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Why Vietnam has India in its sights

Why Vietnam has India in its sights
Published 15 Sep 2016 

Narendra Modi is easily one of the India's most travelled prime ministers. His trip to the US in June, where he addressed Congress in English, was beneficial and ended with the declaration that India was now a 'major defense partner' of the US however more recently Modi stopped off in Vietnam on the way to the G20. What came of that visit might prove to be more substantive if less immediately noteworthy: after 10 years of strategic partnership India has become Vietnam's third comprehensive strategic partner.

So, why has Vietnam chosen to elevate India to its highest echelon of cooperation, up with China and Russia, and not, say, the US? Despite the publicity generated in May when President Obama visited Vietnam and lifted the arms embargo, the US remains on a lower rung of co-operation, a comprehensive partner and only that since 2013 when President Obama met his then-counterpart Truong Tan Sang. According to current president Tran Dai Quang (note: the President is actually the least powerful of Vietnam's governing troika) the last step on the full normalisation of ties came with the lifting of the arms embargo, a Cold War relic that dates back to 1964. Analysts seem to agree this improvement in Vietnam-US relations was hastened by China's aggression in the South China Sea and its island building projects. China also, of course, moved its HY981 oil rig into Vietnam's EEZ in 2014, which essentially froze relations until President Xi's visit in November 2015.


Right now Vietnam's other two comprehensive strategic partners, Russia and China, are engaged in joint patrols in the South China Sea, in a non-alliance worrying much of Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and of course, the United States. These patrols will likely annoy Hanoi (which has acquired Russian submarines partly in response to Chinese aggression). It seems shared China worries may have also helped push India and Vietnam closer together. [fold]

The new high-level partnership works well for both nations. A tenet of Vietnamese foreign policy is multilateralism and that has become particularly clear of late. diverse partnerships. Even as China flexes its terrritorial muscles, Vietnam's historic pull toward that remains strong. Recently both Vietnam's defense minister and PM have headed to China, and the two nations have talked widely on traditional friendship and ties, and a solution to maritime issues. Yet the current climate has also been pushing Vietnam to increase its ties across the board (it also forged a strategic partnership with the Philippines in 2015, the third such partnership after the US and Japan), reducing is reliance on just a few nations.

India is a good and rather obvious choice for stronger ties. There is a long history of friendship between the two (as there is between Russia and Vietnam), and the nations have had diplomatic relations for 45 years. India opposed the invasion of Vietnam and its founding of the Non-Aligned Movement earned it points in Vietnam, which has been a member since 1976. There has been good defense cooperation for some time. Vietnam's trade with India is higher than with Russia (US$5.6 billion versus US$4 billion), and the two also signed an agreement on cooperative oil exploration in the South China Sea five years ago, a move that upset China. On India's part, its old friend Vietnam is an important spot in India's own 'pivot', its Act East Policy, a point underlined in the joint statement issued during the recent visit to Hanoi

New Delhi also 'wants to build relations with states like Vietnam that can act as pressure points against China. With this in mind, it has been helping Hanoi beef up its naval and air capabilities', wrote the London-based, Indian academic Harsh Pant in The Diplomat in July, just before the Hague ruling. In a carefully worded statement after the Hague ruling, India said it 'supports freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS'.

Unlike Vietnam's Cold War links to Russia and the former Soviet Republics, or the then-Czechoslovakia, with India there was no history of labour export programmes to prop up educational and people-to-people connections. Older generations of Vietnamese speak Russian and those born after often have some Czech; that tie has led to Czech beer halls across Vietnam and many Vietnamese restaurants in Prague. There isn't anything comparable in Hindi and though the old Champa empire in central Vietnam has roots in India it's a real stretch to put that under the banner of 'culture' today (in fact today's Vietnamese largely descend from the Dai Viet who pushed out the Champa). However, a cultural history of comradeship matters less in the face of a US$500 million line of defence credit that was part of the recent agreement (a five-fold increase). There hasn't been final agreement on sales of the joint venture India-Russia BrahMos missile to Vietnam, however, despite talks since 2011, though it appears the sale is not far off. India no longer seems to care if this will antagonise China.

In total the two nations signed 12 agreements with the most important concerning the line of defense credit. Much of the rest is non-military in nature, such as IT, cyber security, cooperating on UN Peacekeeping measures and, article one, the ' Framework Agreement on Cooperation in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes'. Article 12 is about the sale of patrol boats.

Some have suggested that Vietnam is now to India what Pakistan is to China: a good way to cosy up to a competitor's competitor or enemy. Looking at one relationship through the lens of another though can come at the cost of a deeper understanding; at this point the improved partnership with India will provide opportunities for cooperation and a way for Vietnam to further diversify ties. Not everything need feed paranoia.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chen Wu

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