India-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership: Analysis and the way forward
While the world seems to be divided by protectionist tendencies due to the recent developments, the actions of China has resulted in fostering India-Vietnam relations. It has been reported that Vietnam has sought to further enhance the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’. It is pertinent to point out that India and Vietnam have historical similarities which go beyond the struggle for liberation from colonialism. It dates back to 2nd century A.D. and it is said that the influence of India on art and architecture of Vietnam is noticeable even to this day. The strong cultural ties with Vietnam are a result of a development of over 2000 years, going beyond the pre-colonial era.
It would not be a factual inaccuracy to say that Vietnam has been a natural friend of India. The mutual geopolitical interests of Vietnam and India which are threatened by the over-arching presence of the Dragon acts as a catalyst for a cordial partnership. China, not only has disputes and conflicts with India but also with Vietnam in the South China Sea. If a Kautilya outlook was to be adopted, it is basically a textbook example of the exposition ‘enemy’s enemy is an ally’. The sustenance of cordial relationship with Vietnam is crucial to India for countering the hegemony of China in the South Asian region. In this backdrop, India and Vietnam upgraded their bilateral relationship status to ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ (CSP) in 2016 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Hanoi.
A look into Defence and Economic cooperation
As far as India is concerned, the enhancement of the bilateral partnership to a CSP is in furtherance of the ‘Act East Policy’ of the Modi Government. The major highlight of India’s relations with Vietnam is defence cooperation. Since 2015, there has been significant improvement as far as defence cooperation is concerned. The Minister of Defence and National Security Advisor of India have visited Vietnam in 2016 and 2015 respectively to strengthen the bilateral ties. This has been reciprocated from the other side by the visit of Vietnamese Minister of National Defence in 2015 and 2016. India and Vietnam also had the maiden version of the Security Dialogue in May 2018. During the visit of Shri. Ramnath Kovind, President of India to Vietnam in 2018, a joint statement was issued to ‘effectively implement’ the ‘Joint Vision Statement on Vietnam – India Defence Cooperation for the period of 2015-2020’. Further, while $100 million Line of Credit (LoC) to Vietnam for the purpose of defence purchases has been operationalised, India has extended an additional $500 million LoC for the defence industry in Vietnam.
It is pertinent to point out that Vietnam has granted India exclusive access to develop its naval facility, a privilege not granted to even its closest ally, the USA. This emanates from the fact that India and Vietnam share concerns as far as maritime security and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea region is concerned. It can be said that India and Vietnam are ‘strategic’ partners if a dispassionate analysis of relations between the two countries is done since it is based on quid pro quo. While India shares concerns of the rising presence of belligerent China in the South China Sea, Vietnam has supported India’s candidature for permanent membership at the Security Council and shares concerns with respect to cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
Apart from defence cooperation, another important aspect of India-Vietnam bilateral relations is that of economic cooperation. Taking a cue from the Saptanga theory of State, Kautilya’s exposition and emphasis on the need to have a ‘Mitra’ (Ally) for the purpose of fostering foreign trade can be made applicable in the present context also. From $200 million worth of trade in the year 2000 to over $12 billion in 2019-20, India is now among the top ten trading partners of Vietnam. This economic partnership is further bolstered with India’s investments in Vietnam which are estimated to be around $1.9 billion which are majorly in eight sectors, namely- energy & mineral exploration, agro-processing, sugar, tea, coffee manufacturing, agro-chemicals, IT and auto components. The trade and economic cooperation were catalysed with the introduction of ‘Doi Moi’ (renovation) policy by Vietnam in 1986, India’s structural reforms of LPG in 1991, and the signing of India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2009.
Notwithstanding the conflict between China and Vietnam, in terms of trade and economics, it seems like the two nations are in bed with each other considering the fact that China is the largest trading partner of Vietnam. However, India has been taking significant strides to strengthen economic cooperation with Vietnam by engaging in in oil and gas exploration on land, continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Vietnam, ergo, irking the Dragon.
India has taken a principled stand as far as the South China Sea dispute is concerned. India and Vietnam have jointly expressed the need to settle the disputes in the South China Sea amicably and peaceably in conformity with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS). They have also emphasised on the need to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in letter and spirit.
The way forward
Now, with China’s aggressive posturing as far as its conflict with India and Vietnam is concerned has led to the strengthening of the CSP. India-Vietnam bilateral relations should be solidified beyond cultural cooperation. Sharing a similar civilizational and cultural history is not sufficient for countering the misadventures and expansionist tendencies of China. It is a fact that China uses cultural history to claim territories and islands in the South China Sea, while the Indian worldview and more importantly, its respect for international law has not led to India making any such baseless claims.
The mutual respect for sovereignty and shared civilizational values can only be a necessary condition and not a sufficient condition to counter China’s clout in the region. India and Vietnam have a long way to go in strengthening defence and economic cooperation and collaboration. In order to effectively counter the Dragon’s misadventures in the region, India and Vietnam have to develop the CSP on the foundation of civilizational ties and build it upon the two pillars of defence and economic cooperation.