By Vandana Mishra
Ever since India transformed its Look East Policy to Act East Policy (AEP), it is seen to be endeavouring to enhance its engagement with ASEAN members in particular and countries of the East and Far East in General, both at bilateral and multilateral levels. Accordingly, in pursuit of its AEP, India has advanced its bilateral engagement with Vietnam consistently in spite of several bottlenecks and ongoing tussle in the South China Sea (SCS).
On August 26, 2020, the 17th India-Vietnam Joint Commission meeting was held through the video conference. The meeting was chaired by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. The meeting aimed at building multi-sectoral bilateral engagement. Hence, it covered the sectors relating to trade, economy, scientific and technological cooperation. Secondly, the meeting also became significant in the given backdrop of increasing Chinese aggression on different frontiers which has wider implications for both India and Vietnam. India is already locked-in a military standoff with China in the Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso Lake areas. Vietnam has also been facing Chinese aggression in its Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Therefore, the bilateral convergence must also be seen as an attempt at bilateral level to enhance relation-building against a common enemy to have strategic advantage in any eventuality.
The video conferencing was to take stock of the development so far in areas of comprehensive strategic partnership and also to chalk-out future course of enhancing engagement. They also explored the ways to add momentum to the economic and defence engagement that is happening at present at bilateral level. They also agreed to explore future engagement in areas such as civil nuclear energy, space, marine sciences, and new technologies. Regional and global issues of mutual interests, especially the present pandemic was also discussed between the two countries. India also reiterated that Vietnam should take advantage of India’s economic capacity and demands.
Dimensions of Indo-Vietnam Bilateral Cooperation
India invited Vietnam to be a part of the Indo Pacific Ocean Initiative (IPOI) and collaborate on all the sectors that are a part of this programme. It has been aspiring to upgrade its strategic positions in the maritime region.
Accordingly, it is an important step taken by India to manage and maintain the maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region, and secure its strategic assets on water and inside it. IPOI was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at East Asia Summit on November 4, 2019. It is a global initiative for regional cooperation. There are seven central pillars that forms the foundation of maritime security. They are maritime ecology, maritime resources, capacity building and resource sharing, disaster risk reduction and management, science technology and economic cooperation. Invitation to Vietnam is important as it is also facing the similar problem of Chinese aggression and expansionism in the Indian Ocean region. Parallel to IPOI, ASEAN too has “Outlook on Indo-Pacific” to achieve shared security, prosperity and growth for all in the region.
The condition in the SCS is also going from bad to worse as recently China has deployed fighter aircrafts and a H-6J bomber in the Woody Island, which is a part of the disputed Parcel Islands of the SCS. Such military build-up has been seriously contested and protested by Vietnam, which accused of jeopardising the situation in the area. The strategic partnership between India and Vietnam was signed in 2007. It was later elevated to the status of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2016. This has accelerated the foreign visits and cooperation between both the countries. India is only one of the three countries with which Vietnam has a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
During the Prime Ministership of Manmohan Singh in 2011, India’s ONGC’s overseas arm had inked a three year agreement with the Petro Vietnam for enhancing cooperation in the oil and gas sector. This was done to increase the oil and gas exploration in SCS. However, in 2019, Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 and two coast guard vessels began a survey in the oil blocks that was within the EEZ of Vietnam, in which primary stakeholder was India. China has thus been interfering in the projects to disrupt the oil exploration activities that are taking place in the region.
The Indian Government has again reiterated and reaffirmed its plan to launch the Quick Impact Projects (QIP) which are a part of the development assistance programmes of the government in East Asia. The aim of such programmes is to enhance and upgrade the infrastructural facilities in the important sectors of health, sanitation and education for the benefit of the local population. India has approved 12 QIP for implementation in Vietnam. Seven of them are in water resource management in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region and five QIPs are related to the construction of educational infrastructure in Vietnam.
Cooperation in the ITEC (Indian Technical Economic Cooperation) also figured in August 26 meeting. The ITEC is a bilateral programme of assistance by the Government of India initiated in September 15, 1964. Through this programme the technological achievements and development experience are shared with the international scholarship on the basis of partnership with India. Vietnam is already one of the largest recipients of ITEC scholarships. e- ITEC programmes have also been launched due to the progress in distance learning and development of technology.
Vietnam is also a part of the Mekong Ganga Project that was formulated with the five ASEAN countries, the other four being Cambodia, Laos PDR, Myanmar, and Thailand. Educational cooperation between India and Vietnam has also been flourishing due to all these developments. PhD fellowships, Projects in water resource management in Vietnam Mekong Delta region and many other issues were also discussed in the video conference.
Indo-Vietnam bilateral relations are thus on the right path amidst China’s continued interference in the SCS, where both these countries have their own areas of interests. Both countries have been victims of Chinese expansionism and are still under the pressure of Chinese contemporary expansionist design. Both the nations are facing similar problems of Chinese intrusion. Therefore, beneath the economic engagement there are deep-rooted strategic interests too. Therefore, it is in the interests of both these countries to challenge the sinister Chinese designs in SCS and elsewhere along their borders.
Vietnam is an important partner of India within ASEAN and the Indo Pacific vision of India. It is the larger and long-term interests of both the countries that they must cooperate on multilateral forums like: United Nations General Assembly, United Nations Security Council (both being non-permanent members till 2021), and East Asia Summit etc. The MoU between National Maritime Foundation of India and Scientific Research Institute of Sea and Islands of Vietnam is an excellent move to enhance cooperation in the maritime region.
Vietnam is an important member within ASEAN and therefore, could be a fulcrum of India’s continued engagement with ASEAN and its AEP. Vietnam is an important country so far as security architecture of Indo-Pacific is concerned. Hence, India has rightly understood the strategic importance of Vietnam in view of China’s hegemonic aspirations in SCS and to serve its own aspiration in Indian Ocean as well as in Indo-Pacific.