In geopolitics, the closer your ally is to your common adversary, the better it is. The same goes for Vietnam and India. Vietnam is at a key location; its coastline meets the South China Sea, one of the greatest upcoming geopolitical challenges. Vietnam is no more home of Agent Orange fallouts; it is coming up as a factory giant and a manufacturing hub. It is proving itself as the best alternative to China in many cases, even though Vietnam and China have close ties in some realms, especially cultural. Well, that is a win-loss situation for India. Nevertheless, both India and Vietnam have common areas to focus on, that make the case for our relationship in the twenty-first century. India’s relationship with Vietnam will be both of a challenger, as well as of a collaborator.
Our Economic Frenemy
Vietnam is a growing technology manufacturing goliath. Companies like Samsung, LG, and semiconductor giants like Intel are investing tons of cash in Vietnam. Foreign direct investments from Japan, the US, Taiwan, China, Korea and Singapore are breaking records. Here, Vietnam becomes an enemy that is getting the companies that are leaving China. But Vietnam’s power increase is beneficial to India. As Vietnam rises in economic power along with India, it poses as an alternative to China. India and Vietnam get to establish a supply-chain alliance, be it in semiconductors, textile, outsourcing and manufacturing. This also degrades China’s relative comprehensive power. Right now, only an economic alliance can counter the Chinese supply-chain monopoly. Vietnam and India have the labour force to drive in low-wage market seeking companies. India and Vietnam will have to create an integrated supply chain mechanism to bring in big businesses. This asks for making up of infrastructure; like ports and roadways. Vietnam and India’s collaboration for oil exploration in the South China Sea will serve as a message to the common problem. Vietnam has been keen on seeking India’s help for exploration within Vietnam’s economic zone, and India has been constant in its support. Any oil and gas findings in Vietnam’s zone will benefit India in establishing an alternative energy supply chain, and also in establishing transport infrastructure and interoperability deep into ASEAN member nations, which will benefit India’s economy. India and Vietnam have already approved 12 quick impact projects: seven in water resource management, and five in education infrastructure building in Vietnam. While commerce and information technology collaborations are the need of the hour, what is more needed is social and private-public business interactions.
Vietnam’s defence infrastructure is in need of weaponry that is reliable and modern. As the South China Sea dispute becomes more belligerent day by day, Vietnam needs a greater military and naval establishment. Vietnam’s military modernisation is in the benefit of India, both in terms of business and allied power to counter the Chinese. This defence relationship will also benefit India’s domestic military complex and industry. It will give a boost to our domestic companies who want to invest in the defence industry. Prime minister Modi has promised a $500 million line of credit to Vietnam for defence purchases from India. This line of credit already benefits us, as this money will come back to India in terms of employment and cooperation. Vietnam has also shown interest in buying the AKASH SAM system and Dhruv light helicopters. The Indian Navy has the closest ties with its Vietnamese counterparts, given that it has been training Vietnamese sailors to operate the Vietnamese People’s Navy’s (VPN’s) Kilo-class submarines at Visakhapatnam since 2013. Three Indian Navy ships also made a port call in Tien Sa Port in Vietnam in 2018. In the defence aspect of the relationship, the most important will be naval cooperation. As India has to protect its interests of gas and oil exploration and avoid any Chinese manoeuvres in the South China Sea region, in future,a port in Vietnam can be used to counter the string of pearls game of China. Chinas’ port buildup in the Indian Ocean region can be countered by defence infrastructure in Vietnam.
Common Geopolitical Arenas
Vietnam is in close proximity to China’s great claim of the South China Sea. In case of any conflict, Vietnam will be used as a starting point to counter the Chinese. India and Vietnam have common geopolitical goals like securing the sea lanes of communications, energy explorations, strategic ground, and counterbalancing China’s rise in this region. India and Vietnam cannot afford the dragon to swell up around this region. That will be detrimental to India’s standings in this region as well. Military and naval exercises with Vietnam may be enough for now; but both the nations need extensive military dialogue, cooperation and operations channels to be future-ready. India’s alliance with Vietnam must increase in the terms of naval cooperation, and this naval alliance should also include other bigwigs namely the US, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia. Yes, this brings us to the expansion of the QUAD. Although in political terms we are not similar nations, our interests do match. QUAD’s expansion should be done in a way that Beijing doesn’t get to expand its military infrastructure by using QUAD as an excuse. That remains tough, but it can be done by cooperation in terms of socio-economic collaboration.
India’s Act East Policy must include the East. By this, we mean to use the similar social aspects of Northeast India to indulge in social understandings and interactions with the Vietnamese. No relationship is built without social interactions of two nations’ populace. India has a huge advantage in terms of diaspora and Northeast’s cultural similarities with the East. We can harness these cultural bindings to create a social cooperation mechanism. When two powers have social understandings, their political societies agree to greater cooperation. Social cooperation is proportional to political cooperation in the international arena. This also builds up trust between the two players. This is the reason that apart from military cooperation, India should focus on the cultural bindings. This soft-power aspect adds weight to power relations between the two countries; this relation which is stronger holds nations together in many areas.
What India and Vietnam need to look out for is not a competition to get companies that move out of China, but to get into cooperation to create a supply chain alliance on which the world relies. This supply chain alliance will do more damage to Beijing than the competition to attract more companies than each other. Western nations for decades have tried and succeeded in creating economic alliances. This new horizon has not yet been harnessed to its full potential here in the East. The time has come for the East to build up economic alliances, especially to counter one’s hegemony. China has been fast in making such alliances. India and Vietnam along with other nations should use the post-coronavirus period to create these alliances. The other way forward is of military cooperation between the two nations. India’s naval cooperation with the Vietnamese will be the key among all the other relationships. In the end, our nation’s greatest focus should be to create a bilateral understanding with Vietnam, which would solidify our partnership in a multilateral field. Lastly, we need to put our common interests on the table, because in the global arena, friends are those who have common interests.
By Harsh Suri
Harsh is on his mission with political science as his partner. Hindu College has given him a lot of know-how too. He is driven by geopolitics and geo-strategic issues. he loves to blend and understand international affairs with the domestic characteristics that shape it. Harsh believes in digging down the topic rather than having a cakewalk on it. you can ping him up on foreign policy anytime.