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Vietnam visit of Indian Foreign Minister

Paper No. 5772                                          Dated 21-Aug-2014

By Dr Subhash Kapila

The Indian Foreign Minister, Ms Sushma Swaraj is scheduled to visit Vietnam next week. The visit is significant in that Vietnam and India enjoy a long-standing close strategic relationship which has stood the test of times.

Vietnam is presently under tremendous Chinese political and military pressure in the South China Sea disputes foisted on Vietnam more specifically by superior Chinese military power.

Notably both Vietnam and India have been victims of major Chinese aggression in the past and presently also China has subjected both Vietnam and India to provocative military incidents in South China Sea and Ladakh respectively.

Diplomatically it may be imprudent to say so but in terms of a strategic reality-check it is abundantly clear that the “China Threat” figures significantly in the threat perceptions of both Vietnam and India.

Against this contextual backdrop, the visit of the India Foreign Minister to Vietnam at this juncture would be reassuring for Vietnam. More so when it is taken into account that the Indian Foreign Minister had made strong assertions on South China Sea issues at the recent ASEAN meetings in Myanmar.

This would be the Indian Foreign Minister’s first visit to Vietnam and hopeful expectations exist that substantive discussions and a fruitful outcome would follow from this visit to Hanoi. India has provided and will continue to provide strong political support to Vietnam as it faces the South China Sea challenges from China.

It is in the field of military capacity building of Vietnam to impose minimum military deterrence against aggression in the South China Sea that Vietnam needs more substantial assistance from India, far above the existing levels.

In my past Papers on this subject and other Indian strategic analysts have been advocating that India should provide BRAHMOS missiles and anti-ship missiles to Vietnam besides other naval and air force assets.

India should not shy away from such initiatives when examples exist of Russia (China’s current strategic partner) providing submarines and combat aircraft to Vietnam. Japan has decided to provide naval patrol boats to Vietnam to beef up her maritime surveillance in the South China Sea. The United States in many discreet ways is engaged in the same direction.

Against this backdrop, India should stand encouraged and not be apologetic to increase its assistance in the military capacity-building of Vietnam to withstand maritime aggression in the South China Sea.

It is high time Indian policy establishment recognises the imperatives to add substantive military contours and muscles to its Look East policy formulations. India also has to recognise that the South China Sea conflict escalation will heighten due to China’s aversion to any conflict-resolution processes and China’s avowed strategic goal to dominate the entire South China Sea maritime expanse, oblivious to the fact that such Chinese actions jeopardise Asian security and stability.

India’s Look East policy to be successfully implemented needs strong regional partners like Vietnam and Japan more especially. Vietnam is the pivotal state in South East Asia and in the South China Sea, both important for India’s strategic stakes.

India needs to come out with more strategically assertive policies in the South China Sea, if not in connection with Vietnam but at least for the sake of politically signalling to China that India too can play the same games that China has been so far playing against India in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean Region.

In an earlier Paper one had recommended that India’s new assertive Prime Minister would inject dynamism in India’s Look East policy by visiting Vietnam while on his way back from his Japan visit. The September schedules do not seem to have much space for a Vietnam visit but hopefully such a visit would materialise soon. It is in India’s national security interests.