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Vietnam Visit by Indian President Strategically Significant

Paper No. 5786                                      Dated 15-Sept-2014

By Dr Subhash Kapila

The Indian President’s visit to Vietnam from September 14-17, 2014 is rich in strategic significance and also high in terms of political symbolism indicating India’s relentless initiatives to reinforce the Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership.

In the uncertain security environment that persists in Indo Pacific Asia where some nations still pursue 19th Century land and maritime expansionist policies violating other nations’ territorial sovereignties, India needs robust and ‘all-weather’ strategic partners as the Chinese term it. In the case of India it is Vietnam that has and can be expected to play this role to each nation’s strategic benefit.

Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership is highly valued by both Vietnam and India and reflects the long historical ties that have bonded these two strategically significant nations. India’s relations with Vietnam stood valued by virtually every political dispensation in power in India though the emphasis and nuances stood varied. In the last ten years of the previous government’s rule the value of the Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership was not devalued but what impacted it was the compulsive fixation of the previous policy establishment to view India’s South East Asian policies through the Chinese prism. Presumably this may have been the reason, if memory serves correct, as to why the previous Prime Minister did not pay a Vietnam-specific visit during his tenure.  Hopefully, this timidity from Indian policy formulations would be dispensed with by Prime Minister Modi’s regime.

President Mukherjee’s visit to Vietnam carries strategic significance in that it precedes the visit of the Chinese President to India from September 17-19 2014. The significance of this coincidence would not be lost on China which is in a state of conflict with Vietnam on the South China Sea sovereignty issues. Strategically, this coincidence for whatever reason marks a welcome departure where India under Prime Minister Modi’s stewardship perceptionaly seems to be adopting a dual-track foreign policy approach wherein India’s strategic component of its national security interests would not be subsumed by economic security determinants. India henceforth would adopt two separate tracks, one for securing its national security interests and the second track for securing its economic interests.

Politically, the flurry of visits by Indian dignitaries to Vietnam and vice versa is high in terms of political symbolism in that it carries a number of political signals of India’s intentions. Firstly, the Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership is given an added political high. Secondly, it reflects the political and strategic significance India attaches to Vietnam’s standing as a ‘pivotal state’ in South East Asia and the balance of power in terms of Asian security. Thirdly, India’s intentions to act as a responsible stakeholder in South East Asia and South China Sea region are reinforced.

During the Indian President’s visits to Vietnam a number of important agreements are expected to be signed in the fields of defence, oil prospecting in South China Sea, trade, direct air services between Vietnam and India and agriculture. Direct air connectivity between Vietnam and India would facilitate expansion of tourism and trade.

Strategically, India and Vietnam share similar threat perceptions on China. Chinese aggression in the past was launched against Vietnam and India to ‘teach a lesson’ to both countries. Presently too, China has not ceased its conflict-escalation against Vietnam in the South China Sea. Similarly, China has not ceased its provocative and aggressive intrusions against India on India’s borders with Tibet.

Contextually, it would be natural for both Vietnam and India to share many strategic convergences in their relationship. So therefore the strategic component in relations between the two countries is predominant. India as an Asian emerging power with significant strategic stakes in South East Asia and the South China Sea has a higher call in ‘capacity building’ of Vietnam’s conventional military deterrence capabilities especially in the maritime domain.

Vietnam’s long outstanding requests to India for sale of the Brahmos Missile need to be honoured and other missiles too. If China could assist Pakistan with nuclear weapons build-up and a wide variety of ballistic missiles with strike reach to the Indian heartland, what holds back India to assist Vietnam?

India expects that under the audacious leadership of Prime Minister Modi it breaks out of the shell of political timidity of the previous government and stakes out a bigger signature in Indo Pacific Asia. Indo Pacific Asia as a region with the exception of China expects India to rise up and play its role of an emerging Asian power.

The proposal of a Japan-India Vietnam Strategic Trilateral (advocated by me in my SAAG Papers for the last two years) should form the cornerstone of India’s Indo Pacific security architecture. This proposal is now finding echoes amongst many in the strategic community. By virtue of its crucial geostrategic location Vietnam can be expected to play a pivotal role in this strategic triangle despite the compulsions of Vietnam periodically adopting a hedging strategy towards China.

Expectedly, one hopes that some substantive movement is made in reinforcing the Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership during the current visit of the Indian President to Vietnam.

A major step in this direction would be a visit by Prime Minister Modi to Vietnam early next year as his diplomatic calendar is full for this year. India’s Look East Policy can then best be epitomised as India’s Look East Policy by Prime Minister Modi’s visit to South East Asia and which better place symbolically for Prime Minister Modi to commence this surge, than Vietnam.