While Vietnam is now the seventh country with which India has signed a mutual logistics support pact, it is the first such major pact that Vietnam has signed with any country. Here, I try to figure out the bigger picture of the recent visit of India’s Defence Minister to Vietnam.
At a time when entire Southeast Asia is abuzz with suspicions of China’s hidden motives in the expansion and renovation of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, located along the Gulf of Thailand, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh undertook a three-day visit to neighbouring Vietnam, in commensuration with the golden jubilee of establishment of ambassador-level relations between the two nations. Most importantly, during the visit, both sides signed a mutual logistics support agreement to ensure interoperability of each other’s military facilities and bases.
While Vietnam is now the seventh country with which India has signed a mutual logistics support pact for military interoperability, it is the first such major agreement that Vietnam has signed with any country. Since 2016, India has inked six other such logistical pacts with countries such as Japan, Australia, France, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States. This is a landmark agreement as it allows the warships, including military aircraft, of the signatory state to refuel and dock at each other’s bases.
High on optics, diverse on agenda
The Indian Defence Minister’s visit comes just four months after the country’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar paid his maiden visit to the Philippines, another key regional country. Interestingly, both Vietnam and the Philippines have maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea, while the Indian army continues to face a belligerent Chinese PLA in the Himalayan frontiers.
The Indian Defence Minister’s visit was high in optics, beginning with offering tributes to Ho Chi Minh, the founding father and former President of Vietnam, at his mausoleum in Hanoi. He went on to hold a series of bilateral meetings, starting with his Vietnamese counterpart, and then he met with the President and the Prime Minister themselves as well.
The Indian minister also visited Vietnam’s military training facilities and handed over twelve high-speed patrol boats to the ASEAN nation’s naval fleet that was built with a $100 million line of credit and technical assistance from India, and is expected to be soon deployed along the South China Sea coast. New Delhi is also in the final stage of extending another $500 million line of credit to Hanoi.
Mr Singh ensured India’s full support to the Vietnamese forces and signed another significant document to enhance the scope and scale of defence cooperation between the countries, titled “Joint Vision Statement on India-Vietnam Defence Partnership towards 2030”.Both countries share a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership since 2016, with security cooperation being its crucial pillar, which is also a key component of India’s ‘Act East’ policy.
A common threat
A common continent-sized threat binds the two countries together, as they fall increasingly under Chinese territorial encroachments on their respective neighbourhoods. As I’ve mentioned earlier in the introduction, Western media reports that came out a few days ago claimed that the China-funded naval base project in Cambodia is for the “exclusive use” of the Chinese navy, something which both the countries deny. Whatever the truth is, this news ought to have a considerable strategic bearing on Vietnam’s national security policy, perhaps more than any other country in the region.
As far as publicly acknowledged, Beijing has only one other overseas military base currently, which is in East Africa’s Djibouti and is in operation since 2017. A new Chinese presence in the Gulf of Thailand, if materialised, would mean a significant expansion of its naval operational reach, providing a crucial strategic foothold for Beijing in the contested waters of the Indo-Pacific.
Vietnamese fishing boats and oil exploration vessels frequently come in confrontation with the Chinese in the South China Sea, particularly near the Paracel islands. The Chinese Coast Guard and the so-called Chinese ‘maritime militia’ groups have also been imposing ‘illegal bans’ on Vietnamese boats and ships from entering its claimed waters and is repeatedly harassing Vietnamese citizens, as they do with other nationals like the Filipinos.
Strategic experts hope that Hanoi could also be a potential buyer of India-made BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles in the future, like Manila, the possibility for which is further enhanced by the Indian minister’s warm welcome in Vietnam.
Unravelling the macro angle
In India’s point of view, increasing defence cooperation with Vietnam, which has a 3,260 km-long coastline in the South China Sea, would mean an increasing role in the security landscape of Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific. Moreover, it has to be noted that about 55 per cent of India’s maritime trade passes through this region, making it a crucial matter of commercial and economic importance for India, alongside strategic and security implications.
The bigger context of a pervading American naval presence in the region, the open challenge posed by China to internationally-agreed rules of maritime conduct, and of course, the centrality of the ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific makes Vietnam a crucial actor in the Indo-Pacific, which India cannot afford to ignore, particularly under the current tumultuous geopolitical circumstances and realities that are getting unfold.
India’s deployment of its warships in the South China Sea, or in other words China’s maritime neighbourhood, is more than two decades old, dating back to 2001. The strength and operational readiness of an experienced naval force like the Indian Navy is ostensibly the biggest asset that New Delhi can utilise to protect its vital national interests in the region, which is now further buttressed by the recently-signed logistics pact.
India’s military strategists are well aware of the potential consequences of the looming prospect of a complete Chinese control of the South China Sea, i.e., up to the Strait of Malacca, which would essentially bring the Chinese navy closer to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and thereby to the Indian Ocean.
Today, India’s growing military capabilities, including its nuclear potential, has ample power to instil confidence in regional countries as a responsible and reliable partner that can contribute to regional security in Southeast Asia. New Delhi’s frequent naval manoeuvres in the region, including periodic port visits, passage exercises, and other joint multilateral exercises such as ‘Milan’ and ‘Malabar’ clearly embody India’s strong resolve and commitment to a rules-based international order.
Above all, with China causing strategic insecurity for India in its own neighbourhood through its disruptive regional engagements, i.e., in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, a reciprocal Indian presence in China’s neighbourhood could be a natural imperative, adding another layer to Chinese strategic perception of a parallelly rising India.