Two successive virtual meetings between the foreign and defence ministers of India and Vietnam have set the bilateral agenda for 2021 to strengthen the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) between the two countries. The first meeting between Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh in August 2020 focused on “exploring closer cooperation in emerging areas such as civil nuclear energy, space, marine sciences and new technologies”. Three months later, the Indian Defence Minister Raj Nath Singh and General Ngo Xuan Lich, Vietnam's Defence Minister called for an enhanced bilateral defence cooperation; in his tweet, Indian Defence Minister noted “Had a fruitful interaction with my Vietnamese counterpart General Ngo Xuan Lich” and “our defence cooperation have expanded considerably”.
On his part, General Ngo Xuan Lich, Vietnam's Defence Minister reciprocated by congratulating India for its position as non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for 2021-2022. Both Ministers reaffirmed the strong India-Vietnam defence cooperation as one of the key pillar of the CSP and he invited Rajnath Singh to “attend the ADMM+ and a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the founding of ADMM+ mechanism scheduled to be held digitally in December, and visit Viet Nam once the Covid-19 pandemic is contained”.
The above virtual meetings are note worthy and there are at least five issues in the strategic, technological and economic domains which merit attention. First is about bilateral defence cooperation. General Ngo Xuan Lich was highly appreciative of the assistance provided by the Indian military establishment’s efforts to train Vietnamese Defence Forces(VDF),and both sides agreed to “enhance the scope and level of training for all three services of the VDF in Indian Defence Institutes”. The leaders also witnessed the signing of a bilateral agreement on cooperation in hydrography under which the National Hydrographic Office, India and Vietnam Hydrographic Office will share “Hydrographic data and assist in production of navigational charts by both sides”.
Second issue relates to supplementing the military needs of the VDF. The issue of the Brahmos missile has been on the agenda for several years now and its sale has figured prominently in the Indian and Vietnamese strategic communities. Apparently, the possible acquisition of this missile is under consideration by many governments and could be the trigger for both sides to list the issue as high priority in 2021.
Third is about enhancing ‘self-reliance’ including defence industries through the “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” or “Make in India” programme. This is a mantra across India and is resonating across the Indian military establishment. The Indian defence industry is primed to support the defence and the security needs of its armed forces. There are numerous takeaways for Vietnam to study and emulate the Indian approach to ‘self-reliance’ in the military industrial complex given that India remains committed to “positively contribute to capacity building of friendly partner countries like Vietnam”. The Indian Defence Minister “urged for closer defence industry cooperation between India and Vietnam by concluding an institutionalised framework Agreement in the near future”.
Fourth, high technology cooperation has been an important priority for India and Vietnam. In the 21st century, scientific and technological issues gain higher stakes due to unprecedented focus on innovation. In this context, there are now clear trends of digitalization impacting every aspect of the military operations, management, maintenance processes, and human resource management that will bring about radical changes in future defence, security and war fighting. It will be useful for Vietnam to explore joint projects with India in Industry 4.0 technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Blockchain, Big Data etc.
Space cooperation offers new frontier for India and Vietnam and the India-Vietnam Joint Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation includes the issue in its agenda. India has developed advanced space capabilities and it recently launched nine satellites from customer nations on board the PSLV-C49 launch vehicle.
Both Indian Defence Minister Raj Nath Singh and General Ngo Xuan Lich also discussed ways to further the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) & friendship between both the countries. As far as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is concerned, it is useful to mention that India has chosen not to join as it did not find the RCEP “balanced, fair and beneficial framework”. New Delhi is yet to resolve “issues in previous FTAs” therefore it is not lucrative enough. The RCEP Member States are hopeful that India could join in the near future and till then India-ASEAN FTA would be the preferred route.
Finally, India and Vietnam will continue to converse and exchange views on numerous security issues in 2021. These would focus on Indo-Pacific, South China Sea and the current security regional security environment that remains in a flux since there are as yet no signs of thawing of China-US tensions over South China Sea and Taiwan.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.