By Akash Sahu 31 August 2021
India and Vietnam may find congruence in their strategic objectives as both countries struggle to manage China’s assertive rise frequently threatening their territorial integrity. Defence Ministers of India and Vietnam recently held an online interaction where they “expressed commitment to further enhance engagements”, indicating willingness from both sides to bolster ties. The 2020 Galwan valley clashes between Indian and Chinese troops induced the lowest point in Sino-Indian relations since 1962. Similarly, repeated incidents of sinking Vietnamese vessels by China’s navy the same year has markedly strained Sino-Vietnam bilateral relations.
However, China’s historical relationship with Vietnam, where animosity is presently centred on maritime conflict, is fundamentally different from its relationship with India, marred by contradicting interpretations of colonial-era land borders. A more meaningful India-Vietnam collaboration may be impeded due to the varying degrees of their economic and political relationship with Beijing. Both countries may find it prudent to address latent challenges to a deeper partnership, while pursuing diplomacy to strengthen mutual areas of strategic interest.
Recent Developments in India-Vietnam Relations
India and Vietnam share cordial political and economic relations since their independence. The bilateral ties were elevated to ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ in 2016, which remains a milestone in their diplomatic relations. Subsequently, there have been several high-level exchanges including the Vietnamese president and prime minister’s visit to India in 2018. In December 2020, prime ministers of both countries in a virtual summit set the ‘India-Vietnam Joint Vision for Peace, Prosperity, and People’. Most notably, the leaders underlined the need to maintain the stability of common maritime regions and ensure the resolution of disputes in accordance with international law without the use of force. A plan of action for 2021-2023 was welcomed, at least four MoUs were signed on areas like atomic energy and healthcare, and an increase of five Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) per year for Vietnam by India was announced.
Relationship with China
Vietnam’s relationship with China is an important determinant for the degree of closeness viable in its ties with India. Senior analyst Huong Le Thu explains Vietnam’s strategy in tackling China through four key points- internationalising the South China Sea dispute, boosting the role of multilateral institutions like ASEAN, militarily stalling Chinese aggressiveness, and still keeping the diplomatic channels open with Beijing. This indicates a balanced approach where antagonising China to the very end is not the objective. Some analysts also speculate that India may be expecting too much out of its relationship with Vietnam. The bilateral trade between Vietnam and China stood at USD 103.5 billion in 2020, marking the third consecutive year when trade exceeded USD 100 billion. In comparison, India-Vietnam bilateral trade lagged much behind at only USD 12.3 billion. Vietnam’s exports to China increased by 14.8 percent year-on-year while imports shot up by 5.9 percent. China is also Vietnam’s third-largest foreign investor after Singapore and South Korea. Understandably, Vietnam would neither want to jeopardise its economic interests nor escalate tensions to the point of direct military confrontation with China.
On the other hand, India and China have barely eased their worst military stand-off in decades. The stakes have been higher and the propensity to escalate, given strong nationalism on both sides of the border, is also high. Even though there is a substantial bilateral trade of USD 57.48 billion between the two countries, India faces a huge trade deficit of 55.6 percent. China’s military and economic status elude it from being cajoled by ‘import leverage’. Nevertheless, since both India and China are nuclear powers, there is also a strong deterrent if the situation becomes extremely volatile. New Delhi is troubled more by China’s longer-term objectives of supremacy in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which can affect India’s aspirations to become a major power and assume larger regional roles. Therefore, India-China military footing can be seen as relatively more balanced and less susceptible to ‘total war’ than in the case of Vietnam. In an effort to assuage such insecurities, Vietnam’s strategy is a mix of multilateral diplomacy and hedging among great powers in a Real Politik fashion to guard its interests. Hanoi will also be inherently discouraged to participate in a grouping like the Quad, which China views with suspicion.
A Future Roadmap
Even though the government in India since 2014 has reaffirmed its foreign policy priorities by upgrading the ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’ policy, implementation on the ground could be seen as less than expected. An action-oriented approach to bilateral trade will certainly strengthen business engagements. Better economic relations can provide greater legroom to Hanoi and New Delhi for setting a more synchronized roadmap of military and defence relationships. The special impetus should also be given to Joint Vision 2020’s clauses of cooperation in climate and supply chain resilience, as well as research in “transformative technologies”, given advanced countries’ reluctance in sharing cutting-edge technology.
Nguyen Khac Jiang, the senior research fellow at Vietnam National University, infers that “China’s behaviour is likely to push Vietnam further away from Beijing’s orbit”, pointing to China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will further create fertile grounds for a deeper India-Vietnam partnership. Policymakers in New Delhi and Hanoi may find it useful to clear the air on redlines of their strategic overreach. It will help them set a realistic and more productive agenda for the bilateral relationships, especially in the context of China. The 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties in 2022 will be a suitable occasion to set a definite path for the advancement of bilateral relations. Greater and more transparent dialogue between the two governments can help identify provocative stances for careful consideration, and boost qualitative collaboration for mutual benefit.
The author is a researcher in Indo-pacific geopolitics and Southeast Asian studies. His areas of interest include balance of power, and traditional and non-traditional security in the region. He works as a Research Analyst with Centre for Southeast Asia & Oceania at New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA).