Truly strategic partners

Truly strategic partners

To mark the completion of 45 years of establishment of diplomatic ties between India and Vietnam, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang will be in India this week. His visit comes barely a month after the visit of Vietnam PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc to India to attend the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit and Republic Day parade along with other leaders of the grouping. This intensification of high-level bilateral engagements underlines growing convergence between New Delhi and Hanoi on regional and bilateral matters, with Vietnam emerging as one of the strongest partners of India in Southeast Asia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Vietnam in 2016, rather pointedly on his way to China for the G-20 summit there. The visit, the first by an Indian prime minister in 15 years, made it clear that New Delhi was no longer hesitant to expand its presence on China's periphery. The Modi government has made no secret of its desire to play a more assertive role in the Indo-Pacific region. Modi himself has argued that India can be an anchor for peace, prosperity and stability in Asia and Africa. A more ambitious outreach to Vietnam, therefore, should not be surprising.

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 the importance to both nations of this critical partnership.

There has been a rapid institutionalisation of this bilateral relationship. 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 started a 'strategic dialogue' since 2009.

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 a build-up of weapon 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 scrutinising with apprehension China's maritime expansion into the Indian Ocean Region.

India is also feeling the brunt of a rising China, most recently manifest in a 73-day standoff between the Indian and Chinese militaries on the Doklam Plateau at the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction. In response, India in recent times has been actively attempting to engage with regional states sharing similar perceptions about China's aggressiveness.

In the South China Sea and the Eastern Pacific, India is gradually treating Vietnam just as China views Pakistan in South Asia: as 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 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. Without going into the specifics, the Vietnamese foreign ministry said, "the procurement of defence equipment by Vietnam is consistent with the policy of peace and self-defence and is the normal practice in national defence." 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.

Security and trade

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.

India is now among Vietnam's top 10 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 a bilateral target of $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 cybersecurity.

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, led by political leaderships in the two countries that are determined to make it truly "strategic" in orientation.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King's College, London)

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