“President Begines US visit, billion-dollar trade deals expected”, reads Thanh Nien News, Vietnam’s oldest English-language daily.
Most Vietnamese front-pages were similarly exultant through the week starting June 18, as President Nguyen Minh Triet made a historic visit to the United States, the first by a Vietnamese head of state since the war ended in 1975.
An emerging economic powerhouse, Vietnam is too important to be ignored even by a former enemy like the US. While that is motivation enough for India to seek closer relations with Vietnam, it is not the only push factor for greater strategic links. More significantly, both share borders and geo-strategic space with China, the number one preoccupation of US strategic analysts.
“Both India and Vietnam share long land borders with China,” says Subhash Kapila from the South Asia Analysis Group, adding, “China has launched military action against both in the past, and has disputed its existing borders with both.”
Containing China is where the strategic interests of Vietnam and India converge. The two countries signed a defence cooperation agreement in 1994, soon after India formulated its “Look East” policy. In March 2000, a new protocol on defence cooperation was signed.
Kapila points out that China has carefully created pressure points to discomfit both countries — Pakistan in case of India and Cambodia in case of Vietnam. “By cultivating a resolute Vietnam as a close regional ally and security partner in the manner China has done Pakistan, India can pay Beijing back in the same coin,” writes Bharat Karnad of Centre for Policy Research in an online post.
Security of the Malacca Straits is also of common strategic interest. “As a user state and as a funnel state, India has a legitimate interest in securing the sea lanes,” says J N Misra, India’s Consul-General in Ho Chi Minh City.
Two Indian naval ships, INS Mysore and INS Rajput, have visited Vietnam recently. In addition, India provided free equipment to the Vietnam navy and has helped repair their facilities.
“We’ve always had strong military-to-military ties,” Misra says, “India is open to joint military exercises, and we’re getting there, hopefully.”
The Vietnamese Prime Minister’s recent expression of interest in pursuing civilian nuclear cooperation with India seems aimed at furthering the bilateral strategic relationship.
Both countries have a history of political and diplomatic cooperation. Vietnam has consistently supported India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, and now, Apec, as well as greater contacts with Asean.
As emerging economies, both countries have also found common ground at the WTO – over farm subsidies in developed countries, for instance. Recently, India, Vietnam and Brazil formed a cashew cartel to better negotiate prices for their produce in the international market.
As both countries continue to gain more economic and political clout, avenues for cooperation will expand. Clearly, the forthcoming visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to India from July 4 to 6 will be worth watching.