Since the election of Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister, New Delhi has appeared determined to create “Brand India” by harnessing its soft power resources. This was very much on display at the meeting Modi had with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung, during the latter’s visit to New Delhi late last month.
The two leaders used the occasion to sign seven agreements. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of media coverage was directed at hard-nosed issues like the South China Sea, defense and security, energy cooperation, and trade. Unquestionably, these factors are playing a crucial role in Indo-Vietnamese ties. But no fewer than five of the seven deals focused on aspects of soft power, like religion, education, media interaction, and cultural cooperation. This is important evidence that New Delhi is exploiting its soft resources to enhance ties with its southeastern neighbor.
India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj signaled this during her visit to Hanoi in August. Addressing the Third Round Table on ASEAN-India Network of Think tanks, Swaraj “spoke about the need for greater people-to-people contact, a relaxed visa regime, and also the need for improving connectivity within the region.”
Earlier still, in March the Indian Embassy in Vietnam sought to boost intercultural understanding with the first “Festival of India,” a ten-day affair that was held in Hanoi, Danang, and Ho Chi Minh City. An arguably more important effort to enhance connectivity and cooperation came with the recent introduction of direct flights from India to Vietnam. Starting November 5, 2014, these flights offer easier access facilitating better economic cooperation and interaction between the two countries.
Soft Power Appeal
Former External Affairs Minister of India Shashi Tharoor once said that it is not the size of the army or of the economy that matters, but it is the country that tells the “better story” that qualifies as a global player. To judge the success of “India’s story” in Vietnam, let’s look at the main components of its soft power in Hanoi. Broadly these can be categorized into political factors, religious factors, cultural factors, enhanced media interaction, sharing of knowledge resources, and tourism.
On the face of it, it is hard to understand the appeal of the world’s largest democracy for a Communist country like Vietnam. Yet New Delhi’s appeal for Vietnam stems from the very factor that has been identified by some scholars as an impediment to its soft diplomacy: India’s multiple identities. While retaining its identity as a democracy, India has also preserved its image as an anti-colonial, non-aligned state whose cooperation with Hanoi dates back to early 1970s. Supplementing these long-standing ties, the Indian government in August 2014 declared its Act East Policy, which complements Vietnam’s inclination to look West, enhancing their political affiliations.
Religious factors, too, have acted as a binder for India and Vietnam for several decades now. Indo-Vietnamese religious interactions can be traced to the ancient Cham civilization, when people from Orissa travelled to Vietnam, ultimately settling there, mingling cultures, customs, language, religions, and beliefs. Even today, these ties continue to hold significance. The recently concluded visit of Dung to India saw the signing of a memorandum of understanding for the Conservation and Restoration of the World Heritage Site of My Son, one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia built by the Champa kingdom.
Another religion that has played a crucial role in harnessing India’s soft power in Vietnam is Buddhism. Today, Buddhism is identified as one of the three major religions of Vietnam and accounts for nearly 16.4 percent of its population. Given this background, it was not surprising that during the recent meeting, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on the establishment of the Nalanda University, at Rajgir, the birthplace of Buddhism. With the signing of this agreement, Vietnam became the twelfth international country to support this project.
With some of its population migrating to Hanoi in the 19th century, India and Vietnam also share strong cultural ties. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) has been trying to preserve this by organizing several cultural festivals; however, it is yet to open a Cultural Office in Vietnam. There is speculation that this will be in place before the end of the year. In the meantime, the Indian diaspora in Vietnam has been playing a pivotal role in facilitating cultural interaction and cooperation. Although a relatively small group of 2000 people, this community is culturally very active, celebrating major Indian festivals like Holi and Diwali, introducing locals to Indian traditions. Swaraj during her visit not only acknowledged this but also praised the contribution of the diaspora to Vietnam’s development. A Cultural Exchange program for 2015-17 to facilitate deeper cultural exchange and cooperation was also concluded while the Vietnamese prime minister was in Delhi last month.
The media has also been instrumental in encouraging bilateral understanding. Writing in 2003, Indian foreign policy analyst C Raja Mohan observed, “Bollywood has done more for Indian influence abroad than the bureaucratic efforts of the government.” While in Vietnam these films were banned for a few years “due to royalty payments,” they returned in September 2012. Screened with Vietnamese subtitles, the movies have given Vietnamese insights into Indian culture. In recent months, India and Vietnam have shown an interest in diversifying media interaction through their respective radio agencies. A recent memorandum between the two governments calls for cooperation on broadcasting between India’s Prasar Bharti, and Vietnam’s Voice of Vietnam for the exchange of audio-visual programs. In the absence of an Indian state-funded international news channel, media interactions like these play an important role.
India has also had a pivotal role in setting up a host of capacity-building institutions in Vietnam. In 1977, the government of India provided technical expertise and equipment to set up Vietnam’s first rice research institutes: the Cuu Long Delta Rice Research Institute (CLRRI). Aftab Seth, a former Indian ambassador to Vietnam, has noted that this assistance enabled Vietnam to become one of the world’s leading rice exporters.
Additionally, under its Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program, India offers 150 scholarships to Vietnam annually. Today, top Indian IT companies like NIIT, APTECH and Tata Infotech, have opened more than 80 franchises across Vietnam, to develop these IT skills. More recently, the two countries formalized last year’s declaration that they would establish an IT training center at the National Defense Academy of Vietnam. A watershed moment in India’s IT diplomacy came last November when Vietnam became the first country to get a supercomputer from India. The computer will power Vietnam’s PARAM High Performance Computing Facility at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology. India has also agreed to help Hanoi set up the Indira Gandhi High-Tech Cyber Forensic Laboratory.
While India and Vietnam have been active in stepping up interaction in the political, cultural, religious and intellectual domains, people-to-people contact remains limited. The Times of India reported that tourism between India and Vietnam has been surprisingly low, despite India conferring the visa-on-arrival facility for Vietnamese nationals in January 2011. The number of Indian tourists visiting Vietnam has been similarly unimpressive. Hoang Thi Diep, vice chairperson of Vietnam’s National Administration of Tourism, noted that Indians comprised only 10,000 of Vietnam’s 7.5 million tourists in 2013. Given the start of direct flights between India and Vietnam, these numbers may escalate.
Clearly, India has a number of levers it can pull to exercise its soft power in Vietnam. While some scholars argue that India’s soft power has fallen short of expectations, recent events suggest that New Delhi’s efforts in this area might be about to bear some fruit. A 2014 Pew Survey on the popularity of Asian countries revealed that 67 percent of Vietnamese have a favorable view of India. This is likely to increase as India moves forward under its new leadership to promote “Brand India.”
Sadhavi Chauhan is Senior Research Fellow, International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.