President Ram Nath Kovind’s choice of Vietnam as the first Southeast Asian country to visit in his capacity as the President is not surprising. A close ‘ally’ of India for over 70 years, and not limited to official diplomatic ties, Vietnam is critical for India’s foreign policy at the regional and systemic levels. While Mr Kovind’s visit highlights the ‘normal’ trajectory of a presidential visit, there is a need to understand how Vietnam has calibrated its domestic and foreign policy shifts and where India’s relevance can fit into these policy changes.
Domestically, since the start of its Doi Moi policy- its political and economic renewal campaign in 1986, Vietnam has made dramatic strides. Today it is a rapidly growing, regional economic giant, showing both dynamism and pragmatism in its calculations. While earlier it imported agricultural products, today it is a major exporter. Agricultural competence has furthered Vietnam’s entry into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The Vietnam National Assembly ratified the CPTPP on November 12, asserting its growing economic impact globally, with exports increasing to approximately $240 billion for the year 2018. Membership to the CPTPP, which accounts for nearly 14% of the global GDP, will boost Vietnam’s economic growth, from 6.8 % in 2017-18, by a further 1.1% to 3.5% by 2030. One of the core areas of Mr Kovind’s visit focussed on furthering cooperation in agriculture and innovation-based sectors, pushing the potential for increasing bilateral trade to $15 billion by 2020.
Common ground of health
An area of potential convergence for both Vietnam and India is health care. The 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, in 2016, highlighted the importance of linking economic growth to universal health care, whereby 80% population would be covered by health insurance. India too, since 2011, has been focussing on the need to deliver accessible and affordable health insurance to weaker sections of society. With Indonesia ratifying the India-ASEAN Services agreement on November 13, New Delhi is a step closer to signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, bringing India to the forefront of the services sector globally. A potential area of convergence in the realm of health care through joint public-private partnership agreements can be explored by the two countries.
Internationally, Vietnam’s foreign policy is characterised by ‘multidirectionalism’, which addresses regional asymmetries of the power balance by engaging across a broad spectrum of states to achieve its interests. Increasingly, this asymmetrical power structure in the region, offset by the rise of China, is bringing regional and extra-regional states together to address the shifts in the normative order. Within this context, Vietnam even normalised relations with the U.S., its former opponent, credit for which is given to the late U.S. Senator, John McCain.
Today there is increasing commonality of security concerns between Vietnam and its ASEAN partners-as well as with Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., particularly in the areas of maritime security and adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. A former Vietnamese President, Trân Đai Quang, had earlier this year endorsed the term Indo-Asia-Pacific. Similarly, Mr Kovind’s speech in the Vietnamese National Assembly referred to a ‘rules based order in the Indo-Pacific’, reiterating India’s own concerns over troubled maritime spaces. Finding compatibility between the ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’ and the U.S. driven ‘Indo-Pacific’ necessitates a more nuanced approach whereby regional concerns of ASEAN centrality can be assuaged while accounting for diverse approaches to maintaining regional stability. In pursuance of this, the two countries have planned a bilateral level maritime security dialogue in early 2019.
Focus on sub-regionalism
As ASEAN continues to focus on its centrality in the region, there will undoubtedly be shifts in how smaller members of ASEAN perceive the centrifugal forces of China’s rise. Vietnam has helped to mitigate these by focussing on both sub-regionalism and regionalism as the core of its priorities. India too looks at both sub-regionalism and regionalism as priority avenues to pursue its foreign policy. The India-Vietnam Joint Statement of March 2018 reiterates the focus given to sub-regionalism and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation framework. However, another area is emerging in the CLV, or Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam growth triangle sub-regional cooperation, bringing these three countries together. India and Vietnam can jointly explore the potential for enhancing capacity building and providing technical assistance and training within this sub-regional grouping.
The major takeaway from Mr Kovind’s visit is the reference to the ‘cooperation model’ India offers, providing choices and opportunities for its friends. This reference highlights India’s willingness to address issues on which increasing synergies need to evolve. One such area where convergence is likely, but has been held back due to individual preference, is the $500 million line of credit offered to Vietnam. Both India and Vietnam possess the capacity to find compatibility in areas promoting defence cooperation and infrastructure simultaneously. Vietnam’s role as country coordinator for India in ASEAN will come to a close in 2018. While the ties have progressed under the Look East and Act East Policies, going forward they need to factor in pragmatism, helping relations to move forward. India’s ability to look beyond the prism of optics will remain a core challenge.
Professor Shankari Sundararaman is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies and current Chair at the Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
(The article first appeared in The Hindu, 24 November 2018).