In a move of great symbolic significance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will reach Vietnam this evening. This will be the first visit by a prime minister to Vietnam in the last 15 years ostensibly to celebrate 10 years of strategic partnership between the two nations. Modi’s visit comes at a time when India-China ties are passing through difficult times given China’s deepening alliance with Pakistan. On Saturday evening he will leave for Hangzhou, in China, to attend the G20 summit.
India under the Narendra Modi government has made no secret of its desire to play a more assertive role in the larger India-Pacific. As Modi underlined in his address to the joint session of the US Congress in June: “A strong India-US partnership can anchor peace, prosperity and stability from Asia to Africa and from Indian Ocean to the Pacific. It can also help ensure security of the sea lanes of commerce and freedom of navigation on seas.”
Therefore, a more ambitious outreach to Vietnam should not be surprising. India is now ready to sell the supersonic BrahMos missile, made by an India-Russia 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 in the last few years, this sale was seen as a step too far that would antagonise China.
The Modi government has directed BrahMos Aerospace, which produces the missiles, to expedite this sale to Vietnam along with Indonesia, South Africa, Chile and Brazil. India is already providing a concessional line of credit of $100 million for the procurement of defence equipment and in a first of its kind has sold four offshore patrol vessels to Vietnam — likely to be used to strengthen the nation’s defences in the energy rich-South China Sea. This comes at a time when the US has also lifted its ban on sale of lethal military equipment to Vietnam. India’s abiding interest in Vietnam too remains in the defence realm. It 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.
The two nations also have stakes in ensuring sea-lane security, as well as shared concerns about Chinese access to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Hence, India is helping Vietnam to build capacity for repair and maintenance of its defence platforms. At the same time, the armed forces of the two states have started cooperation in areas like IT and English-language training of Vietnamese Army personnel.
The two countries potentially share a common friend — the US. New Delhi has a burgeoning relationship with Washington with the two signing a logistical support agreement this week, while Vietnam has been courting the US as the South China Sea becomes a flashpoint. As these three countries ponder how to manage China’s rise, they have been drawn closer together.
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 despite the 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 the 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. Hanoi has been publicly sparring with Beijing over the South China Sea for the last few years, so such a response was expected.
What was new, however, was New Delhi’s new-found aggression in taking on Beijing. It immediately decided to support Hanoi’s claims. By accepting the Vietnamese invitation to explore oil and gas in Blocks 127 and 128, India not only expressed its desire to deepen friendship with Vietnam, but ignored China’s warning to stay away. This display of backbone helped India strengthen its relationship with Vietnam.
Hanoi is gradually becoming the linchpin of this eastward move by New Delhi. Hanoi fought a brief war with Beijing in 1979 and has grown wary of the Middle Kingdom’s increasing economic and military weight. That’s why in some quarters of New Delhi, Vietnam is already seen as a counterweight in the same way Pakistan has been for China.
If China wants to expand its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, New Delhi’s thinks that India can do the same thing in East Asia. And if China can have a strategic partnership with Pakistan ignoring Indian concerns, India can develop robust ties with Vietnam on China’s periphery without giving China a veto on such relationships.
Modi’s Vietnam visit underscores the evolution in India’s policy towards the India-Pacific. New Delhi seems ready to challenge Beijing on its own turf. And for the moment at least, this stance is being welcomed by states like Vietnam who fear the growing aggression of China. A more engaged India will also lead to a more stable balance of power in the region.
Harsh V Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College London.
The views expressed are personal