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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 40, September 19, 2009

India’s Look-East Policy and Vietnam

Monday 21 September 2009, by Baladas Ghoshal

The 64th anniversary of Vietnam’s National Day was observed on September 2, 2009. On that occasion the embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam brought out a publication Vietnam-India in Focus.
The following article, appearing in the publication, is being reproduced here for the benefit of our readers.

India’s Look-East Policy was initiated in the early 1990s with the specific objective of its economic integration and political cooperation with South-East Asia, resulting from a more pragmatic approach by her foreign relations. The objective of this policy was also to expand its area of influence by developing security relations in all directions, especially so in South-East Asia, with a view to becoming a major player in the emerging balance of power in Asia.

The security element in India’s Look-East Policy received an assertive diplomatic endeavour more after India declared herself as a nuclear state after a successful nuclear test in May 1998. China’s emergence as a major economic and military power together with its irredentist claims over the whole of South China Sea and exclusive economic zones that has brought it into conflict with some of its neighbouring countries in South-East and East Asia, particularly over the Spratlys Islands, have created apprehensions in Asia about China’s future ambitions and intentions.

A major manifestation of the growing political and economic interaction is the ASEAN’s decision to confer upon India, first the Sectoral Dialogue Partnership (SDP) in 1992 and then the Full Dialogue Partnership (FDP) in 1995. There are three major aspects in India’s involvement in the region. First, India’s membership of a range of institutions connected to South-East Asian governments on security matters. Second, India’s bilateral security and defence agreements with important ASEAN members like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. Third, India’s growing naval activities in the Indian Ocean cited as a “legitimate area of interest” in the Indian Maritime Doctrine of 2004. India’s Look-East thrust involving the ASEAN and the ‘rim land’ states farther afield—like Japan and South Korea—has been a success in great part because of naval diplomacy. India’s naval flotillas streaming into Asian ports to showcase Indian designed missile destroyers, holding annual joint exercises in the Andaman Sea with the smaller littoral navies, exercising off shore during extended “goodwill” tours with the host country’s naval vessels and, generally, establishing a presence in proximal as well as distant seas constantly reminds these of India’s strategic importance.

The Indian Navy has been taking an active role in combating piracy in the Malacca Straits. India has a significant naval build-up at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and created a special Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC) based on these Islands. The bilateral naval exercises were a manifestation of a more strategic ‘Look-East’ policy. In 2000, the Indian Navy had sent warships, tankers and submarines to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam for bilateral exercises and as gestures of goodwill.

South-East Asian nations perceive India as a benign power whose peaceful rise accrues significant strategic benefits for her to play a larger role in the region.

India had already attended a number of ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences (PMCs) and participated in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meetings. This allowed her entry into multilateral security deliberations outside the United Nations aegis for the first time. During the last twelve years, India participated in a number of ARF activities relating to confidence-building measures (CBMs), maritime search and rescue, peace-keeping, non-proliferation, preventive diplomacy and disaster management and found them productive and useful for the facilitation of the introduction of appropriate CBMs among participants. India has now graduated itself to the status of ASEAN-India summit, at par with ASEAN plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea). India is also now a major participant in the East Asian Summit (EAS) along with Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, South Korea and the ten ASEAN countries.

The strategic imperatives for cooperation between India and South-East Asia arise from the uncertainties in the regional security environment. The threats of terrorism, both from within and across borders, are now confronting both India and the ASEAN countries calling for close monitoring, coordination and fashioning a joint approach in combating the scourge. Among other areas where India and the ASEAN nations are co-coordinating their efforts are problems of piracy, environmental pollution, narcotics traffic, illegal migration, other security-related issues, including the safety of the sea-lanes-of-communication (SLOC) vital for the economic prosperity of the region. Above all, India and ASEAN need to contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region, so that the countries in South-East Asia can pursue their economic development and progress for their people.

Vietnam in India’s Look-East Policy

Vietnam is important in the promotion of India’s political, economic and security interests in South-East Asia, and in turn, in the success of our Look-East Policy. Vietnam is a potential regional power in South-East Asia with great political stability and a successful economic performer with an annual growth rate of seven per cent. Vietnam’s geo-strategic location, its demonstrated military prowess and its national will-power lends it a critical place in the strategic calculus of South-East Asia. Economically, Vietnam with its stress on economic liberalisation offers very attractive preferential prospects for Indian foreign direct investment (FDI). In terms of India’s energy security, Vietnam’s offshore oil deposit offers opportunities for exploration and eventual supply to India. On political and foreign policy issues Vietnam had been a consistent supporter of India, including our scheme for the reform of the United Nations and our recent bid for permanent membership in the Security Council. Apart from cooperation in the bilateral framework, the two countries have maintained close cooperation and mutual support at the regional and international fora such as the UN, NAM and other mechanisms in the ASEAN like the ARF, East Asia Summit and Mekong-Ganga Cooperation. In more concrete terms, India can play a vital role in the capacity building of Vietnam’s military deterrence capabilities.

The latest in the defence interactions between the two countries was the visit to Vietnam of Defence Minister A.K. Antony in 2007 when he announced at a meeting with his counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh that India will transfer 5000 items of naval spares belonging to the Petya class of ships to Vietnam. He also announced the deputation of a four-member team to impart training on UN peacekeeping operations in the first half of 2008. The two sides had agreed to set up a joint working group to facilitate the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on defence cooperation.

General Phung, in his remarks, expressed gratitude to India for providing training to the armed forces officers in various areas and said “they are bringing back valuable knowledge and skills to their work areas”. So far, 49 officers have attended various Army and Navy courses in India and 64 officers have attended English language courses.

Vietnamese and Indian Prime Ministers agreed to officially establish a strategic partnership between the two countries in New Delhi in July 6, 2007. The strategic partnership will support each country’s durable growth and prosperity and work for the sake of peace, stability, co-operation and development in the Asia-Pacific and the world. To promote this new strategic partnership, the two leaders agreed to further bolster the two countries’ political ties in addition to establishing a strategic dialogue mechanism at the level of Deputy Foreign Ministers. They also reached an agreement on continuing strengthening security and defence co-operation, especially in training and the sharing of information on anti-terrorism, sea pirates and transnational crimes.

On trade co-operation, the two PMs agreed to bring the two-way trade to US $ 2 billion in 2010 and US $ 5 billion in 2015. India took note of Vietnam’s request to recognise the South-East Asian country’s full-fledged market economy and pledged to take necessary measures to enable Vietnamese products to enter Indian markets so as to balance the two-way trade.

PM Dung said at the Vietnam-India Business Forum that the Vietnamese state and government always created favourable conditions for Indian investors to invest in fields such as information technology, electricity, oil and gas, metallurgy, coal, transport, agriculture, fisheries, food processing, health care and medicine.

The two countries also signed agreements on cooperation in fisheries and aquaculture, agriculture, culture and educational exchange. As part of the MoU on cultural exchange, a team of the Archaeological Survey of India is to undertake conservation work in Cham monuments in Vietnam. The memorandum between the Department of Atomic Energy and the Vietnam Ministry of Science and Technology focused cooperation in the training of Vietnamese manpower in India in nuclear and related fields, study and evaluation of uranium ore processing technology for Vietnamese uranium ores and Indian assistance to the activities of the India-Vietnam Nuclear Science Centre at Dalat in Vietnam.

Prof Ghoshal is a former Professor and Chair, South-East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University; New Delhi; he is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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