It is long believed Vietnam can be to India what Pakistan is to China. Barely 90 days after Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Puch’s trip to India as Chief Guest for Republic Day Parade, Vietnam President Tran Dai Quang, second in power hierarchy was is India on a three-day state visit on March 2nd. Quang’s visit marks 45 years of India’s diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Further, the quick succession of high-profile visits to India highlights the growing strategic ties between both countries. Amidst escalating volatility in the South China Sea, wary of national security, Vietnam has called on India to play an active role in the region.
With China buttressing Pearls of String doctrine and PLAN making frequent visits to Eastern Indian Ocean, India too is steadily bolstering engagement with Vietnam to checkmate China’s encirclement with a counter encirclement. Vietnam has been a key component of India’s Act East Policy. India and Vietnam’s strategic alignment is reinforced by shared mutual concerns of Chinese aggression and unresolved territorial disputes. China’s ever increasing military assertion in the SCS region and its conflicting claims over the Paracel and Spartly Islands with Vietnam has promoted it to look forward to India. Unlike other ASEAN countries, Vietnam is now the only country in the region that strongly resists Chinese aggression. To counter Chinese belligerence, Vietnam is now drawing closer to US. As a testimony to growing convergence in 2016, US lifted embargo on arms and marking a new beginning USS Carl Vinson is going to land at Danang to join Vietnam Navy’s in joint disaster rescue exercises. This marks first US aircraft to visit Vietnam since 1975. Besides, Vietnam is actively seeking friendly ties with Japan, to effectively resist China in the region.
Foundations for an exceptionally warm relation was laid down by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Ho Chi Minh. India established diplomatic ties with Vietnam in 1972 and conferred Most Favored Nation Status in 1975. Both sides signed bilateral trade agreement in 1978. By 1992, under the Look East policy, India strengthened ties and promoted trade relations with Vietnam and ever since bilateral trade began to steadily improve. India is now one of the top ten trading partners of Vietnam with bilateral trade volumes accounting for $7.62 billion. Vietnam is fourth largest trade partner of India in ASEAN. As of now, India has made investments to a tune of $1 billion in Vietnam. Like India, Vietnam is projected to have higher growth potential and has become favorite destination for investments. During the current visit, both sides agreed to increase bilateral trade to $15 billion by 2020. In 2003, India and Vietnam signed a declaration for creating an “arc of advantage and prosperity”. Reinvigorating ties with Vietnam, Prime Minister Modi in 2016 on his visit to Hanoi, elevated ties to Comprehensive Strategic partnership. India provided $100 million line of credit for purchase of patrol boats and $500 million Line of Credit for defence cooperation.
Defence cooperation has emerged as strong pillar of strategic partnership since inking of MoU in 2009. Indian ships frequently make port calls to Vietnam. Vietnam for the first time participated in the International Fleet Review-2016 at Visakhapatnam. Besides, both sides revved up cooperation through institutional mechanisms and high-level bilateral visits, annual security dialogues, military to military cooperation. India is offering training to Vietnam military in operating kilo-class submarines and Su-30 fighter jets. Aware of Vietnam’s interest in Brahmos Missiles, no sooner arms embargo was lifted, defense minister Manohar Parrikar flew to Vietnam to expedite sale. But as of now, both sides failed to reach an agreement. Recently, India and Vietnam jointly conducted military exercises for six weeks in Madhya Pradesh.
Aside commonality in strategic interests, China is highly averse to Indo-Vietnam joint commercial oil exploration in the regions claimed by Vietnam in SCS. Much to the consternation of China, on his current visit, President Quang welcomed Indian business “to expand oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities on land and in the continental shelf and in exclusive economic zone” and signed MoU for similar collaboration in oil exploration projects in third world countries. Both sides inked MoUs on economic and trade cooperation, agriculture and providing technical cooperation in the field of atomic energy for civilian purposes. Alongside, India and Vietnam have agreed to strengthen cooperation in maritime domain, anti-piracy, security of sea lanes, exchange of information on white water shipping and called for building consensus towards early conclusion of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT). To cement people to people relations, trade and economic ties both sides agreed to actively seek possibilities of extending the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway further to Vietnam through Cambodia and Lao PDR and establishment of direct shipping routes. Ramping up scientific cooperation, countries signed an agreement in 2016 for setting up satellite tracking and reception center in Ho Chi Minh city to monitor Indian satellite launches.
President Quang after receiving traditional guard of honor held talks with his counterpart President Ramnath Kovind, met Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, Speaker of Loksabha Sumitra Mahajan and opposition leader Sonia Gandhi. Lauding India’s peaceful development, Quang in his speech called upon Delhi to assume a more pro-active role in the Indo-Pacific region. He said, “we are glad to note that in recent years India’s rise has been closely linked with the prosperity and affluence of Asia as a whole. India’s peaceful development has always worked as an important constructive factor to regional peace and stability. With her vast potential and great contributions, India surely deserves a greater role in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and the World”. In a bid to intensify the historical and religious ties between countries, India has extended line of credit towards restoration and preservation of Hoa Lai Tower and Po Klong Garai Cham Towers. In 2016, Modi actively pursued the religious connect between the country and pushed for preservation of ancient monuments that symbolize thousands of years of friendship endured by both the countries. Subscribing to the intent of intensifying religious cooperation, President Quang landed in Bodh Gaya, Bihar before reaching New Delhi.
Affirming their firm support towards freedom of navigation and transparency in trade both countries, in a veiled reference to China, “reiterated the importance of achieving peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region where sovereignty and international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, sustainable development and a free, fair and open trade investment system are respected”. They expressed complete faith in international ruling of 1982 United Nations Convention on the laws of the sea (UNCLOS), called for “implementation of international legal obligations in good faith, the maintenance of freedom of navigation and over-flight in SCS, full respect for diplomatic and legal processes, peaceful settlement of disputes without resorting to the threat or use of force, and in accordance with international law”. Further they called for effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in SCS and anticipated for an early conclusion of substantive code of conduct in the SCS. Further India pleded support to Vietnam for the non-permanent membership at UNSC and Vietnam has reiterated the same for India’s bid to UNSC.
Shared concerns of India and Vietnam have brought them together in recent times. With China rapidly militarizing reclaimed features in SCS, Vietnam is anticipating energetic support and participation of India. Though India enthusiastically revved up strategic and defence cooperation, it is yet to seal the purchase of much touted Brahmos missiles to Vietnam. India must quickly address Vietnam’s concerns to fortify relations with ASEAN countries at a time when China’s burgeoning aggression is looming large over the region.
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