India and Vietnam held a virtual leaders’ summit on December 21, at a time when New Delhi seeks to court a range of actors as India inches toward fleshing out its Indo-Pacific strategy. India simultaneously seeks to counter Chinese influence while avoiding antagonizing regional actors who remained skeptical of the outgoing Trump administration’s clubby, militaristic approach toward the region — desiderata congruent to Vietnam’s own preference.
The summit, co-chaired by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, saw a joint statement that summarized the range of issues both countries seek to work together on – some substantial, others symbolic, a plan of action toward maintaining India-Vietnam cooperation over the next two years, as well as seven other agreements, ranging from an “Implementing Arrangement on Defence Industry Cooperation” to memorandum of agreements around medical and petroleum research, as well as solar power.
In his opening remarks at the summit, Modi noted that “Peace, Stability and Prosperity are our [India and Vietnam’s] shared purpose in the Indo-Pacific region. Our partnership can make a significant contribution in maintaining stability and peace in the region.” He also went to add that “There is a similarity in our views on many global challenges, and about the future of our region, and we can work together to advance our shared values.”
In many ways, Vietnam’s guiding principles for its foreign policy are similar to India’s, governed as it is by the “Three Nos”: no to basing rights for foreign troops, no to alliances, and no to teaming up with one side in order to combat another. These are also – roughly speaking – precepts India adheres to, even though it needs to be kept in mind that, unlike Vietnam, India has not formally encoded such principles in any policy document. As RAND researchers Derek Grossman and Dung Huynh wrote in these pages last January, “The Three Nos complicate the Trump administration objective, per the National Security Strategy, to bolster Vietnam ties to counter Chinese coercion in the South China Sea and broader Indo-Pacific.”
But as both of them also wrote, Vietnam’s Three Nos principles are also making way to Three Yeses, sneaking in through the back door as it were — something that is also the case with India in the recent past. India-U.S. military cooperation, for example, has reached a point where a web of interlocking “foundational agreements,” increasing interoperability through military exercises as well as common platforms, as well as greater convergence of threat perception have all led to a situation where – assuming political will to maintain these trends hold on both sides – in the future, the question of whether a formal military alliance with the U.S. exists or not will become moot.
Other similarities between the two countries’ strategic approaches also exist, including a penchant for diversification of relations – in India’s case, expressed through the mantra of “multi-alignment.” For example, Japan-Vietnam relations continue to be on an upswing; witness the summit between Phuc and Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide in October (month after Suga assumed office). In that summit, while both countries refused to name China as a common challenge (much like in the Modi-Phuc summit), they agreed to increasing defense cooperation, with Japan taking first steps to export defense equipment to Vietnam.
Just like the Phuc-Suga summit, the South China Sea dispute (understandably) was accorded a prominent place in the India-Vietnam summit that concluded earlier today. The joint statement emphasized the need for all claimants to adhere to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as non-militarization and related norms. It went on to note:
Both leaders further called for the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in its entirety and the substantive negotiations towards the early conclusion of a substantive and effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) in accordance with international law, especially UNCLOS, that does not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of all nations including those not party to these negotiations.
The addition of a demand that the COC also be cognizant of the interests of non-negotiating parties in the South China Sea dispute suggests a growing interest – and one that is being clearly articulated by India – that whatever be the final settlement, it should not effectively involve China bullying other parties into accommodating it in a way that affects others who have stakes in that waterbody – which pretty much means everyone else in the Indo-Pacific.