, deepening defence ties with Vietnam would create a steadfast partner in Southeast Asia and accentuate the larger role it envisions through its Look East Policy. Vietnam is driven by medium-term security interest while Indian engagement is designed keeping long-term interests in mind. It is imperative that Indian efforts on Vietnam continue in future.
Meaningful and sustained engagement with the Southeast Asian region requires broad based involvement and in that regard defence cooperation is an effective tool. India’s defence diplomacy seems to achieve New Delhi’s strategic goals by engaging extensively with Vietnam – ‘a pillar in its Look East Policy’.
Research Intern, IPCS
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