All eyes on Indian President Shri Ram Nath Kovind's upcoming visit to Vietnam

Amlan Dutta & Sonia Dey
India's President H.E Shri Ram Nath Kovind will be paying a state visit to Vietnam from the 18th to the 21st of November, 2018. India-Vietnam relations have been on an upward trajectory in recent years as there has been an increase in the number of high-level contacts and consultations between the two sides. Although ties between the two countries have been very friendly and cordial since the days of Ho Chi Minh and Jawaharlal Nehru, recent events and geopolitical realities in the region have given the relationship a new fillip. It was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's highly successful visit to Vietnam in 2016 which saw the two sides elevate their already robust relationship into 'Comprehensive Strategic partnership", along the same lines as Vietnam's relations with China and Russia. 2018 has been a special year for India-Vietnam relations as it marks the 46th year in the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two Asian nations. Vietnam's late President Mr. Tran Dai Quang visited India on a state visit from March 2nd to March 4th 2018 to mark the event. His visit actually came a few weeks after Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc's visit to India, who was one of the State Guests at India's Republic Day celebrations on 26th January 2018, along with the Heads of States from nine other ASEAN countries. In turn, India's Defense Minister Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman paid a four-day visit to Vietnam in June this year which had put the spotlight on the growing defense and security ties between the two nations. India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj too had visited Vietnam in the last week of August as a part of her two-nation tour, the other one being Cambodia. Mrs. Swaraj had chaired the 16th meeting of the Joint Commission along with her Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh and had also addressed the 3rd Indian Ocean Conference in Hanoi. The growing number of high-level visits by both the sides, deepening military cooperation, annual security dialogues today marks the growing scope and ambit of India-Vietnam relationship. Also, various institutional mechanisms like the Joint Commission Meeting at the Foreign Minister's level, Strategic Dialogue at the Foreign Secretary level, and Security Dialogue at the Defense Secretary level highlight the growing convergence of ties between India and Vietnam. The Indian President's upcoming visit would complete the full circle of official visits by both the sides in 2018.
So why is the visit by India's President to Vietnam so important?
On its part, Vietnam is looking for closer defense and strategic ties with India with the 'China factor' looming large. Vietnam wants India to play a larger role in the South-China Sea and wants India to rise as a strategic counterweight to China in the region. Vietnam has shown an appetite to constantly thwart Chinese pressure and as such wants better relations with countries like the USA, Japan and India. India shares the same concerns with Vietnam vis-a-vis China as the two Asian giants have an unresolved land border dispute which had almost turned ugly in the Doklam standoff in 2017. India's "Act East Policy" identifies Vietnam as a lynchpin nation and in the current geopolitical scenario. With this view in mind, one can expect New Delhi and Hanoi to further deepen their defense and strategic partnership. Prime Minister Modi had underscored the importance of Vietnam within India's wider "Act East Policy" in his Keynote address delivered at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier in 2018.
India and Vietnam have cooperated with each other over the years on an array of issues, such as, defence and security, development cooperation, energy cooperation, education, culture and people to people exchanges, connectivity, regional cooperation, multilateral cooperation as well as economic cooperation.
Defence and security cooperation between India and Vietnam is considered to be an effective pillar of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Both nations have welcomed an enhanced cooperation between armed forces of both the countries as well as in areas of cyber security, maritime security, food security, issues related to climate change, and also combating terrorism and other illicit activities such as transnational crimes and drug trafficking. Maritime cooperation is another important feature of defence ties between India and Vietnam, along with anti-piracy, and maintaining security of sea lanes of communication.
Along the lines of development cooperation, India has continuously supported Vietnam, with regard to scholarships to Vietnamese students, academicians and government officials through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme, the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) framework, and also the projects under the fund of Quick Impact Projects (QIPs), etc., along with a pilot project on rural connectivity in the CLMV countries which aims to create Digital Villages.
One of the most notable aspects of cooperation between India and Vietnam over the years has been on energy cooperation and it started from the time when the two nations agreed to cooperate on oil and gas exploration projects, along with thermal and hydroelectric power and renewable energy conservation works which have progressed immensely over the period of time. Former Vietnamese President Mr. Tran Dai Quang, during his state visit to India on 3rd March 2018, welcomed Indian business community to expand oil and gas exploration as well as renewable energy conservation activities on the land and in the continental shelf and on the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Vietnam in the South China Sea.
Also, both the countries have geared up cooperation in the fields of tourism, culture and people-to-people relations. It should also be noted that both the sides are increasingly cooperating in archeological findings, museums and conservation projects to revive and connect the lost historical and cultural linkages that both the countries share.
Connectivity is a major aspect which shall define India-Vietnam relations in the coming future. Talks are on to extend the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway to Vietnam, through Cambodia and Lao PDR. India and Vietnam are also acting on an accelerated mode to establish direct shipping routes between their sea ports. Direct flights between India and Vietnam were announced earlier this year which should give a big boost to businesses and people to people exchanges.
As for regional cooperation, both the countries share mutual views regarding the regional security architecture in Asia as a whole, and emphasizes the importance of maintaining a peaceful Indo-Pacific region where sovereignty, international law, sustainable development and open trade and investment systems are encouraged. India and Vietnam have worked tirelessly to further strengthen cooperation with the ASEAN countries.
At the multilateral level, Vietnam and India have both acknowledged and supported each other's candidature as non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council for the term 2020-2012 and 2021-2022 respectively. Vietnam also supported India's candidature as a permanent UNSC member. Apart from that, at their drive for maintaining a free and fair Indo-Pacific region, both nations have time and again reiterated the significance of abiding by the international laws, specifically following the terms and regulations of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in this regard. Ensuring freedom of navigation and peaceful and open sea lanes in the Indo-Pacific have been their objective for quite some time now. Leaders from both countries have also appreciated the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and have committed to achieve the goals.
From the economic point of view, both nations have witnessed a rise in trade turnover in the last two years, and according to sources, ministries and other organizational bodies are taking the required measures to achieve the trade target of US$ 15 billion by the year 2020. Concerned industries are exploring new avenues, such as renewable energy, hydrocarbons, textiles, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, sharing of technology in agro-products, tourism, other service sectors and etc. to expand business in both countries
The Indian President's visit to Vietnam should add another feather in the cap of bourgeoning India-Vietnam relations, and though much symbolic, it will showcase the growing proximity between the two countries. It will be interesting to note the takeaways from the President's visit, and also identify other unique areas of cooperation between the two countries.
(Mr. Amlan Dutta is a Researcher at the Centre for Vietnam Studies, New Delhi. Email: [email protected]
Ms. Sonia Dey is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Vietnam Studies, New Delhi. Email: [email protected])