India needs to engage Vietnam more in its defence, security and even foreign economic engagements than it has been doing so far. In fact, one can easily assess and discover that India’s negligence or inability to rope in Vietnam as a key component of its Act East policy and now Indo-Pacific strategy has already cost it dearly.
One can certainly list out a long list of exchange of visits at high levels, statements made, and joint declarations announced, but compared to its potential, it is one of the most underutilized potentials in India’s foreign policy tool.
Probably, India enjoys maximum amount of goodwill in Vietnam among all the countries in the world. As India increasingly loses its friendliness in its immediate neighbourhood, its requirement to compensate it by not being complacent of its goodwill in the extended neighbourhood becomes imperative. China’s growing popularity in countries surrounding India is a wake up call how India should no more ignore the need to place its foothold more deeply in Indo-China, particularly Vietnam, but including Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia and the Korean Peninsula.
Actually loving the neighbour is a difficult thing in international relations. Loving the neighbours’ neighbours is relatively easy and is also desirable. When the neighbour’s neighbour is economically doing well, strategically located, cultural affinity of some sort exists and has reasonably good diplomatic understanding, a country’s leadership should guard against complacency.
Vietnam is such a country that India must rise above its complacency and seek deeper and more expansive cooperation. Vietnamese economy, especially since systematic implementation of Doi Moi (economic reforms) has been performing very well for last several years. Japan has been one of the biggest investors in that country and currently running more than 3000 projects. Vietnam and Japan have common problems with China that has severe maritime disputes with them in East China Sea and South China Sea. Japan-Vietnam maritime cooperation thus is also in the upward swing.
South Korea off late has replaced Japan as the leading investor. More than 7000 South Korean companies are present in Vietnam creating about 700, 000 jobs. Korean movies, mobiles and even TV shows are growing popular among the Vietnamese people. Significantly, Vietnam is the third largest destination of South Korean exports after China and the United States.
Even China has taken great advantage of dynamic economy of Vietnam and has positioned itself as the number one trading partner of Vietnam. In the mean time, the US trying to forget the trauma inflicted by the prolonged Vietnam War has moved ahead, recognised Vietnam and has lifted ban on trade with Vietnam. Significantly, the trade war between the United States and China has benefitted Vietnam a great deal and in last nine months Vietnam’s trade with the United States has substantially increased. In the first quarter of 2019, the United States became the largest importer of Vietnamese goods.
It is in the backdrop of all these developments that India has to walk the extra miles to forge deeper economic and military ties with Vietnam. The proposed direct flight between India and Vietnam has not materialised yet. While India-Vietnam trade has substantively increased in last couple of decades, it is certainly below its potential.
The key sectors that can make India and Vietnam strategic partners are defence and security and energy. Vietnam deserves to bolster its maritime, missile and civil nuclear capabilities. What is required is India-Vietnam cooperation in defence trade, military intelligence sharing and civil nuclear and space cooperation. Since Russia is an important defence supplier of Vietnam, interoperability of their defence forces during military exercises should be relatively easy.
In all these, the criticism that may come from certain quarters is that India-Vietnam defence ties may irk China. It should be crystal clear that neither Vietnam nor India are interested in any containment strategy. Secondly, if China and Pakistan can have sustained cooperation in nuclear, missile and conventional sectors of defence, how can China object to India-Vietnam strategic partnership?
Indeed, China-Vietnam relations are much more positive and cooperative than India-Pakistan relations. Thus there is no potency in the argument that China needs to worry about Indo-Vietnam strategic relations. Moreover, it is China that has gone ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative and related construction activities in Pakistan occupied territory in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and it has simultaneously objected to India oil exploration activities in South China Sea. Chinese claim in South China Sea is not recognised by any country except itself. Pakistan’s claim over its occupied territory in Kashmir also has no international recognition or sympathy.
Vietnam is an important member of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), is one of the most dynamic economies in this regional grouping, is known for its social and political stability and is certainly a militarily power in Southeast Asia. As some one has said, it has all the credibility and qualifications to become an all-weather friend of India. More needs to be done than what meets the eyes today in bolstering the bilateral relationship between India and Vietnam.