Modi’s first visit to Vietnam brings new defence deals that challenge China

Photo: Facebook/Narendra Modi

India’s leader was in Vietnam this week to discuss defence cooperation and agree on a deal that will bring both finance and weaponry into Vietnam’s security arsenal. China is unimpressed. 

By Dung Phan

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Vietnam is a crucial move forward in Hanoi’s strategy for marine defence against China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea. Modi, who is the first Indian prime minister to visit Vietnam in 15 years, came one day before he joined the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China.

During the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc, India and Hanoi signed 12 agreements; one of which was the $500m loan India offered for the purpose of “facilitating deeper defence cooperation.”

Military cooperation between the two countries has moved forward quickly over the past few decades, mostly through high-ranking military exchanges. In 2014, India signed an agreement to lend Vietnam $100m to buy naval patrol boats. And as one of the largest weapon exporters to Vietnam, India is now negotiating to sell them supersonic Brahmos cruise missiles capable of destroying naval targets.

Thanks to its efforts to upgrade military capabilities, Vietnam has emerged as the world’s eighth-largest importer of arms between 2011 and 2015, says the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. This brought the country up from  43rd position in the previous five-year period. The latest operation deal between India and Vietnam comes just as the US lifted its longstanding ban on the sales of lethal military equipment to Vietnam so more military purchases may be ahead.

Common allies and enemies

The most significant aspect of the visit is that the two countries have upgraded their diplomatic relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, up from a Strategic Partnership. Before the new Indian deal, Vietnam only had Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships with China and Russia. Those two special relationships are now in doubt. While China continues to suppress Vietnam by demanding territorial sovereignty that Hanoi claims as its own, Russia recently said that Moscow would support China’s stance over the South China Sea disputes and oppose any third-party interference.

At the same time, both India and Vietnam share stakes in ensuring maritime security, as well as concerns about Chinese access to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea respectively. Ajai Shukla, a retired Indian Army colonel and defence analyst said, “In New Delhi, Vietnam is seen as one of the countries that has the potential, the history, the motive and foreign policy outlook to confront China, and resist China and its expansionist motives.”

It would, of course, be too naive to believe that the strategic relations between India and Vietnam would pose any true challenge to China. Such defence cooperation agreements just affirm diplomatically that India also has an interest in the South China Sea. About 50% of India’s trade passes through the disputed waters.

Also relevant is India’s 2011 agreement with Vietnam to expand oil exploration beneath the South China Sea, a decision that Delhi later reconfirmed despite China’s objections. And there may be even bigger strategic considerations at play as, when “China gets its way in the South China Sea, it will become far more assertive against its other neighbours, including India,” believes Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

Added to this mix is the fact that India and the Philippines share a mutual friend in many matters – the US. To build a strong chain of alliances and counter China’s growing influence, Washington is looking to India for a reliable and secure partner. Against this backdrop all three countries seem to be on the same side, drawing closer together as they consider how to manage China’s expanding power.

What’s next?

Analysts say increasing defence cooperation shows how both Asian nations trust each other and recognise their growing mutual interest. Professor Sukh Doe Muni, a fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, said the Indian leader’s visit Friday would have highlighted how “the question of South China Sea has come up in a big way.”

If India succeeds in selling supersonic Brahmos cruise missiles to Vietnam, then it is likely to worry China. Although Chinese foreign policy is notoriously unshakeable a recent editorial in the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese government, affirmed the view that there was limited potential in cooperation between India and Vietnam, referring to India’s “arrogance and pride.” The writer also noted that “both have a bitter history of being defeated in border wars with China.” Perhaps, this time, it is China that will lose out.