India-Vietnam Strategic Partnership: The Convergence of Interests

by Dr. Subhash Kapila

“Vietnam treats India with strategic importance” is what President Tran Duch Luang expressed to India’s Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh during the latters visit to Vietnam in mid-November 2000 1 in connection with the 10th Indo-Vietnam Joint Commission meeting. Available reports on statements by Indian leaders do not transparently reflect similar sentiments. India still shies away from coming out unequivocally on expressing its strategic preferences for countries which are vital or whose strategic partnerships are desirable for furthering India’s national security interests. Along with Myanmar, in South East Asia, India needs to build up a relationship of strategic partnership with Vietnam.

India and Vietnam enjoy a convergence of strategic interests which could provide the basis for building and reinforcing strategic cooperation between the two countries. India in the past, stood by Vietnam in opposing US military intervention at the cost of embittering Indo-US relations.2  India stood up in the UN against USA and China on the Cambodia issue and its good relations with the pro-Vietnamese Hang Samarin government generated antagonisms in the US Congress and US establishment .3  With such a backdrop there should be no impediments for India to build up a strategic partnership with Vietnam in all fields- political, diplomatic, military and economic.

India has long under nourished its bilateral relationships with countries which demanded strategic cooperation due to our non-aligned fixations which predicated that India should never mention or define strategic relationships, defence cooperation or military to military contacts with any country.

However, the turn of the millennium presents a complex strategic environment in Asia-Pacific and impinging on India’s security and its national security interests. In India’s search for strategic bilateral cooperation with important regional countries, Vietnam should be the logical choice. India and Vietnam share a wide area of convergence of interests on which a solid strategic partnership can be built up.

Strategic Calculus of India and Vietnam – The China factor

The China factor weighs heavily and figures prominently in the respective strategic calculus of both India and Vietnam. India’s Defence Minister, Mr. George Fernandes was accurate when in 1998 he described China as a “major threat” to India. Prime Minister Vajpayee had also in 1998 mentioned the Chinese threat as an impulse for India’s nuclear weaponisation .4 Recently a Vietnamese Foreign Ministry official had remarked “we don’t trust China”;5 in other words, Vietnam is suspicious of China and fearful of China’s intentions.

Both India and Vietnam have very good reasons for China’s figuring in their respective threat perception as this record indicates:

* Both India and Vietnam share long land borders with China. Vietnam also shares sea borders.

* China has disputed its existing borders with both India and Vietnam.

* China launched punitive military attacks on both India (1962) and Vietnam(1979). India fared badly because Nehru never suspected that China would attack India. Vietnam’s record was remarkable.

* China again attacked Vietnamese garrisons in the Spratly Islands group and forcibly occupied six of them. However, once again the Vietnamese Navy met Chinese aggression squarely.

* China’s recent expressions professing friendship with both India and Vietnam respectively do not get matched up with genuine efforts to settle border issues.

* China’s perceived strategic concerns regarding India and Vietnam forced it to create strategic pressure points to destabilise these two countries. In the case of India, China created the Pakistani threat (nuclear and missile threat) and in the case of Vietnam, it posed proxy military challenges in Kampuchea, besides direct military force on both land and sea borders.

India and Vietnam therefore have a natural strategic congruence as to how to restrain China from aggressive actions in future, while keeping it engaged diplomatically.

India’s strategic and national security interests demand that Vietnam emerges as a strong state. Relatively, India is better placed to contribute towards this aim in all fields – defence cooperation, political cooperation, economic and technical assistance and technology transfers.

India-Vietnam: Defence Cooperation and Assistance

Defence cooperation between India and Vietnam has taken place over the years in a limited manner with exchange of some military delegations and visits of naval ships. Indian military delegations visited Vietnam after the Sino-Vietnam War of 1979 to study how Vietnamese border troops defeated attacks by China’s regular army formations. As part of former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s ‘Look East’ policy, an agreement on Defence Cooperation was concluded in 1994, but not followed up vigorously.

The imperatives of defence cooperation with Vietnam seem to have been realised belatedly leading to the visit to Vietnam by India’s Defence Minister, George Fernandes in March 2000 and signing of a fresh protocol on defence cooperation which incorporates some of the following major points:

* Institutionalised framework for regular discussions between the Indian and Vietnamese Defence Ministers.

* Such discussions to incorporate sharing of strategic threat perceptions and intelligence.

* Naval exercises between Indian Navy and Vietnam Navy and also those of coast guards of both countries.

* Pilot training of Vietnam Air Force by the Indian Air Force

These are welcome steps towards achievement of what should be India’s strategic aim to assist in building Vietnam’s armed forces to be militarily strong and self reliant. To this end India could extend defence cooperation to Vietnam in the following fields:

* Vietnam’s Air Force and Navy have Russian origin hardware which is operationally limited due to lack of spares and advanced repairs and maintenance. India is well placed to assist.

* India has a sizeable defence production infrastructure. India should provide such indigenously produced equipment at ‘friendship prices’ or even as aid.

* India should assist in development of indigenous defence production infrastructure in Vietnam.

* India should upgrade Vietnam’s Air Force and Navy military hardware by rendering all technical assistance.

* Military training facilities in India both combat and technical training should be opened in a big way for training of Vietnamese Armed Forces personnel.

* India should also consider providing missile assembly technology of non-nuclear missiles to Vietnam.

Hackles should not be raised on the last point.  If China could with impunity arm Pakistan with nuclear weapons and IRBMs, China should logically have no moral right to raise a hue and cry on this subject. At some stage India will have to learn and develop strategic pressure points against China, to counter what China has done all along so far on India’s periphery.

India and Vietnam – Political and Diplomatic Cooperation

In terms of political and diplomatic cooperation between India and Vietnam, the convergence of interests, once again tend to get focused on China. To pre-empt China apologists from disputing the above, attention needs to be drawn to the following worthwhile analysis of China:

“Clearly it is both foolish and dangerous to depreciate China or to doubt its long term potential. Yet that very potential could well be threatening for other nations including US Pacific allies like Japan, Korea and Indonesia, not to mention countries like India and Vietnam, even should China not so intend. The Middle Kingdom’s expansive territorial claims and pronounced self-absorption virtually guarantee that foreign anxieties will persist.” 6

The same author further amplifies the reasons for apprehensions about China, thus:

“A major element in foreign apprehension about China is the pervasive uncertainty about its long term geostrategic intentions. Some of this is rooted in the unpredictability of Chinese politics, which have been extraordinarily volatile across the past half century and may well continue to be so. But such uncertainty is greatly intensified by the chronic lack of transparency in Chinese defence planning, weapons acquisitions and even defense budgeting…” 7

Major effort will be required on the part of both India and Vietnam to pursue politically and diplomatically the following initiatives:

* India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Vietnam is on record supporting India’s candidature.

* Vietnam’s role in ASEAN and its forums should be strengthened in all ways possible where India can assist.

* India with its expanding economy and its linkages with the Asia-Pacific region made to emerge as an influential member of APEC. Vietnam’s support would be helpful.

* India and Vietnam should jointly work towards making the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) an effective mechanism in the Asia Pacific for confidence building measures (CBMs) preventive diplomacy (PD) and conflict resolution. Besides keeping China engaged in multi-lateral forums, one could optimistically hope that China would submit itself and respect ARF formulations. So far it has opposed ARF efforts on the South China sea disputes.

On the last mentioned initiative both India and Vietnam can expect wide support from a number of Asia-Pacific nations harbouring similar apprehensions about China.

India and Vietnam- Cooperation in the economic spheres

Similar to the wide convergence of interests existing in the defence sphere the economic sphere too holds promising prospects for an India-Vietnam partnership. Vietnam after more than half-a-century of war-ravaged economy has embarked on a major economic re-construction programme. However, in terms of absorption of technologies for its industrial development, it does not require hitech inputs readily available from countries like Japan. It needs intermediate levels of technology. India is well placed to fill this slot and also assist in the development of industrial and economic infrastructure. Vietnam is not some backward nation that requires development from scratch, as some selected economic indicators below would indicate: 8

Current Account balance    $ 0.7 bn
GDP Growth    4%
Per Capita GDP    $ 1,775
Per Capita GNP    $ 375
Reserves    $ 2.1 bn
Exports last 12 months    $ 10 bn
Population    82 mn
Population Growth    2.3%
Literacy    91.9%
India must encourage and induce its private sector to invest in the following fields in Vietnam:

* Automobiles
*  Two Wheelers
*  Telecommunications
*  Information Technology
*  Agro-tech Industries and fertiliser production
*  Pharmaceuticals
* Electrical consumer appliances
* Railway construction and supply of engines/coaches
* Civil aviation

Vietnam is strongly placed to help India in the energy sector both in terms of oil supplies and further joint prospecting for oil and gas. India has adequate experience in oil and gas prospecting, especially in offshore deposits. In fact India could go in for special concessions in this field as it has reached with Iraq.

The recently launched Mekong Ganga Cooperation ( Nov 10, 2000 at Vientiane, capital of Laos) comprising India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam aims to focus on cooperation in tourism, culture, education and communication. The scope could be expanded to trade and industry and economic cooperation.

Vietnam’s importance in South East Asia has suddenly increased strategically as well as economically. Vietnam seems well poised to emerge as the new economic hub of Asia Pacific luring Japanese and other investors. India should exploit its traditional relations with Vietnam to enlarge its economic ties. A militarily strong Vietnam, necessarily has to be an economically strong nation. India is well placed to assist Vietnam in both fields. Both nations could work out mutually beneficial incentives to expand trade and commerce and economic cooperation.

Conclusion

India and Vietnam are both geostrategically important countries, vital to all major nations with a stake in the freedom of high seas. Both countries share disputed borders with China and both have been subjected to military aggression by China. A highly proud and nationalistic country with rugged determination and plucky courage, Vietnam enjoys the unique distinction in the second half of the twentieth century of having inflicted military defeats on three major powers i.e. France, USA and China.

Current indicators in the Asia Pacific security environment point towards China’s emergence as a major strategic destabilising entity, bent on challenging United States predominance in the region. It also claims South and South East Asia as its natural and historical area of influence. China in its pursuance of its power aspirations stands guilty of strategically destabilising India’s and Vietnam’s neighbourhood i.e. Pakistan and Cambodia earlier. The changing international security environment also presents an ironic picture where Russia which earlier stood by India and Vietnam in terms of strategic needs, today is engaged in building up the military might and force projection capabilities of China- a threat perception common to both India and Vietnam.

In such a strategic environment, while making all efforts towards keeping China peacefully engaged in the Asia-Pacific, India and Vietnam should work towards building a bilateral strategic partnership based on the convergence of interests analysed above. Such a strategic partnership is in India’s national security interests and India should not fight shy of proclaiming it as such. Vietnam has already declared that it views its relations with India with “Strategic importance” . It is time India reciprocates the sentiment and no better occasion merits this than the forthcoming visit of Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee to Vietnam in January 2001.

2.1. 2001

Notes:

1.   S.Prasamrajan . ‘Ahoy Hanoi: With India and Vietnam reviving old bonds, the chances of a strategic tie-up become stronger’. India Today: November 20, 2000, New Delhi P 50.

2.    J.N.Dixit, ‘Across Borders: Fifty years of India’s Foreign Policy’ , New Delhi, Picus Books,1998. P 91.

3.    Ibid. P 174.

4.    Ibid. P 408.

5.   See Note 1.

6.  Kent E. Calder, ‘Asia’s Deadly Triangle: How Arms, Energy and Growth Threatens to Destabilise Asia Pacific’. London, Nicholas Brealy Publishing,1996, P 216.

7.   Ibid.

8.  Far Eastern Economic Review, Dec 22, 2000, P 56.

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