India and Vietnam have shared close relations ever since the relations were established between them. In the recent times, there have been important developments in this instrumental relationship. In a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on October, Prime Minister Modi said, “Our Defence cooperation with Vietnam is among our most important ones, India remains committed to the modernisation of Vietnam’s Defence and Security Forces,” Modi said in his statement following his recent meeting in New Delhi. The Prime Minister of Socialist Republic of Vietnam, H.E. Mr. Nguyen Tan Dung accompanied by his spouse paid a State Visit to the Republic of India from 27-28 October 2014 at the invitation of the Prime Minister of India, H.E. Shri Narendra Modi. During this meeting, the two prime ministers welcomed the developments in the relationship that has led to the strengthening of strategic partnership between the two countries. The Indian and Vietnamese sides also expressed optimism in the success of visits of President of India, Pranab Mukherjee’s and Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj’s respective visits to Vietnam in 2014, in the successive months of September and August respectively. A joint statement released after the meeting said the Prime Ministers were satisfied at the progress made in defence cooperation including exchange of visits, annual security dialogue, service to service cooperation, ship visits, training, capacity building and cooperation at regional forums among others. The Press statement said, “They expressed hope that the ongoing robust defence and security cooperation between India and Vietnam will continue to be strengthened through regular exchanges at high level.” In December 2014, The Chief of Army Staff of India, General Dalbir Singh Suhag visited Vietnam from December 17 to December 20, which was the first ever visit by a chief of Indian Army to Vietnam and was aimed to boost the defence and strategic cooperation between the two nations apart from strengthening army to army cooperation. Most recently on 16th January 2015, a high level Vietnamese delegation led by Deputy defence minister senior Lt Gen Ngyyen Chi Vinh visited India and engaged in a strategic dialogue with an Indian delegation led by Defence Secretary of India, R K Mathur. The Vietnamese delegation also met Chief of Army Staff General Suhag and National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval.
Vietnam and India plan to boost security and defence ties between them include expansion into training program for armed forces and also include joint exercises between the armed forces of these two nations. India and Vietnam have also decided to cooperate in exchange of defence equipment and this marks a substantial development in this partnership. The India and Vietnam bilateral relations were raised to the level of Strategic Partnership in 2007 during an official visit to India by Honourable Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung. India-Vietnam Strategic Partnership can be expected to create new dimensions with India recently declaring its plan to operationalize $100 Million Line of Credit to Vietnam that would enable the nation to acquire new naval vessels from India. It requires to be mentioned here that as on December 2013, India extended 17 Lines of Credit to Vietnam worth $165 million starting from the year 1976. According to the official sources, Vietnam has not identified the naval shipyard from where it would procure four naval vessels. It can be interpreted as India has actually pushed ahead with a new strategy to establish itself as a leading military exporter through use of export credits.The decision to procure four new naval vessels has been seen as a move by Vietnam to build a naval deterrent to counter China in the region of disputed Spratly Islands Chain in South China Sea by employing these vessels to increase surveillance off its coast. India and Vietnam defence relationship previously has been restricted to military exchanges, training of armed forces, and maintenance of military hardware.
Now in its commitment to boost military modernisation, India has now planned to extend the training for Vietnamese Air Force pilots in flying Sukhoi jets also. It has been already training the personnel of Vietnamese Navy in operation of Russian origin Kilo Class Submarine. It is noteworthy of mention, in June 2013, a delegation of four naval ships of Indian Navy which included indigenously built stealth frigate INS Satpura and also fleet carrier INS Shakti visited Vietnam with a contingent of approx. 1200 officers and sailors. Now this decision to supply the naval vessels to Vietnam is seemingly an assertiveness on part of India to fulfil the strategic objectives of its “Look East” Policy.
After the visit of Secretary General of Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Tong to India, it was announced that India would train up to five hundred Vietnamese sailors in “comprehensive underwater combat operations” at its modern submarine training centre INS Satvahana.
The current geostrategic realities in the Asia-Pacific has also brought India and Vietnam close to each other in defence cooperation. Regarding the South China Sea disputes, Vietnamese establishment considers India as a responsible partner in terms of the existing oil and gas exploration by India in South China Sea. Prime Minister Nguyen on his recent visit to India, said in his press statement, “Highly appreciated India’s position regarding East Sea [South China Sea] issue and India’s continued cooperation with Vietnam in oil and Defense cooperation.” It is a matter of importance that during this meeting in New Delhi, India and Vietnam signed several agreements, one of which was a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on granting ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation) Videsh Ltd access to two blocks in South China Sea for oil exploration. It needs to be noted that during the visit of President Pranab Mukherjee to Vietnam in September 2014, he met the President of Vietnam Truong Tan Sang and the joint communique which was issued, they called for freedom of navigation in South China Sea/East Sea and also reiterated the need to exercise restraint by all the parties involved, also to abide by and implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Looking from a geostrategic aspect, these latest developments and bilateral exchanges in defence relations between India and Vietnam just prior to visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India, has provided for a greater role of India in the Asia-Pacific region apart from providing the leverage to India in maximizing political space in the context of geostrategic rivalry with China.
Munshi Zubaer Haque
Research Intern, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis