India, Vietnam defense links counter PRC territory grab

India, Vietnam defense links counter PRC territory grab

Mandeep Singh

A visit by India’s Army chief of staff to Vietnam demonstrated the growing strength of New Delhi’s defense relations with Hanoi.

The arrival on November 20, 2018, of a delegation led by Indian Gen. Bipin Rawat began five days of meetings with Vietnamese defense officials, including Defense Minister Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich and Deputy Chief of the General Staff Senior Lt. Gen. Pham Hong Huong.

Indian Army spokesman Col. Chiranjeet Konwer in an official statement described the visit as “yet another milestone in giving impetus to the strategic partnership between India and Vietnam and taking forward the military-to-military cooperation to the next level.”

Rawat toured the headquarters of an infantry division near Hanoi, Konwer added, as well as the headquarters of the Seventh Military Region at Ho Chi Minh City, described as “a command center for operational cooperation and implementation of regular and irregular missions in key areas of national defense and security” by Hanoi’s official National Defence Journal.

The general’s visit occurred amid a flurry of diplomatic activity, retired Col. Anil Bhat, an independent strategic affairs expert, toldFORUM in New Delhi. This includes the November 2018 visit to Vietnam by Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, the August 2018 meeting in Hanoi between Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and her Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Binh Minh, and the arrival in July 2018 in New Delhi by the late Trần Đại Quang, then president of Vietnam.

Bhat said, “All these high-profile visits when seen holistically mark Vietnam’s standing as a linchpin of the strategic dimension of India’s Act East policy,” which expresses New Delhi’s desire for closer economic and security relations with its Asian neighbors.

Central to the strategies of both countries is what Bhat described as the “territorial grabbing” foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Indo-Pacific region. He cited the examples of the Paracel Islands and the trans-Himalayan region of Aksai Chin as territories unlawfully claimed by China.

“Through deepening ties with Vietnam,” he said, “India is able to influence the Chinese thinking on India’s role in the broader Indo-Pacific region. If the strategic potential of Act East is to be realized, we need to have a close partner right next to China, and Vietnam exactly fits into India’s vision.”

India extended U.S. $500 million in credit to Vietnam for buying Indian defense equipment in 2016 when India-Vietnam ties were upgraded to “comprehensive strategic partnership,” explained Bhat, adding another U.S. $500 million in July 2018 for the same purpose.

During Trần’s March 2018 visit to India, according to India’s PTI news agency, Trần and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to “operationalize” a memorandum of understanding between their countries to increase dialogue and expand cooperation on security matters, including joint military exercises, capacity building, asset procurement and participation in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Defense Ministers Meeting Plus. (Pictured: Army officers from India and Vietnam shake hands during a joint military exercise in 2018.)
Cooperation within the framework of ASEAN is vital, Bhat emphasized. In his view, China actively seeks to divide the cohesion of ASEAN member countries.

Joint military exercises between India and Vietnam are also important, he said, for all three branches of each country’s armed forces to keep pace with the training and modernization of China’s People’s Liberation Army.

Mandeep Singh is a FORUM contributor reporting from New Delhi, India.