India using Vietnam to access West Pacific

By Liu Zongyi Source:Global Times Published: 2018/3/6 20:03:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang's trip to India came just weeks after Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc's visit. Although Indian media said Quang's visit was a historic milestone in ties, it was exaggerated. However, his trip does indicate the two countries are striving to advance the "comprehensive strategic partnership," which signals how the situation on China's periphery is evolving against the backdrop of China's rapid rise and the Indo-Pacific strategy promoted by the US, Japan, India and Australia.

Undeniably, defense and security cooperation buttresses India-Vietnam ties. The two nations had border disputes with China and learnt a lesson.  The India-Vietnam defense and security cooperation began in the 1980s. As India launched the "Look East" policy and Vietnam escalated its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea in the 1990s, Indo-Vietnam defense and security ties deepened.

India's "Look East" policy has been changed to the "Act East" policy after Narendra Modi took office as Indian prime minister in 2014. Vietnam is an important partner of India in implementing the policy. In May 2015, New Delhi and Hanoi signed a Joint Vision Statement on Defense Cooperation for the period 2015-20 to enhance marine security cooperation and military drills. In 2016, Modi visited Vietnam and ties were elevated to a comprehensive strategic partnership. He also extended a new line of credit of $500 million for Vietnam to facilitate deeper defense cooperation.

Besides other areas of cooperation, India's weapons sale to Vietnam, intelligence sharing and maritime security have become highlights of security cooperation. New Delhi has committed to helping train Vietnamese fighter pilots on Russia-made Sukhoi Su-30 jets and submariners on Russian Kilo-class vessels. India has also offered to sell supersonic BrahMos cruise missiles, Varunastra anti-submarine torpedoes and other advanced military hardware and software to Vietnam.

The two nations have established formal mechanisms in strategy, defense and security, such as the Joint Commission Meeting at the Foreign Ministers' level, Strategic Dialogue at the Deputy Foreign Minister's level and Security Dialogue at the Deputy Defense Minister's level. They often send warships to visit each other and hold joint sea drills.

Vietnam is a springboard for Indian naval forces to expand influence from the Indian Ocean to the West Pacific. India has also helped Vietnam build military capabilities. New Delhi is hosting the biennial, eight-day exercise codenamed "Milan" on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean from Tuesday, where Vietnam is one of 23 participating nations.

Containing China in strategy and security is the driving force of India-Vietnam ties. Economic cooperation between the two states also carries strategic motives. In 2013, India's ONGC Videsh signed an agreement with Petro Vietnam to explore and develop oil and natural gas fields in the disputed areas in the South China Sea. During Vietnamese Prime Minister's visit to India last January, both agreed to enhance cooperation in oil and natural gas, as well as trilateral cooperation with other nations.

Quang underscored the potential of ties with India to media prior to his trip to New Delhi. For India, cooperating with Vietnam helps check China and promote the "Look East" and "Act East" policies. As Vietnam's economy grows and it gains a stronger foothold in ASEAN, it will help India develop ties with other ASEAN countries. That's why India considers Vietnam an important pillar to advance its "Act East" policy.

In 2001, India proposed the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) with other five ASEAN nations and focused on building rail and road linkages between India and Vietnam, which has similarities with the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor initiated by the US in 2014. As China beefs up efforts to advance the Belt and Road initiative, India strives to propel the building of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor and establish an open Indo-Pacific order. Indo-Pacific strategy has received a boost in the last two years through the efforts of the US, Japan, India and Australia, and Modi hopes to rope Vietnam in.

But for Vietnam, its comprehensive strategic partnership with India is skewed. India's trade and investment in Vietnam is not comparable to China's business ties with the country. Despite the fact that India is one of Vietnam's top 10 trade partners, the two-way trade between Vietnam and India in 2017 grossed $7.5 billion, less than one-tenth of China's trade volume with Hanoi. In terms of investment, India ranks 28th among 126 countries and regions that invest in Vietnam. Quang led a delegation composed mainly of 80 senior officials and influential Vietnamese businessmen and industrialists to India, signaling the economic significance of his trip.

The author is a senior fellow of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China and a distinguished fellow of the China (Kunming) South Asia & Southeast Asia Institute.

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