Vietnam is one of India’s closest international partners and an important component of India’s Act East Policy. Over the last decade, Vietnam has also become a vital part of India’s strategy to counter China’s rise in Asia.
There are natural affinities behind closer India-Vietnam ties. Historically, the two countries have had good relations going back to the Vietnam War. During that war, India consistently and vocally supported the Vietnamese cause, much to the irritation of Washington and despite India’s dependence on the United States for economic assistance. India even supported Vietnam during its invasion and occupation of Cambodia in late seventies, despite the fact that this was not a particularly popular position internationally. India also supported Vietnam when China attacked it in 1979.
What are the strategic common grounds between the two?
These historical ties are now complemented by deep strategic convergence. Both India and Vietnam worry about China’s growing power and domination. Both have had experiences of being attacked by China. And both have independently realigned their policies, becoming friendly with the United States as well as traditional American allies in the Indo-Pacific such as Japan and Australia. Both also, of course, have active territorial disputes with China.
India and Vietnam are both members of the Mekong–Ganga Cooperation, created to develop and enhance close ties between India and nations of Southeast Asia. Vietnam has supported India's bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
Vietnam has also welcomed Indian support for a peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
How did the relations develop under the leadership of PM Modi?
Under the Modi government, bilateral ties between India and Vietnam have deepened considerably, particularly in the security realm. In 2016 PM Modi visited Vietnam and the two countries upgraded their ties to the level of a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”
Trade and defence relations grew under Modi as we will ahead.
How did the defence relations evolve?
The natural affinities have indeed strengthened the relationship between the two countries, especially in the defense and strategic sector.
Bilateral military cooperation includes sale of military equipment, sharing of intelligence, joint naval exercises and training in counterinsurgency and jungle warfare. India also regularly deploys its warships for goodwill visits to Vietnamese seas.
There are frequent high-level visits and meetings between the two sides. The most recent of these was the Indian Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat’s visit to Vietnam in November 2018. His visit came barely a week after Indian President Ram Nath Kovind completed his state visit, during which he was given the rare honor of addressing the Vietnam National Assembly, which only Chinese President Xi Jinping had done before. Before Kovind’s visit, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also visited Vietnam. India has supplied military equipment and military training to Vietnamese armed forces. There are talks for sales of other equipment such as the Akash surface-to-air missile. India and Vietnam had already concluded a strategic partnership, one of the very few that Vietnam had entered into. India may sell anti-ship Brahmos cruise missile to Vietnam. India sanctioned $500m line of credit to Vietnam for the purchase of defence equipment.
Military-to-military cooperation between India and Vietnam continued with the conclusion of the second iteration of a bilateral naval exercise between the two countries in 2019. The Indian Navy and the Vietnam People’s Navy participated in bilateral drills off Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.
Vietnam is building up its military strength to defend against China and building partnerships with other like-minded countries like India
It is said that there are limits to this relationship. Elaborate.
But despite this natural affinity and the closeness of the strategic relationship, there are also indications that there are limits to this relationship.
1. Vietnam faces the same difficulties in balancing against Beijing that most of China’s neighbors face: even as it seeks to increase its capacity to defend against China, Hanoi is also concerned about provoking China. Thus, Vietnam has been very reluctant to be seen to be working against China with other countries. In particular, it is wary of being seen to be a supporter of the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (Quad).
2. In addition to multilateral alignments like the Quad, Vietnam also seems concerned about how far it wants to go in deepening the military relationship with India. For instance, though Vietnam has bought naval equipment from India and has allowed India to train its naval personnel, Hanoi has been reluctant to buy additional equipment from India. India has extended a $500 million line of credit to Vietnam for purchase of Indian military equipment, but much of that remains unused.
What this suggests is that though Indio-Vietnamese ties are deep, including in the defense sector, and though there is strong strategic rationale pushing the two countries together, there are also potentially clear limits to the relationship. As much as Hanoi needs greater support, it also has to worry about potential negative Chinese reactions. There have already been concerns raised in the Chinese media about India-Vietnam ties.
New Delhi needs to be careful not get too close to Vietnam, especially considering its own reluctance in being seen as working against China. India itself has been dragging its feet on the Quad. And the concerns about a negative response from China is not limited to India and Vietnam, but is common in most countries in China’s periphery.
China’s tremendous power and its demonstrated willingness to use diplomatic and economic resources to get its way mean that most of its neighbours are reluctant to push balancing strategies too hard. This requires New Delhi to be sensitive to Vietnam’s concerns and not be too ambitious about the potential for the relationship.
Vice President’s Visit 2019
During the visit, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu and Vietnam Prime Minister Phuc express commitment to enhance trade and investments; agrees to facilitate direct air connectivity to promote tourism, trade and relations.
India and Vietnam agreed to further strengthen cooperation in defence and security, peaceful uses of atomic energy and outer space, oil and gas and renewable energy.
Both sides agreed to further strengthen cooperation in defence and security, peaceful uses of atomic energy and outer space, oil and gas, renewable energy, agriculture and innovation-based sectors.
Vietnam is an important trade partner of India and their bilateral trade stood at nearly USD 14 billion last year having nearly doubled from USD 7.8 billion three years ago.
Both expressed commitment to enhancing trade and investments and agreed to facilitate direct air connectivity to promote tourism, trade and people-to-people relations.
Both sides reiterated the importance of building a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region on the basis of respect for national sovereignty and international law, and expressed full commitment to an open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture based on freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded economic activities and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.