Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury
This was the message from an international workshop - 'India-Vietnam ties amid the changing geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific' -- held here on January 9. "Although the global and regional situation is complex and unpredictable, peace, cooperation and development are still a common trend, saying that scientific-technological development and globalisation are bringing countries and regions, including the Indo-Pacific, closer in terms of economy and security. The Indo-Pacific region holds an increasingly important role in strategies of many countries, especially major ones," noted Vietnamese Ambassador to India Ton Sinh Thanh while inaugurating the workshop.
According to the Ambassador, India plays a leading role in the Indian Ocean region, while Vietnam holds an important geopolitical position in the Pacific region. They are facing similar opportunities and challenges, he said, noting that both are located in strongly developing regions and they need to make use of this opportunity by enhancing cooperation and mutual support so as to develop more rapidly and sustainably.
Delivering key note address at the workshop former Deputy NSA and current director of leading think-tank Arvind Gupta said, "China's growing ambitions have created ripples in the region. The concept of Indo-Pacific cannot be developed without ASEAN on board. Under such circumstances growing Indian presence in Vietnam and vice-versa are imperative. The two sides can explore joint defence production, wider cyber security and space cooperation."
Nalin Surie, senior diplomat and Director General of Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), in his address said, "Timely, not only because the Indo-Pacific as a concept is gaining broader international recognition but also since its salience in the region is growing rapidly. It has become a critical element in India's foreign policy thinking. This concept is shared by countries such as USA, Japan and Australia and is now openly being discussed within ASEAN and in China. When we were in Hanoi in November last year, we saw in our interlocutors considerable interest in the Indo-Pacific e.g. on how it can be promoted and institutionalized; who would be the key actors and what would be the key elements. From India's perspective, these have been spelt out in some detail including by Prime Minister Modi in his address to the US Congress in June 2016. The concept of SAGAR also applies equally to the Indo-Pacific in so far as India is concerned."
Surie recalled, "We also heard another message during our discussions in Hanoi viz. that the relative decline of the US in the region (if indeed that is the case) has a series of implications since the US is being challenged particularly in Southeast and East Asia by China. Also, Russia is attempting to reclaim lost territory. The clear message to us was that given the far reaching changes taking place in Southeast and East Asia and China's decision to compete with India in the Indian Ocean and in the context of its Look/Act East policy, India should act effectively and move to strengthen its profile in the region and its multi-dimensional relationship with Vietnam. I am convinced that this will happen."
"Vietnam is a core partner of India in ASEAN and a critical partner in our Look & Act East Policy. This should not surprise anybody given our historical relationship and our longstanding support for Vietnam in its efforts towards unification and complete independence. We are now both strategic and developmental partners with growing multi-vector linkages. Given the far reaching geo-political and geo-economic changes taking place in the Indo-Pacific, it is also our belief that our two countries should intensify collaboration not only in ASEAN but also in the broader Indo-Pacific... India and Vietnam, have a convergence of views on various regional and international issues. It is now important that this convergence extends to better understanding each other's perspective and interests in the Indo-Pacific," Surie noted.
Expressing similar sentiments, noted China expert Srikanth Kondapalli told ET, "As a country with long historical legacy of standing up to outside influences, with common and shared perspectives during the Cold War and after, mutual coordination and as a country coordinator in dealing with the ASEAN, Vietnam plays a crucial role in India's foreign and security policies. Given the geopolitical location of Vietnam which looks after nearly more than half of India's trade, this equation has acquired strategic dimension mainly in the maritime /naval sphere. Indian leadership then laid a concrete road map for furthing bilateral relations with Vietnam in the "comprehensive strategic partnership" mould last year. A 2017-20 plan is being implemented now."
Prominent expert on SE Asia Prof Baladas Ghoshal who also addressed a session in the workshop told ET, "India-Vietnam relations need to be addressed from two perspectives - one bilateral and the other regional or multilateral - both are interrelated. At the bilateral level, relations between the two countries hinge on the political, economic and strategic interactions. On the political and strategic level relations have progressed considerably, even though there is still scope for broadening and widening of that relationship. But the economic links are the weakest. Trade between the two countries are a meagre 6 billion. The weakness becomes even starker when compared with Vietnam's trade with China estimated to be approaching 80 billion. To provide real heft to the relationship, the economic interactions together with connectivity between the two countries need to be strengthened."
"Through its infrastructure and connectivity offensive, China has brought about a major change in the ground realities in the region by making almost all the countries in the region economically strangulated and thus dependent on China. Here comes the regional and multilateral aspect of India-Vietnam relations, as the bilateral relationship is a means to shape a regional order that is peaceful, stable and conducive to pursuance of development goals aiming at eradication of poverty and improvement of the quality of life of the people. India operates its Act East policy through bilateral relations with the countries of the region, Vietnam being one of the most important countries, besides Indonesia, Singapore and Myanmar. At the regional level, it operates through ASEAN and East Asia Summit (EAS). ASEAN, as an organization has become quite ineffective because of the deep divisions within the organization on the question of South China Sea. The EAS has also proved to be quite ineffective in providing an architecture for peace and stability in the region," noted Ghoshal
"After the last ASEAN summit and the meeting of four countries (India, Australia, US and Japan) on the side-lines have generated new interest in the establishment of QUAD. Any formation where the United States is involved, will automatically will bring negative reaction from China. To provide an indigenous character to hedging and balancing China, it would be useful to have an Asian QUAD consisting of India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan. All four countries have problems with China because of latter's irredentist claims. India, Vietnam and Indonesia are fast growing economies and can synchronize their economies for trade, investment and manufacturing. Japan can chip in its economic clout to support infrastructure and connectivity projects. The four countries have convergence of strategic interests in terms of have an inclusive and transparent political and economic architecture in which no country can dominate. As there is no consensus on one single architecture that can take care of the peace and stability of the region, there will be multiple arrangements trying to shape the regional order. The Asian QUAD is one such formation that can supplement other arrangements. The Asian Quad has other advantage in the sense that all four countries have common cultural and civilizational links that can provide an alternative narrative to China's vision of the region. India's Act East policy will be strengthened by such a formation, and India and Vietnam must strive for such an arrangement," Prof Ghoshal suggested.
Le Thi Hang Nga (Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences), who also spoke at the workshop, noted, "Vietnam has played an important role in India's "Act East" policy and been also a crucial partner in sub-regional, regional and multilateral forums. The elevation of their strategic partnership, set up in 2007, to comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016 is a clear demonstration of the importance they attach to this relationship. Vietnam and India have worked to intensify cooperation in various spheres, including politics, defence-security, trade, energy, science-technology, capacity building, connectivity, health care, education, culture, tourism, people-to-people exchange, and cooperation at international and regional forums."