Friend in need

Published : Jul 27, 2007 00:00 IST

The Vietnamese Prime Minister's visit comes at a time when his country is emerging as an economic powerhouse in Asia.

JOHN CHERIAN recently in Hanoi

The state visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to India coincided with the celebrations of the 35th anniversary of the commencement of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Dung's visit, the first in 10 years by a Vietnamese Prime Minister, comes at a time when his country is emerging as an economic powerhouse in Asia. Its economy has grown from $40 billion in 2004 to $60 billion in 2006. The boom was evident to this correspondent who last visited Hanoi 10 years ago. Though two-wheelers still dominate the traffic in the capital, flashy new cars are also much in evidence. New satellite towns earmarked for technology parks and rich non-resident Vietnamese have come up. The Vietnamese Communist Party seems to be replicating the Chinese model of development at breakneck speed. A senior Vietnamese official told this correspondent that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a blessing in disguise for his country. Otherwise, he said, Vietnam would have remained underdeveloped and poor.

Vietnam is looking for investments and diversification of trade and political ties at this important juncture in its history. President Nguyen Minh Triet was on a high-profile visit to the United States in the last week of June. It is evident that a newly confident Vietnam wants to strengthen relations with all major global players, including the US and China. Dung came to India with a large, high-powered delegation, which included a 78-member business delegation. Before his departure for India, Dung said that the visit would provide "a good opportunity to create positive developments in politics, the economy, security, national defence, culture, education and training, and science and technology, thus taking Vietnam-India relations to a new height". Dung emphasised that Vietnam always supported India in multilateral forums such as the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement.

Dung visited Kolkata, where he had fruitful discussions with West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Dung thanked the people of West Bengal for the whole-hearted support they extended to his country in its struggle against US imperialism. But the focus of the visit was business. During his visit to Mumbai, Dung said that there was great potential for Indian investments in his country. The Tata Group has already signed a Memorandum of Understanding to set up a steel plant in Vietnam. If the project materialises, India will leapfrog to be among the top five foreign investors in the burgeoning economy of Vietnam. Other big Indian companies, such as the Essar Group, have also pledged big investments in Vietnam.

After talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, Dung expressed the hope that bilateral relations would soon encompass "a comprehensive strategic partnership in science, technology and education". He also praised India's "Look East" policy, saying that it helped South-East Asian nations come closer to India. India and Vietnam have signed agreements to study and apply the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes. In conversation with the media in Hanoi, Dung said that Vietnam was interested in harnessing nuclear energy to accelerate economic development. Indian public sector oil companies already have a strong presence in Vietnam. Dung called on Indian companies to invest more in Vietnam's oil sector.

The legendary Ho Chi Minh once said that the two countries share an old relationship, noting that "the culture and Buddhism of India travelled to Vietnam". Though the approaches the two countries took to win independence were tactically different, the anti-colonial struggle helped to forge an anti-imperialist unity. Jawaharlal Nehru's progressive world view helped shape the Congress party's response to other anti-colonial struggles being waged in South-East Asia and other parts of the world. Vietnamese leaders, despite their communist beliefs, were invited to the Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi in 1947.

Millions of Vietnamese lost their lives, first fighting against the French and later on, the Americans. In fact, the victory of Vietnamese forces against the French army in the epic battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 - the first victory that a people's army scored against a colonial power - was a great inspiration to all those fighting against colonial rule and injustice. In the 1960s and the 1970s, Vietnam was the cause celebre of many political parties in India. One of the first things the Left Front government in West Bengal did after coming to power was to re-name one of the main roads in the capital Kolkata after Ho Chi Minh.

The high-profile visits of Jawaharlal Nehru to Vietnam in 1954 and Ho Chi Minh to India in 1958 further cemented relations between the two countries. Nehru, during his visit, praised Ho Chi Minh as "a great revolutionary". This was after Dien Bien Phu. The even more epic battle against the US occupation was yet to begin in earnest. India extended unwavering diplomatic support to the Vietnamese during the long-drawn-out struggle for reunification and the war against the US. India as member of the International Commission of Control and Supervision for Vietnam (ICCS) was critical of the US air raids over the north of the country. In 1966, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called for the immediate cessation of US bombing raids.

Indians, like people all over the developing world, were inspired by the valour and fighting spirit of the Vietnamese as they stood up to the might of the superpower and eventually defeated it. In a speech in the Indian Parliament in 1972, External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh compared the liberation of Vietnam to the liberation of Bangladesh. Both countries raised their diplomatic relations to ambassadorial levels the same year. After the Vietnam War ended, India supported Vietnam's position on Cambodia following the ouster of the notorious Pol Pot regime. Washington and Beijing, along with many Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, were extremely critical of the "invasion" of Cambodia by Vietnam. That invasion purged the Khmer Rouge from power in Cambodia. Atal Bihari Vajpayee cut short a visit to China in 1979, when he was the External Affairs Minister, in a show of solidarity with Vietnam following the Chinese attack on it.

A Joint Commission for Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation was set up to provide an institutional mechanism for bilateral cooperation. Bilateral relations were elevated to a higher plane after Prime Minister Narasimha Rao initiated the "Look East" policy in 1991. The Indian government's decision to participate more actively in the South-East and East Asian region came in for appreciation, especially in Hanoi. But the fact remains that despite political ties between the two countries being "excellent", economic and trade ties continue to be limited in scope. Bilateral trade continues to be minimal, accounting for less than 0.2-0.3 per cent of India's total import-export volume and 0.3 per cent of Vietnam's import-export volume. Vietnam's export to India constitutes only around 1 per cent of ASEAN's exports to India. The total value of India-Vietnam trade stood at just $1 billion in 2006. At a meeting between External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Germany, it was agreed that bilateral trade would be doubled by the year 2010.

There is considerable scope for India to increase its foreign direct investment in Vietnam. India occupies the 35th position among 73 countries that have invested in the country. Very few of the big names in Indian industry have registered their presence in Vietnam. Vietnam, with its economy booming, wants Indian presence in the key sectors of power and information technology and the manufacture of agro-machinery. Cooperation in science and technology could be enhanced significantly, especially in fields such as agro-biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. India is helping Vietnam in research related to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Tourism is another sector that needs to be looked into. Vietnam has become a favoured destination for millions of tourists from the West and elsewhere. More than a million Indian tourists visited Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia in 2006 but only a few thousand Indians visited Vietnam.

Enhancing cooperation between the two countries in the field of defence should be viewed as a priority. India can play a bigger role in helping the Vietnamese army to modernise. An unstated aim of both the countries for cooperating closely in the defence arena is a shared distrust of neighbouring China and its growing military capabilities. Both countries have the shared experience of military confrontations with China. However, both countries have adopted the policy of maintaining good relations with China while at the same time retaining their military deterrence. Indian military delegations visited Vietnam in 1979 to study how Vietnam's army gave China's war machine a "bloody nose" in the course of their border confrontation. As part of the Indian government's "Look East" policy, an agreement on Defence Cooperation was signed in 1994. But there was no substantial forward movement.

However, by the late 1990s, China's growing strategic presence in the Indian Ocean seems to have generated suspicion in Hanoi and New Delhi. The then Defence Minister George Fernandes, while on a visit to Hanoi in 2000, said that India's strategic interests extended from the northern part of the Arabian Sea to the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. India has conducted naval exercises jointly and on its own in the South China Sea. The recent decision by India, Japan and Australia to hold joint exercises is an illustration. Not surprisingly, China has been viewing these developments with suspicion. Japan and Australia are close allies of the US. If recent statements of senior Vietnamese leaders are any indications, Hanoi, despite its apprehensions about the growing clout of the Chinese military, does not want to get enmeshed in overtly anti-China alliances. Pham Gia Khiem, during his visit to New Delhi this year, said that the countries in his region stood to gain by the rise of both China and Russia. From media reports, strategic issues did not figure prominently in the bilateral talks between leaders of India and Vietnam. The focus apparently was more on enhancing bilateral economic and trade ties.

During the 2000 visit of Fernandes, the first by an Indian Defence Minister to Vietnam, the two sides signed a 15-point Defence Assistance Agreement. This created an institutionalised framework for regular meetings between the Defence Ministers to discuss matters relating to shared threat perceptions. The navies as well as the Coast Guards of both countries have been conducting regular joint exercises for the past seven years. The Indian Navy can impart considerable expertise to the Vietnamese Navy in safeguarding its maritime assets in the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea. Vietnam's air force pilots are trained by the Indian Air Force.

There is a school of thought in India that wants much more to be done to strengthen strategic ties with Vietnam. One way to achieve this, it feels, is by leveraging defence ties towards strategic ends.

Vietnam was initially keen on sourcing the spares for many of its Russian vintage equipment from India. But the prices quoted by India were higher than those quoted by countries such as Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Some defence deals have failed to materialise because of payment-related problems and bureaucratic bottlenecks.

Some Indian commentators have said that "friendship prices" similar to the offers China makes to its "all weather" friends should have been made to Vietnam. They have suggested that New Delhi consider the sale of Prithvi and Brahmos missiles to Vietnam. Reports in the Indian media say that the Vietnamese side has shown an interest in sophisticated defence equipment manufactured indigenously in India.

Many Indian strategic thinkers argue that India should assist Vietnam to become a major power in the region. Some Indian analysts have suggested that India ask for basing facilities at the Cam Ranh Bay harbour.

After the Russians vacated the base, many countries have expressed an interest in using the facilities available at the base.

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