[Burning Issue] India –Vietnam Relations

Context

  • President Ram Nath Kovind’s choice of Vietnam as the first Southeast Asian country to visit in his capacity as the President is not surprising. A close ‘ally’ of India for over 70 years, and not limited to official diplomatic ties, Vietnam is critical for India’s foreign policy at the regional and systemic levels.

Background

  • Bilateral ties between India and Vietnam have strengthened in recent years with a focus on regional security issues and trade. Mutual trust, threats emerging from a rising China and a convergence of strategic interests have contributed to the deepening of ties between the two nations to an extent that Vietnam now engages India at the level of a ‘comprehensive strategic partner’,  which is a clear indication of importance both the nations put in this critical partnership.
  • There has been a rapid institutionalisation of this bilateral partnership. The two states promulgated a Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Cooperation in 2003 in which they envisaged creating an “Arc of Advantage and Prosperity” in Southeast Asia and have initiated a strategic dialogue since 2009.

Points of Convergence and Cooperation

  • One of the most significant drivers of the deepening strategic partnership between India and Vietnam is their shared apprehension of an aggressive China. This growing assertiveness of China is slowly transforming into the build-up of weapons systems, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, in the artificial islands in the South-China Sea, which is clearly a major concern for both the nations.
  • In Vietnam, China’s growing assertiveness is a matter of direct security concern, while India has been closely scrutinizing with apprehension China’s maritime expansion into the Indian Ocean Region.
  • In the South China Sea and the Eastern Pacific, India is gradually treating Vietnam just as China views Pakistan in South Asia: as a strategic heft. Indian strategists had for long suggested that New Delhi should leverage Vietnam’s conflicts with Beijing to her advantage.
  • Ever since the two countries signed a Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership in November 2007, raising their bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership, India-Vietnam security cooperation has accelerated.
  • It has provided Vietnam with a $100 million concessional line of credit for the procurement of defence equipment. And, in a first of its kind sale, it sold four offshore patrol vessels to Vietnam that are likely to be used to strengthen the country’s defences in the energy-rich South China Sea.
  • In August 2017 Vietnam indicated it had bought Brahmos anti-ship cruise missiles, a weapon the country has long cherished, from India. India, however, claimed that the reports about the deal were “incorrect.”  Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Hanoi is increasingly coming to be at the centre of India’s “Act East” policy.
  • The two nations have a stake in ensuring the security of sea lanes, and share concerns about China’s access to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Hence, India is helping Vietnam build its capacity for repair and maintenance of its defence platforms.
  • At the same time, their armed forces have started cooperating in areas such as information technology and English-language training of Vietnamese army personnel. The two countries potentially share a common friend—the US.
  • New Delhi has a burgeoning relationship with Washington, with the two sides signing a logistical support agreement this week, while Vietnam has been courting America as the South China Sea becomes a flashpoint. As the three countries ponder how to manage China’s rise, they have been drawn closer together.
  • Finding compatibility between the ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’ and the U.S. driven ‘Indo-Pacific’ necessitates a more nuanced approach whereby regional concerns of ASEAN centrality can be assuaged while accounting for diverse approaches to maintaining regional stability. In pursuance of this, the two countries have planned a bilateral level maritime security dialogue in early 2019.
  • India is now among Vietnam’s top ten trading partners and during Modi’s 2016 visit, the two nations agreed to explore substantive and practical measures, like the Joint Sub-Commission on Trade, to achieve the trade target of US$15 billion by 2020.
  • They also signed a civil nuclear agreement in 2016, which is expected to further boost bilateral trade between them. The two countries also expanded cooperation in areas such as space exploration and cyber security.
  • An area of potential convergence for both Vietnam and India is health care. The 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, in 2016, highlighted the importance of linking economic growth to universal health care, whereby 80% population would be covered by health insurance.
  • With Indonesia ratifying the India-ASEAN Services agreement on November 13, New Delhi is a step closer to signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, bringing India to the forefront of the services sector globally. A potential area of convergence in the realm of health care through joint public-private partnership agreements can be explored by the two countries.
  • Vietnam and India both looks at sub-regionalism and regionalism as priority avenues to pursue its foreign policy. The India-Vietnam Joint Statement of March 2018 reiterates the focus given to sub-regionalism and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation framework.
  • However, another area is emerging in the CLV, or Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam growth triangle sub-regional cooperation, bringing these three countries together. India and Vietnam can jointly explore the potential for enhancing capacity building and providing technical assistance and training within this sub-regional grouping.

Why Vietnam is at the centre of India’s policy to counter China

  • It is instructive that India entered the contested region of the South China Sea via Vietnam. India signed an agreement with Vietnam in October 2011 to expand and promote oil exploration in the South China Sea and stood by its decision despite China’s challenge to the legality of Indian presence.
  • New Delhi was told it required Beijing’s permission for the Oil and Natural Gas Videsh Ltd. to explore the Vietnamese blocks 127 and 128 in those waters. But Vietnam cited the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to claim its sovereign right over the two blocks in question.
  • Hanoi has been publicly sparring with Beijing over claims to the South China Sea for some years now, so such a response was expected.
  • What was new, however, was New Delhi’s aggression in taking on China. It immediately supported Hanoi’s claims. By accepting the Vietnamese invitation to explore the two blocks, the Oil and Natural Gas Videsh Ltd. not only expressed India’s desire to deepen its friendship with Vietnam, but also ignored China’s warning to stay away. This display of strength stood India in good stead with Vietnam.
  • If China wants to expand its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, the thinking in New Delhi goes, India can do the same thing in East Asia. If China can have a strategic partnership with Pakistan ignoring Indian concerns, India can develop robust ties with states on China’s periphery such as Vietnam without giving China a veto on such relationships.

President’s visit insight

  • President Ramnath Kovind and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong agreed to effectively implement the Joint Vision Statement on Vietnam—India Defence Cooperation for the period of 2015-2020.
  • They agreed to step up cooperation in human resources training, and promote collaboration between the Army, Air Force, Naval and Coast Guard of the two countries, as well as cooperation in cyber security and information sharing.
  • Vietnam appreciated India’s offer of the USD 500 million line of credit to defence industry.
  • The two sides agreed to step up experience sharing in the training of personnel for participation in the UN peace-keeping operations and cooperation in addressing war legacies in Vietnam, and to strengthen criminal information exchange and law enforcement experience sharing.
  • They agreed to actively support each other and step up coordination at multilateral defence and security cooperation frameworks.
  • In the spirit of the proposal for an ASEAN-India Strategic Dialogue on maritime cooperation made at the commemorative summit held in New Delhi in January, they agreed to hold the first Maritime Security Dialogue on issues related to maritime domain and further encouraged port calls of each other’s naval and coast guard ships.
  • India and Vietnam also agreed to continue promoting bilateral investment, including cooperation projects between Vietnam Oil and Gas Group PVN and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation in oil and gas exploration on land, continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Vietnam.

The Way Forward

  • In the coming 5 years, it can be expected that political relations get further cemented. This would also coincide with the completion of 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
  • But India needs to improve economic ties with Vietnam- the target that India and Vietnam have set up for 2020- that of $15 Billion is not very ambitious. Also, in the defence arena, India must help Vietnam inbuilding their own defence industry, and give them the defence systems that they need to maintain a balance in the South China Sea (SCS) region.
  • In the next 5 years, the tri-lateral highway linking India, Myanmar, and Thailand would be ready. Further, the extension of this highway can potentially also open up a scenario where one could drive from Indian soil to Vietnam.
  • Further, scholars have now been saying that with SAARC getting stalled, and with India defining its immediate neighbourhood with an eastward tilt, probably the time has come for BIMSTEC to consider extending itself to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Then it will be a very powerful body and lasting link between India and ASEAN.

Conclusion

  • Based on the three legs of regional security, defence and trade engagements, India and Vietnam have managed to build a strong partnership over the last few years. Given their mutual convergence, it is likely that this relationship will only grow stronger in the coming years as well.
  • This is a relationship that is poised to take off in the coming years, led by political leadership in the two countries determined to make this relationship truly “strategic” in orientation.
  • While the ties have progressed under the Look East and Act East Policies, going forward they need to factor in pragmatism, helping relations to move forward. India’s ability to look beyond the prism of optics will remain a core challenge.
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