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Why Vietnam is an important ally for India

By Melissa S Hersh and Dr Ajey Lele
December 02, 2014 18:23 IST
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Ho Chi Minh cityVietnam is a key player in India’s act east policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. From India’s perspective, a strategic partnership with Vietnam will only deepen political, economic, and security ties and be a bulwark against China, say Melissa S Hersh and Dr Ajey Lele

Vietnam has been actively working to strategically engage both the United States and India to stand in its corner to counter China’s territorial claims. And, as a result, Vietnam’s foreign, security, and economic policy have figured prominently in American and Indian domestic circles.

Additionally, Vietnam is courting various countries embroiled in maritime disputes with China, including the Philippines and Japan. Though Vietnam has voiced support for the Triple Action Plan proposed by the Philippines, it is not relying on due process and arbitration alone.

Consequently, Vietnam has been on a procurement spree to bolster its maritime defences, in part subsidised by generous lines of credit from the US and India and through the donation of used patrol vessels by Japan. For all of Vietnam’s rumblings, there is still a faction within the country that would like to a peaceful resolution of differences with China. It appears though, that peace through deterrence is the more immediate solution.

Vietnam is a key player in India’s act east policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2010, an ASEAN-India Trade in Goods agreement entered into force, laying the groundwork for a future free trade agreement. Furthermore, Vietnam has been a strategic advocate for India within ASEAN, and will also serve as the country coordinator for India from 2015 to 2018.

From India’s perspective, a strategic partnership with Vietnam will only deepen political, economic, and security ties; during 2013-14, trade between the two countries stood at $8 billion registering a growth of over 30 per cent over the previous year. And, as India’s trade aspirations increase, particularly with respect to its indigenous aerospace and defence exports, Modi’s administration is actively working to overturn the refusal by the previous coalition government to equip Vietnam with military hardware.

On his third visit to India in the past seven years, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung cemented an evolving alliance between the two South Asian countries by inking new defence and energy deals. This deal will result in India rapidly operationalising a $100 million line of credit to the Vietnamese for the purchase of four off-shore naval vessels to be used to patrol Vietnamese-claimed energy assets in the South China Sea.

In return, the Indian government signed an agreement to expand its exploration relationship with PetroVietnam. For India, the move was less about thwarting Chinese expansionism and more likely meant to foster indigenous defence sector exports and increase trade opportunities in the energy sector.

According to media speculation, India will likely be closely scrutinising an opportunity for to sell Vietnam BrahMos short range anti-ship cruise missiles. The BrahMos missiles are a joint Indian-Russian endeavour, and the Vietnamese are equal opportunity buyers when it comes to kitting out their navy. They are in the market for the Improved Kilo/Varshavyanka Class variant Russian submarines as well as for surface warfare-equipped frigates.

While chatter around this sale began shortly after China’s decision to deploy a deep-sea oil rig in Vietnamese-claimed waters, the dynamic has subsequently changed since China has opted to move the rig for obfuscated reasons.

Another area that Modi’s administration will possibly have to tackle is selling Vietnam intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies. India may be able to provide an alternative to Japanese and European space-related solutions. Vietnam’s ISR requests could lead to a quid pro quo opportunity for India to establish ground-based satellite operations in Ho Chi Minh City.

Since 2006, the US has been working with India on a Framework for Maritime Security Cooperation. As part of the American commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, and to the growing ties between India and the US, third-party camaraderie is as an asset. Enhancing maritime domain awareness is consistent with US doctrine in India and increasingly, with Vietnam.

This is a multi-pronged approach that addresses administrative and organisational capacity-building in exclusive economic zones but also operational capacity building to counter growing amphibious threats ranging from piracy to terrorism.  Both India and Vietnam have been victims of piracy, and the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai began as an amphibious operation.

The United States and Vietnam are celebrating the rapprochement between the two nations that fought a bloody conflict 50 years ago. This anniversary only serves to strengthen a 2013 bilateral comprehensive partnership agreement. As the US and Vietnam work to address issues related to trade, environment and climate change, human rights, education, and building maritime capacity, there are two other noteworthy bilateral engagements: an agreement on civil nuclear energy and a seismic shift in defence policy resulting in the partial lifting of a decades-old arms embargo with respect to lethal military assistance -- specifically referring to maritime defence and security. 

Under the US-Vietnam comprehensive partnership, building maritime capacity has a two-pronged goal:  to enhance Vietnam’s third-party logistics competencies, reduce trans-shipment needs through building larger and more modern ports to manage greater throughput, and strengthen MDA generally. Building Vietnam’s off-shore patrol capabilities also strengthens Vietnam’s maritime defenses while leveraging sentinels in the South China Seas for the US.

An enhanced trade and security relationship between the US and Vietnam has not been without reservations on both sides; Washington has voiced its disapproval of heavy-handed state-owned enterprises and a lacklustre human rights portfolio to Hanoi. The effect on internal politics within Vietnam has not gone unnoticed.

Doi Moi reformists are eager to adopt more western commercial standards while the conservatives remain reluctant to lessen their grip on national assets which they believe would disrupt the security balance. Negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Economic Partnership Agreement are framed by the US as a gateway for American businesses to gain access to some of the world’s fastest growing markets.

While China may be moving towards a post-American narrative where the sphere of influence lies outside of Washington, the US continues to strengthen its alliances in South East and Southern Asia. Whether the US can offer attractive alternatives to those being offered by China through BRIC and SCO fora is unknown.

It remains to be seen if the US, India, Vietnam, and others, such as Japan, the Philippines, and Singapore will agree on a common operating picture for how to peacefully resolve disputed territory in the South China Seas. Recent gatherings of world leaders in the Asia-Pacific region have highlighted these issues.

For the US, lifting a partial ban on arms trade to Vietnam, so it can enhance its MDA and by proxy that of the US, through strengthening defence, security, and interdiction capabilities, has added an international dimension to what was a regional matter.

Image: Ho Chi Minh city, the capital of Vietnam by night

Melissa S Hersh is a Washington, DC-based risk analyst and consultant, and Truman National Security Fellow. Dr Ajey Lele is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. The views expressed are their own.


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