Vietnam PM-Modi meet helps bridge gap
The strategic gap that kept India and Vietnam apart in the past may have at least been bridged with the present Vietnamese prime minister's visit.
The two have a bond going back to India's support for Vietnam in its successive wars with France, the US and China. Both have territorial disputes with China and want to use third countries to counterbalance Beijing's preponderance. But geography has been an issue: India cannot project its naval power into the South China Sea and Vietnam is too far to help New Delhi in its border issues with Beijing.
The 2007 strategic partnership struggled to get substance. The two countries have flirted, but have seen other countries as more useful for keeping the dragon at bay.
Countries often pose tests to each other, asking the other side to show the depth of their strategic love. Until recently, India and Vietnam were failing each other's tests.
India had seen a planned $5 billion Tata Steel plant in Vietnam as a test given evidence that Beijing, using a front company, was the obstacle. When the plant foundered, industry sources say, Hanoi stepped in and Tata Power wound up with a $3.8 billion thermal power project in "record time."
Vietnam, in turn, begged for the Brahmos cruise missile as it desperately needed a ship-killer to counter China's naval superiority. Until last year, the other Brahmos partner Russia had declined to allow the sale. After Moscow gave the green signal, it was up to India.
New Delhi, say official sources, have now told the Vietnamese that they would be provided "anything they wanted militarily" - Brahmos included. However, India was in the process of negotiating its entry into the Missile Control Technology Regime, a global technology denial regime for 300-km plus range missiles that had so far kept India out. Once it got into the MTCR, India would have access to top-end missile and rocket technology and greater ability to export the same. Message to Hanoi: the missile is yours once we're in. A civil nuclear agreement could follow when India joins another technology denial regime, the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Jay Ranade, head of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, says that "At the very least, India should begin negotiations with Vietnam. This would in any case take some time and would allow us to, one, monitor developments on the Chinese front and, two, send a message to Beijing."
India also wants to diversify its investment portfolio in Vietnam. New Delhi is concerned that it will be unable to join the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement presently being negotiated and wants to use Vietnam, a likely member, to serve as a gateway into the TPP market later on. The two sides also had informal talks about a possible trilateral with Japan, another strategic hedge that both sides are considering.
China will be unhappy, say sources, but as the recent Chinese nuclear submarine docking in Sri Lanka showed, India's sense is that it will need a Vietnam to give a similar naval poke to China as and when needed.