Rajnath Singh with Defence Minister of Vietnam, General Phan Van Giang, in Siem Reap

As PM Modi said during his visit to Vietnam in 2014, the latter had been in the forefront of India’s engagement in the region

Many dramatic paradigms of foreign policies of different countries have witnessed the collapse of the USSR and the end of Cold War. India has been one of the front runners of inducing its long pending reforms, specifically in foreign policy. India has announced its Look East Policy (LEP) in 1991 by the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Undoubtedly, India’s LEP remains the most effective foreign policy during the post-Cold War period. It involves intensive and continuous engagement with Southeast Asian countries in the field of connectivity, trade, culture, defence and people-to-people-contact at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels, in the first phase. It has been extended geographically up to Japan and New Zealand which includes East Asia and South Pacific as its second phase. The Narendra Modi government has upgraded the LEP as Act East Policy (AEP) in November 2014 which reflects the intension of intensifying India’s engagement in the region by its ‘action’ instead of ‘looking’. Of course, India has completed all the formalities (ASEAN Sectoral Partner, 1992; Dialogue Partner,1996; Summit Level Partner, 2002; and Strategic Partner, 2012) to emerge as one of the major players of the region.

General understanding is that Myanmar stands as the Gateway of India to Southeast Asia in terms of geographical merits but Vietnam has been incipient of the India’s Gateway and caters the needs of geopolitical, security, trade, culture, energy, defence, etc., of mutual interests. As Modi attributed during his visit to Vietnam in 2014, Vietnam had been in the frontrunner of India’s engagement in the region. Both the countries committed to share common concerns of security, sovereignty, territorial integrity and maintaining rules-based order, specifically in the Indo-Pacific region. On the lines of common understanding and mutual interests, India and Vietnam entered into a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ during the landmark visit of Modi to Vietnam in September 2016.

Prime Minister Modi asserted on different occasions that Vietnam is an important pillar of India’s Act East Policy and is an important partner in India’s Indo-Pacific vision. Indo-Pacific region emerges as one of the strategic engagements of India and Vietnam, since China factor has been common in Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Vietnam, as the Chair of ASEAN, made tremendous efforts to bring out ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’, on the other side, India has launched its ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative’ complementing each other. These two significant initiatives have prominently underlined the ‘China Factor’ as a common agenda. The former Vietnamese envoy to India Mr. Pham Sanh Chau has emphasized that Vietnam has been a staunch supporter of India’s Act East Policy and serves as a bridge between India and ASEAN, helping India extend its reach beyond the Indian Ocean.

The China factor will always be the focal point during any discourse on India-Vietnam partnership. Vietnam enjoys the advantages and encounters the challenges being a neighbouring country to China. It may be difficult to separate Vietnam from China in the spheres of culture, diaspora and economy over centuries. On the other flip, Vietnam waged a war with China and facing many maritime issues in South China Sea. Desires of a common man from Vietnam completely differs from the reality at ground level. Vietnamese want to invite India as an alternative to China but not any country from the west. Surprisingly, they are looking at India with great ray of hope for the future. Unfortunately, for many domestic challenges, India may not be the immediate solution for Vietnamese expectations.

In fact, India’s inner ambitions are also on the lines of emerging as an active player in Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam. But the current scenario has not been a conducive atmosphere for both the countries. There are many negative factors which may either delay or stop such process of finding alternatives. Firstly, the economic dependency of Vietnam on China, as per the world bank data of 2020, China has emerged as the major trade partner with 17 per cent of exports and 32 per cent imports of Vietnam, whereas India accounts only 1.72 per cent of imports and 1.86 per cent of exports of Vietnam’s total imports and exports; secondly, the impact of Chinese diaspora dominates the Indian diaspora; and thirdly, Vietnam has the established links with China and trying to convert the established friendship of India into an expected partnership. Therefore, it may be difficult for India and Vietnam for an immediate alternative to China in Vietnam.

Any strategy to strengthen the India-Vietnam partnership reminds the role of China. Naturally, the impact of China over Vietnam’s economy and society can’t be ignored which may hinder the relations between India and Vietnam. Therefore, these two countries primarily concentrate to find alternatives to avoid dependency on China.

Impact of Act East Policy

Vietnam-India relations have seen steady expansions over the past years, especially since the two countries upgraded their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016. India-Vietnam bilateral efforts have brought many more interesting and effective results since 2014 in different spheres of mutual interests. Bilateral trade has crossed US$ 14.0 billion for the first time as against the trade in 2013-14 was only US$ 8.0. Tourism sector has registered tremendous growth of annual visitors to Vietnam and vis-à-vis. The number of Indian visitors to Vietnam rose from 82,000 in 2016 to 1,69,000 in 2019. Direct flights are connecting different major cities of India and Vietnam for the first time.

India and Vietnam are vigorously engaged and designed grand defence framework. In this direction India enhanced its Line of Control to Vietnam which has been multiplied during the last two decades. Significant development has been that both the Defence Ministers signed the ‘Joint Vision Statement on India-Vietnam Defence Partnership towards 2030’ to bolster bilateral defence cooperation. Further, the two ministers agreed on the finalisation of the USD 500 million Defence Line of Credit extended to Vietnam which helps to improve defence capabilities of Vietnam and furthering the government’s vision of ‘Make in India, Make for the World.’

India-Vietnam engagement matters much to the common desire of new paradigm in multilateralism with an inclusive approach towards establishing a strong regional security architecture. Such committed efforts of India and Vietnam cooperation, surely brings regional stability of Indo-Pacific region. The strategic cooperation between India-Vietnam would be critical towards building the vision laid out under India’s ‘Act East’ Policy. Strengthening ties with Vietnam will eventually lead a step towards the realisation of SAGAR (Security and Growth all in the region) initiative as hailed by the Indian Prime Minister. As the Chair of G20, India looks forward to intensifying and expanding its global, regional and domestic initiatives to bring peace and prosperity at regional and global levels apart from protecting its national interests.