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  • India and Vietnam: Toward Building a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership

    Although good relations between India and Vietnam can be traced back to the 1950s when New Delhi extended its solidarity to the Vietnamese people who were waging a fiercely nationalist struggle against the French, the relationship began to gain traction only in the late 1970s. The turning point came when in a calculated move India became the only non-communist country to endorse the Vietnamese military intervention to depose dreaded and genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia in late 1978. New Delhi did that at the cost of its relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which had extended the Dialogue Partnership to dissuade it from recognizing the Hanoi-supported government in Phnom Penh. That was the beginning of the partnership, which stood the test of time for about four decades and is blossoming one of the most important bilateral relationships. Yet, it must be mentioned that, while during much of the 1980s and even in the aftermath of the end of the cold war in the 1990s, relations became better but they lacked the depth. Thus, it was only starting from the late 1990s that one seems remarkable turnaround in bilateral relations.
    The reasons for a discernible shift in relations leading to the establishment of the Strategic Partnership in 2007 are many but two stand out. One, Vietnam joining the mainstream of Southeast Asian affairs by becoming a member of ASEAN, which also coincided with India intensifying its engagement with Southeast Asia through the Look East Policy. And two, profound shifts the East Asian region began to witness, which in many ways compelled these two countries to deepen the relationship.
    Consequently, it is imperative to view the India-Vietnam strategic partnership not merely from a bilateral relations perspective but also from the standpoint of changes occurring at the larger regional level. That way the context in which the relationship is evolving is also changing and hence these two countries need to work closely together toward consolidating bilateral relations and also cooperate in ensuring that regional peace and stability are not affected. Hence, it requires a new vision and a new approach at this juncture when the relationship is entering a new but crucial phase.
    At the bilateral level, relations have indeed made a remarkable progress. Political links by any measure are excellent with regular high-level visits and defence cooperation has picked up a phenomenal momentum in the last few years while other areas are also beginning to get attention. India has imparted under water training to the Vietnamese naval personnel to operate the Kilo-class submarines that Vietnam is acquiring from Russia given India’s long experience of operating them. Reportedly, India will train up to 500 Vietnamese submariners in batches of 50 over a year-long program for each batch. The Vietnamese pilots and ground personnel are also expected to undergo training in India to fly Su-30s, which is considered a significant development. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) to establish the joint Vietnam-India English Language and Information Technology Training Center at the Ministry of National Defense’s Telecommunications University in Nha Trang was also signed in October 2015. Other forms of military training are also taking place.
    With respect to arms transfers, perhaps the most important is the supply of the offshore patrol boats by India (being built by a private company Larsen and Toubro), which can perform constabulary duties such as coastal surveillance and counter-piracy operations and also undertake military missions.It will be interesting to see what kind of equipment and systems that India will supply under the new tranche of US $400 million that Prime Minister Modi announced during his visit in September 2016. It is widely believed that New Delhi might accede to Hanoi’s request to supply Brahmos cruise missiles, jointly developed by India and Russia and supposed to be the most advanced in the world, along with a frigate size ship. The underlying idea is to enhance Vietnam’s naval capacities so that it can defend its maritime interests in the wake of intensifying contest over the islands in the South China Sea. Greater service-to-service interactions, regular naval port visits, increased training and capacity building, assistance in maintaining military equipment, etc., are the other active areas of cooperation. Thus, defence cooperation has emerged as the cornerstone of India-Vietnam bilateral relations. PM Modi noted: “Our defense cooperation with Vietnam is among our most important ones. India remains committed to the modernization of Vietnam’s defense and security forces. This will include expansion of our training program, which is already very substantial, joint exercises and cooperation in defense equipment…We have also agreed to enhance our security cooperation, including counter-terrorism”.
    Indeed India-Vietnam security cooperation at the regional level acquires enormous salience given current flux in East Asia. India and Vietnam also periodically exchange views on regional security. However, it is important not to look security cooperation in a narrow perspective centered on China. True, China certainly is a common challenge,  however, there are innumerable other issues of common interest that need to be factored in to create a broad-based security understanding and cooperation. As noted, it most prominently includes common stakes in regional security in East Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular.
    There are already certain bilateral mechanisms in place such as the Joint Commission of Foreign Ministers, Foreign Office Consultations and Strategic Dialogues but there is need to create more to strengthen institutional bonds. Among others, one that seems to have considerable potential to contribute to regional security is India-Vietnam-Japan trilateral dialogue, both at official and Track-II level.It does not have to be a military alliance nor does it have to target at a country (certainly not China since each of them is engaging Beijing differently) but basically a platform to exchange ideas and to evolve common understanding on certain regional security issues (just like U.S.-India-Japan Trilateral).Although academics have mooted this idea for a long time, it seems to have got official sanction during Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit in October 2014 when ‘Indian and Vietnamese leaders agreed to work with Japan in a trilateral format to coordinate positions on security and economic policies’. This trilateral can be extended to several other countries later on such as Indonesia and other countries in the region.
        The importance of Vietnam in India’s Act East policy can be gauged when the Indian prime minister averred that his government had intensified engagement with the Asia-Pacific region because it was critical to India’s future. “And it is no surprise,” Modi declared, “that Vietnam has been at the forefront or our efforts… We have a shared interest in maritime security, including freedom of navigation and commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.”
        In this context, it is important to keep in mind tectonic shifts occurring in East Asia, which warrant urgent attention and proactive initiatives. It is because increasingly developments in the larger East Asian region in general and Southeast Asia in particular that are becoming vital drivers behind the major spurt India-Vietnam relations are witnessing at present.
    Today’s East Asia reflects three mega trends. One, the region remains economically the most vibrant and hence the much talked about Asian Century is already upon us. The world’s fastest growing economies and largest markets comprising nearly 50 percent of the world’s population are located here. Intra-regional trade is growing and regional value-chain is getting strengthened leading to greater economic interdependence setting off its own dynamic. Regional economic links will become even more critical given growing anti-globalization mood in the West and doubts about the future of American ‘rebalancing’ under President Donald Trump. Similarly, now that Trump has unequivocally stated that he will not entertain the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, the pan-East Asian Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (RCEP) trade deal becomes pivotal to the East Asian countries. These developments and their consequences need deft handling and hence evolving a broad understanding among countries sharing shared opinions becomes imperative.
    On the other hand, regional security presents a less rosy picture. As regional great powers rise, they are not only becoming assertive but are also redefining their roles seeking to play bigger say in regional affairs. Their ability to influence regional developments has gone up phenomenally. The fastest rising nation, China, is also becoming more ambitious and most vociferous in trying to create a new order by challenging the status quo. While it is understandable as it has been the case historically every time new power centers rose, attempt or threat to use force to bring about the change can have serious ramifications threatening regional peace and stability, which can seriously undermine economic development. It, in turn, can potentially throw the region once again into turmoil as was seen till the mid-1980s. No doubt, the regional security is in transition moving toward multi-polarity but that transition if not managed properly can have a debilitating effect. Hence, it is absolutely essential to create a stable balance of power. It is here India and Vietnam have huge scope to cooperate in coordinating their policies and to cooperate in crafting a new regional security architecture.
    The third trend is equally important, that is regional multilateralism. True, it is relatively a recent phenomenon compared to Europe and the role of regional multilateral mechanisms has been sketchy. In particular, the security multilateralism, the ASEAN Regional Forum, for instance, has failed to live up to its initial expectations as a framework to tide over and resolve security issues. A few others, especially the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and its sister framework that includes ASEAN’s dialogue partners (ADMM-Plus) are yet to make a mark. However, relatively the economic multilateralism appears to have done better. RCEP is a case in point. No question of ASEAN’s critical role in the promotion of regional multilateralism, which has contributed to peace and stability.
    Southeast Asia is at the heart of the Asia-Pacific and this region has historically been a region of intense competition among great powers. From the American ‘rebalancing’ strategy to China ‘golden decade’ and from Japan’s ‘reengagement’ to India’s ‘Act East policy’, all are primarily aimed at this region. Instability here will have ripples effect on the entire Asia-Pacific. And the most important issue that can potentially undermine Southeast Asian security is the South China Sea dispute. Engagement of China by ASEAN should be supported and strengthened, while not foreclosing other options. Although expectedly nothing much came out of the International Court of Arbitration’s verdict debunking Chinese claims and supporting the Filipino case, it is an important moral victory.
    In this regard, it is essential to remember India’s stand. The South China Sea dispute is very complex and hence not easy to resolve. Any attempt to disrupt status quo can snowball into a major crisis fundamentally affecting regional stability and thus economic development. As the arbitral verdict has demonstrated, there is no historical basis for the expansive claims and the only way it can be resolved is through dialogue and not military adventurism. From being indifferent, India has taken a principled position that, given the South China Sea’s strategic location at the heart of East Asia, it is absolutely essential the freedom of navigation and over-flight, access to maritime commons and sustainable exploitation of natural resources are not affected adversely. Equally importantly, the issue has to be resolved peacefully. For that, probably India would encourage and strongly support ASEAN’s initiatives to finalize the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as soon as possible. China needs to realize that any attempt to resort to military action will have far reaching consequences, including its own interests getting adversely affected. Hence, it is necessary to strengthen ASEAN’s efforts by India and Vietnam.
    To build a strategic partnership that is comprehensive between India and Vietnam, endeavor should be to constantly expand areas of cooperation. That was what agreed on during President Mukherjee’s September 2015 visit to Hanoi to encompass areas political, economic, science and technology, culture and people-to-people links, technical, and regional and multilateral diplomacy.
    Strong economic relations will significantly boost critical stakes in a bilateral relationship. They, nonetheless, remain a weak link in the case of India and Vietnam. The bilateral trade, which stood at US$7.8 billion in 2015, is minuscule compared to Vietnam’s trade with other great powers (with China it was $66 bn. in 2015, for instance). Similarly, India’s investments are around $1 bn. compared to China’s nearly 11 bn and Japan’s more than 40 bn. Maybe it is about time India and Vietnam initiated a bilateral comprehensive economic cooperation agreement to boost investments as well as trade.
    Even though references have been made, there are so many facets of relationship that have not received much attention so far. Education is one of them as it promotes solid people-to-people contacts. An arrangement needs to be worked out whereby numerous Vietnamese students can come to India to pursue higher education, which is way much cheaper than most other countries and also get quality education. The leading Indian Universities and other institutions of higher learning can set up extension campuses in Vietnam. Likewise, tourism has been very limited between the two countries. It is basically due to a lack of awareness of what each can offer to the other. The absence of direct flights with affordable fares has been another shortcoming. If millions of Indians can visit Bangkok, surely some of them can go to Vietnam.
    Thus, given the developments in East Asia and its own growing interests, New Delhi’s involvement in the region will increase in a big way in the coming years and that would encompass various dimensions such as politics, economics, security, culture, etc. In the newly enunciated Act East policy, Vietnam is a key partner. Given their shared of interests and concerns and common stakes in regional security and prosperity, no effort should be spared in strengthening the India and Vietnam strategic partnership./.
    G.V.C. Naidu is Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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