Changing Balance of Power and India-Vietnam Relations (Part 1)


Changing Balance of Power and India-Vietnam Relations (Part 1)

Changing Balance of Power and India-Vietnam Relations

Sanjay Pulipaka*


It has become clichéd to state that the world politics is witnessing a power shift and locus of the economic power is shifting to the East. The GDP of East Asia and the Pacific, which was $154 billion in 1961, stood at a whopping $21 trillion in 2014. There has been movement towards economic integration involving countries within the Asia Pacific region. Sadly, in spite of enhanced economic relations, territorial and maritime disputes have dominated the political discourse in the Asia-Pacific. Important nodes in the Asia-Pacific spectrum – India and Vietnam – have been experiencing numerous challenges associated with such assertions. Both countries have witnessed grey-zone violations with varying degrees of intensity.

While there are numerous regional frameworks such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), East Asia Summit (EAS), and The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), there is an absence of robust regional security architecture. Undoubtedly, the economic component in various regional organizations has witnessed significant progress. However, the strengthening the security architecture has lagged behind. Further, there seems to be a lack of consensus or reluctance to abide by norms and international frameworks to address various security concerns. As a consequence of these developments, there are growing apprehensions that inter-state conflict may ensue due to accidental actions and unforeseen escalations.

In order to respond to the evolving security situation, the countries in the region are reorienting their foreign policies. The United States (US) has announced its Pivot to Asia policy which was later rechristened as Rebalance to Asia. Irrespective of the name change, the core of the US policy is to ensure that 60 percent of its defence assets are to be deployed in Asia-Pacific region.  The US with its hub-and-spoke alliance system was at the centre of regional order. However, there are growing concerns about the US ability to maintain this order due to economic crisis, shifts in domestic public opinion and rapid acquisition of capabilities by the contenders. Japan has scaled-up its engagement of South and Southeast Asia and is working to enhance the capabilities of like-minded countries. India has initiated shift from Look East Policy to Act East Policy. Under its Act East Policy, India is engaging with countries from Fiji to Mongolia and is scaling up its strategic partnerships. Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the first year in office focused substantially on the Asia-Pacific region. In the near future, PM Modi will be in the region again with a visit to Vietnam. Many Southeast Asian countries have also been working on diversifying and increasing the multilateral component of their foreign policy. It is broadly in this changing regional context that India and Vietnam are shaping their external engagements.

Military Expenditures and Minilaterals

The evolving security dynamic has prompted countries in the region to explore domestic restructuring. The domestic restructuring has two components: first re-evaluation of the decision-making process and second focus on strengthening the security apparatus. Japan falls into the first category wherein it has started to re-examine the important components of its pacifist Constitution. Japan’s new Legislation for Peace and Security (LPS) stipulates that use of force by Japan will be permitted ‘in case of armed attack against Japan occurs or when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan.’ This strengthens the collective self-defence frameworks governing Japan and its allies. On the other hand, India is focusing more on enhancing domestic defence production capabilities. Towards this end, it has been campaigning aggressively with international defence manufactures to open their units in India. Across Southeast, there has been an increase in defence expenditures. According the SIPRI, the military expenditures of Indonesia, the Philippines and Viet Nam rose by 16 percent, 25 per cent and 7.6 per cent respectively.[1]   As the Figure (1)  demonstrates that all the major countries in the region have witnessed increase in defence expenditures in the past five years. The biggest defence expenditure countries tend to be Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Figure: 1

Given that regional organisations have not been able to address the security concerns, the countries in the region have been exploring minilateral security mechanisms. For instance, on September 29, 2015, the inaugural U.S.-India-Japan Trilateral Ministerial was organised on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. The three countries emphasised the need for peaceful settlement of disputes, freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce, strengthening of Asia-Pacific regional architecture based on ASEAN centrality and collaboration for quality regional connectivity. Similarly, in June 2015, the first trilateral-dialogue involving India, Japan and Australia was organised in New Delhi at the Secretary/Vice-Minister level. These dialogue indicates that these countries are not merely passive players to the evolving security dynamic between an established power and an emerging power. Instead, it is indicative of the willingness of these countries to shape power-relations to their advantage. There is also significant scope for improvement in the economic relations between the trilateral partners. It should be noted that in these two trilateral frameworks, none of the Southeast Asian countries have been represented. Therefore, some scholars have been calling for India-Vietnam-Japan trilateral.[2]  Similarly, Japan-Vietnam-US trilateral at the Track 1 and Track 1.5 levels has also been proposed by some scholars.[3] The proponents of the trilateral argue that Japan and the US constitute important economic players in Vietnam, all three countries are part of the TPP and share common maritime security concerns.[4]  (Part 2)


[1] Sam Perlo-Freeman, Aude Fleurant, Pieter Wezeman and Siemon Wezeman, Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2015., SIPRI Factsheet, April 2016, available at

[2] Dr Subhash Kapila, "India-Japan Vietnam Strategic Trilateral- An Asian Security Imperative," South Asia Analysis Paper No. 5674, March 28, 2014, available at

[3] Mihoko Matsubara, Justin Goldman, John Hemmings, Kei Koga, Greer Meisels, Masamichi Minehata, Lynn Miyahira, and Naoko Noro, "Trilateral Strategic Cooperative Mechanism Between Japan, the United States, and Vietnam: A Proposal," Issues and Insights CSIS Pacific Forum, No. 1, Vol. 12, March 2012, available at

[4] Prashanth Parameswaran, "The Future of US­Japan­Vietnam Trilateral Cooperation," The Diplomat, June 23, 2015, available at

* Senior Consultant at the ICRIER, New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal


Leave your comment