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Mainstream Weekly, VOL LVI No 15 New Delhi March 31, 2018

India-Vietnam Ties in Changed Regional Setting

Saturday 31 March 2018, by M K Bhadrakumar

Only 18 months separated Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam (September 2-3, 2016) and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang’s visitto India (March 2-4, 2018). But the regional setting of the two countries’ so-called Comprehensive Strategic Partnership has phenomenally changed in this period. The power dynamic in the Asia-Pacific reflects the unraveling of the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ strategy following President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) agreement.

India was not party to the TTP but Vietnam had invested heavily in it as a passport to escape China’s orbit. Unlike the case with India, Vietnam is heavily dependent on international trade and investment not only for sustaining its high growth and structural reforms but also as hedge against geopolitical risks. Trump’s focus on America First and his aversion toward free trade imply that he has no use for a long-term strategy. Thomas Jandl, an American regional expert, wrote recently,

Vietnam’s carefully crafted policy of non-alignment—by which Hanoi has skillfully exploited big-power rivalries to balance economic and political interests—now requires a major update. During the APEC summit in Da Nang (in November), Trump stood in front of the leaders of the foremost multilateral institution in the region and waxed about a free and open Indo-Pacific, at the same time heaping criticism on multilateralism. Trump offered bilateral deals to any takers but with the caveat that he wanted to see the United States ‘win’ what he considers a zero-sum game.

India also suffers from a hangover—albeit for different reasons. New Delhi didn’t expect Trump to win in the November 2016 election, but, once the unthinkable happened, hoped fervently that the new President would stick to his hardline rhetoric on China. The Indian policymakers chose to believe that the Obama Administration’s containment strategy against China would ultimately come to characterise Trump’s Asia-Pacific policies as well.

But the naivety has dissipated lately. (It will accelerate further as President Xi Jinping prepares for his forthcoming visit to the US.) But the damage has been done, since India excessively lurched toward the US bandwagon —unlike Vietnam, which cautiously kept open its line to Beijing—and the result is plain to see. Vietnam’s relations with China are on a relatively stable footing today, compared to India’s, which deteriorated alarmingly and tottered on the brink of war.

For Hanoi, the China ties have been productive too. Sino-Vietnamese trade touched $100 billion last year. (China has been Vietnam’s biggest trading partner for 13 consecutive years while Vietnam is China’s largest trading partner in South-East Asia.) Clearly, despite their over-lapping maritime claims, Vietnam and China actually take care to forge closer economic ties.

India lags far behind Vietnam in regarding trade and investment ties with China in zero sum terms. Put differently, Vietnam hopes to tap into China’s emergence as the leader of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and seeks to exploit China’s economic openness in Asia and thereby create synergy out of Beijing’s charm offensive with a multilateralist agenda.

Where India and Vietnam share the platform is in their realisation that any deal with Trump risks being fickle, depending on the national mood in the US and/or Trump’s own personal mood. (PM Modi had a taste of it when Trump ridiculed him recently at the annual Governors’ conference in Washington as a ‘freeloader’ who made money exporting motorbikes to the US while imposing heavy import duties on Harley-Davidson bikes.)

Nonetheless, both India and Vietnam desire continued continued US engagement with Asia. The bottom line is that Vietnam has been relatively successful in making readjustment in its regional policies so as to adapt to the new economic and geopolitical realities of the Trump Presidency. India, in comparison, is just about furrowing a path to put behind the delusional policy to bandwagon with the US strategies, pursued during the past three years. However, both Vietnam and India are showing robust growth and that provides important leverage in dealing with China.

The Modi Government has been on a learning curve. There are growing signs of a determined effort to improve relations with China. It is of the utmost importance for Delhi that a repetition of the Doklam face-off in the summer months ahead is avoided. (India’s National Security Advisor, Army Chief and Foreign Secretary made an unprecedented joint visit to Bhutan recently for consultations.)

Clearly, during Tran’s visit, it is not India’s intention—or Vietnam’s—to provoke China through vainglorious ventures in the disputed South China Sea or by displaying “bloc mentality” vis-à-vis China. At any rate, ASEAN-China relations have witnessed a calm period lately. [The Philippines identified on Friday (March 2) two areas in South China for joint exploration with China for oil and gas, including one in the disputed waters.] Tran pointedly expressed appreciation of India’s support for “ASEAN’s centrality in the evolving regional architecture, its continued contribution to regional peace, security and prosperity and to ASEAN integration and the ASEAN community building process.”

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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