Indian armed forces have admired the way the Vietnamese defence forces first defeated the French at Dien Bienphu in 1954 and thereafter overcame the might of the US forces in 1975.
Yet the defeat of the Chinese military at the hands of the Vietnamese military in 1979 reflected the true grit and resolve of the Vietnamese nation; instead of teaching a lesson to Vietnam, China was taught a lesson. India supported Vietnam in its anti-colonial struggle as also in its efforts against the intervention by foreign powers and its unification of Vietnam.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972 the India and Vietnam have been strengthening their defence and security cooperation in many ways. The evolving security and strategic dynamics in the Asian region which has been impacted by the rise of China and its muscular and assertive policies has created a degree of instability in the region. The affected Asian countries are finding innovative ways to respond to China’s rise. The so called ‘core interests’ of China have been expanding in consonance with its economic and military might. China’s unreasonable maritime claims in South China Sea (SCS) and its territorial claims against India have resulted at time into clashes. Thus, it is but natural for both Vietnam and India to have a shared strategic perspective that entails forging stronger strategic bonds between the two.
Not only India and Vietnam have been cooperating bilaterally both nations also have a strong record of cooperating at multilateral forums like the ASEAN, Asian Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), UN, WTO besides many other such mechanisms as also in sub regional initiatives like Mekong Ganga Cooperation Initiative. Vietnam is one of the most important nations that support India’s Look East Policy which has been recently converted to ‘Act East Policy’ by the current PM Modi’s government. As an important member of ASEAN and EAS Vietnam and India have been coordinating their strategic approach to the security and other issues in the region under a variety of frameworks.
The strategic and security environment in Asia is in a state of flux and has revealed challenges to the dynamic and robust growth in the regional economies, including India and Vietnam. The main objective of the cooperation between India and Vietnam is to maintain peace, stability and promote development in the region and the world at large. Vietnam and India can be said to be maritime neighbours and have several common security challenges.
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 (SCS). In February 2004, Yashwant Sinha the then External Affairs Minister had included South China Sea in India’s extended neighbourhood. India’s Maritime Military Strategy of 2007 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.
Since the current government has taken over there has been acceleration of engagement between the two sides which also indicates to an extent the concerns of both sides regarding the situation in SCS.
Last year President Pranab Mukherjee visited Vietnam in September just before President Xi was to visit India. The seven agreements that were signed with Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang focused largely on deepening strategic partnership; the agreements covered such as political, defence and security cooperation, economic cooperation, science and technology, culture and people-to-people links, technical cooperation and multilateral and regional cooperation. Both leaders agreed that defence and security cooperation was an important pillar of the strategic partnership between the two countries.
The institutional architecture for strengthening partnership include Joint Commission Meeting at Foreign Ministers’ level, the Foreign Office Consultations and Strategic Dialogue at Secretary level, Security Dialogue and Annual defence Dialogue at Secretary level and other dialogue mechanisms between the two countries.
Earlier, Smt. Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister of India had visited Vietnam in August 2014; later in October 2014 PM of Vietnam was in India to cement the ongoing strategic cooperation. Swaraj had observed while speaking in Vietnam that it was time to replace India's “Look East policy”, that aims to link the India’s northeast with South East Asia, with an “Act East Policy.” Further, just before Sushma Swaraj’s visit Vietnam had renewed India's lease of two oil blocks in South China Sea, evidently a move that was not liked by China. She also addressed India’s Heads of Missions in Southeast Asia to coordinate India’s foreign and security policy approaches in this strategically vital region.
In any case the underlying leitmotif of all these exchanges has been to articulate their common approach on SCS besides other regional security issues. India has been supporting the freedom of navigation in the East Sea/South China Sea in various multilateral forums. India has called the parties concerned to exercise restraint, avoid threat or use of force and resolve disputes through peaceful means in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the UNCLOS-1982. India has also supported the collective commitment of the concerned parties to abide by and implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and to work towards the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus. India and Vietnam also favour cooperation in ensuring security of sea-lanes, maritime security, combating piracy and conducting search and rescue operations.
China’s activities in South China Sea including building of artificial islands violate many of the above stated principles and conventions. It also needs to be noted that when the Indian warship Airavat was challenged by the People’s Liberation Army Navy in September 2012 while on passage from Vietnam, it reinforced the need for India to enhance maritime cooperation and interoperability with the Vietnamese. China’s placing of its giant drilling rig HD-981 last May 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.
India, Vietnam, most of the ASEAN members and the international community remain concerned with likely adverse impact created by China’s activities in SCS. Over 50 percent of the oil shipments pass through the SCS which is said to be thrice the volume of traffic as compared to the tanker traffic through Suez Canal. Over 5.3 trillion US dollars’ worth of trade per year is carried out through the SCS. Thus freedom of navigation through the SCS is an imperative. India has consistently supported Vietnam and the ASEAN nations in their quest for freedom of navigation through the SCS and resolution of the dispute based on the international norms and UNCLOS.
Defence and Security: Bilateral Cooperation
The formal framework of India-Vietnam defence security cooperation is based on defence cooperation signed by India’s then Defence Minister Mr. George Fernandez on a visit to Vietnam in 2000. Training of Air Force pilots, joint naval and coast guard and naval exercises and regular dialogue at Defence Ministers’ level were institutionalized then. This was further strengthened by the 2007 Strategic Partnership Agreement which now provides the framework for furtherance of cooperation in the defence field.
However, in the recent years and especially so after the coming into power of the new government in New Delhi a degree of momentum has been imparted to ongoing defence exchanges. While in August 2014 President Pranab Mukherjee during his visit to Hanoi underlined the importance of defence and security cooperation with Vietnam later on during PM Nguyen Tan Dung to India in October 2014 PM Modi observed that “Our defence cooperation with Vietnam is among our most important ones. India remains committed to the modernization of Vietnam’s defence and security forces. This will include expansion of our training programme, which is already very substantial, joint-exercises and cooperation in defence equipment.” Mr. Modi also announced the operationalisation of the $100 million line of credit for Vietnam’s defence purchases. Vietnam is expected to utilise the credit for buying off-shore patrol vehicles for reconnaissance and surveillance of disputed areas in SCS and thus would add to capabilities of its Coast Guard.
An MOU was also signed between the two to establish a Vietnam-India Centre for English Language and Information Technology Training at the Telecommunications University, Ministry of Defense of Vietnam. The Centre will provide a permanent venue for teaching English language and information technology for raising the general level of proficiency of trainees in these skills. It shall train and upgrade the skills of English language teachers from schools and training institutions of the armed forces and also prepare students for tests essential for tertiary education. It will strive to develop into a Centre for Excellence while at the same time; collaborate with other Centres of English and IT education set up in Vietnam with the assistance of the Government of India.
According to PM Modi Vietnam was at the forefront of India’s efforts in the Asia Pacific region, which his government had promptly and purposefully intensified since coming to power. Earlier during his visit to Japan in September 2014 he had alluded to China’s expansionist policies in the joint statement and later during his visit to the US later called for “safeguarding maritime security in the South China Sea.” In January this year India and US adopted a Joint Vision for Asia-Pacific and India Ocean region that among other things affirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea as also underscored the joint commitment to strengthen East Asia Summit and for promoting dialogue on key political and security issues.
Imparting further momentum to the growing Vietnam-India defence relationship was the signing of a Joint Vision Statement on Defence Cooperation for five years from 2015 to 2020 during the visit of Vietnam’s Minister for National Defence General Phung Quang Thanh with Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in May this year. The agreement will be renewed after evaluating and monitoring the steps that have been taken in the meanwhile. Also a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and the Vietnamese Coast Guard for appreciating each other’s role in maritime security affairs.
India’s National security Advisor, Mr. Ajit Doval was in Vietnam in April where he affirmed that India would do all it can to assist Vietnam in defence and security, specifically defence industry, military technology, intelligence, personnel training, cybercrimes and cyber security.
It is well known that India has been providing spares for some Russian-origin equipment to the Vietnamese Navy and also basic training in submarine operations. For instance India has supplied spares for the Russian-origin Petya class warships and OSA-II class missile boats of the Vietnamese Navy. Vietnam has acquired three modern versions of the Kilo class submarine, much advanced though than what the Indian Navy had acquired over two decades back. Vietnamese sailors are being trained in submarine warfare or ‘underwater combat training’ at the Navy's submarine school INS Satavahana in Visakhapatnam since October 2013. This includes training in submarine warfare doctrine and tactics. Indian naval ships have been regularly making port calls in Vietnam and showing their flag to indicate the right of passage and freedom of navigation in the international waters. In so far as Indian Air Force is concerned there are also plans to provide training for Vietnamese Air Force pilots for flying Sukhoi fighters. Capacity building of Vietnam Armed Forces for improving the security environment is one of the major goals to be achieved.
To build upon and continue with the rapid pace of evolving defence and security relationship the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Chief Marshall, Arup Raha (also Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee) was in Hanoi in middle of September to discuss military cooperation with Vietnamese counterparts. Though maritime security has been dominant theme of Indo-Vietnamese cooperative mechanisms Anup Raha’s visit reflects widening of agenda of strategic cooperation.
Cooperative framework on a wide variety of national public security issues has been under way for last several years. There are ongoing initiatives to enhance cooperation in combating terrorism, drug trafficking, transnational crimes, money laundering, hi-tech and other criminal activities. There is a treaty on mutual legal assistance in prevention, investigation and prosecution of crimes. Training of Vietnamese officials in the investigation of money laundering, economic criminals, organised crimes and drug trafficking are other areas of joint endeavours.
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF
This is updated version of paper presented at Ho Chi Minh Academy of Political Science, Hanoi during an international conference on “Vietnam, ASEAN-India Development Cooperation: Reality and Prospect” held from 29 to 30 September 2015.