Indo-Vietnamese Relations : Close friends Can Come Closer

by Rajan Kalsotra - Apr 30, 2015 09:18 PM +05:30 IST
Indo-Vietnamese Relations : Close friends Can Come Closer

India has shared excellent relations with Vietnam for a long time. Now is the time to take it forward and strengthen the bond even further.

April 30, 1975, was a glorious day in the history of Vietnam. It marked the end of the Vietnam War after the fall of the US-backed Saigon regime. This was followed by a period of transition that eventually led to the unification of the nation. Today, Vietnam will celebrate the occasion, which is appropriately known as the reunification day.

India has had a trusted friend in Vietnam for years. In fact, the two nations share a historical connect whose origin can be traced to the 2nd century, when some of the Indian traders sailed across to the regions of Indo-China. The Hindu kingdom of Champa first appeared around the modern-day Da Nang (a port city in Vietnam) in the late 2nd century. They adopted Hinduism, employed Sanskrit as a sacred language and borrowed heavily from Indian art. Till date, the souls of our nations continue to be connected and guided by the teachings of Buddha, which not only influence our way of life, our beliefs and values, but also our dealings with each other.

There was a time when Vietnam was a household name in India, especially in West Bengal where people had once identified themselves with Vietnam through the slogan, “Aamar naam, tomar naam, Vietnam Vietnam (my name, your name, Vietnam, Vietnam). India had always supported Vietnam in its struggle for independence and national construction. In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru was the first foreign leader to visit Vietnam after their victory against the French.

India had also raised its voice in the international forums and supported Vietnam, against the US aggression. In 1970, at the UN, the Indian government demanded a firm timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. Even when the unfortunate attack by China on Vietnam took place in 1979, the then foreign minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee immediately cut short his China visit and returned to India.

Since the 1990s, Vietnam and India have developed close relations in areas such as politics, science and technology, and security and defence. The key factors that drove the strengthening of Indo-Vietnamese relations at this stage were the economic restructuring of Vietnam since 1986 (Doi Moi reforms) and the Look East Policy of India in 1991.

After the establishment of a bilateral strategic partnership in 2007, co-operation between the two countries reached new heights. The strategic partnership is reaffirmed by high-level visits that have become more frequent in recent years. This year, Vietnam will become the country coordinator for relations between ASEAN and India for a three-year period, which will end in 2018. This will take our relations with Vietnam to a new level.

The present-day BJP government certainly gives a high priority to the relationship between the two countries. This is affirmed by the fact that in the last one year, the President, the Minister for External Affairs, the Speaker of Lok Sabha and the NSA chief have all visited Vietnam. This government certainly views Vietnam as a significant partner for its Act East policy.

During the visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in India in September 2014, India had extended a $300 million line of credit to Vietnam to strengthen our commercial ties. Previous to this, India had extended US$100 million line of credit agreement for defense procurement to Vietnam for helping it to modernise its armed forces. Now, direct flying route between India and Vietnam in the near future will be a new milestone in the bilateral relations of the two countries.

The Indo-Vietnamese partnership has strengthened in recent years, but it has not realised its full potential yet. However, the question is: how can we make this happen? The answer lies in increasing our cooperation in different areas such as defense, energy, education, trade and investment, space and people-to-people exchanges.

Here are some ways in which this possibility can be translated into reality:

– Defense is one area which alone has the potential to take this relationship forward. At present, India assists Vietnam in maintaining military equipment, multilateral exercises, and training and capacity-building of the military. India will soon supply four naval patrol vessels to Vietnam as part of a growing defense cooperation between the two countries.

Indian government is also planning to sell BrahMos missiles to Vietnam, but it may take some time since India is not a member of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). A potential obstacle exists in supplying BrahMos missile to Vietnam. In addition to this, India can also supply Tejas and air defense system to Vietnam.

– Bilateral trade between the two countries in 2013-14 was $8 billion. During the visit of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to India in November 2013, both sides revised the trade target (of US$ 7 billion by 2015) to US$ 15 billion by 2020. India should increase the foreign direct investment by encouraging more private companies to invest in Vietnam. Currently, only 15 major Indian companies have invested in Vietnam.

India and Vietnam should negotiate a preferential trade agreement for further reduction in tariff and non-tariff barriers between each other for the exports of both goods and services. India can also consider lowering the tariff for agriculture imports, which can provide a better market access to agro exports from Vietnam. In return, Vietnam can open up its textile market to India. Today, Vietnam imports most of its textile-related products from China, which can be replaced by Indian textile products.

– Joint exploration in the area of hydrocarbons can potentially be a turner in bilateral ties between the two countries. Vietnamese and Indian companies that are active in the exploration and production of oil and gas can enter into collaboration to jointly bid for hydrocarbon resources in third countries.

– India has agreed to step up cooperation in space, which includes areas like space applications, launch of Vietnam’s satellites, and in peaceful uses of civil nuclear energy. There is a need to expedite all these proposals to make it a reality.

– People-to-people relations should be taken forward by having more cultural exchanges, leading to an increase in tourism. The Archaeological Survey of India is to execute a conservation and restoration project at the UNESCO heritage site of “My Son” in Vietnam. The project will highlight the old linkages of the Hindu Cham civilization between India and Vietnam. India can also facilitate the plan for developing the Buddhist Circuit which comprises Lumbini in Nepal, Bodh Gaya, Vaishali and Rajgir in Bihar and Sarnath in Varanasi, Shravasti and Kushinagar.

– Legislative Exchange Programmes should be organized to give a chance to parliamentarians of both the countries to learn from each other’s experiences. Indian government has launched Clean India a campaign venture where Indian parliamentarians can learn a lot from Vietnamese experience. Vietnam today is one of the cleanest and healthier nations.

Starting from clean drinking water and sanitation to primary education and dignity of human labour, India has a lot to learn from Vietnam. India, on its part, has so much to give to Vietnam, a country with whom we share a history that originates in the distant past.

We must hope that a new chapter in the story of this strong relationship begins very soon.

Rajan Kalsotra is currently working as an Associate Fellow with Pahle India Foundation.
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