On May 21, three Indian naval ships began a five-day visit to the Vietnamese city of Da Nang, which is expected to culminate in a naval exercise between the two sides. Though this is just one of a series of scheduled defense engagements by the two sides expected in 2018, it has nonetheless once again put the spotlight on the growing security ties between the two Asian powers, including in the maritime realm.
Vietnam and India have looked to advance their existing defense relationship as part of their wider ties, which were elevated to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016. Both sides want to take advantage of opportunities in bilateral ties as well as address a series of shared challenges, including China’s growing maritime assertiveness. Defense ties have grown in recent years to include not just the traditional components in this realm of ties like exchanges and port calls but also the training of personnel, capacity-building funding and equipment, coast guard collaboration, and pacts on areas such as white shipping and outer space.
That trend in defense ties has continued on into 2018. Defense issues were also on the agenda during Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang’s visit to India back in March, where the two sides said they would look to enhance cooperation in areas such as coproduction and technology transfer and also to work on addressing common challenges such as maritime security and cybersecurity. And a series of high-level defense visits is already in the works by both sides, with Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman expected to be visiting Vietnam in June.
On May 21, three Indian naval ships, with 913 crew members on board, officially began a five-day visit to Da Nang. The three Indian ships – the frigate INS Sahyadri, oil tanker INS Shakti, and corvette INS Kamorta – arrived at Tien Sa Port led by Rear Admiral Dinesh K. Tripathi, the commander of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet. This was the first such official public visit of Indian Navy vessels since September 2017, when INS Satpura and INS Kadmatt visited Hai Phong port.
According to the Vietnamese defense ministry, upon their arrival, the Indian crew members were received at the port by several Vietnamese representatives from Naval Region 3, the Department of Foreign Relations under the Ministry of National Defense, the Office of the Military Region 5 Command, the Da Nang provincial Border Guard and Military Commands, and the Department of External Affairs of Da Nang.
The visit is expected to see a range of activities by the two sides, including courtesy calls to leaders of the city’s People’s Committee and the Naval Region 3 Command, exchanges such as a friendly volleyball match with troops of Naval Region 3, meeting with students of Danang University, a band concert, and guided tours for Indian Navy personnel.
But the focus has mainly been on the exercise that both sides are expected to undertake, in spite of the scant details that have been publicly released so far. The Indian Navy just mentioned that “an exercise” would be held and contextualized the visit as part of a broader ongoing operational deployment to Southeast Asia and the northwest Pacific. Vietnam’s defense ministry said that the visit would culminate in what it termed a “bilateral maritime field training exercise” between the two sides before the Indian warships depart Da Nang.
Ahead of the visit, some media headlines focused on the fact that the exercise would be a show of force by India and Vietnam in the South China Sea in the wake of China’s continued maritime assertiveness. Though the South China Sea no doubt features as a concern for both sides, such interactions ought to be framed not as single-issue or single-event headlines but as part of heightened activity between the two sides across the defense realm. That activity and the broader defense relationship will be in the spotlight in the coming weeks, not just with the exercise but also in other forthcoming engagements such as Sitharaman’s expected visit.