Earlier this week, India and Vietnam held the 17th meeting of their bilateral Joint Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a statement said that the meeting was co-chaired by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh via video conference.
It appears that both sides have been pleased with outcomes of the meeting an the pace of the relationship. Jaishankar was particularly appreciative of Vietnam’s positive leadership of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) this year, especially at a time when the region is battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Both sides reportedly also discussed China’s aggressive behavior in their respective neighborhoods.
At the meeting, the two sides took stock of the state of the India-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and agreed to step up their defense and economic partnership. The two sides put special emphasis on areas such as civil nuclear energy, space, marine sciences, and emerging technologies. India and Vietnam also agreed to strengthen their strategic partnership “in line with India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) and the ASEAN’s Outlook on Indo-Pacific to achieve shared security, prosperity and growth for all in the region.”
IPOI is an initiative launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the East Asia Summit in Thailand in November 2019. The initiative is centered around seven pillars including maritime security; maritime ecology; maritime resources; capacity building and resource sharing; disaster risk reduction and management; science, technology, and academic cooperation; and trade connectivity and maritime transport. India has called on Vietnam to partner on one of the seven pillars of the IPOI.
Both India and Vietnam have maintained close relations with frequent meetings between senior officials from both countries. For instance, Pham Sanh Chau, Vietnam’s ambassador to India, recently met with Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, and briefed him about the recent tensions following China’s deployment of an H-6J bomber to Woody Island, part of the disputed Paracel Islands. The ambassador conveyed Vietnam’s determination to further the bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with greater energy and vigor.
Earlier, on August 4, Pranay Verma, India’s ambassador to Vietnam, had a meeting with Tran Quoc Vuong, Politburo member and permanent member of the Party Central Committee’s Secretariat, who again emphasized the need for closer ties between New Delhi and Hanoi. Vuong was particularly appreciative of India’s stand on the South China Sea issue, and reiterated Vietnam’s firm stand that all the claimant states must resolve the sovereignty and territorial disputes through dialogue and peaceful means, and by respecting international law including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Vietnam is also keen for India to expand its presence in oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea and has firmly maintained that the areas fall well within Vietnam’s economic zone. India has on many occasions explained that it will continue to maintain its oil and gas exploration tie-ups with Vietnam in Vietnamese waters. A recent virtual meeting of the Vietnam Trade Office in India and the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) identified several additional areas for cooperation between India and Vietnam.
At the recent Joint Commission meeting, India also reiterated its development and capacity assistance for Vietnam through quick impact projects (QIP), Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) and e-ITEC initiatives, Ph.D. fellowships and proposals in the area of water resource management in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and digital connectivity. The MEA in its press release stated that India has already approved 12 QIPs for implementation in Vietnam: seven in water resource management in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta Region and five linked to construction of educational infrastructure in Vietnam. Research and training are also important in the bilateral agenda and this has translated to a couple of MoUs between the Sushma Swaraj Institute of Foreign Service (SSIFS), New Delhi and Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, Hanoi, and the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi and Scientific Research Institute of Sea and Islands, Hanoi.
Defense ties between India and Vietnam are also gathering traction. India earlier gave Vietnam a $100 million line of credit for the procurement of 12 high-speed patrol boats. An Indian private sector firm, Larsen & Toubro (L&T) is developing the boats. In February this year, J.D. Patil, director and senior executive vice president of defense and smart technologies at L&T, stated that they will be delivering the first boat this September. “Five boats will be built by L&T while the remaining will be built in Vietnam. We are trying to finish the boats by mid 2021,” Patil told The Hindu.
India has also given Vietnam another $500 million line of credit for buying defense equipment from India. Discussions are on currently to identify the systems that Vietnam may be interested in buying from India. According to defense sources quoted in the media, Hanoi is interested in India’s Akash surface-to-air systems and Dhruv advanced light helicopters. Defense analysts argue that especially in the wake of the Galwan clash, India must proceed with both the Brahmos and the Akash missile systems and not continue being coy on account of China’s reactions. Discussions on the possible sale of Brahmos have been going on for a few years now. Reportedly, disagreements with Russia (the missile was jointly developed with Russia) on the sale have been resolved.
Keeping in mind the strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, primarily those posed by China, India and Vietnam have decided to work in close coordination at multilateral institutions such as the U.N. Security Council, where both India and Vietnam are elected to be non-permanent members in 2021. The two also decided to continue the momentum in regional strategic platforms such as those under ASEAN. This will be in continuation of the already vibrant conversations between India and ASEAN. For instance, in December 2019, India hosted the Delhi Dialogue-XI with ASEAN countries under the theme “Advancing Partnership in the Indo-Pacific.” In February 2020, India, Australia, and Indonesia hosted the 4th East Asia Summit Conference on maritime security issues. There are a number of platforms and venues that have been created at track 1 and 1.5 levels in recent years to create and sustain linkages between India and ASEAN countries on the Indo-Pacific theme. Vietnam’s leadership of ASEAN may make it easier for India and ASEAN to cooperate more on regional security issues. Some of the big powers within ASEAN like Indonesia are also likely to take stronger positions against China given the sustained harassment and naval intrusions by China in Indonesia’s Natuna islands earlier in the year.