Amid the ongoing churn in Asian geopolitics and Beijing’s charm offensive to reset relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours, India and Vietnam are poised for a closer strategic and economic embrace during Vietnam’s top leader’s visit to India this week.
The four-day visit (November 19-22) by General Secretary of Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong to Delhi marks a high point in burgeoning relations between India and Vietnam, a country of 90 million gritty and enterprising people, which is rapidly emerging as an economic dynamo in the region. The visit takes place at a time when India and Vietnam are looking at each other afresh and are finding a greater congruence of economic and security interests to scale up their strategic partnership forged six years ago.
Mr Nguyen is no stranger to India, and came here as chairman of the National Assembly only three years ago. Since he took reins of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the Vietnamese leader has made developing relations with India a top foreign policy priority of a resurgent country which is trying to carve a place in the shadow of its giant and assertive neighbour China. Known for its history of defiance of hegemons, Hanoi has been chafing under Beijing’s assertiveness for quite some time, and has sought to diversify its defence and economic relations with other Asian powers like India and Japan. But at the same time, there is a pronounced streak of realpolitik and pragmatism in Hanoi’s external relations as the country is now warming its ties with former adversaries, the US and Japan. The shifting calculations in the Asia-Pacific landscape and its evolving regional architecture, a subject of intense contestation and negotiation, frames the context of Vietnam’s thrust to seek multi-layered relations with India. Balancing China is not the only motive; Hanoi is looking to optimize its returns from new partners as well as old friends.
South China Sea: Vietnam lauds India
Against this backdrop, with an eye on China, the Vietnamese leader has lauded India’s “constructive role” in the disputed South China Sea region and pitched for freedom of navigation and maritime security. In an interview to Press Trust of India, an Indian news agency, Mr Nguyen underlined the need for an enduring settlement of the South China Sea issue on the basis of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. “I believe that peace, stability, maritime security and cooperation for mutual benefits in the East Sea represent the essential interest of countries within and outside the region. We highly appreciate India’s constructive position on this issue,” he said. In the face of repeated hectoring from Beijing, Hanoi has consistently asserted that India has the legitimate right to pursue oil exploration there as they were within Vietnamese “exclusive economic zone”. “In the immediate term, all parties must strictly observe the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea between ASEAN and China and accelerate the development of the Code of Conducts of Parties in the South China Sea,” he said. This formulation is strikingly similar to India’s principled position that all concerned countries must respect principles of international law in resolving the issue. While maintaining neutrality, India has consistently stood for freedom of navigation and access to global maritime commons.
“Huge room” for expanding ties
The Vietnamese leader is also determined to raise the bar for India-Vietnam ties. In the same interview, he voiced satisfaction at the trajectory of bilateral ties, but stressed that there remained “huge room for expanding, deepening and raising the productivity of bilateral ties.” “One of the main objectives of our visit to India is to discuss with the Indian leaders and set out concrete, effective measures and direction aimed to deepen and add more substances to the Vietnam-India strategic partnership and translate potentials into reality in the interest of the two countries’ people,” he said.
India is more than receptive to Hanoi’s overtures and has rolled out the red carpet to welcome Vietnam’s top leader. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is going to hold wide-ranging talks with the Vietnamese leader at Hyderabad House November 20 after a ceremonial welcome to the visiting leader at the majestic presidential palace in the Indian capital. The ambition to take the relations to the next stage would be evident from more than a dozen pacts, which are expected to be signed after the talks. Reliable sources told www.indiawrites.org that, if all goes well, 13 pacts could be signed in diverse areas. These include an air services agreement which will pave the pave for direct flights between Delhi and Hanoi, an important step that could be a game-changer in boosting trade, tourism and people-to-people contacts.
Energy diplomacy is poised for an uprade, with an agreement expected between the ONGC Videsh Limited and Petro Vietnam. In the area of trade and investment, a memorandum of understanding between Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade and Tata Power Ltd will be signed to spur the development of Long Phu II Thermal Power Project in Soc Trang, Vietnam. A pact on setting up of the Indira Gandhi Hightech Crime Lab in Hanoi and another one on reciprocal protection of classified information exchanges will go a long way in enhancing security cooperation between the two countries. The lab is expected to be equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, including forensic workstations.
A slew of initiatives in the area of education, research and people-to-people exchanges, including cooperation pacts between Hanoi National University and Indian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (ICSIR) Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Banglore, and Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Public Administration, are also expected to be unveiled after the talks. Mumbai and Ho Chi Minh City are poised to establish sister-city relations. Put together, this entire spectrum of pacts and initiatives is set to pitch India-Vietnam relations into a higher trajectory.
Vietnam, an important pillar
The desire for deepening bilateral relations is reciprocal. Ahead of the visit, India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid described Vietnam “as an important pillar in India’s ‘Look East Policy,” and underscored enormous potential for cooperation in a wide gamut of areas, including trade and investment, science and Technology, information technology, biotechnology, agriculture, space and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
There is good news to report in the area of economic diplomacy. Bilateral trade has surged by 40% this year and the two countries are on course to achieve the target of US$ 7 billion by 2015. Indian investments in Vietnam are growing by the day. India has over 80 investment projects, including investments by Indian companies from third countries, which are estimated to be close to $800 million. Indian companies are investing in a wide gamut of sectors, including oil and gas exploration, mineral exploration and processing, sugar manufacturing, agro-chemicals, IT, and agricultural processing.
The India-Vietnam relations are, therefore, set for a marked upsurge in days to come. The action in the future will be in the realm of defence and security cooperation. India has already provided credit line of $100 million to Hanoi for the purchase of offshore patrol boats and there are plans to train Vietnamese submarine crews. Taking the relationship forward will, however, require a delicate juggling act on part of both India and Vietnam as they grapple with China, the elephant in the room, which happen to be their largest trading partner and look set to retain that status for some time to come.
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