The benign ghosts of ‘Uncle Ho’ and ‘Chacha Nehru’ hovered in the conference hall of Sapru House, home of the Indian Council of World Affairs, as Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Phạm Bình Minh unveiled a soaring vision of India’s pivotal role in the emerging Asia-Pacific region against the backdrop of the defining shift of power from the west to the east.
There was a touch of history to the occasion as Vietnam’s foreign minister was speaking at the same place where the legendary Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh delivered an eloquent address on the India-Vietnam relations in 1958. It was also a homecoming of sorts, bristling with nostalgia, as Pham Ban Minh pledged his “personal commitment” to strengthen ties with India, a country he was born in 1958 when his father was first consult general of the Vietnamese embassy in New Delhi. Since then, the relations between the two countries have become multifarious and richer in diversity and density. Rajiv Bhatia, director-general, ICWA, aptly encapsulated the importance of his visit. “He comes at a time when strategic partnership between India and Vietnam is on an upward trajectory. Relations are blossoming well, but the two nations are determined to strengthen them further in many fields, in order to promote our mutual interests.”
Alluding to various facets of the unfolding Asian resurgence, Vietnam’s foreign minister underlined that “Asia is now becoming the centre of gravity, the engine of world growth and economic recovery.” “In the last few years, notwithstanding global economic downturn, Asian economies still register strong growth. Last year, that reached 7.6%,” he said at Sapru House, home of the prestigious Indian think tank, in New Delhi July 12.
“Another indication of Asia’s importance is that all major powers now focus on the region. It is inevitable as four leading global economies, three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and 10 out of 20 members of the G20 are from Asia.”
Mr Pham underscored the emergence of the Asia-Pacific region as a new theatre of global geopolitical reconfiguration and the need to negotiate an inclusive balanced architecture amid the ongoing flux. “The world has been paying most attention to China’s spectacular rise, the US with its strategic rebalancing, India’s Look East policy and Japan gradually assuming an active role,” he said.
“Many leading think tanks agree that by 2030 Asia – Pacific will surpass other continents and regions in terms of power, population, GDP output and military spending.”
Bigger Role for India
Lauding India’s growing global stature, Vietnam’s foreign minister echoed the widespread feeling about the need for India to play a more proactive role in the region and multifarious advantages of intensive India-ASEAN engagement.
“In this regard, ASEAN in general and Vietnam in particular always view India with great respect and as an important partner. India naturally has a formidable presence in the Indo-Pacific by virtue of its size, its economy and its willingness to assume a greater role on the world stage.”
Hailing India’s rise as an economic powerhouse and its strategic location astride the land and maritime space between East and West, he said “the country can contribute to regional growth through its growing web of FTAs and PTAs with ASEAN and other countries and its increasing two-way flows of investment with the rest of Asia.”
“In short, we in ASEAN welcome India’s commitment and engagement with ASEAN with concrete measures. We all want to see more of India’s presence in Southeast Asia, not only politically, but also economically,” he said.
Mr Pham’s eloquent praise of India’s global power status and a key regional player may not be music to the ears of Beijing, which resents Vietnam’s burgeoning relations with India and New Delhi’s growing economic presence and soft power advantage in a region it has tended to regard as its backyard.
“And as a responsible and proactive member of ASEAN, Vietnam stands ready to be at the forefront of the cooperation between the Association and India. With the even more active India in cooperation with ASEAN, we can dream of a vast Indo-Pacific with strong linkages, efficient connectivity and after all, with shared prosperity and peace.”
Freedom of Navigation
In a veiled allusion to Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, Mr Pham made a vigorous pitch for freedom of navigation and collective efforts to ensure the security of the global commons. “Among these complexities, we all share the common interest in peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation along the major maritime route that link West and East, from the Mediterranean, the Gulf through Indian Ocean, to the Eastern Sea and further to the Pacific.” During his talks with India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid July 11, the situation in the South China figured in the discussions besides the entire gamut of India-Vietnam relations. After the talks, Mr Pham vigorously defended Vietnam’s oil deals with India and underlined that both sides agreed that the UN law on freedom of navigation in both the South and East China Seas needs to be respected.
“Our position is that we need to respect the law of UNCLOS to solve the issues in the South China Sea, for peaceful resolution,” he said. He added that both sides had also reaffirmed that all the countries bordering the South and the East China Sea have rights to their exclusive economic zones. India can pursue ”exploration and exploitation work in the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam,” he said. On his part, Khurshid stressed that India remains committed to continuing bilateral collaboration with Vietnam “in the field of exploration.”
More Power to India-Vietnam Relations
The evolving geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region, the Vietnamese foreign minister indicated, could drive India and Vietnam closer in pursuit of a balanced and peaceful regional order and win-win opportunities in the realm of trade and investment.
“As much as I am proud of our long-lasting friendship, I am fully optimistic about the prospect of our relations. The potentials are there, and they are huge. What matters is we must continue to work tirelessly together to tap into those opportunities.” It’s time for India and Vietnam to seize this opportunity and shape a rising Asia.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.