India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (C) review an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony held at the presidential palace in Hanoi on September 3, 2016. Modi is on a 24-hour official visit aimed at boosting bilateral ties. / AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH NAM
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) and then-Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (center) review an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony held at the presidential palace in Hanoi on September 3, 2016. Photo: / AFP / Hoang Dinh Nam

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh on Friday concluded a three-day visit to Hanoi. This not only reinforced but showcased how, other than the Quadrilateral Security Framework of Australia, Japan, India and the United States, Vietnam has come to be the most powerful pillar of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

This rapidly strengthening bilateral partnership portends far-reaching implications for the larger Indo-Pacific region.

Singh’s visit also marked one more instance of India’s assertive foreign policy in the making. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s last eight years have seen New Delhi becoming increasingly firm in pushing its own line and withstanding pressures from friends and foes alike.

And observers in Vietnam see this change being most aptly appreciated in Hanoi, undergirding an enduring future for their strategic cooperation.

For these last eight years, for instance, bilateral India-Vietnam trade has more than doubled, rising from US$7 billon for the 2015-16 fiscal year to $14.14 billion for 2021-22, with India’s exports to Vietnam last year marking impressive 34% growth over the preceding year.

But what has brought India and Vietnam closer is also their increasing concerns about China’s expanding footprint in the South China Sea, where both have serious commercial and strategic interests. And here, the recent past has especially witnessed China being further emboldened by its expanding engagements with the larger littoral across the Indo-Pacific region.

Apart from building known naval facilities from Djibouti in Africa to Solomon Islands in the Pacific, and leasing the ports of Gwadar and Hambantota or exploring naval access to ports in Bangladesh and Myanmar in South Asia, China has been secretly building naval facilities in Vietnam’s neighbor Cambodia, though officials both in Beijing and Phnom Penh have denied it.

This is where New Delhi and Hanoi find their larger visions – like the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and India’s Act East policy or Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative – synergizing their rapidly transforming defense-centric partnership that promises to make this novel axis an influential factor in emerging Indo-Pacific dynamics.

Defense-centric axis

In short, India’s relationship with Vietnam has transformed from their millennia-old civilizational and cultural linkages and 20th-century camaraderie of anti-colonial struggles to the 21st-century geopolitics prodding a whole range of robust defense-centric partnerships. 

Today these partnerships involve a whole spectrum of regular high-level visits, military training and exchanges, joint naval exercises, defense supplies and co-production, intelligence sharing and cooperation in UN peace operations. 

The fact that their partnerships have lately begun to drift toward greater maritime and multilateral bonhomie makes their axis an interesting ingredient for prognosis on the evolving realignments in the Indo-Pacific region.

Recent years have witnessed India’s arms exports leading this transformation. No other nation has received the kind of defense supplies that have been destined from India to Hanoi. 

In this three-day visit itself, India’s defense minister formally handed over 12 high-speed boats for Vietnam’s border guards. Underlining the move from defense exports to joint defense production, the first five boats were built in the Larsen & Toubro shipyard in India and the other seven at Vietnam’s Hong Ha shipyard.

Rajnath Singh also announced a monetary grant for setting up language and IT labs for the Vietnamese armed forces. Plus India is expected to gift Vietnam a Khukri-class corvette, the INS Kirpan (“Dagger”), which is currently in service with the Indian Navy.

All this is bound to be read in Beijing as aimed at constraining China in the South China Sea and beyond.

Singh and Vietnam’s minister of national defense, General Phan Van Giang, also revived talks on India supplying its state-of-the-art BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles as well as Akash short-range ground-to-air missiles.

This proposal was originally initiated way back during the 2016 visit of India’s then-defense minister Manohar Parrikar, who had also launched a $100 million line of credit facilitating India’s ongoing defense supplies.

However, after India’s recent $375 million contract to supply of an anti-ship variant of the BrahMos cruise missile to the Philippines, which is also expected to sign another deal for India’s light combat aircraft and advanced light helicopter, Vietnam and Indonesia may also soon receive versions of India’s BrahMos missiles.

Alluding to these trends in the making, India’s line of credit to Vietnam is now being expanded to $500 million, and the two defense ministers agreed for its “early finalization” as the two sides signed a slew of agreements signaling this changing nature of their future cooperation.

Future roadmap outlined

Without doubt, their shared China challenge remains the main driver guiding and accelerating future trajectories of this evolving IndiaVietnam axis of the two fastest-growing economies of this region. This could not be more vividly underlined than this visit clinching a first-of-its-kind Memorandum of Understanding on Mutual Logistics Support.

This will not only allow but both facilitate and simplify their administrative procedures to enable their militaries use of each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies.

These new arrangements should greatly enhance their operational outreach empowering their naval explorations across the South China Sea and also enable them to operate far away home: India around the Pacific and Vietnam in the Indian Ocean rim.

This context was most aptly underlined by Rajnath Singh explaining how their “broader convergence of interests and common interest” and the resultant “close defense and security cooperation is an important factor of stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

What is most interesting is that Vietnam has been traditionally reluctant to allow such free access to its military facilities to foreign militaries. This in turn makes India the first to achieve this feat. India, on the other hand, has had similar arrangements with a whole range of countries including the United States, Australia, Japan, France, South Korea, Singapore and so on.

The second groundbreaking clincher of this visit by India’s defense minister is their issuing of a Joint Vision Statement on India-Vietnam Defense Partnership toward 2030 that aims to “significantly enhance the scope and scale” to their defense partnership. This roadmap for coming eight years allows long-term planning and initiatives. 

Strategic partners on the go

Vietnam remembers that when it comes to its national defense, India was the only non-communist nation to support Hanoi both during its prolonged war with France and then against the United States and later in its conflict with Cambodia.

Of course structural factors like expansion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and launch of India’s Look East policy in 1990s have also laid strong foundations.

The two remain connected in regular bilateral and regional forums. India has since also come to be Vietnam’s major partner in the fields of oil exploration, agriculture and manufacturing, though focus has clearly since moved toward military supplies and co-production, intelligence sharing and joint military exercises and other maritime and multilateral cooperation.

Over the years, their bilateral ties were consequently upgraded to a strategic partnership during then-prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s India visit of 2007 and then to a comprehensive strategic partnership during Modi’s Vietnam visit of 2016. 

Without playing down the autonomy of shared values and interest and mutual stakes and institutionalization of their cooperation, it is primarily China’s continued unprecedented rise during last few decades and especially its muscle-flexing in the South China Sea that has sustained the momentum of India-Vietnam cooperation. 

Given their shared territorial disputes and geopolitical contestations with rising China, this reflects their shared determination to ensure China’s compliance with international laws and norms, especially around the Indo-Pacific region. But what is important to underline is that unlike some Western powers, both India and Vietnam have kept engaging with a rising and assertive China.

Guided by their civilizational values, both believe in socializing and restraining China’s behavior by engaging with it and not by confronting or alienating it altogether. This is what promises to see the India-Vietnam axis emerging as a novel alternative locomotive of change in evolving realignments in the Indo-Pacific region.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia and professor of diplomacy and disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is president of the Association of Asia Scholars; adjunct senior fellow at the Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming.