Last month, after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin made a high-profile visit to Hanoi that resulted in a marked step up in defense cooperation, the Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong traveled to India with the same objective. Trong’s visit signaled that Vietnam seeks to leverage India’s expertise and experience with Soviet/Russian military technology to its advantage and mitigate the risk of dependency on a sole supplier.
Secretary General Trong successfully sought India’s assistance to modernize its armed forces. In response to earlier Vietnamese lobbying to purchase naval warships, India made the unprecedented offer of a US$100 million line of credit for the purchase of four Offshore Patrol Vessels. This was India’s first offer of credit for the purchase of military equipment to a country outside of South Asia. Another agreement related to the protection of defense-related information.
India and Vietnam are reportedly negotiating the sale of the BrahMos cruise missile to Vietnam as well as cooperation in defense co-production.
Shortly after Trong returned to Vietnam, it was announced that India would train up to 500 Vietnamese sailors in “comprehensive underwater combat operations” at its modern submarine training center INS Satavahana.
This latest uptick in India-Vietnam defense relations has a long history. In 1982, a major milestone in bilateral relations was reached with the establishment of the India-Vietnam Joint Committee for Economic, Cultural, Scientific and Technological Cooperation to oversee bilateral relations.
India-Vietnam defense cooperation dates to the 1980s and 1990s. Major defense cooperation agreements were signed in September 1994, March 2000 and May 2003.
A major turning point was reached in November 2007 when India and Vietnam raised their bilateral relations to a strategic partnership during the official visit to India by Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. The Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership included thirty-three points and mapped out cooperation in five major areas: political, defense and security; closer economic cooperation and commercial engagement; science and technology; cultural and technical; and multilateral and regional cooperation.
The Joint Declaration set out six areas of cooperation under the political, defense and security heading:
First, India and Vietnam agreed to hold a Strategic Dialogue at deputy minister level. These have been held annually since 2007.
Second, India and Vietnam agreed to place future emphasis on defense supplies, joint projects, training cooperation and intelligence exchanges.
Third, India and Vietnam agreed to enhance contacts and exchange visits between their defense and security establishments.
Fourth, in light of shared maritime interests, India and Vietnam agreed to enhance cooperation in capacity building, technical assistance and information sharing between relevant agencies with a particular attention to security of sea-lanes, anti-piracy, prevention of pollution and search and rescue.
Fifth, India and Vietnam resolved to strengthen bilateral cooperation to combat terrorism and to promote cooperation in cyber security.
Sixth, India and Vietnam agreed to cooperate to address non-traditional security issues including drug trafficking, natural disasters, climate change, energy security, HIV/AIDS, avian influenza and other epidemics.
The defense component of the strategic partnership was acted upon immediately. In December 2007, India’s Defense Minister A. K. Anthony signed a Memorandum of Understanding with his counterpart, General Phung Quang Thanh, during a visit to Hanoi. The MOU included cooperation in national defense, navy, air defense and training. Anthony also announced that India would transfer 5,000 spare parts to assist Vietnam in maintaining its Petya-class ships and that India would send a team to Vietnam to assist in training for UN peacekeeping operations.
Since 2007, under the strategic partnership, India and Vietnam exchanged high-level visits including heads of government, defense ministers and service chiefs. India also conducted regular naval port visits to Vietnam in April 2008, April 2009, May-June 2010, May 2011, July 2011, May 2012.
In February 2008, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, Chief of the Army Staff Committee, held discussions in Hanoi with Senior Lt. Gen. Nguyen Khac Nghien, Chief of Staff of the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA). In October the following year, a defense delegation let by Lt. Gen. Nguyen Thinh, head of the Defense Research Center, visited India for discussions with the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). General Thinh expressed interest in technical assistance in producing cruise missiles. In November 2009, Defense Minister General Phung Quang Thanh visited India.
Lt. Gen. Pham Hong Loi, VPA Deputy Chief of Staff, hosted the visit to Hanoi by the Chief of the Indian Army, General Vijay Kumar Singh in July 2010. General Singh’s agenda included cooperation in reciprocal language training, humanitarian assistance, search and rescue, and sharing of experiences in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
Defense Minister A. K. Anthony returned to Hanoi in October 2010 to attend the inaugural meeting of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus. During his visit he held bilateral discussions with General Thanh. The two ministers agreed on future defense cooperation including exchange visits, joint training in mountain and jungle warfare, naval ship repair and maintenance, and search and rescue. India also agreed to assist Vietnam in training its forces for UN peacekeeping, establish a foreign language center, and exchange information on their navies and air forces. Vietnam offered to provide facilities to repair, maintain and fuel Indian naval ships.
In July 2011, Vice Admiral Nguyen Van Hien, Chief of Naval Staff, made a visit to India to solicit assistance in constructing Offshore Patrol Vessels and Fast Attack Craft. Hien received assurances that India would continue to train its naval personnel and help Vietnam maintain Russian equipment.
Indian Defense Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma attended the annual Strategic Dialogue in Hanoi in September 2011. The two sides discussed measures to boost cooperation between their navies, air forces, infantry and defense industries. Sharma offered to provide naval training facilities and assist in capacity building.
A month later, President Truong Tan Sang made a state visit to India to meet with his counterpart. President Sang also met with Defense Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma and Minister of State for Defence Pallam Raju. Sang requested Indian assistance in four areas: the training of submariners, pilot conversion training to fly the Su-30, modernization of Nha Trang port, and the transfer of medium-sized naval warships. Sang also asked India to consider providing Brahmos cruise missiles. Indian defense officials reaffirmed that India would continue to assist Vietnam in military training, human resource development and information sharing.
Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Do Ba Ty visited India in September 2013. He held discussions on future enhanced military cooperation with the Defense Secretary and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee who is concurrently chief of the Indian Air Force. General Ty paid visits to the Eastern and Western Naval Command.
India and Vietnam have convergent security interests, including maximizing their room for maneuver in dealing with China and other major powers within their respective regions. India’s relations with Vietnam provide a basis for a larger Indian role in East Asia, particularly in the maritime domain. For example, India uses its military relationship with Vietnam to apply counter pressure on China for its support for Pakistan.
Defense cooperation is mutually beneficial. India gains from the sale of military equipment, platforms, technology and services to Vietnam. India also benefits from Vietnam’s political support including dialogue partner status with ASEAN, membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum and India’s candidature for permanent membership on the UN Security Council.
India’s sale of arms, equipment, spares, technology and services enhances Vietnam’s ability to modernize its armed forces and strengthen its capacity for the repair and maintenance of air and naval platforms. In other words, Vietnam’s defense relations with India lessen its near total defense dependency on Russia.