Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Enhancing Strategic Partnership with Vietnam

Maj Gen (Retd.) P K Chakravorty


India and Vietnam share a close bonding since the Geneva Accords of 1954 which brought about an end to the First Indochina War. India has been an impartial member of the International Military Commission and the Vietnamese respect India for its neutrality while performing its duties. The unification of Vietnam took place on April 1975. Ever since India has been a friend who stood by Vietnam’s needs in its new configuration. Not only did our Foreign Minister cancel his visit to China in 1979 as China had attacked Vietnam to teach a lesson but also openly stated that freedom of navigation must be respected in international waters. Recently both countries have exchanged a number of high level visits and both are looking for means to intensify their bilateral relationship. It is indeed noteworthy that the bilateral trade of both countries is planned to be increased to $ 15 billion by 2020. Further, air connectivity by Jet Airways to Ho Chi Minh City would commence on 05 November 2014 from Delhi and Mumbai. The road connectivity through Myanmar is also being developed and possibly in a few years time it would be possible to drive from Kolkata to Hanoi. Currently, there are 18 lines of credit and the biggest project would be Tata Power constructing a thermal power plant at Long Phu in Soc Trang province in the Southern portion of Vietnam. A Memorandum of Understanding has been signed and the project should commence once the clearances are obtained. Both countries are diversifying their trade and investments to further enhance their bilateral relationship.

Ties of Friendship

It was during 2nd Century B.C. when Indian traders sailed across to the regions of Indo China. These exchanges witnessed the proliferation of Indian culture particularly to the regions of Central and South Vietnam. Indian influence exists today in Vietnamese folklore, art and philosophy. The Champa temples in Central and South Vietnam demonstrate the close linkages between the two cultures. Dr Tridib Chakraborti an expert on International Relations traces the proximity in thought between the two countries due to their commonality in National Liberation Movements to gain independence. Further, during the Second World War, the leaders of both the countries came close to each other and laid the solid foundations of mutual relations of friendship, cooperation and understanding due to their common perceptions of anti colonialism and non alignment. India supported Vietnam in her nationalist struggle against the international powers. Large rallies were held in India to support Vietnam in her freedom movement. The famous slogan, “Amar Nam, Tomar Nam, Vietnam, Vietnam,” (My name, your name and all our names are Vietnam) was a popular slogan in the streets of Kolkata during Vietnam’s struggle for unification.

In the Cold War era India continued to have cordial relations with Vietnam. There was a convergence of strategic interests which resulted in mutual cooperation between the two countries. In June 1966, India openly called for an immediate cessation of bombings and the resolution of the conflict within the UN framework. After the unification of Vietnam in 1975, India backed Vietnam’s Cambodia initiative and extended support against China’s offensive of 1979. India economically assisted Vietnam and signed the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) agreement on 18 December 1982.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 impacted both the countries. The period that followed witnessed Vietnam becoming a part of ASEAN and India launched her Look East Policy which ushered in a new era of cooperation between India and South East Asian countries. During this period Economic relations further strengthened between India and Vietnam. The key areas included capacity building, technical assistance and information sharing to ensure the security of the vital sea lanes of communication including piracy and rescue at sea.

China in the India Vietnam relationship

The Chinese provided essential support to Vietnam in the war against France as also against the United States. However, prior to the unification of Vietnam, the Chinese PLA captured the Paracel islands in 1974. Further, Vietnam went to war against the Chinese supported Khmer Rouge Government in January 1978 overthrowing the dictatorial rulers and this hurt the Chinese interests. On 17 February 1979 China launched an offensive on the Northern borders of Vietnam to teach the Vietnamese a lesson. The conflict lasted up to 06 March 1979 with no major gains being made by the Chinese. It is pertinent to note that India’s External Affairs Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee was visiting China when the attack was launched and had to terminate his visit prematurely. Later on, China started bilateral cooperation with all ASEAN countries and provided aid to Vietnam while improving trade relations.

China agreed to resolve border issues with Vietnam by peaceful means. This resulted in resolution of the land border and the maritime border in the Gulf of Tonkin. However, the dispute over the Paracel and Spratly islands remained unresolved. In 1988, there were major clashes between the Chinese and Vietnamese Navies resulting in heavy casualties. Both sides thereafter established troops in parts of these islands as protective forces. In 1995 China occupied Mischeef Reef claimed by the Philippines. In May 2011, the Chinese cut the cable of a Vietnamese oil exploration ship resulting in further tension between these two countries. India has been allotted two oil blocks by Vietnam in the South China Sea. China has cautioned India on the subject but India has taken a bold step in stating that commercial activity will continue in international waters.

The new Government under president Xi Jinping has become more assertive and moved a mobile oil rig in the South China Sea on May 2014. As is well known Paracel Islands were occupied by Chinese from the erstwhile South Vietnamese in 1974. Ever since China has been gradually spreading its influence over other islands in the South China Sea. It has built a small garrison town Sansha in the Woody Island of the Paracel Group. Sansha has an airport and a runway of 2700 metres which enable Chinese Air Force to operate in the area. Picture of the disputed oil rig is posted below.

The China National Offshore Oil Company’s decision to move oil rig HD-981 was a pre meditated move which has hurt Vietnam and other claimants of islands in the South China. The oil rig was escorted by about 80 ships of Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as also the Chinese Coast Guard and moved into its drilling area on 02 May 2014. The rig remained in location up to 22 July 2014. The commencement of drilling was formally opposed by the Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh who telephoned China’s State Councillor Yang Jiechi indicating violation of the Law of Seas. China listened to the Minister but continued the drilling process.

Vietnam sent 35 ships out of which 29 were armed and the rest were fishing vessels. On 04 May Chinese ships rammed two Vietnamese Sea Guard vessels injuring seven Vietnamese. Chinese ships with Air support were also used to intimidate six more Vietnamese ships. Further, water cannons were also used to threaten the Vietnamese. As of now not a single round has been fired. The standoff has created tremendous blow back in Vietnam with demonstrations in the urban areas. Though the rig has been removed the situation remains heated and there is a need to sit at the negotiating table and resolve issues peacefully.
The moot point is why did China despatch rig HD-981 to the Paracel islands? The rig has been positioned immediately after the visit of US President Obama to Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Malaysia. The Chinese military posturing with their Navy and Air Force was possibly to test the US response to such an eventuality. Chinese feel that the US is currently tied down with Iran, Syria, Nigeria Ukraine and Ebola. They neither have their forces nor the inclination to get involved to issues pertaining to the South China Sea. Possibly, Vietnam too would be seeking military partnerships to strategically balance China’s posturing.

It is a different matter that China-Vietnam trade is 30 billion dollars with China being Vietnam’s biggest trade partner. This figure is almost four times than India’s trade with Vietnam. However, strategic dissonance between Vietnam and China has forced Hanoi to seek partners to balance the rising aggressiveness of Beijing.

Current Strategic Perspective

India and Vietnam enjoy strong strategic relations which emerged with the First Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Defence being signed in 1994, the formal Defence Protocol in 2000 and the Strategic Partnership in 2007. Ever since then we have an annual Strategic Defence Dialogue with the Indian Defence Secretary representing India. Considering the intensity of our relations, the upgradation of these talks to the Ministerial levels would be more beneficial.
Cam Ranh Bay has been often described as one of the jewels of Vietnam. The long protective seaward peninsula, natural inner and outer harbours form what many believe to be possibly the best deep water port 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. The area is being quietly considered between the two countries.

Based on Vietnam’s requirements India could provide Dornier surveillance aircrafts, mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), upgraded T-72 tanks and indigenously manufactured Artillery equipment once the same has proved trials and few of our old ships of the Indian Navy. 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 our missile development and is keen to purchase our 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.

Vietnam admires the professional training of our 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.
The Vietnamese President as also the General Secretary of the Communist Party visited India and were frank in strengthening defence relations with India. Vietnam would like to cooperate in the field of training as also gaining knowledge in the field of rocketry and missiles. It would be in our interest to cultivate Vietnam and cooperate in strategic aspects.

Vietnam is also looking for cooperation in areas of outer space with India. They have already launched two satellites and are planning their own navigation satellites. Cooperation with India would be mutually beneficial to both countries. All these were discussed during the recent high level visits conducted by our President and Foreign Minister to Vietnam.

Recent Visits

Our External Affairs Minister Smt 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 us five new 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 the Honourable Minister 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. Further, the President of India Shri Pranab Mukherjee visited Vietnam in mid September and announced a Line of Credit for $ 100 million to enable Vietnam to buy defence equipment from India. Both countries agreed to strengthen cooperation in the strategic field during the visit.

Visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister to India

The Vietnamese Prime Minister Mr Nguyen Tan Dung will pay a two days visit to India on 27 and 28 October 2014. The newly appointed Vietnamese Ambassador Ton Sinh Thanh said that both countries are keen to expand the strategic cooperation to a higher level besides giving a new momentum to economic ties. The Prime Minister will be accompanied by 50 top businessmen who will assist in increasing the current bilateral trade of $ 8 billion to $ 15 billion by 2020. It is expected that a dozen pacts will be signed to boost cooperation in sectors like energy, infrastructure, trade and tourism during the Prime Minister’s visit.

The visit is extremely significant as it would enhance the strategic trust between the two countries. The Vietnamese Prime Minister is no stranger to India but this will be his first interaction with India’s new Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi. The visit is bound to put relations between the two countries on a higher trajectory.


Vietnam is a trusted friend who has the capability to stand up against the assertiveness of China. Strategically, India needs to intensify its relations with Vietnam to ensure that both these countries along with Japan cooperate in order to contribute towards establishing a degree of equilibrium in the emerging strategic order in the Asia Pacific region.

Published Date: 24th October 2014

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