Evolving India – Vietnam Relations in the Indo-Pacific era
1. Today, the global power axis is shifting from the Pacific Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Prof. Jeffrey Sachs in his article ‘Shifting Global Landscape writes’, “Here is the key point. The dominance of the North Atlantic was a phase of world history that is now closing. It began with Columbus, took off with James Watt and his steam engine, was institutionalized in the British Empire until 1945 and then in the so-called American century, but has now run its course. The United States remains strong and rich, but no longer dominant. We are not heading into the China Century, or the India Century, or any other, but a World Century. The rapid spread of technology and the near-universal sovereignty of nation states mean that no single country or region will dominate the world in economy, technology, or population.”
2. In Hanoi, PM Narendra Modi and his counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, announced that the relationship would be upgraded from a ‘Strategic Partnership’ to a ‘Comprehensive’ Strategic Partnership. The term captures the effort to deepen this bilateral relationship, and, most crucially, it sends a signal of cooperation to come. While India has signed ‘comprehensive’ economic cooperation agreements (with Singapore, for example) and ‘comprehensive’ economic partnerships (with Japan, South Korea and ASEAN, for example), this is the first strategic partnership to be elevated in such a manner. It is thus a partnership with a strong emphasis on defence interests.
3. Vietnam lies in the Indo Pacific region which is a dear friend of India. Vietnam and India have China as a neighbour which results in commonality of strategic thinking due to complexities in dealing with the Chinese nationalistic aspirations. The United States (US) on account of the significant rise in China’s military power is rebalancing 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 area is the second largest destination for the US. The region has US bases in Japan and Republic of Korea as also friendly port facilities for US War Ships in Singapore, Thailand and Philippines. Agreements with Australia have seen the stationing of US Marines at the port of Darwin. Apart from this the US preaches freedom of navigation in this area against Chinese maritime claims in the East China Sea and the 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 oil blocks donated by Vietnam. India rightly stated her right to undertake commercial activities in international waters. This bold step by the Indian and Vietnamese Government led to China’s silence on this issue. Further it strengthened the bonds of friendship between these two countries.
4. The seeds of friendship between India and Vietnam date back to 2 B.C. when Indian traders sailed across to the regions of Indo China. These exchanges witnessed the proliferation of Indian culture particularly to the regions of Central and South Vietnam. Indian influence exists today in Vietnamese folklore, art and philosophy. The Champa temples in Central and South Vietnam demonstrate the closeness between the two cultures.
5. In the Cold War era India continued to have cordial relations with Vietnam. There was a convergence of strategic interests which resulted in mutual cooperation between the two countries. In June 1966, India openly called for an immediate cessation of bombings and the resolution of the conflict within the framework of Geneva accords. After the unification of Vietnam in 1975, India backed Vietnam’s Cambodia initiative and extended support against China’s offensive of 1979. This was a major step and led to India souring her relations with ASEAN. India economically assisted Vietnam and signed the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) agreement on 18 December 1982.
6. Further based on the strong relations which have been vindicated during the last 44 years of diplomatic relations and nine years of strategic partnership both countries agreed to elevate their current level of strategic partnership to a higher pedestal. The relationship would be upgraded to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership which Vietnam currently enjoys with Russia and China. This is pertinent as it gives an official stamp to the mutual trust exhibited in training and day to day dealings. With regards to the defence issue, there is no doubt that both countries respect the current Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling and they agree to the freedom of navigation on the high seas.
7. To further strengthen our defence relationship Prime Minister Modi extended a $ 500 million dollar Line of Credit for purchase of defence equipment. The equipment to be procured is not known but there is a high probability it could be frigates, submarines or the BrahMos missile. Vietnam during the visit signed a contract with L&T for purchase of four Offshore Patrol Vessels. In addition Prime Minister Modi announced a grant of $ 5 million for the construction of an Army Software Park at the Tele Communications University in Nha Trang. Further to assist surveillance there will be cooperation in downloading images from Outer Space to provide real time picture of activities in Vietnam’s Area of interests
8. Economic issues formed an important aspect of Prime Minister’s Modi’s visit. Enhancing bilateral economic engagement is a strategic objective. Both countries would do their utmost to increase the bilateral trade to $ 15 billion by 2020. This would need immense efforts but can be achieved if both countries enhance their business interactions and diversify their range of commercial activities. Further there must be increased two way investment especially by private investors of both countries.
9. 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. India is also setting up receiving stations to enable Vietnam to receive downloads from our Reconnaissance Satellites on the areas bound by the South China Sea. Vietnam along with Japan forms the two pillars of India’s Act East Policy. Partnership in the strategic domain is important to counter China’s growing assertiveness. The new Government in India is accelerating measures to further strengthen the bonds of friendship. This would lead to better stability in the Ind0 Pacific region.This paper takes a look at how Vietnam and India can develop their Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to create such an environment for the benefit of the Indo-Pacific.
* Deputy Director of India Foundation