Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam is the first bilateral by an Indian Prime Minister since Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2001. In today’s hyper-nationalist times, Modi’s visit assumes a larger-than-life form with some Modi ‘bhakts’ virtually seeing the feisty South-East Asian nation as an instrument of Indian geostrategy in the same way that Beijing uses Islamabad against New Delhi. This connection is underscored by the fact that Modi chose to visit Hanoi on his way to the G-20 summit in Guangzhou, where he is expected to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The “Pakistan” thesis doesn’t hold water for the simple reason that no other country in the world can be so self-destructive as Pakistan is in its rivalry with India. Vietnam, on the other hand, is a very smart country which has a ruthless understanding of self interest; after all, confronted with a rising China, it has not hesitated to befriend the United States, the country that was reponsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Vietnamese in the 1960s and 1970s.
Given where it is located, Vietnam almost certainly is looking to leverage its friendship with India to offset the rising power of its northern neighbour. But it is under no illusion that it can “take on” China; India is too weak to make up the power differential and its new friend, the United States, is too unreliable.
Following his meeting with Premier Ngyuen Xuan Phuc on Saturday, Modi announced a new $500 million line of credit for defence products and a target of $15 billion for two-way trade (currently it is around $9 billion). The two sides also signed agreements in areas like health, cyber security, ship building and naval information sharing. Indian investments are of the order of $1 billion in the area of food processing, fertilisers, sugar, auto components, information technology and agro-chemicals. Indian companies like ONGC Videsh have been active in Vietnam’s oil exploration efforts since the late 1980s despite some offshore areas being contested by China.
Vietnam carefully manages its ties with China. For the past 12 years, China has been Vietnam’s top trade partner with estimated trade anywhere between $66-96 billion per annum. Vietnam is part of China’s production value chain for making electronic goods and sub-assemblies.
The Indo-Vietnamese strategic relationship – now upgraded, in nomenclature at least, to a ‘strategic comprehensive partnership’ – is important, but its importance should not be over-stated. In terms of substance, it is actually fairly modest, beginning with the MoU on defence cooperation that was signed by the defence ministers of the two countries in November 2009. India offers 50 slots to Vietnamese defence personnel under the India Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme. India had offered a $100 million line of credit to Vietnam to purchase four offshore patrol vessels that are currently being built in Indian yards. The two countries also have some unspecified cooperation in electronic intelligence in relation to Chinese naval activity in the seas of Vietnam. India has helped Vietnam train personnel who are operating its Kilo class submarines, and New Delhi has offered to upgrade and maintain Russian-origin equipment with the Vietnamese forces such as tanks, fighter aircraft, helicopter and ships.
So far, there is no reference to the Brahmos missile, though it is well known that India has been keen to sell the missile to Vietnam. Hanoi itself is likely to be cautious on such a deal which could be viewed as destabilising. The recent emplacement of a missile battery off the Chinese border in Arunachal was sharply criticised by China.
Hawks in India virtually equate Brahmos with a ‘Brahmastra’, the mythical war-winning weapon of the Mahabhrata. The fact of the matter is that it is a type of missile in service with many navies, though India and Russia may have developed a land-attack and air-to0ground version of it. An important aspect of any sale would be the Russian view, since they have a veto on its marketing. While Russia continues to sell weapons and systems to Vietnam, it will certainly be guided by China on any sale of the Brahmos to Hanoi. In any case, with its DF-21Cs and HQ-9 SAMs, China has more than enough to deal with Vietnam.
The Sino-Vietnamese relationship
Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngyuen Xuan Phuc will visit China later this month, following up on the defence minister, Ngo Xuan Lich’s visit this week. Hanoi is aware that its partners like India, Japan and even the US are not a match for the power that Beijing, especially with its new friend Russia, can bring to bear on it. The Vietnamese may have given the Chinese a bloody nose in 1979, but Beijing’s adventure against Vietnam achieved all its military and political objectives. So it wants to maintain an even keel in its ties with Beijing.
Vietnam has settled its land border dispute with China, as well as that relating to the seas opposite Hainan island. What remains toxic, however, is the issue of South China Sea where Hanoi claims all of the Paracels, occupied by China, as well as the Spratlys, where the Vietnamese control 25 of the “rocks”, as compared to just seven by China.
Vietnam will not get too close to the US in order to anger China and neither will it get so close to Beijing as to discomfit Uncle Sam. US President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam and the decision to lift the American arms embargo is a significant development, but for now, little will happen till a new president is in office in Washington. But one thing is more or less certain — the Trans-Pacific Partnership is probably dead. Vietnam’s membership of the new trade agreement could have had major consequences. In any case, the US tends to be difficult in transferring cutting-edge technology to anyone and there is no indication that it will give Vietnam anything that will remotely upset the Chinese.
Vietnam’s key to dealing with China lies in the close party-to-party ties that the ruling establishments of the two countries enjoy. This relationship is quite deep, involving party organisations, institutions and personnel. Under General Secretary Ngyuen Phu Trong, the Vietnamese follow a policy that accepts the centrality of good relations with “socialist China”.
Yet, there is a well-spring of anti-Chinese feeling among the Vietnamese public, in part because of history, and in part arising from recent events like China’s forcible occupation of the Paracel islands.
More recently, the two countries have had issues with oil exploration, with China insisting that many blocs Vietnam has put on the international market are part of its territory, while in turn, China has offered areas which fall in Vietnam’s EEZ.
The big question is whether Hanoi will take up the South China Sea issue through the UNCLOS arbitration system following the successful example of the Philippines. The likely answer at this juncture is no. While Vietnam insists that peaceful settlement must be based on “equality” and respect for international law, China will be brazen and seek to strike a bilateral deal with Vietnam, after it has done so with the Philippines. At the end of the day, Vietnam will do what it considers best for its national interest. Indian policy makers would do well to understand that.
The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation