As India plans a more robust presence in the greater Asia-Pacific, it is in the process of enhancing its defense ties with Vietnam. India seems now ready to sell the supersonic BrahMos missile, a product of an Indo-Russian joint venture, to Vietnam after dilly dallying on Hanoi’s request for this sale since 2011. Though India’s ties with Vietnam have been growing over the last few years, this sale was seen as a step too far that would antagonize China. But now the Modi government in India has directed BrahMos Aerospace, which produces the missiles, to expedite this sale to Vietnam along with four other countries, including Indonesia, South Africa, Chile and Brazil.
Other defense projects are also being expedited. Delhi will be helping Vietnam in the westernization of two of its Petya-class frigates for an antisubmarine role as well as providing Hanoi with at least 10 new patrol boats under the line of credit route. India has provided Vietnam with a $100 million line of credit, which is being utilized by Vietnam for the procurement of offshore patrol boats for their border guards. Hanoi is also interested in India’s high-speed heavy weight torpedo ‘Varunastra.’ India’s overtures come shortly after the United States also lifted its longstanding ban on sales of lethal military equipment to Vietnam. New Delhi, for its part, wants to build relations with states like Vietnam that can act as pressure points against China. With this in mind, it has been helping Hanoi beef up its naval and air capabilities. For some in India, Vietnam can act as a counterweight in the same way Pakistan has been for China in India’s backyard.
Moreover, as the world awaits a crucial verdict in The Hague on Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, it is instructive that India entered the fraught region of the South China Sea via Vietnam. India signed an agreement with Vietnam in October 2011 to expand and promote oil exploration in South China Sea and then reconfirmed its decision to carry on as planned despite a Chinese challenge to the legality of Indian presence. Beijing told New Delhi that its permission was needed for India’s state-owned oil and gas firm to explore for energy in two Vietnamese blocks in those waters. But Vietnam quickly cited the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to claim its sovereign rights over the two blocks in question. India immediately decided to support Hanoi’s claims.
Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was in Hanoi last month to push strategic ties at a time when the two states are celebrating 45 years of diplomatic relations and 10 years of a strategic partnership. India is charting an ambitious new course in the region as its engagements with states like Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines have become more serious. India has publicly supported Vietnam and the Philippines in their disputes with China. Indian naval ships have been visiting Vietnam in the South China Sea region and the two nations have continued to cooperate on hydrocarbon exploration in the South China Sea, despite Beijing’s warnings.
India’s engagement with Vietnam is becoming a benchmark in New Delhi’s rapidly evolving policy toward the region more broadly. As India’s ties with China become more contentious, Hanoi will increasingly play an ever more important role in New Delhi’s strategic calculus.