An article on the unfulfilled potential of Indo-Vietnamese ties by Iskander Rehman on BBC World:
[url]http://www.bbc.co.uk/vietnamese/world/2 ... ship.shtml
The English translation was retrieved from his blog:http://indiangeopolitics.blogspot.com/The Indo-Vietnamese Strategic Partnership.
Over the past year, a chill wind has been blowing over the South China Sea, and the waters lapping the coast of Vietnam have grown choppy with tension. A distinct increase in the level of Chinese assertiveness in the region has led to multinational companies being pressured out of participating in offshore energy ventures with Vietnam, to the routine rounding up of Vietnamese fishermen by Chinese patrol vessels for ‘fishing in Chinese waters’, as well as to a steady ramping up of Chinese naval activity which has, in some instances, led to tension-fraught stand-offs with the US Navy.
This upsurge in Chinese naval self-confidence has sent ripples of unease across Southeast Asia, and most particularly in Vietnam, which has been embroiled in a bitter territorial dispute with China over the possession of the Spratly and Paracel islands for several decades. Vietnamese officials, when in private, frequently lament what they perceive to be Vietnam’s relative isolation on the diplomatic scene, and fear for the future. When discussing these issues recently in Paris with someone with close ties to the Vietnamese leadership, I was issued with the following dire prediction: “We think that the Chinese will press for a final resolution of the sovereignty dispute over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the next ten to twenty years. If Vietnam has not reinforced its strategic partnerships by then, while simultaneously strengthening its Navy, China will be able to just seize the islands without anyone abroad lifting a hand in protest or even batting an eye-lid. ”
Vietnamese dignitaries seem to believe that their window of opportunity to press an advantageous deal with China is rapidly closing and this has instilled their military diplomacy with a new sense of urgency.
Having taken tentative steps to reinforce its ageing and minute fleet, most notably by ordering a flotilla of six Kilo-class submarines from Russia, Hanoi has also been endeavouring to reinforce its defence ties with several other regional powers such as Singapore, Japan, Australia (which Secretary General Nong Duc Manh paid visit to only a few weeks ago) and India.A Partnership Grounded in History:
Vietnam’s relationship with India goes back a long way. Indeed, one could say that India, along with ex-Soviet Russia, has been one of Vietnam’s staunchest allies over the years. The Indian Prime Minister Jawahrlal Nehru was the first foreign leader to visit the newly independent North Vietnam in 1954, and throughout most of the Cold War, India and Vietnam were strong political allies. Both had very close ties to the Soviet Union, and both bore the brunt of Chinese border invasions; India in 1962, and Vietnam in 1979. India’s support of Vietnam during the Vietnam war and during its invasion and occupation of Cambodia in the 1980s came at a high political cost, injecting bitterness into Delhi’s difficult relationship with Washington, as well as delaying the process of Sino-Indian normalisation by almost a decade. In return, Vietnam supported India in its conflicts with Pakistan, and was one of the first countries in the world to recognize newly independent Bangladesh in 1971.
The Indo-Vietnamese relationship throughout the Cold War, however, remained mostly diplomatic and political in nature. Bilateral trade was minimal, and the security component of their rapport limited itself, by and large, to information sharing protocols. It was only with the profound restructuring of Asia’s security environment at the end of the Cold War, and the advent of India’s “Look East Policy” in the early 90s that the relationship gradually evolved into a genuine strategic partnership.The Burgeoning of a Wide Ranging Strategic Partnership:
The abrupt disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War had an enormous impact on both countries’ diplomacies. Almost overnight, both Hanoi and Delhi lost their most reliable strategic guarantor in Asia. Both countries reacted to this radically new security environment by opening up to the world, liberalizing their economies, and taking steps to normalize their relationships with their neighbours, while making an effort to diversify their strategic partnerships. The end of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia facilitated its integration into ASEAN in 1995, and in the early 90s India launched what it termed its “Look East Policy”, which heralded a new era of engagement,both diplomatic and economic, with Southeast Asian nations.
It was only with the advent of an intensely nationalistic government in Delhi in the late 90s, however, that bilateral ties began to really pick up speed and take on a genuinely strategic turn. With the nuclear explosions of Pokhran II, in 1998, the BJP governement of Atal Behari Vajpayee signalled to the world, and more particularly to China, that India had become a hard power to be reckoned with.Vietnam, for its part, was intent on extricating itself from an excessive dependence on its timeold Russian partner in terms of both arms procurement and military-to- military diplomacy .Leaders from both countries also recognized that, despite significant progress in their relations with Beijing, both India and Vietnam still share a natural strategic congruence on the need to restrain China.
Since 1998, both countries have thus been steadily shoring up their ties, whether it be on the military or on the diplomatic front.
Vietnam has come out in support of India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UNSC, has lobbied in favour of India’s presence at the first East Asian Summit in 2005, and helped block Pakistan’s inclusion in the ASEAN Regional Forum. India, in return, was in favour of Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization, and helped Vietnam secure a temporary seat at the UNSC in 2007. Bilateral trade has also grown extremely rapidly, surging from little more than 72 million dollars in 1995 to more than two billion in 2008. Indian multinationals such as Tata Steel and ONGC Videsh Limited have started to heavily invest in Vietnam, in what many hope is just the beginning of a new trade pattern in Asia.
The aspect of the Indo-Vietnamese partnership that has known the most progress, however, is on the military one.
Strategically placed on the eastern fringe of Southeast Asia, Vietnam is viewed by India as the main obstacle to China’s southwards expansion. Much as China has attempted to constrain India by forming a military nexus with Pakistan, New Delhi has been involved in defence cooperation with, and provided military assistance to its rival’s smaller, militaristic neighbour.
In 2000, George Fernandes, the BJP government’s Defence Minister signed a 15-point Defence Protocol with Vietnam, which promised to provide Vietnam with assistance in the modernization of its armed forces and to intensify defence cooperation between the two countries. Three years later, India and Vietnam stepped up their military cooperation by signing a “Joint Declaration and Framework of Comprehensive Cooperation between the Republic of India and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as they enter the 21st century.” In 2007, this was followed up by a formalized Strategic Partnership.
India has been providing Vietnam with assistance in the shoring up of its naval and air capabilities in an attempt to deny China total supremacy in the South China Sea. This is greatly facilitated by the fact that Vietnam’s Air Force and Navy’s military hardware have the same Russian origin as their Indian counterparts, which has enabled the Indian armed forces to frequently help their Vietnamese partners overcome their operational difficulties by supplying them with spare parts and by providing advanced repair and maintenance services. New Delhi has repaired and upgraded 125 Mig 21 planes of the Vietnamese Air Force, and supplied them with enhanced avionics and radar systems. Indian Air Force pilots have also been training Vietnamese fighter pilots, and in 2005 the Indian Navy dispatched more than 150 tonnes of spares to Hanoi for its Russian Petya and OSA-11 class missile boats. The Indian and Vietnamese coast guards have engaged in joint patrols, and both navies participated in a joint exercise in 2007.
Indo-Vietnamese military cooperation also extends to their respective ground forces; as both countries have engaged in joint exercises, and Indian army officers have benefited from Vietnamese expertise in jungle warfare and counter-insurgency.
In return, the Vietnamese have been supplied with advanced light helicopters (the Indian made AHLs) at “friendly prices”, and Vietnamese officers have been provided with English lessons at an Indian Language Institute.A Feeling of Unfulfilled Potential:
Despite all this, there is a feeling, both in India and in Vietnam, that the partnership is far from having achieved its potential, and, what’s more, has started to lose its momentum.
Hanoi has been particularly disappointed in India’s unreliability as a weapons procurement partner. Although India has engaged in some token efforts to help modernize Vietnam’s military, the Vietnamese are frustrated by the fact that New Delhi seems so reticent to supply it with some of the missile systems it had initially promised. Indeed, in 2000 and at several occasions during the BJP governnment’s tenure, India had vouched that it would gift Vietnam with the Prithvi and BrahMos missile systems. The Prithvi is an SRBM (Short Range Ballistic Missile), with a maximum range of approximately 200-350km,whereas the BrahMos Cruise Missile, co-produced by the Indians with the Russians, is a very advanced anti-ship missile, based on the Russian Yakhent anti-ship missile, which has a range of more than 300km and that can fly at more than twice the speed the sound. If the Vietnamese Navy were to acquire such a weapons system, it would prove to be a major challenge to Chinese naval dominance in the South China Sea, and greatly aid Vietnam in its strategy of sea denial and coastal defence. Various theories have been put forward to explain India’s failure to provide Vietnam with the Prithvi and BrahMos. Some claim that India’s Congress government, which has increasingly focused on economic rather than military cooperation with Vietnam, does not want to run the risk of antagonizing China. Others blame it on traditional Indian bureaucratic sloth or have stated that, in the case of the BrahMos, it must first be fully inducted into the Indian Armed Forces before a surplus can be generated for friendly states such as Vietnam. Most analysts concur in saying that Vietnam will probably obtain the Prithvi system in the long run. When it comes to the vaunted BrahMos, however, things are far from certain.
It is believed that frustration at this, as well as at successive delays in amrs deliveries, is what led the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security to purchase sub machine guns and sniper rifles from Pakistan in 2007, in a veiled but nevertheless significant expression of its displeasure. The Indians for their part, are somewhat disappointed that the possibility of the Indian Navy gaining permanent berthing rights at the Vietnamese deep sea port of Cam Ranh Bay now seem to be increasingly remote. While the Vietnamese aired this possibility at the turn of the century, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien declared in 2004 when questioned on the matter that Cam Ranh was “no longer a military port”. Most analysts now concur in viewing Cam Ranh Bay as Vietnam’s strategic trump card, that it occasionally brandishes to balance China, but that it will most probably refuse to give up to a foreign power, unless it is compelled to in extreme circumstances.
Things are also far from perfect on the economic front. Indeed, while bilateral trade has grown substantially over the past decade, it is also increasingly unbalanced in nature, with Vietnam suffering from a crippling one billion dollar trade deficit with India. As a net benificiary of this imbalance, India has politely brushed aside the Vietnamese proposal to establish an FTA and has refused to grant tax reductions and exemptions to Vietnamese products.An Uncertain Future:
While it is clear that ties in-between India and Vietnam have strengthened over the past few years, particularly in the field of defence, it is equally apparent that for it to endure it needs to be put on a more equal footing.
India should consider lowering its trade tarriffs and opening its markets to some Vietnamese products, and should encourage more Indian companies to invest in Vietnam. Indian policy makers that hesitate to provide Vietnamese ships with BrahMos cruise missiles should maybe wonder whether China was beset by the same moral qualms when it supplied Pakistan with its first state-of-the-art F-22P frigate this summer.
Last but not least, the future of the Indo-Vietnamese partnership will increasingly depend on both states’ attitude towards China. India’s Congress government, which has generally shown a slightly more conciliatory attitude towards Beijing than its BJP predecessor; is currently facing renewed tensions along its 4,057 km with China. It may not wish, therefore, to durably aggravate its transhimalyan neighbour by strengthening the military facet of its ties with Vietnam.
Vietnam’s leadership, for its part, is currently riven by factional in-fighting as a prelude to the 11th National Congress in 2011. The recent crackdown on nationalist Vietnamese bloggers and journalists seems to indicate that the China-aligned fringe of the Party, which controls domestic intelligence gathering via the military intelligence unit General Department II, is gradually gaining ascendancy in the struggle in-between conservatives and liberals. If the pro-China conservatives win this subterranean battle for power and influence, it will undoubtedly have a highly negative impact on the Indo-Vietnamese partnership.