PartnershipsSouth AsiaSoutheast Asia

India, Vietnam forge stronger defense ties amid PRC threats

Mandeep Singh

Facing shared threats from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over territorial disputes, India and Vietnam have strengthened defense ties through high-level meetings among government officials in recent weeks. The talks build on recently signed defense agreements designed to boost bilateral engagements and military cooperation.

India and Vietnam have faced aggression from the PRC, including the Chinese coast guard’s harassment of a joint Indian-Vietnamese petroleum exploration crew within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 2019. In 2020, Vietnam paid around $1 billion to foreign partners when PRC pressure forced the cancellation of petroleum projects in a portion of the South China Sea within Vietnam’s EEZ.

Indian troops have repeatedly clashed with Chinese forces along the mountainous border separating India and China. “India needs a strategic partner situated next to China, and Vietnam fits well into this vision,” defense analyst Anil Bhat, a retired Indian Army colonel, told FORUM. “Just as the Chinese took forceful control of Vietnam’s Paracel Islands in the past, India also lost the Aksai Chin region to China in the trans-Himalayan region. Further, even in the regional dimension, just as Beijing tends to exercise dominance on Vietnam by keeping ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] divided on the issue of dealing with China, Beijing has also attempted to isolate India by keeping South Asia divided through coercive economic diplomacy.”

To meet India’s foreign policy goals in the Indo-Pacific, he added, “It’s very important we [India and Vietnam] do cooperate very strongly, all the more so after the PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army] second aggression in Eastern Ladakh in 2020.”

Senior Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Chien, Vietnam’s deputy defense minister, described his country’s cooperation with India as “steadily consolidated and strengthened.” The two countries have maintained a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement since 2016, with defense and security cooperation as an important pillar, according to India’s Observer Research Foundation. In 2022, the countries signed the Joint Vision Statement on India-Vietnam Defence Partnership towards 2030 to “significantly enhance the scope and scale” of existing defense agreements and simplify procedures for logistics support. A memorandum of understanding also facilitates the partners’ access to respective military bases for repairs and supply replenishment.

India in June 2022 boosted Vietnam’s naval modernization with 12 high-speed patrol boats — five of which were built in India and the rest at a Vietnamese shipyard — through an Indian defense line of credit program. “This project is a glowing example of our Make in India, Make for the World mission,” Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said at a Hanoi handover ceremony, according to the Times of India newspaper. “We would be greatly pleased if close friends like Vietnam become part of our defense industries transformation through enhanced defense industry cooperation.”

Cooperation has also extended to military-to-military dialogues and exchanges, training programs and bilateral exercises, according to India’s embassy in Hanoi. In 2022, military personnel trained together during the Vietnam-India Bilateral Army Exercise (VINBAX), and Vietnam’s Navy sent a pair of vessels to participate in multilateral Exercise Milan in Visakhapatnam, India. The two Navies undertook a bilateral exercise in the South China Sea in August 2021. The next iteration of VINBAX is slated for this year in Vietnam.

India and Vietnam have also bolstered maritime security cooperation in recent years through regular ship visits, port calls, passage exercises, information sharing and maritime domain awareness.

Mandeep Singh is a FORUM contributor reporting from New Delhi, India.

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