India's BrahMos missile on public display in a file photo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Anuraj
India's BrahMos missile on public display in a file photo. Plans to export the Russo-Indian weapon to Vietnam have stalled. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Anuraj

India and Vietnam held their second maritime security dialogue recently. A press release by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs stated that the two countries discussed developments in the domains of “maritime security, regional cooperation activities and opportunities for cooperation.”

Multiple similar discussions have taken place between India and Vietnam in recent years. But the underlying question is, to what extent have such promises been turned into reality?

Both India and Vietnam have highlighted the need to work toward achieving a peaceful, stable, secure, free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region. It is crucial to look into what has been achieved to date and how India can elevate this relationship to promise a more secure future for both nations. 

A common threat 

India and Vietnam both have long-standing territorial disputes with China. And Beijing’s increasingly aggressive posture with regard to these is a concern for both countries.

For instance, the ongoing standoff in eastern Ladakh is an example of the tense relationship between Beijing and New Delhi. With complete disengagement and de-escalation unlikely in the near term, India’s focus should be equally directed toward protecting its maritime domain and, more important, upholding its vision of a rule-based, free, open and secure region. 

Similarly, conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea have been a point of contention between Vietnam and China for a long time. It is only accelerating as Beijing becomes more aggressive in its approaches and claims of sovereignty.

The recent controversy surrounding Chinese vessels present at the Whitsun Reef is an example of this. Chinese vessels are increasing activity in other islands too.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Hanoi said recently, “The activities of Chinese vessels within the territorial sea around of Sinh Ton Dong in Vietnam’s Truong Sa Islands violate Vietnam’s sovereignty and the provisions of UNCLOS,” or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Vietnam has been sharply critical of Chinese actions in this regard. For India, the South China Sea is also an important trading route. Any aggression by Beijing in the region directly impacts India’s economic interests. This necessitates India working with partners in the region like Vietnam. 

Naval, security cooperation has seen success 

India and Vietnam have made significant progress on agreements related to elevating military cooperation. Yet more needs to be done to materialize these goals. Since upgrading to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2016,  a wide range of institutionalized dialogues have taken place, with many agreements being signed.

These include the seventh Strategic Dialogue held in April 2018 and the first India-Vietnam Maritime Security Dialogue held in March 2019. 

A summit last December was noteworthy, as the prime ministers of both countries signed a Plan of Action for 2021-2023. In their joint statement, the two leaders expressed satisfaction over the successful implementation of the HSGB (High-Speed Guard Boat) Manufacturing Project for the Vietnam Border Guard Command under a $100 million line of credit extended by the government of India to Vietnam. 

Naval cooperation in the form of joint exercises, training and port visits has seen considerable progress. Last December, the navies of India and Vietnam commenced a series of exercises in the South China Sea to develop maritime interoperability.

Vietnamese ships have participated in multilateral naval exercises hosted by India, such as MILAN, and the Indian Navy hosted an international fleet review held in Visakhapatnam, a port city on the Bay of Bengal, in 2016. Furthermore, coast-guard and naval officers from the two sides have been in regular dialogue over the years and continue to do so. 

Limited supply of military equipment

In terms of weapons procurements, the two countries are faced with some level of ambiguity. In 2014, India offered the BrahMos, an anti-ship cruise missile, to Vietnam. But no real progress has been seen since then, apart from intermittent talks.

Lack of funding has been stated as a reason for the deal not materializing. Another reason being speculated is fear of Beijing.

In the wake of China strengthening ties with India’s adversaries, including Pakistan, New Delhi seems to be hesitant to accelerate supplies of military hardware to countries in its immediate neighborhood. However, the latest hurdle comes with the United States’ Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions (CAATSA), which can halt sales through arbitrary embargoes.

As the BrahMos cruise missiles are manufactured in India in collaboration with Russia, it depends on Moscow’s critical components, liable to sanctions under CAATSA. Such sanctions could halt the Indian government’s move of a fast-track export of such missiles to recipient countries, including Vietnam. India needs to deal effectively with such obstacles if it wants to boost its material exports fivefold to $5 billion by 2025. 

Since 2016, Vietnam and India have been in talks regarding the potential sale of the Varunastra torpedo. Finally, in 2018, the anti-submarine torpedo was inducted into the Indian Navy. Still, the development process took longer than expected, according to the Navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lamba, and Defense Research and Development Organization chief S Christopher.

“We need to work towards a reasonable time-frame from concept to realization to address our capability gap in time,” Lamba said. Other reasons listed for the delay included the availability of ships and submarines to test numerous aspects of technology. When Vietnam will receive the vessel is still unclear, though. 

The Indian government must carefully overlook such lapses and effectively carry out weapons exports if it intends to strengthen its defense partnership with Vietnam to the fullest. With China ramping up its Belt and Road Initiative, it is time for India to maintain a coherent export policy to transform its Act East Policy

Ameera Rao

Ameera Rao is a research assistant at the Takshashila Institution, a public-policy think-tank based in Bangalore.