India - Vietnam ties are transformative, not transactional (Part 1)


India - Vietnam ties are transformative, not transactional (Part 1)

Ash Narain Roy*


The paper maps and assesses why Vietnam has been on the radar of Indian government for a long time and discusses the reasons for the two countries elevating their relations to the highest echelon of cooperation. While the China factor may be the reason for Vietnam receiving considerable attention in India’s foreign policy, New Delhi has its own pragmatic reasons to cultivate Vietnam, a lynchpin of India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and a star performer in the ASEAN region. The reasons for Vietnam’s gaze falling on India are equally compelling--India’s economic success story, global rise and its strategic importance for the Southeast Asian region. Vietnam’s rapid economic growth has enhanced its geopolitical importance. It is a major emerging market and an attractive investment destination. It is this new dynamism, historical and civilisational bonds and convergence of economic and strategic interests that have created new synergy in India-Vietnam relations. The paper also analyses the changing global and regional contexts, and the convergence of economic and strategic interests which have created new convergences in India-Vietnam relations. Hanoi’s regional and global profile has undergone a dramatic transformation in India’s strategic calculus. Defence and Security Cooperation has emerged as a significant pillar of India’s strategic partnership with Vietnam. The current uncertain international environment and the ongoing fragmentation of the global order have thrown up new opportunities as well as fresh challenges which the two countries are fast capitalising. China’s rise has created strategic challenges for countries like India and Vietnam. Securing strategic interests requires building partnerships and building national capacities. The Indo-Pacific is witnessing a new Great Game. China seems to be the only serious player. India and Vietnam are strategizing and building partnerships. India’s strategic engagement with ASEAN in general and Vietnam in particular has the objective of seeking a greater role in the region. The concluding section of the paper argues that India is an X factor in the growing diversification that Vietnam seeks through strategic partnerships with various countries. India sees Vietnam as a pivotal state for its Act East policy and India provides the comfort factor for Vietnam. Given the new geopolitical and geo-economic realities, Vietnam is even more important for India. India-Vietnam ties are becoming transformative, though not transactional.

Geography is said to be the mother of history.  India and Vietnam are bound by both history and geography. In the words of  former Prime Minister of India  Atal Behari Vajpayee, “ history and geography have willed that we become strategic partners.” For centuries, India knew present-day Vietnam through its scholars, men of religion as well as traders who reached  the shores of the ‘Suvarnabhoomi.’ They carried with them the Hindu and Buddhist principles and philosophical ideas which found easy acceptance among the people through a meeting of minds, and not because of force or conquest.

India’s civilisational influence in Southeast Asia is far more marked than the Chinese. For over 1000 years, Southeast Asia willingly accepted and assimilated various facets of Indian culture, religion and art, as also technology, astronomy, mythology and literature. These influences in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia were more pronounced but Vietnam too came under it. Out of India came not just artists, sculptors, traders,  astronomers, and the occasional fleets of warships, but also missionaries of  Buddhism and  Hinduism. Both these religions, Buddhism in particular,  brought with them a vast array of new concepts, doctrines and beliefs which altered the material world of the people as also their worldview.

Indian cultural influences found widespread acceptance because they were more compatible with local norms and beliefs than China’s rigorously ethical but less spiritual contributions. Cultures often spread as a result of war, but in this case Indian rulers made no effort to colonize Southeast Asia or to exercise indirect political control.

How Indians conceive of their country, its origin, its development through history, and its past relations with others is a vital component of how they imagine, construct and aspire to develop India’s contemporary international relations.

 K M Panikkar, great Indian historian says, that historically Indians took very little interest in the world beyond its border. He further says, that while India developed a sophisticated framework of inter-state relations within the natural frontiers of the subcontinent, it “lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers”. Ancient Greek writer Arrian of Nicomedia says that Indian rulers refrained from expanding their kingdoms beyond the subcontinent as they saw it as morally incorrect. Perhaps Indians felt protected from the north by the giant Himalayas which gave them a sense that India sufficed onto itself.

Before we analyse the context of why India and Vietnam have pragmatic reasons to strengthen their multi-faceted relations, it is important to see how the international context has changed.

International Context

First, it was the world order that grew out of the Peace of Westphalia that lasted for 150 years. Then came the 100-year-long system created by the Congress of Vienna followed by the Cold War that lasted for 40 years. For several centuries world history was written in terms of the struggle for influence among nations. However, it is not clear yet what aggregation of power will be the focal point of the 21st century: culture, economic might, regions, sub-regions or revitalized nation-states.

Each period of history has produced its own patterns of relations among the world’s powers. The Roman Empire and the Chinese Middle Kingdoms were near monopolies. The Cold War saw duopolies. Then followed a brief period of US unipolar moment. Today, the world order is what Amitabh Acharya of American University, Washington calls “multiplex” in which elements of the liberal order survive, but are subsumed in a complex of multiple, cross-cutting orders. At another level, geo-economics seems to have replaced geopolitics.

The 21st century is a century of fast changing global geopolitical landscape. The world is witnessing a new geopolitical paradigm—the end of the Atlantic era and the advent of the Asian century. It is a historic change. According to the UNDP, the rise of the South is unprecedented in scale and speed. However, over the past one decade or so, the global uncertainties have grown, traditional relationships are in a flux and global, regional institutions are under challenge to cope with these intensifying uncertainties and shifts in great power relationships.

The ‘G-Zero world’ has created immense opportunities for a plethora of regional and global cooperation frameworks to prosper benefiting aspiring powers. However, with the rise of China, the world has begun to realize that the traditional tools of leverage that it once had have lost their effectiveness to shape the global architecture.

India: From high moralism to hard realism

Over the past few years, the gaze of the world has been falling on India. If India provides attractive markets for resource-rich countries, India is also looking for new markets, investment destinations and cooperation mechanisms to meet the demands of its fast-growing economy.

It is thanks to a combination of its democratic credentials, high income growth and its ability to manage its multi-layered diversities that the world takes a benign view of India’s rise on the global stage.

 India has for long remained a quintessential global swing state. A swing state possesses large and growing economy, occupy central positions at the hinge of multiple regions and exercises outsize influence on the international stage. Today, India is gradually changing its role from being a swing state and a balancing power on the global scene to becoming a leading global power. This requires active engagement with the entire range of partners in multilateral forums. Today India is making a case more forcefully than ever before in claiming a rightful place in the comity of nations. It is seeking a strong global voice with its ongoing quest to gain a seat on the high table at the UN. Today, India’s voice is louder in demanding new world order whose political, economic and financial architecture is more inclusive, representative and legitimate. India’s ambition is to acquire a place at the global high table of influence.

The economic reforms changed the way India was perceived by the international community. India is now an important player in the world economy. With impressive economic growth, India’s foreign policy profile has also changed.

It is India’s economic performance that has become its global calling card. In foreign policy, it is no more the high moral ground that India sought to occupy in the initial years of independence. Today, it is hard-nosed realism that guides its global pursuits. The hard realities of national interests have become the yardstick of India’s foreign policy. It is pragmatism, not moralism, which defines and shapes India’s foreign policy behaviour. India is reaching out to the world. Its private sector is doing so aggressively, carving out markets for itself globally, investing widely and taking over industrial and service icons abroad. (Part 2)

* Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi

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