By Sonu Trivedi
Given the cultural-religious linkages between the countries of India and Vietnam, based on their closer association with the historical kingdoms and the impact of Buddhist philosophy to the anti-imperialist struggle under colonial rule and foreign intervention during the Second World War and thereafter, both the countries have developed closer ties sharing a common destiny. These have deepened the bond between the people of the two countries. The year 2017 marks the 45th anniversary of the India-Vietnam diplomatic relations which began on 7th January 1972. In this commemorative year of its diplomatic ties with India, rethinking and introspection of its existing relationship becomes vital to rebuild synergies and reinvigorating ties between the two countries.
From ‘strategic partnership’ in 2007 to a ‘comprehensive partnership’ in 2016, the two countries have built up synergies for a deeper cooperation between them. These have been envisaged in a multi-faceted and a multi-sectoral cooperation in political, economic, security, defense, science and technology, education, health, agriculture, tourism and building up a closer cultural contact between the people of the two countries. In recent years, cooperation in the field of capacity building, technical assistance, information sharing, naval cooperation and developing physical connectivity have been the key areas of concern.
Over the years, Vietnam has emerged as a significant player in India’s foreign policy prescriptions—a partner in regional, sub-regional forums and also in various multi-lateral and world bodies. The emerging contours of India-Vietnam relations have been guided by nuances of real-politick and praxis of diplomacy and geo-strategic concerns. Critical determinants guiding India-Vietnam relations could be studied from the lens of geo-politics; security and strategic paradigm; energy cooperation; culture; commerce and connectivity. It has been a significant leg in augmenting the Act East Policy of South Block.
Beginning from the visit of India’s first Prime Minister Nehru in 1954 and Vietnam’s first President Ho Chi Minh in 1958 to the September 2016 visit by the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the two countries over the years have agreed “to contribute to regional peace, stability, cooperation and prosperity—elevating the ‘Strategic Partnership’ to ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’, based on the excellent relations between the two countries”[i].
According to Prime Minister Narendra Modi,
“In India, we believe in sharing our knowledge, experiences and expertise with other developing countries. There can be no better example of this than in the success of our multifaceted bilateral cooperation with Vietnam over the last four decades….. As two partners, we must also take advantage of our synergies to jointly face emerging regional challenges, and to exploit new opportunities. It is a matter of great satisfaction that, we have now decided to upgrade our relationship to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’……A strong India-Vietnam partnership would lead to prosperity, development, peace and stability for our people, and in the wider region. Vietnam is a strong pillar of India’s Act East Policy. Our bilateral ties are based on strong mutual trust, and understanding, and convergence of views on various regional and international issues”[ii].
During PM Modi’s visit to Vietnam in 2016, altogether twelve agreements were signed between the two countries[iii]. Besides boosting trade, economic and investment ties, agreements related to establishment of Software Parks and joint agreements in the field of health, defense and space cooperation were entered upon. Opening up of Indian Cultural Centre at Hanoi and conservation and restoration work of the Cham monuments at My Son have been significant in deepening cultural and historical links between India and Vietnam. Prime Minister has also invited the Vietnamese companies to take advantage of the various schemes and flagship programmes of the Indian Government[iv]. India has pledged to be Vietnam’s ‘partner and a friend’ in its ‘rapid development’ and ‘strong economic growth’.
From a strategic lens, Vietnam’s geographical location in Asia pacific has added to its geo-political importance for the regional players like China, India, Australia and Japan and also for the external powers like the United States and its rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific. It has become a vital element in the South China Sea dispute given the competing interests of the other claimants for the territories in this region. Vietnam’s economic prosperity in recent times has added to its bargaining clout vis-à-vis the major regional powers and the United States to balance its relations with China and protecting its stakes in the South China Sea. In the background of such a geo-strategic matrix, it has been following tradeoff between China and the United States, thereby maximizing its strategic independence. In the changing architecture of world order, Vietnam emerges as a significant actor shaping the ‘Great Game’ politics in the Asia Pacific.
Under this context of geo-strategic paradigm and the forces shaping the internal dynamics of Vietnam, its foreign policy orientations vis-à-vis the ‘Great Powers’ in the region and its engagement with India is a critical area of concern. In this regard, response of Vietnam in the context of emerging issues such as Belt Road Initiative (BRI) or the South China Sea (SCS) dispute becomes significant.
In relation to the SCS dispute, India has demonstrated a principled stand that “states should resolve disputes through peaceful means without threat or use of force”[v]. Furthermore, India’s stand on BRI, the massive connectivity project initiated by China, and its official boycott for not being based on a ‘consultative process’ and infringing upon the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India has put Vietnam on a double edged sword[vi]. On the one hand, it needs the support of India on the SCS dispute to retain its claim upon the disputed territories, and on the other, it just cannot isolate India on BRI by siding with China. Indicating his views on South China Sea dispute, the Vietnamese Foreign Minister during his recent visit to New Delhi in July 2017 said, “India and Vietnam share political and economic interests….As the future unfolds we have reason to be optimistic. ASEAN will benefit from India’s experience of resolving maritime issues in a peaceful manner”[vii].
Given these real politick apprehensions, the Indian leadership has been more assertive about its role in the Indian Ocean region. According to BJP National General Secretary, Shri Ram Madhav,
“Geo-politics in the Indian Ocean region makes the possibility of the return of neo-Colonialism a reality with countries trying to dominate others through money, markets and military. India and Vietnam should jointly and independently work towards defeating all such tendencies and forces….. It is important for countries like India and Vietnam to come together to ensure that sovereignty, security and sentiments of all the countries are protected and maritime laws respected. Together and also by mobilising the support of other nations in the region we should strive to evolve a new Indian Ocean maritime order that ensures peace, stability, freedom of navigation and over-flights, and non-interference of outside powers in the affairs of the region”[viii].
Nonetheless, there are several other areas of mutual concern for India and Vietnam—cooperation in oil and gas sector, information technology, education training, science and technology, defense and security and not to forget, the trade and commercial ties. Added to these, the already existing bilateral ties in the field of cultural, historical, non-traditional security issues and coordination in several regional and multi-lateral forums remain the core issue significantly shaping the emerging contours of India-Vietnam relations.
(Sonu Trivedi teaches Political Science at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi) Twitter: @trivedi_sonu
[i] Ministry of External Affairs (2017), “India-Vietnam Relations”, Online Edition. URL: http://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Vietnam_May_2017.pdf
[ii] Excerpts from the Prime Minister’s Banquet Speech at the reception in Hanoi during his visit to Vietnam on 3rd September 2016. Online Edition. URL: http://www.narendramodi.in/text-of-banquet-speech-by-prime-minister-during-his-visit-to-vietnam-september-03-2016–522168
[iii] Indian Express (2016),”Narendra Modi seals defence cooperation with Vietnam, signs new credit line of $500 million”, September 3. Online Edition. URL: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/pm-narendra-modi-vietnam-visit-agreements-signed-3011170/
[iv] Joint Press Statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Hanoi, 3rd September 2016. Online Edition. URL: http://www.narendramodi.in/pm-modi-at-the-joint-press-statement-in-hanoi-vietnam-522149
[v] Ministry of External Affairs (2016), “Statement on Award of Arbitral Tribunal on South China Sea Under Annexure VII of UNCLOS”, Press Release, July 12. Online Edition. URL: http://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/27019/Statement+on+Award+of+Arbitral+Tribunal+on+South+China+Sea+Under+Annexure+VII+of+UNCLOS
[vi] Ministry of External Affairs (2017), “Official Spokesperson’s response to a query on participation of India in OBOR/BRI Forum”, Media Briefings, May 13. Online Edition. URL: http://mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/28463/Official+Spokespersons+response+to+a+query+on+participation+of+India+in+OBORBRI+Forum
[vii] The Hindu (2017), “Vietnam for Greater Indian Role in SE Asia”, July 4. Online Edition. URL: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/vietnam-asks-india-to-play-security-role-in-south-china-sea/article19210720.ece
[viii]Excerpts from the Inaugural Address at the International Conference on Emerging Horizons in India Vietnam Relation, 3-4 July, 2017.