The new context of India- Vietnam development cooperation in defence and security needs to be seen in the context of historical relations that exist between the two countries. It dates back to 2nd century AD, wherein the Indic Cham Pa Kingdom had influence on the Vietnamese society in their culture and art. Thereafter, both countries went through repeated periods of occupation by outsiders which precluded any independent decision making towards stepping up the bilateral ties.
India supported independence of Vietnam from the French occupation. Later, the U.S. action in Vietnam was strongly condemned by India. India was one of the very few non communist countries to support Vietnam in its war against Cambodia. The close relationship that the leaders of two countries, Mr Ho Chi Minh and Mr Jawahar Lal Nehru enjoyed is well known.
In 1975, India granted Most Favoured Nation status to Vietnam in all her trade cooperation. This was further cemented by Bilateral Investment Promotion Agreement in 1997. The development cooperation continued to improve in terms of trade inching upto USD 395.68 million. A joint declaration on comprehensive cooperation was signed in 2003. Subsequent to this declaration the development cooperation was expanded to information technology, education, space, direct air links and relaxed visa regulations. It has been progressive increment which reflects the continuation of close relationship that the two countries have maintained. The expansion of trade list has kept pace with India’s own development. Every field in which India has gained improvement has been shared with Vietnam. By 2015, the bilateral trade stood at USD9 billion, which is likely too increase to USD 15 billion by year 2020.
Vietnam-India ties have existed over centuries; therefore it is a natural progression for these two countries to take their bilateral relationship to the next level of engagement which must address the changing dynamics of the region and address shared interests of convergence. The bilateral relations are like a floating platform which needs to be moored with the support of many columns, otherwise, on a single column support, the platform would be prone to instability caused by turbulence of geopolitics. Multifaceted support makes relationships more stable which is capable of withstanding any storm. In the year 2000, the then Indian Defence Minister, Mr George Fernandes had said “Vietnam is India’s most trusted friend and ally”. He also suggested India’s access to Cam Ranh Bay naval and air bases to provide training and exposure to advanced weapon systems.
The 2003 Joint Declaration of India Vietnam Strategic Relationship called for cooperation in the field ofnuclear power, enhanced regional security and fighting terrorism, transnational crimes and drug trafficking. What then is the context of the next level of strategic relationship? What could be the reasons of elevating the present levels of cooperation?
Trajectory of Cooperation
First, is the centuries old convergence between cultures of the two countries and shared views of the leaders e.g. Ho Chi Minh and Jawahar Lal Nehru, Buddhism, Indian support on various occasions of each other’s period of difficulties, etc.
Second, there has been significant increase in bilateral trade which stood at USD 9 billion, as per GoI data at the end of FY 2014-15 and is set to increase to USD 15 billion by 2020. Third, there is an agreement on reducing the trade barriers and gradually remove it in the framework of WTO.
Fourth, opening of Bank of India branch in Vietnam, operation of direct flights between the two countries to increase people to people contact,India-Vietnam sharing of white Shipping data agreement, major investments by Tata Power and ILFS Transportation Network for operation and maintenance of Hanoi Haiphong expressway would lead to long term association.
Fifth, important strategic cooperation is in the field of exploration of hydrocarbons. OVL and ESSAR have major interest in the energy sector, which enhances energy security of the two countries and needs to be protected against traditional and non traditional maritime threats for improving wellbeing of our people.
There has been significant reorientation in the Indo-Asia Pacific in last few years. The Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the emergence of ISIS, the upscaling of terror and racial violence world over, the turbulence in economy due to slowdown of the Chinese economy, British exit from European Union, etc. are some of the major changes which have impacted upon peace and stability the world over. The rebalancing of U.S. strategic interests to the Indo-Asia Pacific, has reassured many countries of overall security cover in these periods of turbulence, both economic and military. 60 percent of U.S. assets are expected to get redeployed to the Indo-Asia Pacific by the year 2020.
The recent judgement of the Tribunal of the PCA on the case filed by Philippines has demolished China’s ‘historical claims’ in South China Sea and reaffirmed the EEZ definition with respect to islands, reefs and rocks and has reestablished faith of maritime nations in rule-based world order. However, the rejection of the judgement by China has put a question mark on her claim for rise to superpower status in the near future without the adherence to rule based system of the world. From the existing construct of unipolarity, China is challenging to create a Cold War period construct of a bipolar world. Many emerging powers are seeking new regional security and strategic alliances to create multi polarity to prevent dividing the world in two groups and this is where views of India and Vietnam converge on shared interest.
The India Vietnam ties received a boost on 3 September2016, when Prime Minister Modi paid a visit to Hanoi ahead of the G 20 summit at Hangzou, China. The message to China is clear, if the Chinese continue to arm Pakistan and do not take note of Indian concerns on terrorism from PoK, India will have no reason of restraint. Twelve pacts were signed by the two countries stating “Vietnam is a strong pillar of India’s act east policy”. Mr Modi said “our bilateral ties are based on strong mutual trust, understanding and convergence of views on various regional and global issues.”
During the above visit of Prime Minister Modi, India has agreed to provide line of credit of USD 500 million for sourcing more military hardware. What will constitute this line of credit is yet to emerge. Vietnam Navy is keen to acquire a Brahmos fitted frigate on lease, which could provide them good training value in handling a major warship as well as Brahmos SSM.Contract was signed for four fast offshore vessels built by L&T for Vietnam Border Guards. This is in addition to a USD 100 million credit signed earlier. The Defence cooperation has now been enhanced to a comprehensive strategic partnership. The pacts cover defence, IT, space, cyber security and sharing white shipping data. Space agreement takes forward a decision which allows India to set up satellite tracking and imaging station which will give Hanoi and Delhi an eye over entire South China Sea. A grant of USD 5 million for setting up Army Software Park at Telecom University in Nha Trang will be set up.
What lies ahead is stronger Defence ties between the two countries who have historic convergence and would make China sit upright and not ignore Indian concerns in the neighbourhood and elsewhere. Indian approach to rebalance to new world order is clearly veering towards multipolarity in which regional and sub regional alliances would emerge without becoming a conduit in big power rivalry in a bipolar format which China is articulating.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, PVSM, AVSM, NM and Bar is the former FOC-in-C Western Naval Command. A version of this article appeared earlier in Forceindia.net. This article has been adapted for SALUTE by the author