India and Vietnam took another step forward in their long-running defence ties with the signing of a “Joint Vision Statement on the India-Vietnam Defence Partnership towards 2030”. This happened on the occasion of the visit of India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh to Vietnam last week. The two sides also signed an MoU on mutual logistics support. This was the first agreement of its kind signed by Vietnam though India has similar agreements with the US, Singapore, France, South Korea, and Australia.
This development coincides with the revelation that the Chinese are helping the Cambodians to upgrade a naval facility at Ream, near Cambodia’s main port Sianhoukville. Both deny that this will be used by the Chinese, but it is in a strategically important location in the Gulf of Thailand adjacent to a number of other facilities like the Dara Sakor Airport developed by Chinese consortiums.
India and Vietnam signed a “Joint Vision Statement on the India-Vietnam Defence Partnership towards 2030”.
India’s defence ties with Vietnam have been growing in a slow-motion process since the 1990s.
The two countries have unspecified cooperation in relation to the information gathering on the movement of Chinese naval vessels.
There is a difference between the respective Indian and Vietnamese interactions with China.
In recent times, China has emerged as a major trade and investment partner of Vietnam.
India & Vietnam Moving Closer Slowly, Steadily Since 1990s
India’s defence ties with Vietnam have been growing in a slow-motion process since the 1990s. You would assume that given their antipathies to China they would have rapidly developed closer ties in the military area. The actual fact is that, while they do have growing ties, but the process is slow and deliberate and this is in keeping with the chosen strategy of both countries.
The India-Vietnam defence ties go back to Look East policy of P V Narasimha Rao, when India offered defence technology to Vietnam and signed an MOU on defence cooperation in 1994.
This low-key defence relationship focused on capacity building, training of personnel and maintenance of equipment.
In 2000, George Fernandes—the first Indian Defence Minister to visit Vietnam—signed a wide-ranging defence cooperation agreement. Under this, India and Vietnam conducted a joint anti-piracy exercise in the South China Sea. It also paved the way for Vietnam to train Indian soldiers in jungle warfare and guerrilla tactics and for India to assist the Vietnamese Navy in repairing, upgrading and constructing warships and fast patrol craft.
Fernandes presciently saw the South China Sea as an area of potential conflict and said an Indian naval presence could help the freedom of navigation and stability. He foresaw it was possible using the Cam Ranh bay, which would balance the Chinese activities in the Bay of Bengal area through Myanmar. The two sides also began cooperation in the field of nuclear technology. Already, Indian strategists had begun to think of ties with Vietnam as a means of balancing China.
Modi Government's Sustained Efforts to Strengthen Ties
But there was little visible in the ensuing decade, despite a visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2010. Ties remained low key with India helping in the repair of Vietnam’s Mig-21 aircraft and training Vietnamese navy personnel to handle Kilo-class submarines that their navy was planning to acquire.
In 2011, the Indian Navy had an early brush with the South China Sea issue when its warship INS Airavat was warned over the radio to stay off ‘Chinese waters’ by a voice claiming to speak for the Chinese Navy, just 45 nautical miles from Vietnamese coast. No vessel was actually visible and the Indian ship continued on its path unhindered.
It was only in 2014 that India finally came up with a line of credit worth USD100 million to enable Vietnam to purchase Indian defence equipment. During that visit, Rajnath Singh formally handed over the 12 Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV’s) built in India and Vietnam under the line of credit.
During his 2016 visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi added another USD500 million line of credit for procurement. But, so far, the utilisation has been slow and this is one of the items of the agenda of Rajnath Singh’s visit.
Another strategic asset has been the satellite tracking and imaging centre near Ho Chi Minh city which was activated in 2018 and which also has a provision to enable Vietnam to access satellite imagery through Indian satellites.
India's Concerns About the South China Sea
Last year, a task force of four warships of India’s Eastern Naval Fleet carried out a two-month operational deployment in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean as part of the Malabar Exercise. They took the opportunity to visit Vietnam and conduct exercises with their Vietnamese counterparts.
What is not too well-known is that the two countries have unspecified cooperation in relation to the information gathering on the movement of Chinese naval vessels.
Since 2014, India has made its concerns over the issue of freedom of navigation explicit through Joint Statements in summits with Vietnam. The India-Vietnam Joint Statement of 2014 said that the two sides agreed that “freedom of navigation and overflight in the East Sea/Sough China Sea should not be impeded” and disputes resolved peacefully in accordance with the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
How India and Vietnam Interact with China
There is a difference between the respective Indian and Vietnamese interactions with China. An important aspect of this is history: Vietnam has seen long periods of Chinese domination but established its independence from the 17thcentury onwards. China assisted modern Vietnam in its war against the French and the Americans.
However, when it invaded Vietnam to teach it a lesson in 1979, they also got a bloody nose. Since then, the two sides developed a dispute over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The Chinese forcibly occupied the former in 1975 and are contesting Vietnam’s sovereignty over the latter.
India and China had few direct contacts through history till the 1950s when the border dispute erupted leading to a war in which India suffered a catastrophic defeat in 1962. Their forces have had a few clashes since, most notably in 2020. Though despite being heavily militarised, the border is largely peaceful.
Vietnam's Emergence as a Global Manufacturing Hub
In recent times, China has emerged as a major trade and investment partner of Vietnam. Sino-Vietnam trade topped USD100 billion in 2021 as compared to USD11 billion India-Vietnam trade. Vietnam is integrated into Chinese industrial production value chains and has emerged as a major global manufacturing hub. It followed the Asian path of export-oriented manufacturing by welcoming foreign investment and tailoring its policies appropriately. It benefited from proximity to China, especially the Shenzhen area by paying lower wages.
Vietnam emerged as a major beneficiary of the US-China trade war and became a centre of electronic manufacturing, as businesses sought to move away from China. Incidentally, to avoid American tariffs, many Chinese companies, too, moved operations to Vietnam. In a recent article, the Wall Street Journal noted that while China shipped USD50 billion less in manufactured goods to the US in 2021 as compared to 2018, Vietnam increased its goods to the US by USD50 billion during the same period.
Vietnam Treads Cautiously Towards India
The Indo-Vietnamese relationship—since 2016 a ‘strategic comprehensive partnership’—is important. But, its importance should not be over-stated. Given the time frame, the partnership has been somewhat modest. Both its military and economic content are not all that substantial.
In some degree, this reflects Vietnam’s caution in not wanting to aggravate its hugely powerful neighbour which is also an important economic partner. They maintain a modest military capability, though their military prowess ensures that even Beijing treats them with a degree of respect. The ruling Vietnamese Communist Party maintains close party-to-party ties with its Chinese counterparts thus ensuring that their border disputes do not spill over into conflict.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)