India Vietnam Relations: From Foundation to Superstructure
Ambassador Neeklakantan Ravi*
India and Vietnam present an interesting instance of mutually rewarding cooperation between developing nations in the post war world. This is especially true of the cold-war period that characterized the last five decades of the 20th Century. It was an opportunity for both countries to define new models of cooperation among nations that had thrown off the colonial yoke and were trying to build a new nation reflecting their national character.
History is replete with illustrations of maritime contact between India and Vietnam going back quite a few centuries. Some scholars date these exchanges to the early 8th century AD, that continued through time in various forms mainly embellished by trade and culture.
In the modern era, however, it is the momentous meeting between the two great leaders of India and Vietnam in 1954 in Hanoi, soon after the city’s liberation that marks the starting point in bilateral relations. President Ho Chi Minh and Prime Minister Nehru laid the foundation that helped bilateral relations grow and diversify in numerous sectors. Though that event took place more than six decades back, the lead-up to the meeting and the whiff of expectations of a glorious future for the two nations in the newly decolonizing world, formed a solid foundation for the establishment of close and mutually beneficial relations between India and Vietnam. When we look back today, both countries can be proud to have traversed the path of friendship in a way that could well be a model for current use, and certainly for historical analysis by academics and enthusiasts of modern history.
Both India and Vietnam, for the better part of the two centuries before the 21st were victims of colonialism, which gave a common platform for the two countries, to look for avenues of cooperation in a variety of fields. However, there was a predisposition towards economic and technical cooperation wherever feasible, to reinforce the political cooperation, that started in the fifties. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War intervened making the former cooperation somewhat difficult to implement on the ground. However, after the emphatic victory of Vietnam in 1975, the partnership emerged into a wonderful plane that has continued to grow and strengthen reflecting the contemporary reality.
Looking back, it is easy to discern some distinct phases in the evolution of our partnership. The first phase can be ranged from before Vietnam’s independence till the end of the Vietnam War, when the basis of cooperation was mainly political and partly economic in the bilateral and in the multilateral framework. The second from the end of the Vietnam War till the end of the last century. The consolidation achieved in these phases, helped identification of new areas, for the 21st Century. In the third phase, trade, investment, training and technical cooperation including in Defence, have influenced the discourse.
As India and Vietnam navigate an increasingly interconnected, yet intensely competitive world, what type of cooperation or partnership can we envisage for the future? Explaining the past is a better guide to the future than simply extrapolating it.
The period from 1975 (after the end of the Vietnam War) till 1995 (the year Vietnam became a member of the ASEAN) was momentous for both nations. This period saw focused bilateral efforts resulting in the extension of food credits and technical cooperation through setting up of projects and dispatch of experts. For instance, the Cuu Long Delta Rice Research Institute (CLRRI) was established in 1977 with assistance from the Government of India in the southernmost province of Vietnam. Despatch of Indian experts and training of Vietnamese scientists over a decade, yielded positive outcomes. Vietnam, which had to import 450,000 tons of rice in 1988, started exporting the commodity in 1991 and in 2003 became the world's second biggest rice exporter after Thailand. Simultaneously, Vietnam’s greatest achievement has been in the reduction of the poverty rate from nearly 60% in the early 90’s to around 20% in 2010 as per the standards estimated in the same year. In the international arena, India was among the few countries which stood by Vietnam through the period of isolation imposed on it after the end of the Vietnam War. This support became crucial especially in the time when it faced the aftermath of its involvement in Cambodia in December 1978 and during the February 1979 Chinese incursion into Vietnam.
The signing of the Strategic Declaration between India and Vietnam in July 2007 was the outcome of a genuine desire on the part of both countries to elevate their cooperation to a new leve, in the long term. The main driver in this was the high level of trust that had stemmed from successful cooperation in the last two decades of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st century; the consistently high rates of economic growth in both countries; a realization that both sides had a lot to share in terms of developmental experience; and, most importantly, new avenues in education, training and entrepreneurship were emerging to benefit the younger generation in both countries. The two countries stood ready to derive socio-economic benefits from their respective demographic bulges. Understandably, the security / defence – oriented content provided the base for strategic cooperation, as the respective national economic gains had to be enlarged, secured and consolidated.
Since the signing of the “Strategic Declaration” in July 2007, there has been a steady exchange of high level visits leading to a revitalization of bilateral relations in all areas. In the past decade, India and Vietnam have exchanged frequent visits, at the Head of State, and at the Head of Government levels. These have been supplemented by those of senior Cabinet Ministers dealing with Foreign, Finance, Home and Defence Ministries. Briefly: the exchange of views at the highest level has not only been frequent but also in-depth, leading to many important steps being taken to build qualitatively superior relations for the new millennium.1 The emergence of the strategic partnership framework and the frequency of the exchange of high level visits is but a clear indication of the desire from both sides to give a vibrant bilateral content for the new millennium. It also indicates the desire of both sides to enhance the level of substantive interaction to cover as many areas as possible.
In the India – Vietnam “strategic partnership” there are three basic elements that stand out: the economic content (technical cooperation, projects implemented through aid and credit); people to people cooperation (with special emphasis on human resource development including training, setting up of institutions and not forgetting “soft power” in all aspects) and, cooperation in the long term through infrastructure development in many sectors. The last includes areas like energy, defence and transport infrastructure. (Part 2)
* Ambassador Neelakantan Ravi, Fomer Ambassador to Vietnam and Former Secretary (East), Ministry of External Affairs of India; Indian Council of World Affair (ICWA)