Indo - Vietnam Strategic Cooperation in the 21st Century
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. 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 South China Sea(9).
India and Vietnam are both members of the Mekong–Ganga Cooperation, created to develop to enhance close ties between India and nations of Southeast Asia is an important project Vietnam has supported India's bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In the 2003 Joint Declaration, India and Vietnam envisaged to create an "Arc of Advantage and Prosperity" in Southeast Asia. To this end, Vietnam has backed increasing the significance of the relationship between India and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its negotiation of an Indo-ASEAN free trade agreement. India and Vietnam have also built strategic partnerships, including extensive cooperation on developing nuclear power, enhancing regional security and fighting terrorism, transnational crime and drug trafficking(10).
In 2000, George Fernandes, the then Indian defence minister, signed a protocol on defence cooperation with Vietnam, which covered areas such as the institutional set-up of dialogue between the two defence ministries, the sharing of strategic perceptions and intelligence, naval exercises between the two countries and coordinated patrols by the Vietnamese Sea-Police and Indian Coast Guard, repairing programmes for Vietnam Air Force planes, and training of Vietnamese Air Force pilots by the Indian Air Force. Vietnam also sought Indian assistance in training its submariners. The liaison between the two countries also projected itself in the form of guerrilla warfare training of the Indian armed forces by their Vietnamese counterparts in 2003.
India and Vietnam have the potential for more enhanced cooperation in the field of defence because of the preponderance of Soviet military hardware in both countries and the experience of the Indian armed forces. India, which is seeking markets for its defence hardware, might also find new markets in the Asia–Pacific through Vietnam. India needs to contribute to the enhancement of Vietnamese defence arrangements and to engage Vietnam. India can help build Vietnamese Navy and Sea-Police capabilities in terms of sea-denial and maritime surveillance. Donation of ships, fast-attack craft and maritime surveillance aircraft or about selling them at ‘friendly’ prices can be considered towards this end to meet Vietnam’s requirement. Vietnam has been facing problems with Russian spares because of a lack of technical proficiency in repairs and maintenance; while India, with its experience and a capable defence industry set-up, has the potential fo help. India could also develop the deep sea port of Cam Ranh Bay, which has been a Soviet base in the past, and prepare it as a commercial ship-repair and maintenance facility with Vietnamese collaboration(11). Equally relevant is the fact that India has a dearth of deep sea ports for ship repairs and maintenance.
The 8th Annual Security Dialogue at the secretary level was held in Ho Chi Minh City on 8 November 2013. The Indian Armed Forces have been engaged with the capacity building of the Vietnamese Armed Forces, particularly in the Navy sector. The areas of focus have been training, repairs and maintenance support, exchanges between think tanks, study tour and ship visits. India and Vietnam would be co-Chairing the Expert Working Group on Humanitarian Mine Actions in the ADMMforum. Four India Naval ships, which included the indigenously built stealth frigate INS Satpura and fleet tanker INS Shakti with a complement of around 12,00 officers and sailors, visited Da Nang from 6-10 June 2013.
The slew of agreements signed during Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang's visit to India, in October 2011, included an accord to promote investments, exploration, refining, transportation and supply of oil and gas in Vietnamese waters of the South China Sea. As for all the objections being raised on account of "sovereignty" over South China Sea, the assertion instead should be upon settling the dispute on the basis of respect for international laws. Most significant among these is the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. By rejecting the possibility of any sort of reappraisal of its decision, ONGC Videsh Limited shall continue the joint oil and gas exploration project in two columns of Vietnamese waters of South China Sea, thus exhibiting renewed gusto in the Indo-Vietnamese relationship. It needs to be noted that according to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, "Every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with the Convention."
India under the Narendra Modi government has made no secret of its desire to play a more assertive role in the larger Indo-Pacific region. As the PM Modi himself underlined in his address to the joint session of the US Congress “A strong India-US partnership can anchor peace, prosperity and stability to the entire region stretching from Asia to Africa and from Indian Ocean to the Pacific. It can also help ensure security of the sea lanes of commerce and freedom of navigation on seas.” Therefore, it should not be surprising that India seems now ready to sell the supersonic Brahmos missile, built by an India-Russian joint venture, to Vietnam after dilly-dallying on Hanoi’s request for this sale since 2011. Though seen as still another step towards India’s ties with Vietnam, as it had been growing all these years, this move was seen as having a potential to antagonize China.
The Modi government has directed Brahmos Aerospace, which produces the missiles, to expedite this sale to Vietnam along with four other countries - Indonesia, South Africa, Chile and Brazil. India is already providing a concessional line of credit of $100 million for the procurement of defence equipment and in a first of its kind has sold four offshore patrol vessels to Vietnam, which are likely to be used to strengthen the nation’s defences in the energy-rich South China Sea. India’s latest move comes at a time when the US has also lifted its longstanding ban on sales of lethal military equipment to Vietnam. New Delhi’s abiding interest in Vietnam remains in the defence realm. It wants to build relations with nations like Vietnam to tap their potential act as pressure points against China. With this in mind, it has been helping Hanoi beef up its naval and air capabilities. The strategic perception is that with China's growing economic and military profile, the unease regarding its geo-strategic intentions are bound to amplify.
In case of India and Vietnam, incidents of 1962 and 1979 are anything but trust-worthy, and the unpredictability of Chinese policies more worrisome in view of its chronic lack of transparency, especially in the defence planning. Progress made by China in the field of technology will be a critical pointer towards gaining access and control of marine resources. Most of which lie within China's claimed territorial waters in the South China Sea.
High Level Visits
There have been several high-level visits from both sides in recent years. From the Vietnamese side, these include General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Mr. Nong Duc Manh in 2003, Prime Minister Mr. Nguyen Tan Dung, in 2007, Vice-President Mme. Nguyen Thi Doan in 2009 and Chairman, National Assembly of Vietnam Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong in 2010, President Mr. Truong Tan Sang in October 2011 and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong in November 2013. Prime Minister Mr. Nguyen Tan Dung visited India in December 2012 to participate in the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit. From the Indian side, Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2001, Lok Sabha Speaker Mr. Somnath Chatterjee in March 2007, President Mrs. Pratibha Patil in November 2008, PM Dr. Manmohan Singh in October 2010 to attended the 8th ASEAN-India Summit and the 5th East Asia Summit, Lok Sabha Speaker Mrs. Meira Kumar in May 2011. Vice President, Mr. Md. Hamid Ansari from 14-17 January for the closing ceremony of the India-Vietnam Friendship Year 2012.
General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong paid a State visit to India from 19-22 November, 2012 at the invitation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. During his visit, General Secretary called on the President and met the Vice President, Speaker of the Lok Sabha and held talks with Prime Minister. External Affairs Minister and leaders of Indian political parties met the General Secretary separately. The General Secretary also visited Mumbai where he met the Governor of Maharashtra and interacted with the Indian business community. A Joint Statement was issued and 8 bilateral MoUs/ agreements were signed(14).
From the Vietnamese side, these include: Chairman of External Relations Commission, Communist Party of Vietnam, Mr. Hoang Binh Quan in April 2011, Vice-Chairman of National Assembly, Mr. Huynh Ngoc Son in May 2011 and Deputy Minister and Chairman of National Border Affairs Committee, Mr. Ho Xuan Son in June 2011. Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Nguyen Thien Nhan in March-April 2012. Chairman of the Fatherland Front, Mr. Huynh Dam in November-December 2012 under the Distinguished Visitors Programme of ICCR. Deputy Finance Minister, Mr. Tran Van Hieu in August 2012. Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Vu Van Ninh in January 2013. Vice President of National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan in February 2013. Minister for Information and Communication Mr. Nguyen Bac Son in July 2013, Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh in July 2013 for the 15th meeting of the Joint Commission, Minister of Public Security Gen. Tran Dai Quang in November 2013 and Minister of Health Dr. Nguyen Thi Kim Tien in December 2013. Prof. Nguyen Xuan Thang, President of the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS) visited India in August 2014 under the ASEAN-India Eminent Person Lecture Series. Prof. Ta Ngoc Tan, President of the Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics and Public Administration visited India in October 2014. An MoU with the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), New Delhi was signed during this visit. Vietnamese Politburo Member and President of the Vietnam Fatherland Front Nguyen Thien Nhan visited India in March 2015. Defence Minister General Phung Quang Thanh visited India from 23-26 May 2015.
Hanoi is gradually becoming the linchpin of this eastward move by New Delhi. Hanoi fought a brief war with Beijing in 1979 and has grown wary of the Middle Kingdom’s increasing economic and military weight. That’s why in some quarters of New Delhi, Vietnam is already seen as a counterweight in the same way Pakistan has been for China. The Modi government’s decision to sell Brahmos missiles to Vietnam underscores the evolution in India’s policy towards the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi seems to be ready to challenge Beijing on its own turf. And for the moment at least, this stance is being welcomed by Vietnam, who is concerned about the growing aggression of China. A more engaged India will also lead to a more stable balance of power in the region.
* Editor-in-chief of Nam Today.
1-Ralf Emmers, Cooperative Security and the Balance of Power in ASEAN and ARF,
RoutledgeCurzon, London, 2003, p. 33. See also International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS),
Strategic Survey: 1996/1997, IISS, London, April 1997, p. 193.
2-Evelyn Goh, The Mekong: Regionalism and Regional Security in China–Southeast Asian
Relations, Adelphi Paper 387, Routledge, Oxford, 2007, p. 10.
3-Vibhanshu Shekhar, “India and Vietnam in Changing East Asia” IPCS,13 April 2007.
4- Vietnam favours FTA with India". The Hindu " . 2007-07-07.
5- "Trade with India to reach US$2 billion in 2008 " . Vietnam Business Finance. 2008-05-03
6-" India-Vietnam: Developing a Strategic Partnership" Asian Affairs.
7- " India,Vietnam to start direct flights " . The Hindu Business Line,2004-10-18.
8- Ministry of External Affairs, Govt. Of India.
https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelatio n/Vietnam_Dec_2013 .
9- "India, Vietnam sign MoU for bilateral cooperation on security " . Times of India. 2008-03-24
10- " Vietnam counters Chinese aggression " . The times of India. 2 Sep 2011.
11-Pankaj K. Jha,India–Vietnam Relations: Need for Enhanced Cooperation,Strategic Analysis, Volume 32, Issue 6, 2008.
12- Harsh V. Pant, “India’s strategic gambit in Vietnam” Live Mint, Wed, Jun 15 2016.
13- “India looks east, discovers a strategic partner in Vietnam” The Sunday Guardian, Monday, 08 August 2016.
14- Ministry of External Affairs, Govt. Of India.