Look East to Act-East: India’s relation with Vietnam
India and South East Asia, though they have a history of shared culture and trade, had different priorities in many areas including geopolitics and geo-economics during the Cold War period. As the post Cold War period witnessed a turnaround in the international politics, India-ASEAN relations also gradually improved, thereby paving the way for bilateral and multilateral cooperation in areas where there is a convergence of interests between the two regions. India embarked on a historic Policy of Economic Reforms in 1991 and subsequently on its LEP – a dynamic foreign policy initiative which sent out a strong and positive signal indicating India’s genuine interest in strategic and economic cooperation with South East Asian countries. ASEAN countries also began to look west in the face of Asia’s economic crisis in the late 1990s. A combination of the strategic shift in India’s foreign policy as manifested in the LEP and a change in ASEAN’s perception of India (as a major player in Asia) strengthened India-ASEAN relations. India’s strategy is to carve a place in the Asia-Pacific region and showcase its economic potential for investments and trade without exhibiting any hegemonic ambition. This has made India more benign towards ASEAN countries. In the beginning of the new millennium when the idea of building physical connectivity with South East Asia gained momentum, India embarked on the second phase of its LEP, with a much broader agenda encompassing security cooperation, regional transport and connectivity infrastructure development, expansion of trade relations, and unlocking of the Northeast which not only has huge economic potential but also occupies a strategic position vis-à-vis South East Asia. It was also envisaged that India’s thriving economic relations with South East Asia would benefit the NER in terms of economic development and reduction of conflict, e.g. insurgency. Thus, India’s LEP is not necessarily a strategy to counterbalance China or to claim an influential position in South East Asia. In short, LEP now Act East Policy (AEP) is a multi-faceted and multi-pronged Southeast Asia initiative that has enabled India to make significant strides.
The LEP has succeeded in making India an inalienable part of the Asia – Pacific’s strategic discourse. Sustained and skilful diplomacy has enabled India to pursue its LEP in terms of developing a multifaceted relationship, putting a successful defence diplomacy in place and participating in regional multilateralism – security and economic. India’s connectivity diplomacy in the South East Asia is also reflective of its thriving LEP. Connectivity with ASEAN in all its dimensions – physical, institutional and people-to-people – continues to be a strategic priority for India. The ASEAN-India Summit-level partnership shows how India-ASEAN relations have progressed in the desired direction. In fact, India-ASEAN is no longer merely an Indian priority.
The Southeast Asia is a focal point of India’s foreign policy, strategic concerns and economic interests. With Myanmar already included in ASEAN, India shares land border with ASEAN and maritime frontiers with Thailand and Malaysia, and its North Eastern Region has emerged as a critical bridgehead. India considers ASEAN to be the nucleus of a dynamic Southeast Asia. India is concerned about the growing influence of China and maritime security in the region. As India’s global trade largely depends on sea ways, India looks towards ASEAN playing a critical role in establishing a multilateral security order in the Asia – Pacific.
Reflecting on India-ASEAN relations, India and Vietnam have enjoyed close ties based on their shared history of fighting against colonial rule. In addition, there is a deep cultural connection between the two as well. The former kingdom of Champa in present-day Vietnam was deeply influenced by Indian traditions and customs. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam in early September, 2016 marked an important step forward in their ties. Vietnam is an important element of India’s Act East Policy, which aims to re-invigorate its historical ties with countries in Southeast and East Asia. It was after Modi took office in May 2014 that the former “Look East Policy” was rechristened the “Act East Policy.”
Vietnam is also important for India from the connectivity angle. With the election of a civilian government in Myanmar, there are ample opportunities for closer connectivity between India and Vietnam via Myanmar and existing transit routes in Cambodia and Laos. The trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway will allow Indian goods to reach Southeast Asia with ease and vice versa. In the future, the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway could link up with already existing roads like the one linking Thailand with the Vietnamese port of Da Nang. For Vietnam, India could be a bulwark against the dominance of any single country in the region.
Then there is the strong cultural aspect to the relationship, with Buddhism seeping into Vietnam from the land of its birth in India. Vietnam has a large number of Buddhists and many of them come to visit Buddhist holy shrines in India. As Modi said during his recent trip, “Some people came here with the objective of war. We came here with a message of peace, which has endured.”
During Modi’s visit, the two countries decided to upgrade their relationship from a “strategic partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Although Modi’s visit was the first prime ministerial visit by an Indian leader in 15 years, the two countries have been getting increasingly close over the past few years. Indian President Pranab Mukherjee visited Vietnam in September 2014 and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung paid a state visit to India in October 2014. The upward trajectory of cooperation between India and Vietnam since the 1990s reveals that the two countries have emerged as significant partners in the Asia-Pacific century. The need to sustain the current momentum of cooperation and to deepen it further, however, cannot be denied. India and Vietnam can come together on a much broader level to advance their comprehensive strategic partnership.
The deepening of strategic ties with Vietnam has signaled that India will be a big player in the emerging Asian security architecture and will pursue its relations with China and other Asian countries with equal vigour. India should be ready to grab all opportunities for economic and security cooperation Vietnam has to offer. Hitherto, defence and security cooperation had been the focus. PM Nguyen during his visit to India landed at Bodh Gaya in Bihar first before proceeding to New Delhi for formal talks. This symbolic act followed the joint planting of the “Bodhi tree” gifted by President Mukherjee, in the Presidential palace in Hanoi by the two heads of state. This signified the strength and long-lasting friendship and the centuries old cultural and religious ties between the two nations.
Unlike their past relations, contemporary India and Vietnam relationship is more strategically and economically oriented rather than ideologically. Vietnam appreciates India’s international role and track record of being a peace-loving country. Under the cooperation agreement signed between in 2003, both countries have agreed to conduct regular high-level meetings, cooperate in the UN and other international fora and assist each other in protecting their respective interests in international arena. With these sentiments, Vietnam supports India in its peaceful use of nuclear energy. It also backs India’s bid for a permanent candidature in an expanded United Nations Security Council. In return, Vietnam received India’s support for entry into the World Trade Organization. Vietnam and India work closely together in organizations like ASEAN, and Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and Vietnam is also expected to help India in gaining membership of organizations like Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and Asia Europe Meetings (ASEM).
The Indian Government, together with the private sector, will have to take steps to ensure that these civilisational and cultural ties are strengthened further. Ramping up bilateral trade and increasing private investment flows between the two countries could contribute towards reinforcing a relationship that is already beginning achieve a new dynamism. India has to exhibit boldness, pragmatism and imagination to cement ties with Vietnam and turn the relationship as former Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh had remarked, into a “cloudless sky”. Vietnam has inspired and continues to inspire generations of Indians with its commitment to the national cause. Under Prime Minister Modi, India is also focusing on its national interests. Vietnam is India's country coordinator for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). "It (Asean) is central to our Act East Policy. Under Vietnam's leadership as Asean Coordinator for India, we will work towards a strengthened India-Asean partnership across all areas," Modi said.
India is a good and rather obvious choice for stronger ties. There is a long history of friendship between the two, and the nations have had diplomatic relations for 45 years. India opposed the invasion of Vietnam and its founding of the Non-Aligned Movement earned its points in Vietnam, which has been a member since 1976. There has been good defense cooperation for some time. Vietnam’s trade with India is higher than with Russia and the two also signed an agreement on cooperative oil exploration in the South China Sea five years ago, a move that upset China. On India’s part, its old friend Vietnam is an important spot in India’s own ‘pivot’, its Act East Policy, a point underlined in the joint statement issued during the recent visit to Hanoi. Cultural cooperation should pioneer to pave the way for cooperation in other fields, he stated, adding that Vietnam and India have many advantages to boost cultural relations as they share a lot of similarities of their rich cultures.
* India Foundation