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India-Vietnam ties deepen in dynamic Indo-Pacific

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Given that the China threat looms large for both Vietnam and India, the bilateral relationship between New Delhi and Hanoi is likely to gain even greater traction.

India and Vietnam held a 12th round of political consultations and a 9th round of strategic dialogue in Hanoi recently.  The Indian Ministry of External Affairs in a press release said that Saurabh Kumar, secretary (east) co-chaired the political consultations while the strategic dialogue was held between the foreign ministers of the two countries. The two sides reviewed the progress made in bilateral relations since the “Joint Vision for Peace, Prosperity and People” was signed by their respective prime ministers in December 2020. The discussions also focused on the plan of action for 2021-2023 that was signed by the two foreign ministers. 

The two sides were satisfied by the “sustained momentum” in their bilateral relationship, marked by high-level engagements including a recent phone call between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong and also the visit of the speaker of Lok Sabha to Vietnam in April 2022, despite the interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During Modi’s conversation with Trong, the two referred to the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, and both agreed on the need to maintain peace, stability, and respect for international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, giving due regard to sovereignty and sovereign rights of all the countries and freedom of aviation and navigation.  

The two sides also explored their future agenda, including high-level exchanges and activities to commemorate the 50th anniversary of India-Vietnam diplomatic relations this year. Some of the immediate high-level engagements include the Special ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and Delhi Dialogue in June 2022. In January, commemorating the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar tweeted that India “reaffirm[s] our commitment to the India-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” and that New Delhi will “continue to work for the Joint Vision for Peace, Prosperity and People laid down by our Prime Ministers.”  

Speaking at a session organized by the Merchants’ Chambers of Commerce & Industry in India’s eastern city of Kolkata, Vietnam’s ambassador to India, Pham Sanh Chau, remarked on the special nature of India-Vietnam ties, saying that Vietnam and India enjoy shared values that promote peace, dialogue, and stability. He went on to say that only India can help Vietnam in sensitive areas such as peaceful uses of nuclear technology and defense.

Besides defense and security collaboration, India and Vietnam also enjoy good trade and commercial ties. Bilateral trade between the two has gone up from a mere $200 million in 2000 to $14.14 billion in 2021-2022, growing 27 percent in the last fiscal year alone. India’s exports to Vietnam went up to $6.70 billion (an increase of 34 percent) whereas the Indian imports from Vietnam amounted to $7.44 billion (an increase of 21 percent). Several Indian companies, ranging from those involved in textiles and garments, to IT, real estate, agricultural products, solar technology, education, and healthcare have invested in Vietnam. Indian companies including Tata Coffee, Bank of India, ONGC Videsh, Godrej, HCL Technologies, Wipro, Marico, Tech Mahindra, and more are already working in Vietnam, and two new Indian start-ups – car rental company Zoomcar and online higher education company UpGrad – have also entered Vietnam’s market.

India agreed to continue supporting Vietnam with development and capacity building assistance through a number of programs including quick impact projects such as the Mekong-Ganga Project, Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) and e-ITEC initiatives, Ph.D. fellowships, and digital connectivity.  Both India and Vietnam agreed to give a boost to infrastructure and connectivity projects, while also promoting tourism and people-to-people exchanges.  

During the political consultations,  India reiterated its view that Vietnam is a key partner in its Act East Policy as well as its wider Indo-Pacific vision. The two sides agreed to strengthen bilateral cooperation in line with India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative and ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific in order to ensure shared security, growth and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific region. 

India and Vietnam both have troubled relations with their mutual neighbor, China. India’s involvement in the South China Sea in recent years has been particularly conditioned by commercial linkages, the need to maintain freedom of navigation, and a rules-based regional order. India has ongoing oil exploration projects with PetroVietnam although China continues to object to India’s oil exploration operations in areas offered by Vietnam. China continues to claim all of the South China Sea, disregarding the claims and sovereign rights of other claimant countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei. Given their shared concern about China, India and Vietnam have become particularly close in the last few years, with the two countries elevating their relationship to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” in 2016. A decade ago, in 2007, their bilateral relationship was elevated to “strategic partnership.”

In line with Modi’s statement in 2014 that Vietnam “has been at the forefront of India’s engagement in the region” and that “India remains committed to the modernization of Vietnam’s defense and security forces,” New Delhi has been strengthening its defense and security engagement with Hanoi. Modi added that “this will include expansion of our training program, which is already very substantial, joint exercises and cooperation in defense equipment.” Since then, India has provided several defense Lines of Credit to Vietnam in order to step up its military capabilities. As part of defense capacity development, India has given Defense Lines of Credit worth $600 million to Vietnam.

One of the defense projects in this effort included construction of 12 high speed guard boats for the Vietnam Border Guard Command, five of which are being built by the Indian company Larsen & Toubro (L&T) in India and the remaining seven are being built at the Hong Ha Shipyard Company in Vietnam. The first of these boats was handed over to Vietnam in December 2020.  

Other defense engagements include joint military exercises, the latest of which was held in August 2021 when Indian and Vietnamese navies took part in a bilateral exercise in the South China Sea. India had deployed four frontline ships for the exercise, including INS Ranvijay and INS Kora, which were already on overseas deployment in Southeast Asia, the South China Sea and Western Pacific. Vietnam sent Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) frigate VPNS Ly Thai To (HQ-012) for the exercise. The Indian ships arrived at Cam Ranh for the harbor phase of the exercise, which included professional interactions with the VPN. According to an Indian Navy press release, the sea phase included surface warfare exercises, weapon firing drills, and helicopter operations. The press release added that the frequency of engagements between the two navies had augmented their interoperability and adaptability, ensuring “a quantum jump in the complexity and scale of professional exchanges.”  

Given that the China threat looms large for both Vietnam and India, this relationship is likely to gain greater traction in terms of both diplomatic and military engagements. The supply chain vulnerability recognized during the COVID-19 pandemic could also see expansion of ties in the economic and commercial sectors. More significantly, the high-level political attention from both India and Vietnam gives this relationship a major push to explore more ways to collaborate in the coming years. 

By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan – The Diplomat – June 6, 2022

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