Modi’s Vietnam visit is timely and crucial for several reasons. First, Vietnam lies at the heart of India’s vision for Southeast Asia as also its ‘Act East’ policy. India also wants to boost its defence exports to friendly countries. And it is looking to increase trade between the two countries which now is only $7.83 billion, says Dr Rahul Mishra.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins a much-awaited visit to Vietnam on September 3. This visit has the potential to step up India’s presence in Southeast Asia and give a much-needed fillip to India’s ‘Act East’ policy.
After a one-day visit, he will be heading to Hangzhou, China, to participate in the G20 summit. He will be back to the Southeast Asian region to attend 14th India-ASEAN summit and 11th East Asia Summit in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, on September 6-8.
Though there have been regular exchanges at the high level between the two countries, visit by an Indian prime minister after of 15 years makes Modi’s trip significant. The last PM to visit Vietnam was Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2001. Other high level visits include Vice President Hamid Ansari’s 2013 visit, and a visit by President Pranab Mukherjee in 2014.
From Vietnam’s side, notable visits include President Truong Tan Sang in October 2011, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen PhuTrong in November 2013, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in December 2012 and October 2014.
Modi’s Vietnam visit is timely and crucial for several reasons. First, Vietnam lies at the heart of India’s vision for Southeast Asia as also its ‘Act East’ policy. Thus, it is high time that India shows that it attaches significance to its relations with Vietnam, particularly when the next year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of India-Vietnam diplomatic relations and 10th anniversary of India-Vietnam strategic level partnership.
Also, this visit will provide India an opportunity to get familiar with Vietnam’s new leadership, which assumed power in early 2016. Second, Vietnam is India’s country coordinator for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations till 2018. Therefore, for further strengthening relations with ASEAN, it is vital for India to focus on bilateral relations with Vietnam too.
Third, India is in the process of boosting its defence exports to friendly countries. As stated by Secretary (East) Preeti Saran on September 1 in a press briefing, “Vietnam is an important strategic partner to India and central pillar of the Act East Policy.” Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s Vietnam visit in the first half of 2016 may also be seen in this context. With the attempt to move the bilateral defence cooperation to up by a few notches, the visit was geared towards enhancing “the defence industry networking, information sharing and exploration of possibilities for partnerships and collaborations between the two countries.”
One of the key highlights of Modi’s visit is likely to be the discussion on extending India’s defence exports to Vietnam, which is a vital defence partner of India. One of the major breakthroughs during Modi is likely to be the finalisation of the agreement for supplying four offshore patrol vessels to Vietnamese military under the framework of the $100-million line of credit extended during Nguyen Tan Dung’s 2014 India visit.
Discussions on the selling of BrahMos missile -- a short-range supersonic cruise missile developed by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation in partnership with Russia -- would be high on the agenda too.
However, there is still some time before India sells the BrahMos to Vietnam. One of the major hurdles India has to overcome is international restrictions. In order to deal with that, India has become a member of Missile Technology Control Regime; the operational range of BrahMos is 290 km, which is still 10-km less than the 300 km-permissible range under the MTCR.
India’s defence cooperation with Vietnam is particularly important because India still has the tag of the largest arms importer in the world. Vietnam’s defence procurement from India would also place India in a category of defence equipment exporting countries.
Fourth, the visit is taking place in the aftermath of the much-debated ruling on the South China Sea dispute by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. This visit will be the first by Modi to the East/Southeast Asian region since the the verdict. The ruling turned out to be in the favour of the Philippines discarding China’s so-called ‘historic rights’ on the sea. Though India’s stand on the issue of the South China Sea has been consistent, Vietnam along with the Philippines desire India to play a bigger role.
India is viewed as a friend and a reliable long-time partner in Vietnam. A closer look at the recent developments, including regular exchange of visits and agreements signed in the past few years, indicates that horizon of bilateral relations has expanded to also include defence and security component.
India-Vietnam bilateral relations are moving on the right track and India is no longer hesitant to display that Vietnam is one of its top foreign policy priorities. However, there still are a few issues that demand India and Vietnam’s attention. Bilateral trade between the two countries in 2015-16 was just $7.83 billion.
Considering the complementarity, mutual trust and comfort, and desire to work together, the total trade is below potential and needs to be taken more seriously. Increasing people-to-people contacts also demands more attention as Vietnam still does not come close to Singapore and Thailand in terms of tourist visits. Linguistic unfamiliarity is a major bottleneck on that count. There are only a handful Vietnamese experts in India, and the language has not been promoted sincerely in India. One of the possible options on that count could be to introduce Vietnamese language courses where there is already a Chinese language centre. Similarity in the two languages would provide students with an option.
India needs to be more proactive in its approach, keep a long-term view on trade and economic issues, and show more sincerity in implementing projects. Together, this would add more credibility to its Act East Policy and position India as a ‘benign power of considerable strength’ in the region.
Dr Rahul Mishra is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.