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Starting in 1991 under PM P.V. Narasimha Rao, India launched its ‘Look East’ policy with the intent to develop strong economic linkages with the booming South East Asian economies. The present NDA government under PM Narendra Modi launched a much more proactive ‘Act East’ policy in 2014 with an added focus on strengthening strategic partnerships in the region. The policy relies on 3 C’s of culture, connectivity, and commerce. [1] With China moving vociferously into the South Asian region, India aims to balance China’s growing footprint in the region and present India as an alternative partner to ASEAN countries fearful of being overly dependent on China.

Just as China’s strategic ties with our hostile neighbour Pakistan bothers India, India’s growing relationship with Vietnam, China’s southern neighbour, discomfits China greatly. To understand the centrality of Vietnam in India’s ‘Act East Policy’, it is essential to appreciate its geography and history first. Located at the easternmost edge of the Indo-China peninsula, the country of Vietnam, with a coastline of roughly 3200 kilometres abuts the South China Sea (called the East Sea in Vietnam) and borders Cambodia, Laos to the west and China to the north. [2]

Vietnam declared its independence from French colonial rule in 1945 which set the stage for the First Indochina War (1946–1954). In 1950, Vietnamese forces in Hanoi were supported by India, China, and Russia, while the United States backed the government based in Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City). This further led to the country’s north-south division. U.S. troops were formally deployed in 1964 with the stated purpose of stemming the spread of communism. India had opposed U.S. involvement in the war. Years of brutal battles culminated in the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973; the United States evacuated its personnel in 1975 as North Vietnam pushed into the South and reunited the country, a move that was supported by India. [3] [4]

Emerging from the ravages of the bloody Vietnam War, the country plunged into another war with Cambodia in 1978 that led to Vietnam invading Cambodia to remove its totalitarian leader Pol Pot and the repressive Khmer Rouge regime. In response, China launched an attack in 1979 on the northern front to compel Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia. The border skirmishes between China and Vietnam continued through the 1980s and spilt over onto the maritime sphere over the Spratly Islands in 1988 (known as Johnson South Reef Skirmish). The border demarcation was officially completed only in 2009, but the Paracel and Spratly islands remain contested. [5] [6]

Despite having mountainous jungles to the north, the Chinese invasion left a deep sense of vulnerability in Vietnamese minds that still plays out in the nationalistic anti-China sentiments expressed in Vietnam. [7] Faced with pressure from the north on the still unresolved border with China, India is one of the few countries that fully understand and shares the strategic situation of Vietnam.

After its major economic reforms (termed Doi Moi) in 1986 (similar to India’s 1991 economic opening), the country of about 95 million has grown rapidly and integrated itself with multinational supply chains and the world economy as a result. Maritime trade is hence vital for continued growth and prosperity with the US being the largest export destination for Vietnam. This has led Vietnam to staunchly support freedom of the seas as any disruption in maritime traffic would have dire consequences for it.  Apart from this, Vietnam wants to explore further hydrocarbon opportunities in the contested South China Sea (China claims sovereignty over 90% of the sea) and welcomes investment and collaboration from other countries. It has looked for partners that would not be intimidated by China’s warnings and protestations in that venture. [8] In this regard, India has stood firm despite Chinese reservations to explore oil and gas with ONGC Videsh Ltd and PetroVietnam Exploration Production Corp working together in the South China Sea. [9]

Both India and Vietnam have reiterated the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and overflight as well as no obstruction of economic activity in the waters and to underline the significance of settling disputes by peaceful measures, including fully respecting legal and diplomatic processes in line with international law, especially the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). [10]

Maintaining its strategic autonomy, Vietnam has pursued a multi-vector foreign policy as it comprehends China’s rise. It is fully cognizant that it cannot afford to antagonize China beyond a point and take on its northern neighbour on its own. It is in this light that it has engaged India, Australia, Japan, Russia, and even its one-time nemesis the US to increase its capabilities and create a balance of countries that share its wariness about China.

This year, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis made not one but two visits to Vietnam highlighting the growing strategic convergence which was hard to imagine a few years ago considering the bitter war history between the two. After his first visit, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, made a port call at Da Nang. It was the first such visit since the war and a reminder to China that the U.S. is intent on strengthening partnerships in the region as a counterweight to China’s growing military might. With Trump’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy in place, India needs to exploit its budding ties with the US in shaping and maintaining a rules-based, stable and open architecture for the seas, which would be supported by Vietnam. [11]

Just like India, Vietnam’s biggest arms provider is Russia. Due to similar hardware, it is important to note that India has offered to train Vietnamese pilots for Sukhoi fighter jets as well as to provide training support for Vietnam’s Kilo-class submarines. Further, there has been the talk of India supplying Indo-Russian built BrahMos missiles. [12] This can be given further impetus in light of India’s offer of giving $500 million defence credit offered by India in 2016 during Narendra Modi's visit. [13]

After upgrading the 2007 strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016, India and Vietnam have moved a step ahead in cementing the defence-security cooperation. There has been an increased number of port calls and exchanges between the two armed forces. The two conducted first ever bilateral exercises between the respective armies and navies earlier this year and are expected to hold first ever bilateral maritime security dialogue. [14]

Bilateral trade between the two sides touched about $12 billion and is projected to touch $15 billion. The extension of the Trilateral Highway (India-Myanmar-Thailand) up to Vietnam would further increase trade and build on the centuries-old civilisational links, boosting the strong people-to-people and cultural ties, especially with India’s North East region (an objective of the ‘Act East’ policy is to boost India’s North East regions interaction with the South East Asian region). [15] [16]

Both nations have huge potential to cooperate and supplement each other in garments and textiles, agriculture and agricultural technologies, biotech and IT, energy and pharmaceuticals, infrastructure, mining and healthcare. The Indian side can also share its experience in organising and training UN peacekeeping forces as well as in assisting Vietnam with space technology. Other areas where the two countries can work together are in heritage conservation and capacity building in the sub-region under the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation framework.[17] [18]

The Indian side has pledged to continue providing scholarships for Vietnam through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Programme and the Cultural Exchange Programme’s General Cultural Scholarship Scheme (CEP/GCSS), as well as those for students and postgraduates from ASEAN countries to pursue doctoral courses in India. The two sides also agreed to continue working closely and supporting each other at regional and international forums, especially within the United Nations. India appreciated Vietnam’s valuable contributions as coordinator of ASEAN-India ties in 2015-2018 and in exchange Vietnamese side affirmed its support for India’s Act East Policy. [19][20]

The trajectory of the relationship is upwards, and there is tremendous potential for further enhancing ties in various fields. Any present and potential bottlenecks need to be carefully dealt with and resolved. India needs to continue to be sensitive to Vietnam’s needs and priorities and streamline its policies accordingly.

As China continues to rise and flex its muscles in South China and the wider Indo-Pacific region, India needs Vietnam as a strong and central pillar of its Act East policy to further grow its influence and to undercut & check China’s dominance in South East Asia. The high-level state visit of the President of India Ram Nath Kovind, his first ever to the region, reaffirms political trust at the highest level and strengthens the budding comprehensive strategic partnership which is likely to grow stronger with time as Vietnam welcomes India’s growing footprint in the region.

Image credit: nhandan

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Written By Amandeep Hanspal

Software engineer turned geopolitical enthusiast. Pursuing MA Politics (International & Area studies) at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India

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