By Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharjee
Tagore poetically stated that the closeness that people of India and Vietnam shared had a link that was embedded in history. The cultural and economic relations between the two date back to the ages of the Champa and later, the Mauryan and Gupta civilisations. The links embedded in Buddhism, language, social structure, as well as mindset, has made rebuilding linkages much easier than others.
A Historical Link
Vietnam remains among the most important South-east Asian nation for India’s security interests. People of Vietnam resolutely supported the freedom struggle in India; and while facing international reprimand, India stood by Vietnam in its testing times during the 60s and 70s.
The two had strategically remained closer to the Soviet Union than the US or China due to ideological differences, their individual strategic relations with either US or China, relations with neighbours, and Cold War politics. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Ho Chi Minh made state visits during the 50s, making the Indian Prime Minister the first to visit Hanoi. India also supported the Hanoi government during the Vietnam War.
The relationship in between India and Vietnam started getting a formal shape after India joined the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996. Within that time frame, India established a MoU on defence cooperation with Malaysia, which established a Malaysia-India Defence Cooperation Meeting (MIDCOM) at the senior officer level. Politically, Vietnam was a viable option for Indian decision makers as the other neighbours Myanmar was under a strong military junta, while Cambodia and Laos had strict communist regimes. India had close economic and strategic links with Singapore, while Thailand’s closer ties with China has instigated India to build a closer link with Vietnam. Presently, the Indian government provided a $100 million credit line in October 2015 to help Vietnam in defence procurement and the modernisation of its armed forces, including submarine training. This line of credit is being utilised by Vietnam presently for procurement of four Offshore Patrol Boats for their Border Guards.
India assured Vietnam of its full commitment to the strategic partnership between the two countries during a meeting in New Delhi between former Vietnamese defence minister PhùngQuang Thanh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2015.
During Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit, India agreed to supply four naval patrol vessels to Vietnam, increase the level of training of its military personnel, and raise its involvement in Vietnam’s energy sector. India’s entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) would legitimise and speed up the process of selling the BrahMos to Vietnam. The recent strategic engagement with Vietnam has been seen by many analysts as the Indian desire to protect its investments in the oil fields off Vietnam’s coast while strengthening Vietnamese naval power.
India’s Strategic and Commercial Interests
India has always stressed on freedom of navigation and over-flight, and unimpeded navigation in the South China Sea region. India signed an agreement with Vietnam in October 2011 to expand and promote oil exploration in the South China Sea and then reconfirmed its decision to carry on.
The ingrained economic relations that Vietnam and China share and the geographical closeness, make China an important neighbour, though not strategically unreliable. It is full of Vietnamese interests to tacitly strengthen its position militarily, without disturbing the regional balance. It has been one of the motivators of building a close strategic and defence cooperation with India, which had significant similarity in the defence hardware, along with a significant leverage in technology and skill.
According to former deputy prime minister of Vietnam Vu Khoan, “We understand that our country, in comparison with China, is a small one…Although they say friendship, they have invaded our territory. Ultimately, China must respect our nation and our sovereignty. Otherwise, Vietnamese will be ‘allergic’ to China”.
Vietnamese Defense Modernisation and India
Vietnam also turned its eye towards military modernization during the last five years. Vietnam is partnering with India to build a jointly operated satellite data transmission station.
The recent visit by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to Vietnam in June 2016 to discuss new initiatives in the military sector. Both defence ministers discussed the need for sharing white shipping information to facilitate an exchange of data in the maritime domain. The two sides also focused on enhancing hydrographic cooperation. The major areas that has been identified for working together are for upgrade of Soviet legacy systems, up gradation of Thermal Sights and Fire Control Systems for – BMP, T 54 and T 55 Tanks, upgrade of MI 17 / Mi 8 Helicopters, Shipbuilding Programmes, Missile Systems from India and Software Defined Radios for Vietnam. The Indian defence minister stated that he desired Indian private sector to lead the initiative and explore and actively participate in Vietnamese modernization of defence forces. This will not only strengthen the diplomatic and military bond between both the nations but also open the doors of strategic exports (Indian Express, June 6, 2016).
India’s joint counter-piracy patrols help shore up sea lines of communications (SLOCs). Both the countries’ navies are also part of MILAN, a multinational exercise and interaction with the navies of South East Asia [Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines] in the Bay of Bengal. It was initiated in 1995 and is a biennial gathering hosted by the Indian Navy.
Suggested Areas of Cooperation
There are multiple avenues that can strengthen defence and strategic cooperation between these two nations:
- An area of defence cooperation in between India and Vietnam is in providing training to submariners particularly in regard to the Russian submarines.
- Indian Air Force can actively cooperate through the training of technicians of the Sukhoi Aircraft as well as pilots on an annual basis. This arrangement can be set up in collaboration with the Indian Air Force, where a five-member training team can provide operational training to the young Vietnamese pilots.
- Vietnam also lacks in the manufacturing of small arms which is associated with coastal security. There is significant scope for the manufacture of assault rifles that is used by Indian Coast Guard personnel. The Indian defence establishment can also set up manufacturing facilities of carbines and small range missiles for which the potential buyers will be both from India and Vietnam.
- Both countries can work out a coastal defence mechanism to integrate coordination between marine or sea police, coastguards and navy, to thwart away attacks on commercial or strategic installations along the coast of both the countries.
- Another area of cooperation remains to be the area of nano and microsatellite technology. Both India and Vietnam hold a wide range of offshore assets, including oil exploration sites and islands. The security of these assets should be reinforced by better aerial surveillance systems; and in this regard, the scientific and technological institutions along with universities that have developed itself on such research can undertake pioneering research based projects. These satellites can be used for geospatial mapping as well as for gathering environmental data and sea explorations.
- There are other defence collaborative possibilities. The case of exporting Dhruv and Kamov helicopters, which are produced under Russian license, to Vietnam will also remain beneficial. The versatility of the Kamov helicopters would remain significant as they are efficient for monitoring and undertaking difficult terrain operations. India has also developed the Griffon/GRSE 8000 TD, a multi-purpose hovercraft which has been inducted by the Indian Coast Guard. Such technology will certainly benefit the Vietnamese Marine Police significantly.
With the rise of the Asian century, there is a need to strengthen the ancient bonds that existed before. With various strategic regional forums in place, India with a robust expertise in defence and space technologies and hardware production is slowly turning into a destination as well as a viable partner for such forums. India and Vietnam have come a long way together, fostering a relationship based on mutual trust and understanding.
With the fast-changing scenario in the neighbourhood and the rising challenges that are faced by Vietnam, India can play a larger role in strengthening the regional strategic theatre by coming closer to Vietnam in the strategic and defence sectors.
With the sharing of each other’s expertise and technological know-how, together they can counter the larger powers at play, threatening the regional stability and strategic maritime routes.
Dr Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharjee is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), Sapru House, New Delhi.
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