India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj recently completed a visit to Vietnam from 24 August to 26 August 2014. During the visit, she interacted with the top leaders of the country and candidly stated that our ‘Look East Policy’ should soon become ‘Act East Policy’. The visit witnessed discussions on the exploration of oil in the South China Sea and measures to deepen defence ties. As is known, Vietnam has offered India five new oil blocks for exploration in the South China Sea. India has to decide how she could exploit these assets as also assist Vietnam in freedom of navigation, maritime safety and security in the disputed South China Sea. During her visit, Swaraj also chaired a brainstorming session with 15 Indian Heads of Missions in South East Asia and East Asia in Hanoi to chart out foreign policy initiatives to be undertaken in the strategically important region by the Indian Government.
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee is due to visit Vietnam in mid September and preparing the grounds for a successful tour was another objective of the External Affairs Minister’s itinerary.
Issues of Importance
As is well known, Vietnam shares an acrimonious relationship with China following their recent standoff in the wake of China escorting a mobile deep sea oil rig with escort ships 20 miles off the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea. India and Vietnam enjoy strong strategic relations which emerged with the first MoU on Defence being signed in 1994, the formal Defence Protocol in 2000 and the Strategic Partnership in 2007. Ever since we have an annual Strategic Defence Dialogue with the Defence Secretary representing India. Considering the intensity of our relations, the upgradation of these talks to the Ministerial levels would be more beneficial. The other issues which are currently important are elucidated in succeeding paragraphs.
The Cam Ranh Bay has been often described as one of the jewels of Vietnam. The long protective seaward peninsula and natural inner and outer harbours form what many believe to be possibly the best deep water sea port facility in the entire world. There is also an Air Force base with excellent runways for state of the art aircraft. The usage of these facilities by the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force would help us to strengthen our strategic partnership and enable us to undertake actions to protect our assets in the South China Sea. These issues are extremely sensitive and would not ever be expressed publicly.
Based on Vietnam’s requirements, India could provide Dornier surveillance aircrafts, mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), upgraded T-72 tanks, few of the old ships of Indian Navy and indigenously manufactured Artillery equipment once the same has proved trials. Vietnam has been provided a US $ 100 million Line of Credit to possibly purchase four Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) from Goa Shipyard Limited.
Vietnam is impressed with India’s Missile development and is keen to purchase the Supersonic Cruise Missile BrahMos which could be used on land and sea. The issue merits serious consideration as there are no objections from the foreign joint developer. Vietnam is also keen that opportunity be accorded to train their scientists in missile technology.
Training: Vietnam admires the professional training of India’s Armed Forces and looks forward to assistance in training in the following areas:-
- Conversion training for SU-30 pilots of the Peoples Vietnam Air Force by the Indian Air Force.
- Submarine crew training of the Peoples Vietnam Navy by the Indian Navy.
- Training in Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare with the Indian Army.
- Training in English language.
While the strategic field remains extremely important, a crucial issue which merits attention is the exploration of oil. During Sushma Swaraj’s visit, exploration in two oil blocks was extended for one year. Vietnam has offered five more blocks to India for oil exploration. India has to consider two factors before arriving at a decision. The first is the technical feasibility of ONGC to undertake the task. It is pertinent to note that it would be a worthwhile challenge to our private players undertaking the task with Government assistance. The second issue relates to the objection from China which should not affect us as we have made our stand clear that these explorations are being undertaken in international waters and therefore not violating international rules. Energy remains a major concern for India and we must seriously consider the Vietnamese offer and undertake exploration.
As regards other sectors, considerable efforts have been undertaken to make the two way trade between the countries to about $ 6 billion. This is indeed meagre considering that the two way trade between Vietnam and China is $ 50 billion. Efforts must be made to enhance the two way trade to $ 20 billion by 2020. Apart from economic activity, India is culturally very close to Vietnam. The Hindu temples at My Son in Vietnam bear testimony to the centuries old relationship between the two countries.
However, these temples need to be repaired by the Archaeological Survey of India. Further, as regards connectivity, despite a lot of discussions as on date there is no direct flight between India and Vietnam. Proposals exist of Jet Airways and Vietnam Airlines operating these flights but the same is yet to fructify.
Expectations from the President’s Visit
The President’s visit in a few days from now will provide a fillip to the close relations between the two countries. The President who has an excellent understanding of the country would do well to focus on the strategic relationship by formalising the $ 100 million Line of Credit to Vietnam to enable them to procure Off Shore Patrol Vessels from Goa Shipyard Limited. Further, the issue regarding sale of BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missiles could be discussed. Training in the fields of Sukhoi pilots, submarine arm of the Navy and scientists in Missile Technology could be concluded.
The exploration of a total of seven oil blocks by India in the South China Sea could be considered. While exploration is currently on in three blocks, it would be in India’s interest to view the issue pragmatically. The two way trade needs to be enhanced and both sides need to identify measures to ensure that the same is stepped up to $ 20 billion by 2020. This would occur only if direct connectivity exists between the two countries. Direct flights must commence between the two countries at the earliest. Culturally it would be appropriate for India to repair the My Son temples by Archaeological Survey of India after working out the details. Overall relations will be strengthened if the Strategic Dialogue is held between the two Defence Ministers rather than the Defence Secretaries.
India and Vietnam are intense strategic partners and they perceive issues in the Asia Pacific region with tremendous convergence. The visit of President Mukherjee will further strengthen the existing relationship by looking into areas that merit importance.
(The author was India’s Defence Attache to Vietnam)
Published Date: 10th September 2014, Image source: http://carimg.sulekha.com
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