Vietnam-India cooperation in defence and security is crucial in the new world order
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (retd)
The Vietnam-India 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 French occupation. Later, the US action in Vietnam was strongly condemned by India. India was one of the very few non-Communist countries to support Vietnam in war against Cambodia. The close relationship that the leaders of two countries, Ho Chi Minh and Jawaharlal Nehru, enjoyed is well-known.
In 1975, India granted the most favoured nation (MFN) 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 up to 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 USD 8.2 billion, which is likely to increase to USD 20 billion by year 2020.
Vietnam-India ties have existed over centuries, therefore it is natural progression for these two countries to take their bilateral relationship to next level of engagement which must address the changing dynamics of the region and 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 supporting the platform would be prone to instability caused by turbulence of geopolitics. Multi-faceted support makes relationships more stable which is capable of withstanding any storm. In 2000, Indian defence minister George Fernandes had said that, “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 of nuclear power, enhanced regional security and fighting terrorism, transnational crimes and drug trafficking.
What then is the context of next level of strategic relationship? What could be the reasons for 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, ie., Ho Chi Minh and Jawaharlal Nehru, Buddhism and mutual support during each other’s period of difficulties etc.
Second, there has been significant increase in bilateral trade. Third, there is an agreement on reducing the trade barriers and gradually remove it in the framework of World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Fourth, opening of a branch of Bank of India in Vietnam, operation of direct flights between 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 in 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 the well-being 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 US forces from Afghanistan, the emergence of ISIS, the up-scaling of terror and racial violence world over, the turbulence in economy due to Chinese slowdown, British exit from European Union are some of the major changes which have impacted the peace and stability world over. The rebalancing of US strategic interests to the Indo-Asia-Pacific has assured many countries of overall security cover in these period of turbulence, both economic and military. Sixty per cent of the US assets are expected to get redeployed to this region by the year 2020.
The recent judgement of the Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the case filed by the Philippines has demolished China’s historical claims in South China Sea and reaffirmed the EEZ definition with respect to islands, reefs and rocks, thereby re-establishing the faith of maritime nations in ruled-based world order.
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 uni-polarity China is challenging to create a Cold War period construct of a bipolar world. Many emerging powers are seeking new regional security and strategic alliance 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.
India-Vietnam ties received a boost on September 3 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a visit to Hanoi ahead of G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China. The message to China was 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 for restraint. Twelve pacts were signed by the two countries stating: ‘Vietnam is strong pillar of India’s Act East policy’. The Indian Prime Minister further said: “Our bilateral ties are based on strong mutual trust, understanding and convergence of views on various regional and global issues.”
During Prime Minister Modi’s visit, India 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 in handling major warship as well as BrahMos cruise missile. Contract was signed for four fast offshore vessels built by L&T for Vietnam border guards. This is in addition to USD 100 million credit signed earlier.
The defence cooperation was enhanced to 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. Additionally, grant of USD five million for setting up Army Software Park at Telecom University in Nha Trang has been announced.
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. Indian approach to rebalance in the new world order is clearly veering towards multi-polarity 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.