Earlier last week, India and Vietnam held a virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc. India and Vietnam have held a number of meetings and consultations this year leading up to the summit.
Modi, during his remarks at the summit, lauded Vietnam’s important role in India’s Act East Policy and as an “important partner of our Indo-Pacific Vision.” He highlighted the “long-term and strategic view” of the India-Vietnam relationship and the breadth and depth of their bilateral ties. He also underlined the importance of their shared purpose of “peace, stability and prosperity” for the Indo-Pacific region.
The two leaders also signed a joint vision document, “India-Vietnam Joint Vision for Peace, Prosperity and People.” The document is meant to drive the future of the India-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, based on their “deep-rooted historical and cultural bonds, shared values and interests, and mutual strategic trust and understanding between the two countries.” The two countries also signed a “Plan of Action for period 2021-2023 for further implementation of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” in order to strengthen their bilateral partnership with a clear agenda for the next two years, as well as seven other agreements that cover a number of important areas of cooperation including defense, nuclear safety and radiation protection, petro-chemicals, clean energy, and U.N. peacekeeping.
The fact that India and Vietnam have been at the receiving end of the China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has made the partnership even stronger. Given China’s aggressive behavior in South China Sea, which has remained a significant challenge for Vietnam, the joint vision document devoted attention to it. The very first paragraph of their “joint vision” highlighted a “shared commitment to international law” and agreement to “work towards achieving a peaceful, stable, secure, free, open, inclusive and rules-based region.”
With this strategic factor in mind, the focus on defense cooperation was inevitable. The joint statement laid emphasis on the implementation of the high speed guard boat (HSGB) manufacturing project with the Vietnam Border Guard Command. The project is being implemented through a $100 million defense line of credit already extended by India to Vietnam. The project, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) would involve also “handing over of one completed HSGB to Vietnam; launch of two HSGBs manufactured in India; and keel-laying of seven HSGBs to be manufactured in Vietnam.”
The joint vision document from the summit also recognized the importance of enhanced bilateral defense partnership in the context of the changing geopolitical and geoeconomic environment in the region and beyond. The document highlighted how a strengthened defense and security collaboration between India and Vietnam could be “an important factor of stability in the Indo-Pacific region.” To this end, the two sides agreed to augment military-to-military exchanges, training, and capacity building engagements between the two militaries including the coast guard. India and Vietnam also agreed to step up defense industry partnerships, taking advantage of the Indian credit lines already extended to Vietnam. More importantly, the two countries also decided to formalize their partnership by further institutionalizing defense exchanges through a number of programs including mutual logistics support, regular ship visits, joint exercises, and exchanges in military science and technology. The document also identified the decision to work through institutionalized dialogue structures in dealing with traditional and non-traditional security threats in some of the technology domains such as outer space and cyber space as well as a range of threats such as health security, natural disasters, terrorism, and transnational crimes through strengthened legal cooperation.
This iteration comes against the backdrop of Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s bilateral meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart General Ngo Xuan Lich in November, which emphasized defense collaboration as “a key pillar of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” between the two countries. In addition to defense industry collaboration, the two sides concluded an “Implementing Arrangement for cooperation in the field of Hydrography between National Hydrographic Office, India and Vietnam Hydrographic Office” at the earlier virtual defense ministers meeting. The sharing of hydrographic data will help in developing navigational charts by both countries. The two countries also agreed to produce an institutionalized framework agreement for industry collaboration soon. India also agreed to step up the scope and level of training extended to Vietnam military personnel in the Indian defense training institutions.
Vietnam has remained interested in the acquisition of a range of weapons and platforms from India, including the Akash air defense system and the Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles. These two systems have been on the India-Vietnam defense trade agenda for a long time but have not materialized yet. The possible sale of Brahmos systems to Vietnam was initially problematic from a Russian perspective, but those issues have reportedly been resolved.
While there has been historically strong strategic affinity between India and Vietnam, these bonds have become stronger, driven by the strategic necessity of dealing with an aggressive China that has been questioning the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both countries.
Author: Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is Distinguished Fellow and Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), one of India’s leading think tanks.