Vietnam: fulcrum of 'Act East’ policy

Vietnam: fulcrum of 'Act East’ policy

President Ramnath Kovind paid a state visit to Vietnam this month at the invitation of his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong. The fact that he chose Vietnam as the first South East Asian country for his outreach to the region speaks of not only the strategic significance that India attaches to its ‘Act East’ policy, but also his empathy with Vietnam and its heroic people. Although Vietnam has always occupied a significant position in India’s foreign policy, the idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ and India’s recalibrated ‘Look East’ policy in the new lexicon of ‘Act East’ has received considerable traction in recent years. The two countries upgraded their strategic partnership of 2007 to ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2016’.

By virtue of its geographical location, the Indo-Pacific is at the crossroads of the world’s maritime traffic. Over half of the world’s maritime trade passes through these waterways. The Strait of Malacca alone carries approximately 25% of all traded goods and oil that travel by sea. It is arguably one of world’s most sensitive and strategic waterways. India has major strategic interests as well as economic and commercial stakes in continued peace and stability in the region. The South China Sea is a major waterway and over $5 trillion in trade passes through the sea lanes in this region. Over 55% of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea. 

The shift of geopolitics from Atlantic to Asia-Pacific, the emergence of the region as the growth engine of the world, the maritime trade and commerce, and China’s rise are the drivers of India’s ‘Act East’ policy. Renewed maritime disputes, changes in military posture, and great power rivalry have added to the complexities of the security situation in the region. In particular, the ongoing contestation over island territories in the Asia-Pacific has exacerbated regional tensions.

With finesse and dexterity, India has engaged with the region to maintain equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific while strengthening bilateral relationships with both China and Vietnam. This has two broad components. One is the multi-pronged engagement with China. Second, strengthening India’s defence capability and beefing up the defence capability of countries like Vietnam. New Delhi has also tried to leverage China’s economic engagement with India, the cultural linkage between the two countries in terms of Buddhism and proactive outreach to China to neutralise any potential damage to the bilateral relationship. India has thus taken a principled position and avoided piggy backing on the US policy of containing China, and has avoided being seen in that prism, while at the same time strengthening its strategic and security relationship with the US.

India’s nuanced position on the region, especially the maritime dispute in the South China Sea, was reiterated in the India-Vietnam joint statement. The two sides stressed on peaceful settlement of disputes, including respect for diplomatic and legal processes and compliance with international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982, and reiterated that the parties concerned should refrain from the use, or threat, of force. On India’s oil exploration in the South China Sea, the two sides agreed to continue promoting bilateral investment and cooperation in oil and gas exploration on land, the continental shelf and Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

President Kovind was also extended the rare honour of addressing the National Assembly of Vietnam, where he reaffirmed India’s consistent support to ASEAN unity and centrality and an ASEAN-led mechanism for regional security and economic architecture to promote peace and prosperity in the region. His observation that “India offers a cooperative model that does not require its friends to make choices but rather expands choices” assumed significance in the context of China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Yet another major highlight of the visit was that the two countries expressed their satisfaction with the progress in the implementation of the $100 million Line of Credit for building high-speed patrol vessels for the Vietnamese Border Guard. Defence and security cooperation between the two countries was, however, of the most strategic significance during the visit. The Joint Vision Statement on Vietnam-India Defence Cooperation for the period 2015-2020 provides for cooperation in human resource training and to promote collaboration between their military services and coast guard. There is also an institutional mechanism of annual Deputy Ministerial Defence Policy Dialogue between the two countries. This year, the two sides successfully completed the first ‘Security Dialogue’ and the two sides have agreed to hold the first ‘Maritime Security Dialogue’ and further facilitate port calls of each other’s naval and coast guard ships. All this defence and security cooperation between the two countries suggest what Ashley J Tellis appropriately calls ‘balancing without containment’.

(The writer was formerly a senior fellow with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)