At a gala event marking the National Day of Vietnam here in Delhi, there was a buzz in the air about Indo-Vietnamese cooperation. There’s no denying the fact that New Delhi and Hanoi have moved perceptibly closer in the last few years. This has been largely due to a convergence of strategic interests. Both India and Vietnam see the rise of an assertive China as a phenomenon that needs to be suitably balanced. However, this shouldn’t be portrayed as some Indo-Vietnamese animosity towards Beijing. In the world of international relations there are only permanent interests. And at this point in time, growing Chinese interests have points of clash with Indian and Vietnamese interests.
China’s extensive claims over the South China Sea and the resources contained therein constitute a clear point of dispute with Vietnam. Meanwhile, China’s relations with India are still burdened by the legacy of the 1962 war between the two nations. However, despite historical disputes and differences in strategic perceptions, Beijing’s economic engagement and trade ties with both New Delhi and Hanoi have grown exponentially. This provides a solid guarantee against armed conflict arising out of veritable disputes. As the recent Doklam standoff between India and China showed, despite military muscle flexing and sharp rhetoric, it is in no one’s interest to actually force a war.
Given this scenario, the question that countries in Asia are grappling with is how to balance the rise of China. Implicit in this question is the realisation that China today has economically and militarily surpassed its Asian peers. While this is indeed to Beijing’s credit, the latter is also trying to influence economic, security and strategic policies to its advantage in Asia. And it is here that countries like India and Vietnam need to come together to balance China’s activities.
What does this mean? Balancing China entails giving Beijing more to think about. A good example of this is the much talked about – but yet to be confirmed – sale of Indian BrahMos cruise missiles to Vietnam. Should the latter acquire the missiles, it would give the Vietnamese navy a weapon of strategic deterrence. This in turn would mean that China would be forced to re-evaluate its activities in the South China Sea, keeping in mind Vietnam’s naval capabilities. But this doesn’t mean that Vietnam and China will actually go to war. On the contrary, Vietnam developing its military capabilities with India’s help strengthens the balance of power in East Asia, diminishing the prospect of conflict.
It is in this frame that growing India-Vietnam cooperation needs to be seen. That said, ties between New Delhi and Hanoi shouldn’t solely be seen through the prism of China. The India-Vietnam relationship has enough going for it on its own. There are several development areas where the two could cooperate like education, science, cyberspace and climate change. The ultimate aim should be to go beyond strategic convergence and join hands to usher in a new Asia that benefits all. Towards this end, there is a need to enhance people-to-people contacts between India and Vietnam. The soon-to-be-starting direct flights between the two countries should help.
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