India and Vietnam recently signed a three-part deal that includes nuclear cooperation, agriculture and trade, and economic association. The memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed in 2018 to strengthen cooperation in the atomic energy field for peaceful purposes, extending till research on nuclear reactors, in the field of nuclear science and engineering, and nuclear fuel and material. The agreement was decided on in 2016 during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit when both countries resolved to working jointly for an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific with a rules-based regional security architecture. India and Vietnam also expressed interest in strengthening cooperation in the field of cyber security, oil and gas exploration, maritime security, military domain, and across many other sectors.
Vietnam and India have always served as important fulcrum for each other. Both countries share a long history of association: India supported Vietnam’s independence from France, supported Vietnam’s opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War, and eventually, the unification of Vietnam. Eventually, both countries established good bilateral ties in trade and economic cooperation, education, agriculture, oil and gas, and manufacturing. Vietnam also serves as India’s country coordinator in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), a focus of India’s Act East Policy. India helps Vietnam through credit support. For example, India recently extended a US$ 500 million credit line to Vietnam to purchase military equipment, in addition to the US$ 100 million extended in 2014 to purchase four offshore patrol vessels that are currently being built in Indian yards. In terms of defence, since India possesses the world’s fourth largest army, just one rank short of China, partnering with India is to Vietnam’s benefit. Vietnam is important for India for trade and the trilateral highway project- a part of India’s Look East Policy – between India, Myanmar and Thailand which is in talks to be extended till Vietnam.
There remains ambiguity regarding the nuclear deal. Firstly, there are very few details in the public domain regarding the specific aspects of cooperation. As per the conditions of the deal, until India acquires membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), research on nuclear reactors will not start. If there are indeed many stumbling blocks to India-Vietnam nuclear cooperation, the question remains, why are they being struck at all?
First, both India and Vietnam share the common objective of strengthening their positions in the Indo-Pacific when it comes to China’s increasingly growing power and presence in the region. Both India and Vietnam also object to China claims the South China Sea (SCS) as its own territory. China’s opposition to India’s Oil and Natural Gas cooperation (ONGC) exploration in the Vietnamese-claimed wells in the SCS are well-documented. Beijing has refused to accept the international tribunal verdict on the dispute, and continues to be in favour of a bilateral framework with the involved countries. Although Vietnam maintains strong trade ties with China, the decades-long territorial dispute has made Vietnam also push for stronger bilateral ties with India as a counter-balance. Vietnam supports India’s assertion that there should be freedom of navigation and overflight in the region of the SCS. The growing cooperation between India and Vietnam could thus be viewed as a contribution to their bulwark against Chinese domination.
Second, as India’s country coordinator for ASEAN, Vietnam serves as an important cogwheel for India’s reinvigorated Act East Policy. The Act East Policy seeks to boosts India’s relations with ASEAN countries and Japan. With its crucial strategic location and the image of a “strong” willed state, a partnership with Vietnam will be beneficial for India.
Third, Vietnam could fill act as India’s linchpin in the region; a similar, though not identical, role to the one played by Pakistan for China in South Asia. Vietnam practices smart diplomacy – after all, it has not hesitated to befriend the US even after the brutality of the Vietnam War as a way to keep Beijing in check. Although Vietnam will not forego its ties with China, it will look to strengthening relations with strong states in the region – such as India – to act as a counter balance to Beijing’s prominence and bullying.