Why Vietnam is at the centre of India’s policy to counter China

The Doklam border deadlock should not dissuade New Delhi from selling the Brahmos missile to Hanoi – if it hasn’t done so already, that is.

Last week, Vietnam indicated it has bought Brahmos anti-ship cruise missiles, a weapon the country has long cherished, from India. Without going into the specifics, the Vietnamese foreign ministry said “the procurement of defence equipment by Vietnam is consistent with the policy of peace and self-defence and is the normal practice in national defence”. India, however, claimed that the reports about the deal were “incorrect”. It may be so, but there is no doubt that Hanoi is increasingly coming to be at the centre of India’s “Act East” policy.

Narendra Modi visited Vietnam last year, rather pointedly on his way to China for the G-20 summit. The visit, the first by an Indian prime minister in 15 years, made it clear that New Delhi was no longer hesitant to expand its presence in China’s periphery. The Modi government has made no secret of its desire to play a more assertive role in the Indo-Pacific region. Modi himself has argued that India can be an anchor for peace, prosperity and stability in Asia and Africa. A more ambitious outreach to Vietnam, therefore, should not be surprising.

Although India’s ties with Vietnam have grown considerably in the past few years, it had dilly-dallied on Hanoi’s request to buy Brahmos since 2011, believing the sale would antagonise China.

Last year, however, the Modi government asked BrahMos Aerospace, the Indo-Russian joint venture that develops the supersonic missile, to expedite the weapon’s sale to Vietnam, as also to Indonesia, South Africa, Chile and Brazil. India already provides Vietnam a $100 million concessional line of credit for the procurement of defence equipment. And in a first of its kind sale, it sold four offshore patrol vessels to Vietnam that are likely to be used to strengthen the country’s defences in the energy rich South China Sea.

India’s outreach to Hanoi comes at a time when the United States has lifted its long-standing ban on the sale of lethal military equipment to Vietnam. New Delhi’s abiding interest in Vietnam too is in the defence sector. It wants to build relations with countries such as Vietnam, so they can act as pressure points against China. With this in mind, it has been helping Hanoi beef up its naval and air capabilities.

The two nations have a stake in ensuring the security of sea lanes and share concerns about China’s access to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Hence, India is helping Vietnam build capacity for repair and maintenance of its defence platforms. At the same time, their armed forces have started cooperating in areas such as Information Technology and English-language training of Vietnamese army personnel. The two countries potentially share a common friend – the US. New Delhi has a burgeoning relationship with Washington, with the two sides signing a logistical support agreement this week, while Vietnam has been courting America as the South China Sea becomes a flashpoint. As the three countries ponder how to manage China’s rise, they have been drawn closer together.

Sphere of influence

It is instructive that India entered the contested region of the South China Sea via Vietnam. India signed an agreement with Vietnam in October 2011 to expand and promote oil exploration in South China Sea and stood by its decision despite China’s challenge to the legality of Indian presence. New Delhi was told it required Beijing’s permission for the Oil and Natural Gas Videsh Limited to explore the Vietnamese blocks 127 and 128 in those waters. But Vietnam cited the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to claim its sovereign right over the two blocks in question. Hanoi has been publicly sparring with Beijing over claims to the South China Sea for some years now, so such a response was expected.

What was new, however, was New Delhi’s aggression in taking on China. It immediately supported Hanoi’s claims. By accepting the Vietnamese invitation to explore the two blocks, the Oil and Natural Gas Videsh Limited not only expressed India’s desire to deepen its friendship with Vietnam, but also ignored China’s warning to stay away. This display of strength stood India in good stead with Vietnam.

Now, Hanoi is gradually becoming the linchpin of India’s eastward move. Hanoi fought a brief war with Beijing in 1979 and has grown wary of Beijing’s increasing economic and military might. That’s why in some quarters in New Delhi, Vietnam is already seen as a counterweight in much the same way Pakistan has been for China. If China wants to expand its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, the thinking in New Delhi goes, India can do the same thing in East Asia. If China can have a strategic partnership with Pakistan ignoring Indian concerns, India can develop robust ties with states on China’s periphery such as Vietnam without giving China a veto on such relationships.

This means that New Delhi is ready to challenge Beijing in its backyard. For now at least, this stance is being welcomed by countries that fear the growing aggression of China. The more engaged India is in the region, the more stable will be the balance of power. While India may want to downplay the Brahmos sale at this point in its engagement with Vietnam, a final decision will have to be made soon. The Doklam border stand-off with China cannot be the determining variable. India’s decision will have to be based on its long-term foreign and security priorities.

Harsh V Pant is professor of International Relations at King’s College, London, and distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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