January 04, 2015

India-Vietnam: Growing Strategic Ties

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE two day official visit of the Vietnamese prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung to India in the last week of October came within weeks after president Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Hanoi. Before the Indian president’s visit, the Indian external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, was also in Hanoi. In fact, for the last couple of years, there have been frequent exchanges of high level exchange of visits. The Indian president’s visit to Vietnam in mid September coincided with Chinese president, Xi Jinping’s trip to India. The focus of the recent high level visits of the leaders of both the countries has been on the further strengthening of strategic and economic relations that have been growing stronger since the mid 1970’s. India and Vietnam have had good relations since the 1950’s, when the legendary Ho Chi Minh was the leader of Communist North Vietnam. During the liberation war with France and later on with the United States, India’s overall sympathies were with the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist nature of the struggle being waged by the Vietnamese. After the formal reunification of the country in 1975, bilateral ties became stronger. In 1979, when a brief border war broke out between China and Vietnam, the Indian external affairs minister at the time, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had cut short a visit to China, to register India’s sympathy with the Vietnamese. Though China’s military and political assistance to Vietnam played a crucial role in the historic war the Vietnamese waged against the US, the two sides soon drifted apart over a host of issues. The Chinese side had objected to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the toppling of their ally, the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, from power. Both sides have also failed to come to terms with past history. Vietnam, in medieval times, was treated as a vassal state by the imperial Court in Beijing. All the same, China today is the most important economic partner of Vietnam and has in recent decades invested heavily in the Vietnamese economy. In comparison, the economic ties that Vietnam has with India are paltry. New Delhi now wants to increase its footprint in Vietnam as it tries to give new life to its “Look East” policy. The new NDA government has said that it wants to transform the policy into an “Act East” policy. The previous Congress led government had been actively promoting this policy as part of the plans to counter the growing Chinese economic and political influence in South East Asia. COVETOUS GLANCES OF THE US Many observers in fact were of the view that Indian policies were somewhat in sync with Washington’s policies aimed at isolating and encircling China. The Obama administration’s “pivot to the East” was a manifestation of this policy. The US, which only normalised relations with Vietnam in 1995, now has decided to strengthen military and strategic ties with the country. In the first week of October, the Obama administration announced that it was partially lifting the ban on the sales of lethal weaponry to Vietnam for “maritime security purposes”. The ban on the sale of non-lethal arms was lifted in 2006. In 2013, president Barack Obama and the Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang agreed to upgrade their relationship to the status of a “comprehensive partnership”. During the visit of the Vietnamese president to the US that year, the two countries pledged to cooperate on a wide range of issues, including defense and energy. Last December, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, on a visit to Vietnam, announced that Washington would provide Vietnam $18 million to upgrade its defense capabilities, including five patrol boats for the Vietnamese Coast Guard. The Americans are also casting covetous glances at the strategically located Cam Ranh Bay military base in the south of the country. A senior American naval officer recently said that the US Navy was preparing to return to the South China Sea in a big way. American Navy ships are now allowed to berth there. The Vietnamese want to commercially exploit Cam Ranh Bay airport and harbour. The Americans had to vacate the base after their military defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese. The Russians used the Cam Ranh base after the withdrawal of the Americans, but chose to leave after the collapse of the USSR. Hanoi, however has assured Beijing that it would not allow permanent basing facilities for the US. But the Vietnamese leadership has been sending conflicting signals. In May this year, Vietnam signed the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), an American sponsored anti-terrorism initiative viewed with suspicion by both Beijing and Moscow. Till recently, Hanoi along with Beijing was strongly protesting against the PSI, saying that it violated international law. It was announced during the Vietnamese PM”s visit to New Delhi, that India too will be providing four patrol boats for the Vietnamese Navy and training 500 Vietnamese sailors “in comprehensive underwater combat warfare”. Vietnam is emerging as a key player in Washington’s plans to prop up regional counterweights to China. The US has signed a key security pact with the Philippines that allows it to once again use military bases in the Philippines. Japan has been a staunch military ally of the US for long. Under the new right wing government of Shinzo Abe, Japan has escalated its territorial dispute with China. Beijing could have reasons to suspect that Washington and Delhi are acting in tandem in the region. Indian officials say that they are trying to implement their own agenda of strengthening economic, political and strategic linkages with key countries in the region like Vietnam and Myanmar. At the same time, it is being pointed out that China has no compunctions about providing military help to Pakistan and for that matter investing in the disputed areas of Kashmir. China is building a rail and road network in Gilgit in “POK”. China has made its displeasure clear on the proposed sale of patrol boats to Vietnam and prospecting by Indian oil companies in the disputed waters. The talk about India selling the anti-ship supersonic Cruise missile “Brahmos” to Vietnam once again surfaced during the prime minister’s visit. Vietnam has been openly asking for the weapon to strengthen its naval capabilities. The Russians who had a big hand in producing the potent missile may now be amenable to the sale despite the knowledge that Beijing, once again a close ally, will not be happy. Russia itself has multi billion arms sales contracts with Vietnam, having already sold 4 Kilo class submarines. The Brahmos missiles may soon figure in India’s defense related exports to Vietnam. Such a sale however may have repercussions on Sino-Indian relations. The Indian side is aware of this and this could be the reason why New Delhi is taking its time. Chinese and Vietnamese naval patrol boats have been engaged in aggressive patrolling in the waters around the disputed islands in the South China Sea. China has objected to Vietnam giving exploration rights to India’s ONGC Videsh located in the disputed waters. In May this year, China and Vietnam came quite close to a conflict after China placed an oil rig in waters just off the disputed Paracel islands. This event had considerably raised tensions. Vietnam considers the hydro carbon blocs where the ONGC has been drilling for oil, well within its special maritime economic zone. INDIA’S DEFENCE COOPERATION WITH VIETNAM Addressing the media along with his Vietnamese counterpart, prime minister Narendra Modi said that India’s “defence cooperation with Vietnam is among our most important”. He told the media that his government would quickly operationalise the $100 million credit that India has offered to Vietnam and help the country acquire new naval vessels and other military equipment. In a joint statement, the two sides called for a peaceful resolution of the maritime disputes in the region. Both sides “agreed that freedom of navigation and over flights in the East Sea/South China Sea should not be impeded and called on the parties concerned to exercise restraint”. The East Sea is the name Vietnam prefers to use for the South China Sea. Beijing has not been taking a benign view of the stress being put on “freedom of navigation” by the West and its allies. Beijing claims 90 percent of the South China Sea as its own and has stated repeatedly that it considers the area as a “matter of core concern”, placing it on par with the Tibet and Taiwan issues. Other countries besides Vietnam have also claimed sovereignty over areas in the South China Sea. They include the Philippines and Malaysia. The Chinese official position is that it is willing to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the dispute with the other countries involved through the auspices of the ASEAN or in direct talks with the governments concerned. Washington has been encouraging countries like the Philippines and Vietnam to unilaterally stake their claims and internationalise the territorial dispute involving a few rocky outcrops jutting out of South China Sea. China has also offered to go in for joint exploration and exploitation of the hydro carbon deposits with the countries with which it has territorial disputes. China’s foreign ministry spokesman reacting to the agreement between India and Vietnam to explore for oil and gas in new blocs said that Beijing has no objection as long as it was carried out in waters that are not disputed. He however stated that if the joint exploration harms China’s sovereignty and interests, then his government will “resolutely oppose it”. He went on to add that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly islands and its surrounding waters”. During the Vietnamese PM’s visit, India offered an additional credit of $300 million to help the country “diversify its industry and economic linkages”. Despite the regional rivalries, India as well as Vietnam have joined the China led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The Bank is being positioned as a rival to the World Bank. The US has been lobbying in various Asian capitals against the Bank. But despite the best efforts of the Obama administration, 21 Asian countries, big and small have signed up as founding members of the Bank. The notable exceptions are America’s foremost regional allies in the region – Australia, Japan and South Korea. Indonesia, which has wide ranging trade ties with China, is expected to sign up soon. China is going to put in $50 billion to kick start the Bank whose main focus will be on infrastructure development in the least developed areas of the region. The Asian Development Bank has calculated that the region needs $8 trillion for infrastructure development by 2020. The unity shown by Asian countries in making the AIIB a reality bodes well for the peaceful development of the Asian continent.