INDIA-VIETNAM’S GROWING RELATIONS: FUTURE PROSPECTS
S D Pradhan has served as chairman of India’s Joint Intelligence Committee.
India sees Vietnam as a trustworthy friendly foreign country with shared strategic concerns and common interests. Both countries are collaborating in multiple domains of defence cooperation like ship-building, surface and subsurface capacities at sea and have plans for enhancing their collaboration in the above field.
Indian Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on 27th November in his interaction with his Vietnamese counterpart General Ngo Xuan Lich over video-conferencing assured Vietnam of India’s help in modernisation of its armed forces, with a focus on enhancing maritime capabilities, as both sides work on a new joint vision statement. Vietnam is keen on acquiring a host of military equipment, including India’s Akash air defence system and the Dhruv helicopters, besides the BrahMos. India has been in talks with Vietnam, which has maritime border issues with China in the South China Sea, over Hanoi’s interest in acquiring the Indo-Russian supersonic cruise missile BrahMos.
There is overwhelming convergence on international and regional issues between the two nations. This stems from the principles both countries follow. They both believe in multi-lateralism based on equality, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty of all nations, respect for international law and order and building economic relations with other countries for mutual benefits but not based on exploitation and coercion, providing humanitarian assistance during the pandemic without any selfish motive.
The above has brought the two nations very close, which has four pillars. First is the diplomatic-political that envisages close coordination on critical bilateral, regional and international issues. Both support each other on various international and regional forums. Second is the trade and economic relations for mutual benefit, which have significantly improved over the years particularly after ASEAN- India Free Trade Agreement was signed. India realises that Vietnam is a potential regional power in the South East Asia with great political stability and substantial economic growth. Its average 7% annual economic growth is very attractive. Even during the pandemic, its economic growth is commendable at the 3% while other nations are registering negative growth. This indeed constitutes a miracle. Even more impressive is its growth which is driven by a record trade surplus, despite the collapse in global trade. The growing middle class also assures a stable market.
The third is the defence dimension. While Vietnam is interested in modernising its armed forces, India is interested in developing defence capabilities of its South East Asian friends sufficiently to maintain peace in the strategic region and in this Vietnam occupies the most important place as it has always stood up against the Chinese coercion. The defence relations include capacity building, dealing with common security concerns, training of personnel, and cooperation in defence R&D. In addition, people to people contacts, which are fairly old, have been strengthened over time.
Fourth, China factor also weighs heavily in the respective strategic calculus of India and Vietnam. Both had fought wars with China and both have border problems with that country. Both had noted that despite the Chinese claim that what we are witnessing is the peaceful rise of China, its aggressive activities reflect a different picture. China as part of its strategic plan, has created pressure points for both India and Vietnam. It aggressively continues to encroach in the territories of the two countries. Hence, it is natural for both the countries to come closer with a view to restrain China from its aggressive actions.
While defence cooperation has been one of the most significant pillars of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership initiated by the two countries in 2016, the relationship between the two countries were established much earlier. India had established Consul General’s office in Hanoi as early as 1956. Vietnam established its diplomatic mission in 1972. India had stood by Vietnam in opposing US intervention in that country at the cost of embittering Indo-US relations. The relationship was further strengthened when India, in early1990s, initiated its “Look East Policy” with specific objective of economic integration and political cooperation with South East Asia.
Future prospects for deepening the relations between the two countries are very bright. Both countries, are committed for maintenance of security and stability in the region and also addressing non-traditional security threats. The Indian Defence Minister has stated that India remains resolved to capability-building and modernise the armed forces of Vietnam. Joint training involving pilots of the respective air forces and training of forces for deployment on UN assignments are another area of focus. Collaboration in defence industry capability-building, training, and cooperation in UN Peacekeeping Operations were also discussed by the Defence Ministers on the 27th November.
Bilateral trade between India and Vietnam has seen continuous growth over the past few years. Both sides have agreed on a new trade target of US$ 15 bn. Five key items exported to India were mobile phones and components, machinery, computers & electronic hardware, natural rubber, chemicals and coffee. The biggest products imported from India were meat and fishery products, corn, steel pharmaceuticals, cotton and machinery. While India has not joined RCEP, this is not likely to be a barrier in the growth of trade between the two countries.
In the recent meeting, the two countries indicated that they are now looking for a joint vision statement next year, with the five-year term envisaged in the earlier one — the ‘Joint Vision Statement for 2015-2020’, signed May 2015 — ending in 2020. This suggests that both sides are committed to further deepen the relationship. The current dimensions of the security environment demand further strengthening of relationship. As there is overwhelming acceptability for the rule-based Indo-Pacific, which is in the interest of all countries, a greater push needs to be given to this aspect. In addition, the economic opportunities available because of anti-China sentiments and several manufacturing firms deciding to shift from China, a joint strategy needs to be evolved to take the benefit of this trend.