India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses for a photo with Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang in front of a statue of late Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses for a photo with Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang in front of a statue of late Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

Though it was short – and came relatively late – Narendra Modi’s recent one-day stopover in Hanoi, the first official trip to Vietnam by an Indian prime minister since Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 2001 visit, was momentous as it marked a new shift in India-Vietnam relations.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses for a photo with Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang in front of a statue of late Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses for a photo with Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang in front of a  statue of late Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

Their shared concern about China’s regional hegemonic ambitions is a major factor behind the Indian leader’s tour and the consequent deepening of cooperation between the two countries.

Faced with China’s increasing assertiveness and aggressiveness in the disputed South China Sea, apart from its efforts to enhance military capabilities, Vietnam has sought to boost its ties with key regional and global powers. One of these is India.

Vietnam’s strong desire to reinforce its cooperation with the South Asian power is manifested by the fact that it has sent a number of top officials to New Delhi in recent years. These include (former) President Truong Tan Sang in 2011, ruling Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong in 2013, who also visited India as Chairman of National Assembly (Vietnam’s parliament) in 2010, and (former) Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in 2007, 2012 and 2014.

In contrast, there were fewer such high-profile trips from the Indian side. Despite the South Asian country’s ‘Look East Policy’, during his 10-year premiership, from 2004 to 2014, Manmohan Singh traveled to Hanoi only once in 2010 to attend the ASEAN-India summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Judging by this lack of interaction from the Indian side, it seems that, for years, New Delhi did not highly regard its relationship with Hanoi even though the two countries elevated their ties to a strategic partnership in 2007.

However, Modi’s outing to Hanoi last Saturday heralded a remarkable change in India’s interaction with Vietnam.

Besides its long tensions with China over the territorial disputes, India’s concern about China’s recent moves and ambitions – including Beijing’s rapidly growing influence in India’s neighboring countries, notably in Pakistan, and its opposition to New Delhi’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group – is a fundamental reason behind this shift.

That Modi chose Hanoi as the first destination of his three-leg East/Southeast Asian tour was a strong signal that he wanted to give “a new direction, momentum and substance” to India’s relations with Vietnam.

In fact, his trip to Vietnam saw the two countries elevate their “strategic partnership” to “comprehensive strategic partnership”. This upgrade of bilateral relations was of both symbolic and substantive significance.

India is now one of the Southeast Asian country’s top partners. Hanoi has so far formed such an all-encompassing, multifaceted, stable and long-term cooperation with only a handful of influential countries. These include China and Russia, which it occasionally designates as its “comprehensive strategic cooperative partners.”

Yet, the communist-ruled country’s special relationships with China and Russia are now being greatly questioned. While its northern communist neighbor’s maritime aggression is posing a serious threat to Hanoi’s security and sovereignty, Moscow has already decided to align with Beijing on the South China Sea issue.

Against this background, New Delhi is probably Hanoi’s most reliable and valuable partner in the region.

To mark and accompany this shift, New Delhi and Hanoi signed a dozen of important agreements in a wide range of key areas, from trade and investment, through energy and technology, to security and defense.

Notable among these is India’s agreement to provide Vietnam with a $500 million defense loan, which is aimed at boosting defence ties between the two countries. This deal, which was, undoubtedly, closely watched by Beijing, is an evidence that though it was not publicly mentioned, China loomed large over Modi’s Vietnam trip.

The South China Sea

Another indication that China featured prominently in his deliberations with the Vietnamese leadership is that both sides “noted” the recent international ruling that delivered a sweeping rebuke of China’s expansionist claims and aggressive behaviors in the South China Sea and was angrily rejected by Beijing.

In their joint statement, “noting the Award issued on 12 July 2016 of the Arbitral Tribunal …, both sides reiterated their support for peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS.”

They also “called on all states to resolve disputes through peaceful means without threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability, respect the diplomatic and legal processes.”

Though this joint statement did not go as far as calling for the respect of the ruling, its mention of the July verdict is remarkable because India is a non-South China Sea claimant.

Beijing has vehemently criticized outside countries of “interfering” in the disputed waters. For instance, at the recent regional summit in Vientiane, Laos, Chinese premier Li Keqiang was quoted as saying  Beijing wanted to work with ASEAN countries to “dispel interference” in the contested sea.

Moreover, given China’s huge economic and political leverage, some countries, e.g. Russia and Cambodia, and – because of these countries’ backing of China’s position – regional and international forums, notably recent ASEAN summits and its related meetings in Laos, have so far ignored or omitted that landmark ruling.

Freedom of navigation and a rules-based maritime order in the South China Sea is also vital to India as about 50% of its trade goes through this sea lane. That India opposes China’s posture and supports Vietnam’s stance even though for New Delhi, economically, China is much more important than Vietnam, shows it is concerned about Beijing’s regional ambitions and highly values its relations with Hanoi.

That is why he was warmly received by Vietnam’s top four leaders and in their respective meeting with him, they hailed and thanked India for its principled position on the South China Sea issue.

Political and economic issues

Besides their growing shared interest in keeping China in check, India and Vietnam have other strong incentives to forge deeper ties.

“Act East Policy” is one of India’s priorities and Vietnam, which is also India’s country coordinator for ASEAN till 2018, features prominently in New Delhi’s vision and commitment. Vietnam also wants the 1.25-billion-people country to strongly engage in the region.

As underlined in their joint statement, they also called for reform of the United Nations (UN) and expansion of its “Security Council in both the permanent and the non-permanent categories of membership.”

Vietnam has consistently supported “India’s candidature for permanent membership of a reformed and expanded UNSC and Modi “expressed gratitude” for such support.

Historical, cultural and political convergences and similarities also play a key role in facilitating and encouraging them to boost their relations.

In a joint statement with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Modi pointed out that the links between the two countries date back over 2000 years, citing the advent of Buddhism from his country to Vietnam and the presence of the Hindu Cham temples in the latter as testimony to these long-lasting bonds.

Like India, Vietnam experienced colonialism and fought for national independence. That is why he also said the Indian people, especially those of his generation, admired the Vietnamese people’s bravery in gaining independence from colonial rule.

Though his one-day trip was full of official engagements, the 65-year-old leader also made time to visit Quan Su Pagoda, a Buddhist temple, in Hanoi. Addressing its monks, Modi remarked that “some people came here [Vietnam] with the objective of war. We came here with a message of peace which has endured.”

That message resonated well with both the Vietnamese people and their leaders. In fact, unlike other countries, notably China and the US, with whom Vietnam fought devastating wars to achieve its independence, sovereignty and unity, India did not have any conflict with Vietnam in the past.

More importantly, in contrast to its current interaction with Washington, with whom it still has disagreements over certain issues, e.g. human rights, and especially its tense ties with Beijing due to the latter’s territorial ambitions, Hanoi’s relationship with New Delhi is completely conflict-free.

Given all of these, both Indian and Vietnamese leaders feel totally at ease and completely trust each other.

A strong desire for enhancing economic cooperation, which remains considerably underdeveloped, is another dominant factor.

For instance, according to some statistics, the two-way trade between the world’s 7th biggest economy and Vietnam was just $7.8 billion in 2015. This means India’s trade with Vietnam still trails far behind the latter’s trade with its top six trading partners – namely China ($66.3 billion), ASEAN ($42.1 billion), the US ($41.5 billion), the EU ($41.2 billion), South Korea ($36.7 billion) and Japan ($28.5 billion).

That is why the leaders of the two countries pledged to enhance bilateral economic engagement, which they regarded as “a strategic objective” and requested their related ministries and agencies to explore measures to achieve the trade target of $15 billion by 2020.

Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK, in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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