India and Vietnam held their second maritime security dialogue recently. A press release by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) stated that both countries discussed developments in the domain of “maritime security, regional cooperation activities and opportunities for cooperation between the two countries.” Multiple such discussions have taken place between India and Vietnam in recent years. But, the underlying question is – to what extent have these promises been turned into reality? Both India and Vietnam have highlighted the need to work towards 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 better security future for both nations.
A common threat
India and Vietnam both have long-standing territorial disputes with China. And Beijing’s increasing 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 terms, India’s focus should be equally directed towards protecting its maritime domain and, more importantly, upholding its vision of a rule-based, free, open and secure region.
Similarly, conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) have been a point of contention between Vietnam and China for a long time. It is only accelerating as Beijing is becoming more aggressive in its approaches and claims of sovereignty. The recent controversy surrounding Chinese vessels present in the Whitsun Reef is an example of this. Chinese vessels are increasing activity in other islands too. A spokesperson from Hanoi recently said, “The activities of Chinese vessels within the territorial sea around of Sinh Ton Dong in Vietnams Truong Sa Islands violate Vietnams sovereignty and the provisions of UNCLOS”. Vietnam was sharply critical of Chinese actions in this regard. For India, the SCS is also an important trading route. About $200 billion worth of trade passes through the region with many citizens working and investing in ASEAN countries, like China and Japan. Any aggression by Beijing in the region directly impacts India’s economic interests. This necessitates India to work with partners in the region like Vietnam.
Naval and security cooperation has seen positive success
India and Vietnam have made significant progress on agreements related to elevating defence and naval cooperation. Yet, more needs to be done to materialise these goals. Since upgrading their partnership to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ (CSP) in 2016, a wide range of institutionalised dialogues have taken place, with many agreements being signed. Some include; the 7th Strategic Dialogue held in April 2018 and the first India-Vietnam Maritime Security Dialogue held in March 2019. A recent summit in December 2020 was noteworthy, as both Prime Ministers signed a Plan of Action for 2021-2023. In their joint statement, the two leaders expressed satisfaction over the successful implementation of the High-Speed Guard Boat (HSGB) Manufacturing Project for Vietnam Border Guard Command under the US$ 100 million Defence Line of Credit extended by the Government of India to Vietnam.
Naval cooperation in the form of joint exercises, training and friendly port visits has seen considerable progress. In December 2020, 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 in 2016. Furthermore, coastguards and naval officers from both sides have been in regular dialogue over the years and continue to do so.
Limitations in the supply of defence equipment
In terms of defence 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 being materialised. Another reason being speculated is a fear of Beijing. In the wake of China strengthening ties with India’s adversaries, like Pakistan, the latter seems to be hesitant to accelerate equipment supply to immediate neighbourhood countries. However, the latest hurdle comes with the US’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions or CAATSA, which can halt sales through arbitrary embargoes. As the BrahMos cruise missiles are locally manufactured in collaboration with Russia, it depends on Moscow’s critical components, liable to sanctions under CAATSA. Such sanctions could halt the Indian governments move of a fast-track export of such missiles to the recipient countries, namely Vietnam. India needs to effectively deal 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 more time than expected, according to the Navy chief admiral Sunil Lamba and DRDO chief S Christopher. “We need to work towards a reasonable time-frame from concept to realisation to address our capability gap in time,’’ the former said. Several 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 defence exports if it intends to strengthen its defence 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 with Asia to transform its ‘Act East Policy’.