It's wrong for India to take advantage of well-meaning Vietnam

Our present policy might be appropriate in case of US, but not for a trusted friend.

 |  6-minute read |   04-09-2016
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi went for a one-day visit to Vietnam on his way to China for the G-20 summit. In this short trip, he signed a dozen agreements deepening bilateral engagement primarily on defence and security sectors with his Vietnamese counterpart.

Before leaving for Hangzhou, Modi has offered Vietnam a line of credit of half a billion dollars for "facilitating deeper defence cooperation". India has been trying to sell its supersonic BrahMos missiles to Vietnam. This line of credit is most possibly to that effect, though it has not been specifically announced.

In late 2014, India had given $100 million loan to Vietnam for yet-to-be built naval patrol boats. Recently Vietnam has become a major buyer of arms to modernise and strengthen its military. India is trying to take the advantage of it in its pursuit of increasing its arms export.

India's friendly relationship with Vietnam is not a new development. During the 1940s, the freedom fighters of both countries had developed close cooperation in their common struggle for liberation from foreign rule. After India achieved its independence, Jawaharlal Nehru had provided support to Ho Chi Minh and his followers in their struggle.

Nehru was the first foreign leader to visit Hanoi in October 1954 after a separate North Vietnam state was created and had provided a much-needed international acceptance to Ho Chi Minh with his public embrace. Since then India has consistently stood together with Vietnam in its fight against external intervention.

modi-viet-embed_090416044307.jpg PM Narendra Modi at the historic Quan Su Pagoda, in Hanoi. (Photo credit: PTI) 

India was among the few countries to raise its voice in support for Vietnam against US aggression in 1960s and 1970s. India was the first non-communist country to recognise the unified Vietnam. India had to bear considerable cost for its open support for Vietnam.

When China attacked Vietnam in 1979, the then foreign minister AB Vajpayee was on an official visit to China and he returned to India in protest. Since then, India has been consistent in its support to Vietnam at the political and diplomatic level.

After India initiated its Look East policy in 1991, the cooperation with Vietnam expanded to areas such as science and technology, and security and defence. India and Vietnam have signed major defence cooperation agreements in 1994, 2000 and 2003. In November 2007, both the countries upgraded their relationship to strategic partnership.

India's relations with Vietnam have always remained warm and friendly. It has grown from the political and diplomatic sphere in initial decades to include scientific exchanges, trade and even defence cooperation. However, both the countries had done their best to develop the relationship on its own merit rather projecting it as a front against any other country.

However, after Modi became the prime minister, the last two years has seen an unprecedented shift in India's approach regarding its relationship with Vietnam, focusing on arms sale and military cooperation. After the visit of foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, President Pranab Mukherjee went to Hanoi in September 2014 and emphasised upgrading the defence cooperation between two countries. Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Van Dung came to New Delhi in October 2014 and Modi conveyed to him that the military sector was India's new priority.

In May 2015, Vietnamese defence minister came to India and in June 2016 his Indian counterpart went to Hanoi. The trajectory of India's bilateral military cooperation with Vietnam has included the sale of military hardware, besides intelligence-gathering and exchange, joint exercise of naval forces and training in warfare. Indian warships are frequently going on goodwill visits to Vietnamese ports. No doubt, China is extremely annoyed with India's flaunting of military partnership with Vietnam.

The foreign policy hawks in India argues in favour of India flexing its muscle in China's backyard. Some even have gone to the extent of assuming Vietnam playing the same role for India as Pakistan plays for China. These over-ambitious claims fail to reflect the careful understanding of Vietnam's realistic mindset.

It is not only India; even the US is eagerly trying to sell its arms to Vietnam. President Barack Obama, who has been the main salesman for American arms, visited Vietnam in May this year. Vietnam is now thinking about buying F-16s from the US.

Despite its improving relationship with the US and close defence cooperation with India, Vietnam is keen to maintain decent working ties with China as well. Vietnam and China share a complex relationship. In spite of increasing tension over disputed borders, China is Vietnam's biggest trading partner.

China contributes nearly 30 per cent of Vietnam's total imports and buys ten per cent of its exports. Chinese business investment has gone up from $312 million in 2012 to $2.3 billion in 2013 and $7.9 billion in 2014. Vietnamese leadership regularly visits China. In November 2015, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Hanoi and even addressed the Vietnamese National Assembly.

Vietnam is an extremely proud nation and it is not going to be anyone's proxy. It is relishing the attention from India as it helps to enhance its bargaining power vis-à-vis China. Vietnam is smartly using the rivalry of China and India to that effect.

On the other hand, Modi is pursuing the arms sales-centric foreign policy with Vietnam in the hope of getting a strategic ally for creating a front vis-à-vis China. This policy might be appropriate in the case of a foe-turned-friend like US, but not for a time-honoured and trusted friend like India.

The people of Vietnam have tremendous love and admiration for India for its moral standing and being the voice of the oppressed against big powers. According to a Pew Research Center Survey in 2015, while 66 per cent of Vietnamese view India favourably, only 19 per cent hold that view towards China. Among the young Vietnamese having favourable views of India, the number is higher, at 72 per cent.

India has invested heavily for decades in building a strong bilateral relationship with Vietnam and a close bond with the Vietnamese people. This connection has been grounded on ideological affinity and mutual respect. India in the past has sacrificed its own interest, but always raised its voice against armed conflict and advocated for peace in the Indo-China region.

It is thus important for India to nurture the core of that relationship with Vietnam, and not to take advantage of it. Considering India is the largest weapon importer in the world, its ability to compete with established armed exporters in selling weapons to Vietnam is also very limited.

India might be able to sell a few BrahMos missiles and naval boats to Vietnam taking advantage of long-standing bilateral friendship and using the China as a bogey. However, this will affect India's moral standing as a nation in front of Vietnamese people and will significantly reduce its huge reserve of soft power in Vietnam. Arms sale invariably attracts suspicion, particularly in a non-democratic developing country. India just cannot afford to bank on the goodwill of the regime amidst growing popular unrest.

PM Modi eagerly joining the US-led front has already pit India in an open confrontation with China. India stands to lose by taking an open, adversarial approach with China, as the NSG membership case has shown. This needless and reckless mission to contain China might also cost India's deep hard-earned friendship with Vietnam.

Also read: Modi's Vietnam visit assumes greater significance after South China Sea ruling

Also read: China’s openly hostile acts are forcing a recalibration in India


Ashok Swain Ashok Swain @ashoswai

The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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