Anchor : Tracy Shilshi
Speakers : Ambassador Rajiv Kumar Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House; Harsh V Pant, Head, Strategic Studies, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Brig (Retd.) Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF
Importance of this Episode:
- The episode assumes importance as it took place in the immediate backdrop of Vietnamese President, Trần Đại Quang’s visit to India.
- The episode aimed to discuss, the latest developments between the two countries and as to how these developments would boost India’s and Vietnam’s focus on creating an extended neighbourhood in the Asia-Pacific region.
Highlights of the Visit:
- The highlights could be described as the ‘continuation and consolidation’ of the relationship.
- During this visit, MOU’s were signed in three areas, namely: nuclear cooperation, agriculture and trade. In the light of India’s ‘Act-East’ policy, it is believed that each of these agreements is going to strengthen ties between the two nations. Importantly, President Quang also backed India’s membership into the UN’s Security Council.
- It is clear and evident that both the countries expressed immense satisfaction over the excellent state of ‘Comprehensive, Strategic Partnership’.
- The situation in South-East Asia has been changing rapidly, and thus India and Vietnam, which are close partners, need to consult each other at the highest political levels from time to time.
- It was a positive visit and that the visit has shown that there are many areas in which the two countries can cooperate.
- This visit also marked the 45th year of Indo-Vietnam diplomatic relations.
- The importance of maritime security was spoken about at the ‘ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit’.
- The Vietnamese President inaugurated a Centre for Vietnamese study in New Delhi.
Analysis by the Experts:
- The regional politics in both India as well as Vietnam have gone on to evolve in a similar manner: our similar concerns and apprehensions, and ambitions- the latter stemming from our need for a balance of power in the region. This has created the grounds for a convergence of interests.
- Both India and Vietnam assess and prioritize their relationship on very similar terms- thus we have seen a relationship that has evolved between them and the major powers such as the US as a legacy issue of the cold-war and also one which is very forward looking, project-oriented.
- The MOU’s signed in the recent visit have taken place largely because of a general feeling of satisfaction that the two nations have for each other in the relationship over the last decade.
- India has been consistently supporting the idea of ‘Freedom of Navigation’ and the unimpeded flow of commerce along the sea lanes of communication which supports Vietnam’s position as well as the other countries who need to constantly assert themselves against Chinese influence in the South China Sea (SCS) region.
- India supports the idea of Asian centrality in the SCS and that India is adhering to international laws and UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
- The Vietnamese have been very consistent in saying that they support India’s Act East Policy; they also acknowledge that India is a major player in the East-Asian region, and that India can play the role of a balancer in the region. Two explanations can be offered here- one on the politico-strategic side, and the other on the economic side. On the politico-strategic side, there is an expectation that India would take the concept of Indo-Pacific seriously; it was on this concept that there was complete convergence and agreement between the visiting Vietnamese President and the Indian leadership. On the economic side, both the governments may be of the opinion that the trends are not as positive as they would like it to be. Bilateral trade is still limited; the two countries have given to themselves the target of $ 15 Billion USD by 2020; also the number of Indian companies operating in Vietnam and on-going projects have been steadily on the increase. It is hoped that both on the strategic and economic side that there would be more tangible progress in the coming months.
- Vietnam has been one of the most consistent voices in ASEAN who have asked for India’s greater role in the region. What we are potentially looking at now is that ASEAN leaders including Vietnam want a greater strategic presence from India, but the problem is that the economic dimension of our relationship remains very weak compared to what China provides to the region, and therefore our ability to have a greater strategic dimension to the relationship becomes limited. Economics and strategic dimensions more often than not go together. Thus the concern is that India’s emergence as an economic security provider in the region has been relatively limited although India has been better at projecting herself as a strategic security provider in the region. Challenges going forward: how does one improve connectivity in the region? How does one enhance trade ties with the region? These are some of the questions that need to be answered to make the larger strategic dimension becomes more potent.
- Further, it is important to note that the foundation of trade ties and economic ties have to be substantive in order to build a strategic partnership.
Points of Convergence and Cooperation:
- Shared common security perceptions, propel both India and Vietnam to have defence and security cooperation. The importance of maritime security was also spoken about at the ‘ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit’. Vietnam and India have been cooperating in the maritime domain, and that Vietnam is a key partner in the MILAN naval exercises. The Indian Navy has also been providing training to Vietnamese submarine crews-Vietnam also has ‘Kilo-class’ submarines which are of Russian origin.
- During the time when the Philippines assumed the chairmanship of ASEAN, an atmosphere was created which was rather supportive and sympathetic of China. He opined that currently, since Singapore is the chair, ASEAN would appear to be much more assertive and objective. This creates the larger ground for Vietnam to feel quite comfortable that the forthcoming negotiations for the ‘Code of Conduct’ (COC) would probably be run in a better atmosphere. In the joint statement released by both India and Vietnam, the two countries have called for ‘effective and substantive’ Code of Conduct (COC). This makes it a positive sign from the Indian side.
- Further, surrounding the discussions around ‘Quad’, the quadrilateral grouping of India, Japan, US and Australia began, some experts had raised the question of the role of ASEAN in bringing about such a grouping; crucially, all ten member countries of the ASEAN may not be interested in this ‘Quad’ grouping, but there are a few ASEAN member countries that are deeply interested in the ‘Quad’, and Vietnam leads the pack from the ASEAN member nations that support the ‘Quad’.
- Ordinary Vietnamese are looking at India as a country with great potential. Currently Vietnam looks at India through a different lens than how it did look at India about a decade back. The important question now to ask is whether India is doing enough to tap into this potential, and whether she is doing enough on the ground in fulfilling some of the commitments made in the areas of trade, infrastructure or energy? Energy is a crucial area where much can be done. China had objected in the past to Vietnam’s invitation to India to invest in oil and natural gas sector in the disputed South China Sea (SCS), and that India had taken up a convincing and direct stand whereby she stood by Vietnam on that issue.
- India and Vietnam have been looking at partners for Oil and Gas exploration which may possibly include Japan, Russia, etc. However, the geopolitics in the region involved may preclude it. Further, India and Vietnam need to do more in many areas like defence weapons systems, missiles, etc. and also in helping Vietnam in establishing their indigenous defence industry.
- An integral and consistent part of the projection of India’s foreign policy has been the steady opposition to international terrorism, and that there have been a number of ways in which India has been furthering this initiative. The kind public diplomacy practiced by Vietnam is a model for other ASEAN member nations to follow. It must be noted that in Vietnam, there is a stress on India-centric studies; however, the same hasn’t been reciprocated in equal measure by India. Stemming from this, during this visit, the Vietnamese President inaugurated a Centre for Vietnamese study in New Delhi.
The Way Forward:
- During the Vietnamese President’s speech to an invited public audience, he also took time to answer questions from young scholars. The President also spoke that the relation can be improved not only by interactions by businessmen but also by citizens at large. He mentioned that there is a role for the informed citizenry, strategic community, scholars and the youth in particular to invest in this relationship.
- In this day in age, one cannot restrict the narrative between nations to just a government-to-government dialogue, and especially when we are looking at reinvigorating a relationship, we need new stakeholders – thus reaching out to the youth and to young scholars is perhaps the best way to provide long-term sustainability to a relationship.
- We still have a lot more to do in matters of trade, and that the time-bound delivery of specific agreements would help change the narrative that India often overcommits and under-delivers, and that this perception would need to change.
- In the coming 5 years, it can be expected that political relations get further cemented.
This would also coincide with the completion of 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations. But India needs to improve economic ties with Vietnam- the target that India and Vietnam have set up for 2020- that of $15 Billion is not very ambitious. Also, in the defence arena, India must help Vietnam in building their own defence industry, and give them the defence systems that they need to maintain a balance in the South China Sea (SCS) region.
- In the next 5 years, the tri-lateral highway linking India, Myanmar, and Thailand would be ready. Further, the extension of this highway can potentially also open up a scenario where one could drive from Indian soil to Vietnam. Further, scholars have now been saying that with SAARC getting stalled, and with India defining its immediate neighbourhood with an eastward tilt, probably the time has come for BIMSTEC to consider extending itself to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Then it will be a very powerful body and lasting link between India and ASEAN.
UPSC aspirants are advised to read the joint-statement released by India and Vietnam available on the below link:
Read more RSTV articles here.