Emerging Strategic Dynamics in Indo-Pacific and India-Vietnam Cooperation
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

International order is undergoing profound and rapid changes, which compel all powers to continually adapt their foreign and security policies, in order to protect their national interests to the extent possible. The term Indo-Pacific though over a decade old has become a strategic leitmotif only in last few years. For instance, signing of a ‘Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean’ in January 2015 between India and the United States, while conveying the sense that Indian and Pacific Oceans are linked in strategic terms, yet it is not a seamless entity. On the other hand, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ reflects the notion of the region being one integrated whole. Notwithstanding the moves and attempts by Trump’s administration towards protectionism and de-globalisation, the forces of globalisation have continued to make progress. Thus, when one looks at Indo-Pacific region it is an area where the world’s most dynamic economies are present; a very large portion of the world’s trade passes through this area, while it also has many under-developed and developing economies. Not only this, Indo-Pacific also is dotted with maximum number of trouble spots where peace and stability has continued to elude for many years and in some case for many decades.

Indo-Pacific: A Concept or Strategy

The first question that arises is that ‘is Indo-Pacific a concept or strategy?’ Different powers in the region have their own interpretations of the term, depending upon their world view and their own concerns and interests. Though some analysts view it as only a geographic construct, yet others see it as a geostrategic precept. Even while making such articulations whether Indo-Pacific alludes to strategy or a geographic region, there are many variations in their respective approaches. For instance, India looks at Indo-Pacific as an area that encompasses the expanse between the Pacific and Eastern Africa; whereas America sees it as an area from the Pacific to the Western borders of India, i.e. the area covered by the US Indo-Pacific Command (earlier known as Asia-Pacific Command). Such a formulation excludes the Western Indian Ocean.

It is also a given that China’s continuous rise and its political, military and economic assertiveness has been causing concerns, especially among the Indo-pacific powers. Therefore, such powers have been looking for ways and means that could be instrumental in obtaining a fair degree of strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific region. Thus, they would be more inclined to treat Indo-Pacific as a strategy or another version of US Asia Pacific Strategy or re-packaging of ‘Rebalance to Asia’ with possibly an expanded mandate.

Thus, under the American rubric Indo-Pacific is a strategy, and therefore, it requires a definition under the trilateral equation of ‘ends, ways and means’. The US has apparently come out with such objectives, methods and resources as mentioned in the US National Defence Authorisation Act of 2019 as also in its National Security Strategy, National Defence Strategy and Quadrennial Defence Review. While India views Indo-Pacific in more diffused and broad terms - more like a vision or concept that is inclusive and though it might have some elements of a long-term strategy - it is largely focused on cooperative aspects eschewing or putting the competitive aspects at low key. Overall objective of India is to accommodate interests and concerns of all the players to the extent and degree possible while continuing to pursue its own national interests. However, steering a middle-path or treading fine line between the contentious interests of multiple players is not always an easy task. Most of the South East Asian Nations and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region are pursuing multi-vector and balanced policies in order to realise their political, strategic, security and economic interests.

India’s Approach to Indo-Pacific

Most significant explanation of India’s conception of Indo-Pacific was made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his keynote address at this year’s Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore on 01 June 2018. He observed that “The Indo-Pacific is a natural region. It is also home to a vast array of global opportunities and challenges…The ten countries of South East Asia connect the two great oceans in both the geographical and civilisational sense. Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific. India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. - - - Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country. A geographical definition, as such, cannot be. India's vision for the Indo-Pacific Region is, therefore, a positive one. And, it has many elements.”1

PM Modi thus visualises Indo-Pacific as an inclusive regional construct not directed against anyone but for taking advantage of opportunities in the region and jointly addressing the varied challenges that are present in the region. Further, as the geography dictates multilateral organisation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) comprising of ten nations is central to the region. And thus ASEAN has most important role to play in the evolving dynamics of the region. He also underlined India’s support and promotion of a rule based order in the region; and all endeavors have to be based on consensus and peaceful resolution of disputes. India has been supporting freedom of navigation and over flights and unimpeded flow of trade and commerce through the South China Sea and other global commons. Maritime cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR), defence and security cooperation, besides economic and political engagement with the nations in the region, has also been an important element of India’s approach in the region.

India’s Act East policy, aiming at improving connectivity and infrastructure development besides strengthening economic linkages, resonates very well with the conceptual underpinnings of Indo-Pacific. While the region has a surfeit of connectivity initiatives, promotion of mutual trust rather than ‘strategic competition’ is the key to a stable order in the region. Thus, India is part of many cooperative efforts in South East Asia, South Asia, Indian Ocean and elsewhere within the ambit of evolving concept of Indo-Pacific. Avoidance of conflict and managing differences, thus, has been part of India’s approach in the region. Many challenges like terrorism, cyber threats and degradation of environment can only be met through collective efforts, therefore, cooperative elements become equally, if not more, important than the competitive aspects of power play in the region.

Though there have been some meetings of India, US, Japan and Australian officials (first one was on the sidelines of ASEAN Summit at Manila in November 2017) on evolving a Quadrilateral of powers, it is yet to gain momentum. The second meeting of Quad officials took place in Singapore in June, which resolved to have further meetings regularly. The Quad dialogue is yet to be upgraded to the political level. Nevertheless, no one can really question the fundamental importance of rule based order and principles of freedom and openness as expounded by the Quad countries. Connectivity and development besides regional security has been advanced as a shared objective of the quad dialogue.

Japan has its own version of ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’, as mentioned in its ‘Priority Policy for Development Cooperation FY 2017’, wherein it has outlined the thrust of its policy2. Similarly, Australia has its own formulation of Indo-Pacific strategy as described in its Foreign Policy Paper of 20173. Japan’s geographical area for Indo-Pacific covers up to eastern Africa while Australia’s view is similar to that of the US. However, because of their treaty alliance with the US, both powers are perceived as subscribing largely to the US perceptions of the Indo-Pacific as a strategy.

India has also been forging partnerships with ASEAN members both at bilateral and multilateral level as part of its Act East policy, and based on its vision of Indo-Pacific. PM Modi before making his address at Shangri La Dialogue had also visited Indonesia in end May, where New Delhi and Jakarta signed on ‘Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’; this reflected much progress on the existing joint maritime cooperation statement signed in December 2016. There is also a great degree of convergence between India’s Act East Policy and ‘Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR)’ initiative, and Indonesia’s Indonesian Ocean Policy and Global Maritime Fulcrum Vision.

ASEAN is Central to Indo-Pacific

By virtue of its geographical location the ASEAN has a key role to play in the Indo-Pacific region’s evolving political, security and economic architecture. A peaceful, secure and stable South East Asia would be conducive to development and growth in other areas of Indo-Pacific spreading from shores of Africa to Pacific. For instance, during his address to 32nd ASEAN Summit in April this year President Jokowi of Indonesia observed, “ASEAN must be able to play a role in developing the framework of Indo-Pacific cooperation [...] which is important for ASEAN to stay relevant and maintain its centrality”. 4 Even in the Quad dialogue, ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms have been emphasised as fulcrums of the evolving regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific.

Further, a well-integrated ASEAN with a unified approach towards its foreign, security and economic policies would be better able to meet the challenges arising in South East Asia. Therefore, ASEAN as a multilateral group needs to continue to work together to emphasise its centrality in decision making and evolving of common approaches to challenges as well as opportunities in the region, as also in the broader construct of the Indo-Pacific. Any weakness in its concept of ‘ASEAN Centrality’ in ASEAN’s affairs is more likely to invite unwelcome interference from outside powers that might militate against ASEAN members realising their national interests or for that matter interests of the grouping as a whole.

India-Vietnam Cooperation and Indo-Pacific

Historically, India and Vietnam have had strong relationship in areas like political, defence and security, economic, cultural and people-to-people relationships. Since the commencement of India’s Look East Policy of 1992, which has been transformed to Act East Policy, New Delhi has emphasised that it considers Vietnam as the ‘key pillar’ of such a policy. This year the mutual robust relationship was reflected in first Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visiting New Delhi as a special guest for 26 January Republic Day celebrations. He also attended ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in end January. This was shortly followed by President Tran Dai Quang’s visit in early March, thus underlining the strength of Vietnam-India relationship. Both countries share a common world view and share similar perceptions on the evolving dynamics in the region. President Quang and PM Modi in their joint
statement ‘reiterated the importance of achieving a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region where sovereignty and international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, sustainable development and a free, fair and open trade and investment system are respected’5. President Quang also delivered a speech at Nehru Museum and Library in New Delhi, wherein he dwelt upon Vietnam’s approach on Indo-Pacific and mutually beneficial ties between both the nations. However, during his speech, President Quang used the word ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’ several times which might be a reflection of the fact that the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is yet to gain widespread usage.

While Vietnam is supportive of India’s varied connectivity efforts to ASEAN, New Delhi has endorsed Hanoi’s views that all disputes should be resolved through peaceful means. This is with apparent reference to the South China Sea issue. India has also commended and supported Vietnam and ASEAN for an early conclusion of Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. Not only Vietnam but also many other ASEAN countries have been affected by China’s assertive and muscular policies in militarisation of South China Sea. While China has been making some positive noises about concluding a COC, nothing substantive has happened on the ground. On the other hand, it can also be said that continuous international pressure on China has worked to an extent that Beijing now has become ready for giving some shape to COC. Nevertheless, China has been playing the divide-and-rule game by making bilateral deals with some of the Southeast Asian nations in order to realise its objectives in the South China Sea. This is another area where the concept of ‘ASEAN Centrality’ has an important role to play.

As a country coordinator from 2015-2018 for India’s ties with ASEAN, Vietnam has been central to forging and enhancing the relationships. Hanoi has also supported India’s strategic and security interests in the region, both at bilateral and multilateral platforms. The concept of Indo-Pacific region also finds resonance and support from Vietnam as it is still evolving and is broad based and inclusive, and not directed against any country. It also needs to be noted that it was in September 2016, that existing bilateral relationship at the level of ‘Strategic Partnership’ was elevated to ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam. This was not only due to desire on both sides to continue to strengthen their ties. It was also due to their common worldviews and a shared vision of the evolving regional architecture in the shape of political, security and economic aspects.

While both India and Vietnam have been witnessing a continuous growth in economies, and as their trade with many countries is expanding; yet there is a need to exploit the full potential of trade and commerce between two countries. For instance, India’s bilateral trade with China is around 81 billion USD and Vietnam’s trade with China is around 100 billion USD; however the India-Vietnam bilateral trade for the current year is estimated to be around 12 billion USD which reflects on the fact that vigorous efforts need to be made for upgrading economic ties. Target of achieving bilateral trade of 15 billion USD by 2020 is well within grasp, however, it is not ambitious enough given the potential.

President Quang, during his visit to New Delhi in March, 2018, had underlined not only political and economic cooperation, but also defence and security cooperation. Such a cooperation, besides contributing to peace and security in the region, is also a significant part of evolving bilateral strategic relationship. PM Modi’s administration has been instrumental in imparting momentum to bilateral defence and security cooperation since 2014. India and Vietnam, as part of their evolving strategic relations, had signed a Joint Vision Statement on defence cooperation in May 2015, which revolved around enhancing mutual military ties in the spheres of training, joint exercises, provision of defence equipment and development of Vietnam armed forces, including its defence industry. PM Modi during his Vietnam visit in October 2014 had observed, “Our defence cooperation with Vietnam is among our most important ones. India remains committed to the modernisation of Vietnam’s defence and security forces. This will include expansion of our training programme, which is already very substantial, joint-exercises and cooperation in defence equipment.”6

It is also well known that India has been providing training to Vietnamese submarine crew. India has also provided a facility for defence line of credit for 500 million US dollars as also additional amount of 100 million USD for building offshore patrol boats for the Vietnamese Coast Guard. India’s own defence capabilities in defence industry, especially in the areas of missile development, manufacture of specialist defence vehicles, battle tanks, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, radars, Sonars and defence electronics, satellite surveillance, and many other such areas have been on the rise. India’s policy on defence exports has also been liberalised in the recent years. Therefore, there is ample scope for India to not only export such defence systems and weapons as required by Vietnam, but also to help Vietnam in developing its indigenous defence industrial base. It is also worth noting that Bharat Electronics Limited has opened an office in Hanoi in June this year, which would it to not only export its defence systems and products to Vietnam but also to other ASEAN members. The BEL is known for making air defence and surveillance radars, missiles and flight control systems for India’s indigenous light combat aircraft7.

Concluding Observations

While the construct of the Indo-Pacific is not very old, still different powers in the region view it from different angles. For India, Indo-Pacific it is more of a geographical concept with some elements of strategic orientation. While the US and other powers like Japan and Australia are inclined to treat this as a strategy that is designed to maintain America’s pre-eminent position in the Indo-Pacific region. Many analysts also view it as a replacement of erstwhile America’s Asia-Pacific strategy. Some of the ASEAN countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore see Indo-Pacific as an area, where cooperative elements need to be given more emphasis rather than the contentious and competitive aspects.

Further, the ASEAN remains an important fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific and its efforts at integration need to be supported by all the powers operating in the region. India and Vietnam, in accord with other members of ASEAN, should continue to support adherence to international law and norms and freedom of navigation and overflights over the oceans. India-Vietnam cooperation in defence and security arena has been progressing steadily while the full potential of bilateral trade and commerce needs to be exploited. Strengthening of India-Vietnam relations would contribute further to peace, stability and security in the region.

(Updated version of the paper presented at Ho Chi Minh Academy of Political Science, Hanoi on 24 August 2018)

Endnotes
  1. PM Narendra Modi’s Key Note Address at Shangri La available at http://mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/29943/Prime_Ministers_Keynote_Address_at_Shangri_La_Dialogue_June_01_2018
  2. ‘Priority Policy for Development Cooperation FY 2017’, International Cooperation MOFA, available at https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000259285.pdf
  3. 2017 Foreign Policy Paper of Australian Government available at https://www.fpwhitepaper.gov.au/foreign-policy-white-paper
  4. Marguerite Afra Spiie, “Indonesia wants ASEAN to take central role in developing Indo-Pacific cooperation”, Jakarta Post, 29 April 2018, available at http://www.thejakartapost.com/seasia/2018/04/29/indonesia-wants-asean-to-take-central-role-in-developing-indo-pacific-cooperation.html
  5. India-Vietnam Joint Statement during the visit of President of Vietnam to India 03 March 2018 available at http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=176933
  6. Shubhajit Roy, “Vietnam to buy Naval vessels from India to patrol disputed South China Sea”, India express 29 October 2014, available at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/vietnam-to-buy-naval-vessels-from-india-to-patrol-disputed-waters/
  7. Elizabeth Roche, “Nirmala Sitharaman Inaugurates Bharat Electronics Representative Office in Vietnam”, Live Mint, 13 June 2018 available at https://www.livemint.com/Politics/ZvQS6wKTZSYLgn7pB0U4VP/Nirmala-Sitharaman-inaugurates-Bharat-Electronics-represent.html

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