The Act East Policy was designed to significantly enhance India’s engagement with Asean and other East Asian countries.
Modi’s tour to Hanoi is set to remarkably augment bilateral partnership in political, strategic, economic, commercial and people-to-people spheres.
Relations between the two countries are ancient, historical and civilisational, with both having fought for independence from colonial domination.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam on 3 September 2016 en route to Hangzhou, China for participating in the G20 Summit on 4-5 September is likely to be decisive and pivotal, both for bilateral and regional and global ramifications.
This will be the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Vietnam after a gap of 15 years, the last one being Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit in 2001. It also comes a decade after the bilateral Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries was signed. Bilateral ties have witnessed rapid progress during this period.
For Prime Minister Modi, this will be his third substantive tour to the region and possibly the most momentous of them all.
Modi’s first visit to the region was to Myanmar in November 2014 to take part in the ASEAN-India Summit and East Asia Summit (EAS). During this visit, Modi declared the transformation of the “Look East Policy’’ launched by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1992 to “Act East Policy’’. This was designed to infuse greater energy in this initiative, expand geographical coverage under its ambit and invest strategic content in India’s engagement with ASEAN as well as with a broader canvas encompassing other East Asian countries including Japan, Australia, South Korea and Pacific Island nations.
Modi’s second visit took place in November last year to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for ASEAN-India as well as EAS, from where he travelled on a bilateral visit to Singapore for the elevation of the bilateral partnership to a strategic level, as also to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. He also paid a one-day brief visit to Singapore in March 2015 to attend the funeral of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Modi’s visit to Vietnam would have been crucial and consequential even under normal circumstances, as bilateral ties between India and Southeast Asia are rooted in strong civilisational and cultural linkages going back thousands of years. What will, however, make the sojourn momentous and exceptional is the critical timing of the visit.
South China Sea Dispute
On 12 July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague under the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) gave its judgment on the complaint filed by the Philippines against Chinese claims and activities in the South China Sea (SCS). The Court declared that China did not enjoy any historical rights in the SCS as it had been claiming under the nine-dash line and also that it could not claim any Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the small artificial structures it had created. It was a clear, comprehensive verdict against China.
The verdict was largely along expected lines, perhaps more favourable to the Philippines and more detrimental to Chinese interests than anticipated. China did not participate in the proceedings of the PCA as it did not consider it competent to adjudicate on the issues of sovereignty in the SCS. PCA’s Award, however, did not address the sovereignty issue but coverage and usage of the waters of SCS as per the provisions of UNCLOS.
China declared the judgment “null and void’’. It has resorted to some aggressive posturing while simultaneously indulging in bellicose and intimidating statements from the highest level of government. It has also sought to open channels of communication with the Philippines to solve the issue on a bilateral basis.
Although Vietnam was not a party to the dispute, its position on the legal status of the SCS and exploitation of its fishery and energy resources is as strong as that of the Philippines. It has been facing frequent aggressive harassment from the Chinese navy in areas it rightly considers under its jurisdiction in accordance with the provisions of UNCLOS. Tension has erupted in the open over the last many years with clashes and skirmishes in the sea. This has driven Vietnam to strengthen its ties with India and other powers like the United States and Japan.
According to Vietnamese Ambassador to India, the situation is getting worse with militarisation and reclamation in the SCS. He emphasised that the starting point has to be compliance of all parties with international law, particularly UNCLOS.
The last two years have seen an intense exchange of visits between India and Vietnam. President Pranab Mukherjee and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj travelled to Hanoi in September and August 2014 respectively. During Mukherjee’s visit, India clearly enunciated its position on maritime security, freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of the SCS dispute in accordance with the provisions of UNCLOS. A far-reaching visit by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Van Dung to India took place in October 2014 during which Prime Minister Modi stated that defence relations with Vietnam were among the most important for India.
May 2015 witnessed the visit of Vietnamese Defence Minister to Delhi, and June 2016 the return visit by India’s Defence Minister to Hanoi. During the Vietnamese Defence Minister’s visit, Modi assured him of “India’s full commitment to the strategic partnership between the two countries.” A Joint Vision Statement, outlining the trajectory of bilateral defence cooperation through 2020, was signed.
This heightened exchange will be capped by Modi’s forthcoming tour.
In 1992, India and Vietnam established extensive economic ties. Defence ties benefitted hugely from India’s Look East policy. Military cooperation includes the sale of military equipment, sharing of intelligence, joint naval exercises and training in counterinsurgency and jungle warfare. India regularly deploys its warships for goodwill visits to Vietnamese seas. It is also providing a US$ 100 million credit line to Vietnam, which will be used to buy four large patrol vessels that will enable it to secure its waters.
India had so far desisted from offering the supersonic BrahMos missile, a product of Indo-Russian joint venture, to Vietnam for geo-strategic reasons. Now the Modi government seems positively inclined to offer this powerful weapon to Vietnam.
Bilateral trade and investment are likely to receive special attention too. India is now among the top ten trading partners of Vietnam. ASEAN-India free trade agreement came into effect in 2010. Trade with Vietnam expanded significantly to US$ 3.92 billion by the end of 2012. As of 2015, bilateral trade stood at US$ 7 billion. The target for 2020 has been set at US$ 15 billion. This appears eminently achievable.
Modi’s tour to Hanoi is expected to significantly augment bilateral partnership in strategic, defence, economic and commercial spheres. It will provide a vigorous impetus to the “Act East Policy’’, which has been expanding robustly since its launch.
India’s recent moves in further strengthening the strategic and security partnership with Vietnam have come in close conjunction with the lifting of the longstanding ban by the United States on the sale of lethal military equipment to Vietnam. New Delhi’s expanding relations with Vietnam are in some ways dictated by China’s increasing military power and its growing assertiveness and bellicosity, particularly in the South China Sea. India has been helping Hanoi beef up its security capabilities, especially naval and air proficiency. It is keen to expand its political, strategic and economic exposure for prospecting oil and gas in the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam to meet its rapidly growing energy demand.
India’s engagement with Vietnam is becoming a benchmark in New Delhi’s rapidly evolving policy towards the region. As India’s ties with China become more contentious, Hanoi is likely to play an ever more critical role in New Delhi’s strategic calculus.