vietnam-envoyIt’s a milestone year in India-Vietnam relations as the two strategic partners celebrate the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. This period has seen a marked acceleration of India-Vietnam relations across the spectrum, including in areas of trade and defence and development. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam in September 2015 saw the elevation of bilateral ties to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The ongoing churn in South China Sea has imparted an added traction to enhancing strategic cooperation between India and Vietnam.

In this wide-ranging interview with Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief, India Writes Network, Vietnam’s ambassador to India Ton Sinh Thanh outlines a vibrant picture of the trajectory of this crucial relationship and underlines the need for a more active role by India in Southeast Asia and the extended region.  The envoy also underscored that the burgeoning India-Vietnam relations is not targeted at China or any third country and stressed on peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute through dialogue.

Q) This year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Vietnam? How do you look at the special quality of India-Vietnam relations? What are the plans for celebrating this important milestone in the history of India-Vietnam relations?

A) Vietnam and India had thousands years of cultural, religious and commercial interactions. The people of the two countries showed sympathy and support for each other during their struggle for independence. The establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Vietnam in 1972 was the culmination of the Indian support to Vietnam during our resistance against the US aggression. The friendship and cooperation between our two countries have always been strong since then. These relations are freed from any problem and are firmly founded on mutual trust and convergence of strategic interests. In 2007 the two countries upgraded the relationship to Strategic partnership and in 2016 again upgraded it to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. This is highest level of relations that Vietnam has with other countries.

Q) 2017 also marks the 25th anniversary of India-ASEAN relations. How does Vietnam look at Indias role in ASEAN and what are Hanois expectations in this regard?

A) Vietnam is currently the coordinator for ASEAN-India relations. We expect India to play an active role as a strong strategic partner of ASEAN. This role is not only very much in line with India’s Act East Policy, but is also welcomed by all ASEAN members. Vietnam shall work closely with India to carry many activities to celebrate 25th anniversary of ASEAN-India relations this year.

vietnam-modiQ) How do you look at the transformation of Indias Look East policy into Act East under the Narendra Modi government?

A) This is a really good and timely transformation. It brings a lot of confidence to ASEAN members and inspires them to be more active in promoting a stronger partnership with India.

Q) Prime Minister Modi had a successful visit to Vietnam in September 2016. What are key areas of India-Vietnam relationship which will see concrete progress and headway in days to come?

A) During the visit by Prime Minister Modi to Vietnam in September 2016, the two sides reached many agreements, especially the upgrade of our relationship to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. We will see a lot of progress in many areas in the days to come. There will more frequent exchange of high level visits to strengthen our political relations and mutual trusts. Defence and Security cooperation will be further enhanced; first of all, to realise the credit line of US$ 500 million declared by PM Modi for Vietnam. Besides some trade promotion activities in an effort to raise the two-way trade, we would expect a direct flight to be opened soon between the two countries. We will also see progress in science & technology, culture-education cooperation between the two countries this year.

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (L) waves next to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during Dung's ceremonial reception at the forecourt of India's presidential palace Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi October 28, 2014. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR4BTX1

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

Q) In the strategic arena, can you identify focus areas, especially in the area of military sales?

A) We should first of all focus on the economic area, which is an important strategic area as identified by the leaders of the two countries during the visit to Vietnam by PM Modi. This area has huge potential, which has not yet been exploited. We should also continue to focus on other pillars of the Strategic Partnership, namely political relations, defence and security cooperation as well as science-technology and culture-education cooperation.

India-Vietnam ties not targeted at any third country

Q) China suspects that the growing India-Vietnam relationship is targeted at Beijing? Is this apprehension justified?

A) Vietnam advocates an independent foreign policy and good relations with all nations in the world, including China. The growing India-Vietnam relationship is to serve the interests of both countries and for the sake of peace, stability and cooperation in the region. It is not targeted against any third party.

Q) On South China Sea, whats your message to China? How should this contentious issue be resolved? Do you envisage a role for India in this?

A) First of all, we would like to emphasise our earnest aspiration to have good relations with China, our biggest neighbour. We shall do our best to promote our relations with China.

Regarding the the East Sea (South China Sea) issue,  the only major remaining dispute between Vietnam and China, we want to stress that Vietnam has sufficient historical evidence and legal foundation to confirm its sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Islands. However, we are ready to settle the disputes of these islands by peaceful means, through bilateral and multilateral negotiations in compliance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and with respect to diplomatic and legal processes. Pending a solution to the disputes of these islands, all parties concerned should not have any activity to change the status-quo, fully and efficiently executing the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC)” and striving together with ASEAN to soon accomplish a “Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC)”. China and Vietnam should also strictly observe the Vietnam–China Agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of maritime issues.

It is the stake of all nations inside and outside the region, including India which is acting East, to have peace, stability and freedom of navigation in South China Sea. We are looking forward to a more active role and engagement of India in Southeast Asia.

Q) Finally, whats your views on the unfolding Asian renaissance and the role of India-Vietnam relationship in facilitating regional stability and prosperity?

A) The re-emergence of Asia is very clear. It has now the biggest share of global production. Trade among Asian nations has crossed US$ 3000 billion, accounting for more than 53% of its total trade, showing a high degree of interdependence among Asian economies. India’s Look East – Act East Policy and especially the participation of India in East Asia Summit process have scaled up in a big way the rise of Asia as well as the regional cooperation.

Vietnam, after more than 30 years of transformation, has improved to a great extent its economic and political status. The comprehensive strategic partnership between our two countries would surely contribute to the rise of Asia and cooperation as well as stability and prosperity in the region.



vietnam-modi1With China closely watching amid the ongoing ferment in the South China Sea, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will head to Vietnam, the first stop of his extended overseas trip which will impart a greater strategic traction to India’s Act East policy at the dual ASEAN and EAS summits in Laos.

Why Vietnam Matters

The importance of Mr Modi’s maiden visit to Vietnam, an emerging ASEAN economy and a crucial plank in the maritime stability in the region, can’t be overstated. Over the years, Vietnam has morphed into a trusted strategy ally of India due to a host of reasons, with China’s assertive posturing in South China Sea driving the two countries in a closer embrace. In so far as history goes, PM Modi’s day-long sojourn in Vietnam is the first prime ministerial visit from India in 15 years and coincides with the 10th anniversary of strategic partnership and 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. The growing importance of Hanoi in New Delhi’s strategic calculus is also evident in the choice of Vietnam as the destination for a bilateral visit as his other stops on the week-long tour are primarily for multilateral summits (G20 summit in Hanzhou- September 4-5; and India-ASEAN and EAS summits in Laos September 6-8).

vietnam-india-newRecent developments in the region have only accentuated the importance of India-Vietnam relations. The timing of the visit is critical as it comes in the wake of an adverse verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejecting China’s historic rights to the South China Sea, underpinned by the so-called nine-dash line, and Beijing’s rejection of the verdict, which has put in the forefront issues regarding maritime stability, freedom of navigation and international law of the sea. China’s militarization of South China Sea and its continuing opposition to India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) have become source of dissonance to varying degree in India-China relations. Against this backdrop, the leaders of India and Vietnam will take a larger view and will be looking to shape a balanced and inclusive order in the region. With a growing chorus from Vietnam and other friendly countries in ASEAN egging on India to play the role of a balancing power in the Asia-Pacific region, PM Modi’s visit will see the infusion of more depth and substance in the burgeoning India-Vietnam strategic partnership.

Bolstering Defence Ties

vietnam-defencePM Modi’s visit to Vietnam will put the spotlight on an intersection of India’s Act East Policy and Hanoi’s Act West Policy as they deepen their military and economic partnership. Building upon the ongoing transformation of the defence relationship, one can expect India to play a bigger role in Vietnam’s military modernisation. In the military sphere, there is a convergence of interests and a demand-supply fit which will ensure that the relationship keeps growing. India has already provided $100 million line of credit to Vietnam which is being used by Vietnam for procuring offshore vessels.

During Mr Modi’s visit, India is expected to provide a fresh Line of Credit, which could be packaged as development assistance, but may be harnessed by Vietnam for its ongoing military modernisation. One can also expect progress in ongoing discussions for the sale of anti-submarine torpedo Varunastra and other high-value weaponry. These discussions will be guided by the May 2015 joint vision statement on defence cooperation from 2015-20 to expand defence ties, including naval cooperation between the two countries.

vietnam-brahmosThe big decision remains, and speculation continues to proliferate about whether India will sell BrahMos supersonic missiles to Vietnam, a move that will clearly antagonise Beijing. India’s induction into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) has cleared the last hurdle in the way of selling BrahMos missiles not just to Vietnam, but also to other friendly countries. The sale of BrahMos was discussed by India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar with his Vietnamese counterpart General Ngo Xuan Lich in June, and is expected to see concrete results during PM Modi’s visit

China Factor

China will be the elephant in the room when PM Modi is closeted with Vietnam’s top leaders in Hanoi. Vietnam has protested against Beijing’s rejection of the Hague tribunal’s ruling, a position that is broadly in harmony with India’s exhortation to China to show utmost respect for the tribunal’s ruling. The two countries will probably avoid getting entangled in containment games, but one can expect frank discussions on the latest situation in South China Sea. The joint statement will reflect this convergence of perspectives on freedom of navigation, the imperative of upholding a rules-based international order and closer collaboration in maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific region, on the lines of India-US joint statement and India-Vietnam joint statement.

Talking of strategic chessboard, a new construct has emerged in influential circles about the creation of India-Vietnam axis to counter the China-Pakistan axis. This theory has its attractions, but needs several caveats. India is not in the business of containing China by using Vietnam as it’s not a transactional or patron-client relationship, but is informed by a shared outlook on regional stability.

vietnam-buddha1There are fundamental differences between the China-Pakistan and the India-Vietnam relations. India is not supporting any overt anti-China agenda in Vietnam and neither is Vietnam using terrorism against China, which Pakistan does against India. On the contrary, India-Vietnam relations are animated by a shared perspective on issues relating freedom of navigation, international law and regional stability. The containment theory, in short, has its temptations, but has also severe limitations.

Heart & Mind

Moving beyond merely strategic calculations, what imparts an emotional resonance to India-Vietnam relations is deeply felt solidarity and connections of heart and mind, as exemplified in spiritual linkages of Buddhism and the enduring popularity of Indian films among the Vietnamese people.

Instead of getting lost in a strategic maze, the two countries are rightfully focusing on enhancing people-to-people bonds through travel, tourism and cultural contacts. Most Indian tourists go to Thailand and Singapore in vietnam-halongSoutheast Asia, but the beauty of Vietnam remains to be discovered. Taking strategy is no excuse for not seeing the country with your own eyes. It’s time to open the unusual door, see more and open new vistas in this mutually invigorating partnership.

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