Achievements: India – Vietnam Defence and Security Cooperation
“We realize that our efforts to bring economic prosperity to our people need to be accompanied by steps to secure them. Prime Minister and I have, therefore, agreed to deepen our defence and security engagement to advance our common interests. The agreement on construction of offshore patrol boats signed earlier today is one of the steps to give concrete shape to our defence engagement. I am also happy to announce a new Defence Line of Credit for Vietnam of US$ Five Hundred million for facilitating deeper defence cooperation. The range of agreements signed just a while ago point to the diversity and depth of our cooperation.”
-PM Narendra Modi-
September 03, 2016 on his visit to Vietnam
It is axiomatic that any defence and strategic relationship between two countries has to occur in a political context. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972 the Indo- Vietnam political, strategic and economic relations have been on an upward trajectory. Particularly, the defence and security cooperation has become multi-faceted and has acquired a momentum of its own. The name of Gen Vo Nguyen Giap is well known among not only Indian military circles but also among international military historians and strategists. General Giap defeated the French Army’s elite and its Foreign Legion at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, leading to eviction of France from Indochina and earning accolades from almost the entire international community. Military lessons learnt from the defeat of French forces at Dien Bienphu in 1954 are still taught in Indian military academies and institutions. The Vietnamese forces also defeated the might of the US military in 1975. If that was not enough, the Vietnamese military and the nation also thwarted the assault of the Chinese military in 1979 thus teaching them a lesson.
India has been in the forefront in supporting Vietnam in its anti-colonial and its nation building struggle. India had supported Vietnam in its nationalist war against the United States. While South East Asian nations had approached India as early as 1967 to join the ASEAN, India remained lukewarm to their overtures because of overall geopolitical situation in the region and the ongoing Cold War redux in Indo-China at that time. India was identified as more on the side of Vietnam and Russia even though it was part of the nonaligned block. Following the unification of both the Vietnams India supported Vietnam’s policy in Cambodia as against China’s backing of Khmer Rouge regime. Such pro-Vietnam policies of India did not go down well with some of the South East Asian countries. This only goes to show that India valued its ties with Vietnam and Russia more than developing its relationships with the ASEAN countries. Evidently, there was a geo-strategic logic also in India’s policies as New Delhi was concerned about China expanding its influence in the South East Asian region. In fact, that consideration continues to propel India in expanding its strategic relationship with Vietnam over last four and half decades or so.
The end of Cold War in 1990s was another period for India to have a fresh look at its policies in South East Asia in general and Vietnam in particular. India considered the South East Asia region as its extended neighbourhood. In consonance with domestic economic reforms India also unveiled its Look East Policy in 1992. While the initial impulse of the LEP was economic integration with its neibhouring countries, over time it acquired strategic content also. Because of the changing geo-strategic and geo-economic environment India also joined the ASEAN to expand its political, economic and strategic engagement with the ASEAN countries.
However, during all these years when new strategic equations were being evolved in South East Asia the traditional relationship between India and Vietnam was further strengthened. The profound changes in the strategic environment, in fact, brought India and Vietnam closer because of their shared interests and security perceptions. Vietnam became an important cog of India’s Look East Policy. Vietnam supported India’s policy of deepening its relations with the ASEAN and joining ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asian Summit. Vietnam also supported India’s sub regional connectivity efforts like the Mekong Ganga Cooperation formed in 2000. Evidently, this was in competition to China dominated Greater Mekong Sub-region Cooperation initiative.
The South China Issues and India-Vietnam Cooperation
Rise of China accompanied by its assertive and aggressive policies in the region have compelled the nations in the region to come together and respond to the arising challenges to their security. China’s unreasonable maritime claims in the South China Sea have created an unstable security environment in the South East Asian region. It also needs to be noted that the Indian warship Airavat was challenged by the People’s Liberation Army Navy in September 2012 while on passage from Vietnam, which reinforced the need for India to enhance maritime cooperation and interoperability with the Vietnamese. China’s placing of its giant drilling rig HD-981 May 2014 within the EEZ of Vietnam, in fact on Vietnam’s continental shelf was in line with Chinese assertive and aggressive policies being pursued in South China Sea.
Despite the July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague China has not abandoned its muscular and assertive policies. Vietnam along with the other affected counties have been engaging China both bilaterally and multilaterally to find a way out of the impasse. India on its part has been supporting freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS. India has advocated that States should resolve disputes through peaceful means without threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability.
India shares similar views as Vietnam on the SCS; even though China has objected to India’s exploration of oil within in its maritime EEZ India has continued with its exploration and in fact, the exploration is being extended to another block in the coastal waters.
The SCS is the principal waterway through which our naval ships access the Pacific. Chinese claims over waters of the SCS would impact India directly if they start enforcing their sovereignty claims. Secondly, historically and culturally the SCS (and Southeast Asia) have been part of the civilizational footprint of India. Any Chinese dominance of the SCS would deny us the space to pursue our Act East policy effectively. It must therefore be India’s objective to ensure that the SCS remains 'maritime commons' and the new equilibrium that emerges in the region after the current period of transition does not put us at a serious disadvantage. Thirdly, defence facilities being developed by China on the reclaimed land, including airfields that can support the largest military aircraft, have the potential to bring the Chinese Navy and Air Force uncomfortably close to us. PLA Navy has talked about “Far Seas” capabilities with increasing presence of Chinese warships in Indian Ocean region.
In geo-strategic terms, India and Vietnam are highly dependent on sea for their economic vitality. Their geo-graphical location bestows on them the responsibility to safeguard international shipping routes in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, including the South China Sea. India’s Maritime Military Strategy of 2015 as also the earlier version of 2007 has described SCS as an area of strategic interest to India. New Delhi is a stakeholder in evolving security developments in East Sea/SCS and therefore the imperative for India and Vietnam to forge ties at the political and security levels. (Part 2)
* Brig Vinod Anand is a Senior Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi, India