This week, a Vietnamese coast guard vessel paid its first visit to India. While this is just one of a series of scheduled defense engagements by the two sides expected this year, it nonetheless put the spotlight on the growing security ties between the two Asian powers in general and between their two coast guards in particular.
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 back in 2016. Defense ties have grown in recent years to include not just the traditional components like visits and exercises but also the training of personnel, capacity-building funding and equipment, and coast guard collaboration.
That trend in defense ties in general and coast guard collaboration in particular has continued into 2018 as well. Indeed, an Indian Navy ship had just recently paid a visit to Ho Chi Minh city port amid a busy few weeks for Vietnam on the maritime side, with visits including those by a South Korean destroyer and a Japanese submarine – a notable first (See: “Why Japan’s First Submarine Visit to Vietnam Matters“).
This week, this aspect of the relationship was in the headlines again with a series of interactions by the coast guards on both sides. A key event in this respect was high-level talks between the Vietnam Coast Guard and the Indian Coast Guard on October 1, which provided an opportunity for both sides to take stock of ties, share experiences in specific areas, and also discuss potential ways to advance ties still further.
But another notable development was the visit of a Vietnam Coast Guard ship to India. The ship, CBS 8001 from Coast Guard Region 3, docked at Chennai port on October 2 for its scheduled four-day visit. Though the visit is only one of many interactions in the bilateral relationship on the defense side, it is nonetheless significant in its own right as well in that it marks the first time a Vietnam Coast Guard vessel has visited India. In that sense, it is testament to the ongoing strengthening of the relationship between the two coast guards, as well as the maritime forces of both countries more generally.
The visit itself involved a range of interactions. According to Vietnam’s defense ministry, the agenda for the visit included several engagements, with the Vietnamese coast guard delegation set to talks with the Command of the Indian Coast Guard Eastern Region and also visiting the Chennai search and rescue center to share experience in law enforcement at sea and preventing piracy. There were also other interactions as well, including a welcome ceremony, a visit to the Vietnamese vessel by officers of the Indian Coast Guard Eastern Region and officials and students of Chennai city, courtesy calls by the Vietnam, and cultural activities such as sports exchanges and visits to some key cultural cites in the city.
But the headline-making item during the visit was unsurprisingly the joint exercise that both India and Vietnam held. On October 4, both coast guards carried out a joint exercise off of the Chennai coast. Per Vietnamese accounts, the exercise featured three coast guard ships, one Dornier aircraft, one Chetak helicopter, and a research vessel Sagar Manjusa from the Indian National Institute of Ocean Technology. The exercise focused on areas such as environmental protection, maritime safety, search and rescue, and tackling law enforcement issues.
To be sure, the focus on a single interaction such as this first coast guard vessel visit or an active week for Vietnam-India ties should not conceal the real challenges and constraints that remain, that officials and personnel from both sides are cognizant of. Nonetheless, as the two countries continue to advance their relations in the defense realm, notable developments like this one will be important to watch.