Prime Minister Modi’s scheduled visit to Vietnam on September 2 is a good time to touch base with the new leadership in Hanoi. It is also expected that this visit will take the relationship between the two countries to a different level that involves defence, economy, security
No date could have been more auspicious than September 2 for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to Vietnam. This day marks Vietnam’s struggle for self-determination and independence which India unwaveringly supported. And apart from the deep historic connect between the two countries that spans several centuries, the strong emotional bond made the then Indian Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, abruptly cut short his Beijing visit when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping announced military intervention against Vietnam in 1979.
India has also provided strong moral, political and diplomatic support to Vietnam during its Liberation War against the United States. During the 1960s and 1970s, universities and colleges, roads and rallies in India, slogans like ‘Amar naam, tomar naam, Vietnam, Vietnam’ (My name, your name Vietnam, Vietnam) and ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’ (We shall fight, we shall win), raised in solidarity for Vietnam were common.
In fact, it was the deep connect with Vietnam that made President Pranab Mukherjee emotional during his trip to Hanoi in 2014. Mukherjee, who has seen transformation of modern Vietnam and its struggle in the past, reportedly could not help talking about India-Vietnam bonding and narrated several incidents to journalists while on his way to Hanoi.
This bonding has only become deeper over the years and from ‘most trusted friends’, India and Vietnam are today ‘strategic partners’ as well. With both being fastest growing economies, India has backed modern Vietnam to the hilt in its international aspirations and domestic growth. In the 1970s, India helped set up a rice research centre in Vietnam for a country that was facing food shortage those days. Today, Vietnam has emerged as the third largest rice exporting country after India and Thailand. That is why Vietnam has always regarded India as a benign friend who has no ‘other’ interest, not at least something against it. And, as President Mukherjee said, the political relation between the two countries has been “cloudless.”
India and Vietnam have always witnessed high-level exchanges, however, the last time an Indian Prime Minister went to Hanoi was Manmohan Singh in 2010 but that was for the multilateral India- Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit. Prior to him, Vajpayee travelled to Vietnam in 2001 for bilateral talks. However, ever since the Narendra Modi Government took over in May 2014, President Mukherjee went to Hanoi in 2014 and now we have Prime Minister Modi travelling to Vietnam – the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister in the last 15 years.
There have been high-level visits from the Vietnamese side too and the last time Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung came to New Delhi was in 2014. But now there has been a change in the leadership in Vietnam with Nguyen Xuan Phuc as the new Prime Minister. In this context, Modi’s visit is a good time to touch base with the new leadership in Vietnam which will be in power for the next five years. Besides, the visit will give Modi a first-hand opportunity to understand the priorities and policies of the new leadership.
There is an expectation that Modi’s visit will take the relationship between the two countries to a different level that involves defence, economy, security, people to people because significance of Vietnam in the foreign policy vision of Modi Government is very high. While Vietnam is looking towards India on a whole range of issues like IT, cyber security, defence, health, trade and spirituality, India views Vietnam as an important pillar of Look East-Act East policy. Vietnam is also an important partner for India’s engagement in the Asean being the coordinator country for India-Asean ties for 2015-2018.
Ever since the establishment of strategic partnership in 2007, India has been helping Vietnam in capacity building. India has trained Vietnamese security and defence personnel including roughly 500 Naval officers and now the training of Sukhoi pilots for Vietnam is also under discussion. On counter-terrorism too there is deep and steady cooperation. Besides, India runs information technology programmes for Vietnamese apart from helping in pharmaceutical and health sectors.
India is also an important partner for Vietnam to help meeting its defence and security needs. From providing military products to upgrade, maintain its own equipments and joint production of defence products – India can provide a lot to Vietnam to modernise its military apart from strengthening its intelligence and surveillance technologies.
Trade between Vietnam and India has increased five times between 2007 and 2015, expectations are high to increase it further. Already Indian investment in Vietnam is $1.1 billion, and it ranks among the top 28 investing countries in Vietnam. With TATA, Larson and Toubro, Adani, Escort, Eicher exploring opportunities in Vietnam, investment figures are expected to shoot up dramatically over the next five years.
India and Vietnam have their own dynamics in relationship with China but on South China Sea disputes, both New Delhi and Hanoi, are on the same page. India has constantly emphasised a rules-based international order, freedom of navigation, need to avoid threat and use of force on settling issues – a view Vietnam endorses. Freedom of navigation and sea links is important for India as significant amount of trade passes through the South China Sea, and any conflict or tension in the area is an issue of concern for India as well.
There have often been comparisons between India-Vietnam relationship with that between China and Pakistan ties. But the dynamics between India-Vietnam is different from China-Pakistan as Pakistan hardly has any friend in the world and Vietnam’s list of friends is getting bigger. Moreover, the India-Vietnam relationship is based on mutual respect while China-Pakistan ties are more of patron-client nature. Due to the country’s growing importance in the present global set up, US President Barack Obama travelled to Vietnam in May this year before completely lifting the US ban on sale of weapons. Similarly, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a visit to Hanoi in November 2015. However, India’s relationship with Vietnam has neither been as complicated as the US and China nor full of ups and down.
Spirituality has given a fresh and interesting aspect to India-Vietnam relationship. With the resurgence of Buddhism in Vietnam, the country has found a deep connect with India, home to Buddhism. There has been a sharp rise in visits to Bodh Gaya by the Vietnamese leadership, pilgrims and students. Several students are also coming to India to learn Sanskrit and given the interest India may soon have to increase its quota of scholarships to the Vietnamese students.
Yoga has gained immense popularity in Vietnam and during my recent trip to Hanoi, I found several Indian yoga instructors teaching Vietnamese the art of living healthy. Indian Bollywood films and serials dubbed in Vietnamese are a rage. Indian soap opera Balika Badhu, dubbed as ‘eight-year-old bride’ was one of the most popular serials in Vietnam. Improving connectivity through direct flights to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is also need of the hour to increase people-to-people connect, business and tourism. The Vietnamese Ambassador to India Ton Sinh Thanh recently said that it is time to lift bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership. In India-Vietnam relations, sky is the limit.