Indian naval chief Admiral Sunil Lanba embarked on an official visit to Vietnam (4-7 October) on Wednesday, a trip which is laden with strategic agenda to counterbalance China.
The Indian defence ministry, while announcing the visit, said in a brief statement on 3 October that it was meant “to explore new avenues of defence cooperation”, an understatement, given the extremely close strategic ties between India and Vietnam, which have gone from strength to strength in the past decade-and-a-half.
During this visit, Admiral Lanba would be meeting Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Defence Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich, Chief of General Staff and Vice Minister of National Defence Senior Lieutenant General Phan Van Giang, and Commander-in-Chief of the Vietnam People’s Navy Rear Admiral Pham Hoai Nam.
Strategic Partnership With Vietnam
Needless to say, a large part of Admiral Lanba’s agenda in Vietnam during his meetings with his Vietnamese interlocutors will inevitably be covert. The focus will be on giving further boost to relations between the two navies, and ensure freedom of navigation in international waters in “East Sea/South China Sea”, a phraseology used in all Indo-Vietnam bilateral documents since 2011, in place of “South China Sea”.
But a ‘strategic partnership' between China and Vietnam is like India and Pakistan, or Japan and China, christening their respective bilateral ties as strategic partnerships.
History of Defence Ties
Vietnam was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia with which India had signed a memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation way back in 1994, when the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao had visited that country, one of the many moves by the sagacious Rao, which showed he was always ahead of his times. Since then, India has been supplying ammunition, propellants, MiG tyres, spares, and Silver Oxide aircraft batteries.
The Vajpayee government further fortified the edifice of Indo-Vietnam strategic partnership built by Rao, evident by the then Indian defence minister George Fernandes’ visit to Vietnam in 2000.
During this visit, the two countries signed many crucial agreements on strategic issues like joint naval training, joint anti-sea piracy exercises in the South China Sea, jungle warfare training, counter-insurgency training, Vietnam Air Force pilots’ training in India, and India’s Repair Programmes for Vietnam Air Force fighter planes which were largely MIGs.
The next government (UPA-1) kept up the momentum, and the then defence minister AK Antony, during his visit to Vietnam in 2007, announced at a meeting with his counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh that India would transfer 5,000 items of naval spares belonging to the Petya class of ships to Vietnam.
New High in NDA Regime
In October 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi affirmed that the naval vessels would soon be supplied to Vietnam. In early 2015, the Kolkata-based defence PSU Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd (GRSE) finalised the design of a series of 140-tonne fast patrol boats for Vietnam Navy, and a US $100 million line of credit to Vietnam for the order was offered by India.
Significantly, this was the first time an Indian shipyard was commissioned to design and build a warship to specifications formulated by a buyer country.
A new high in Indo-Vietnam defence cooperation during the Modi regime is that now India is also imparting training to Vietnamese submarine operators as well, apart from their fighter pilot.
Suspense Over Deal on BrahMos Missiles
A few weeks ago, there were statements from Vietnamese officials that Vietnam had received a consignment of BrahMos missiles from India.
However, New Delhi denied such claims, and Hanoi made an interesting turnaround, saying that it was negotiating with Russia for the BrahMos supplies – which is being seen as an attempt by India and Vietnam to keep the Indian supplies of this highly strategic weapon under wraps in view of the Chinese sensitivities.
But irrespective of whether the Indian sale of BrahMos missiles to Vietnam has already materialised or not, the fact remains that India has already emerged as the second largest supplier of military equipment and strategic weapons and personnel training to Vietnam, just after Russia.
Flurry of High-Level Political Visits
Last, but not the least, the importance that the Modi government attaches to Vietnam is borne out of the sustained high-level political contacts. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Vietnam in 2014, followed by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in 2015, followed by the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar in 2016.
After this Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself visited Vietnam in September 2016. The flurry of high-level political visits from India to Vietnam itself is enough to construe the extremely close strategic partnership between India and Vietnam.
The Indo-Vietnam ties are out and out strategic in nature. Admiral Lanba’s current Vietnam visit must be seen against this backdrop.
(Rajeev Sharma is a strategic analyst and columnist who tweets @Kishkindha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)