Let us first look at the basic facts. Four high-level visits have taken place within 12 months. Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam to India; Ms Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister, and President Pranab Mukerjee, to Vietnam; and Nguyen Tan Dung, PM of Vietnam to India. Fourteen agreements have been signed during the last two visits alone. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been invited to visit Vietnam, a visit that might take place next year. In 2015, Vietnam will take over as the coordinator for India-ASEAN dialogue.
This clearly demonstrates that the India-Vietnam relationship is a larger story than what media headlines seem to suggest. The China factor is relevant, but it is not the only important consideration behind the remarkable growth in India's engagement with Vietnam.
Strategic Partnership: The latest joint statement highlights the two governments' commitment to “comprehensive development of Strategic Partnership.” What does SP really stand for? The obtused term means that our relationship with Vietnam covers all important sectors of bilateral activity; that bilateral relations are marked by growing substance and momentum; and that these relations are of critical importance to the pursuit of national interest by each country. The question to examine is: how have they progressed and where are they heading?
To put the discussion in a wider context, it may be recalled that a collective memory of rich connections and exchanges through trade, culture, religious influences and ideas exists, providing a solid foundation to India-Vietnam friendship. Post-colonial empathy and solidarity serve as powerful bonds. The two nations' adherence to national independence and opposition to hegemony constitutes a powerful motivation to stay closer.
Five Pillars: Of SP’s five pillars, political cooperation reflecting the shared worldview, particularly in East Asia, has witnessed notable consolidation through recent visits. India’s Look East or Act East policy complements Vietnam’s natural inclination to look west, east and elsewhere in order to secure its national goals of security and development. Building close ties with Asean remains a central priority for India. Vietnam is one of the more critically important Asean member-states from the political perspective. Increased frequency in interaction at VVIP level is indicative of an established habit of mutual consultation.
The second pillar, economic engagement, covering various fields is, according to a senior Indian official, “the backbone of all cooperation.” Bilateral trade is growing rapidly, having exceeded the earlier target of $7 billion. The new goal of raising it to $20 billion in five years seems realistic.
Investment by Indian companies in Vietnam has been on the rise. India Inc’s footprint is becoming substantial. Tata Power’s presence with an investment of $1.8 billion is consequential. The Bank of India is starting operations as a full-fledged branch in Ho Chi Minh City. The much-talked about grievance about lack of direct flights is about to be remedied with Jet Airways starting its flights linking Mumbai and Delhi to Ho Chi Minh City from next week.
Energy cooperation is the third pillar. OVL’s initiatives to forge cooperation in the hydrocarbon sector have attracted widespread attention. India’s imperative to ensure long-term energy security and availability of rich resources in Vietnam are well known. This mutually beneficial relationship dates back to 1988. Apart from the three off-shore blocks where OVL has been involved (one of which was surrendered later), Vietnam has recently offered five new blocks. OVL has decided to investigate two of them.
The issue has triggered some controversy in the light of China’s claims concerning the South China Sea and Vietnam’s position on this matter. The comments made by China’s ministry of foreign affairs appear to be susceptible to multiple interpretations. Their implications would no doubt be receiving close scrutiny by the authorities in Hanoi and New Delhi.
Defence and security, the fourth pillar, has been growing at “a healthy pace”, as an MEA official put it. While this pillar has many facets — strategic dialogue, exchange of visits, training of defence personnel, naval visits — two aspects have drawn special attention. The first is the grant of a defence Line of Credit for purchase of patrolling vessels by Vietnam. This marks a measured stepping up of defence cooperation. The second is the long-pending request by Vietnam for BrahMos cruise missiles. It appears that no decision has been reached yet.
Finally, a combination of cooperation programmes in other areas including development, culture, tourism and civil society linkages represents the fifth pillar. It is showing steady, though modest, growth.
India-Vietnam relations have thus been blossoming due to a variety of factors. To some extent, China’s assertiveness may have accelerated the process. Bilateral cooperation is for mutual benefit. Their defence cooperation is ‘defensive’ in nature. Their energy cooperation is guided by the long-term considerations of commerce and energy security, without direct connotations for territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The positive trends in bilateral relations stem from the shared desire of India and Vietnam to promote a balanced and peaceful East Asia. Relations are on an upward trajectory. Both sides should stay the course.
The author is director general of ICWA.