President Ram Nath Kovind paid a State Visit to Vietnam as part of India’s effort to boost strategic partnership with key partners in the Indo-Pacific region. After the government synergized India’s Act East Policy, it injected a new element to India’s foreign policy. The series of engagements by top leaders with countries in the Indo-Pacific region has been a significant benchmark of India’s diplomacy. Under the rubric of India’s diplomatic outreach, Vietnam finds primacy of place. President Kovind’s visit should be seen in this light with a view to provide more strategic depth to existing comprehensive strategic partnership, well complimented by deep civilizational linkages.
President Kovind visited Vietnam on the invitation of Vietnam President Nguyen Phu Trong. This was the first visit of the President to an ASEAN country since assuming office and first interaction between the leadership of India since the election of President Trong last month. Besides having delegation level talks with President Trong, President Kovind had fruitful meetings with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Chairperson of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan.
The Indian President addressed the National Assembly of Vietnam, a rare honour accorded to any foreign leader after Chinese President Xi Jinping. Mr. Kovind’s visit came less than a month after Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong became Vietnam’s new President following the death of President Tran Dai Quang. Mr. Trong is the first leader to hold both the powerful posts since founding father Ho Chi Minh in the 1960s.
The visit commenced in Da Nang, which has has remnants of Buddhist connections and the Hindu Cham civilization in the form of Ancient Temples. Besides a visit to the Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture, the Indian President also visited the world cultural heritage My Son (माई सॉन)Sanctuary in the neighbouring province of Quang Nam. The Archaeological Survey of India is helping Vietnam in the preservation and conservation of some of the temples. Mr. Kovind also addressed the Indian community and the Vietnam-India Business Forum.
A number of issues including India’s offshore oil exploration in Vietnamese waters as well as defence and security cooperation figured in the official discussions. India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) is exploring oil in areas claimed by Vietnam in the South China Sea. Despite reports of objections by China to India-Vietnam joint project, there has been no opposition from any third country and that both PetroVietnam and ONGC have been going ahead with their exploration.
Both sides are keen to bolster cooperation in a number of sectors including defence and security, trade and investment, education, artificial intelligence, culture and tourism. The issue of possible sale of BrahMos and Aakash missile systems by India to Vietnam has been on the table for quite some time but much headway has not been made. Discussions are still underway.
After Vietnam evinced interest in India’s BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, an Indo-Russian joint venture which allows India to sell the missile system to other friendly countries, India has eyed the defence exports deal with Vietnam. The two countries inked a “joint statement on defence for 2015-2020 in May 2015, where both sides decided to elevate their “strategic partnership” to “comprehensive strategic partnership” during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Vietnam in September 2016. On the issue of military purchases, Vietnam is procuring 11 high-speed patrol vessels from India out of which five will be produced in India and six will be manufactured in Vietnam. Cooperation among the navies including Coast Guards and air forces of the two countries are also on an upswing. The $ 500 million line of credit offered in 2016 has yet to be operationalised for facilitating deeper defence cooperation with the South East Asian nation, which is at the heart of India’s Act East policy. These apart, the issue of South China Sea, where China has been showing increasing assertiveness, also figured in the discussion.
Script: Prof. Rajaram Panda, Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament Of India.