On May 21, within the framework of perpetual deployment of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet to Southeast Asia and the Northwest Pacific region, three Indian naval ships en route to Guam and Hawaii for the multilateral Malabar and RIMPAC naval exercises made a port call at Tien Sa Port in Danang for India’s first joint naval exercise with Vietnam. To put this in perspective, this is analogous to the navies of China and Bangladesh exercising in the Bay of Bengal.
Before having a stopover in Vietnam, this cohort visited Singapore on May 6 and Malaysia and Thailand on May 13.
The naval squad was led by Rear Admiral Dinesh Tripathi, commander of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet. INS Kamorta and INS Shakti will only be participating in the Malabar exercise, whereas INS Sahyadri is scheduled to join in the prominent transnational naval Exercise RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific Exercise).
Docking of Indian naval ships in Vietnam is not a new phenomenon. Indian ships have visited Danang twice in the past – in June 2013 and October 2015. Other visits were to Haiphong in August 2014 and September 2017. In May 2016, Indian ships visited Cam Ranh International Port in south-central Khanh Hoa province. More recently, INS Sumedha docked at Ho Chi Minh City on January 12 this year.
However, all these visits were bereft of one imperative display of power that was accomplished in the recent visit.
The highlight of the recent visit was the first ever joint naval exercise by India and Vietnam, which has set a new benchmark not only in bilateral relations but also in India’s dynamic Act East Policy. The exercise aimed to boost military and maritime cooperation, increase mutual understanding between the two navies, to maintain security and stability in the region. The exercise also developed interoperability in communication as well as search and rescue procedures.
The naval exercise took place at the same time as the Chinese navy and coast guard were also performing their first joint patrol in the vicinity of the disputed Parcel Islands in the South China Sea. Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said Beijing’s recent moves were intended to be a “pre-emptive” warning against any challenge to China’s claims. According to the South China Morning Post, this tactical move was a warning to Vietnam, because of its recent engagements in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, time and again Vietnam has defied China’s hegemonic interests in the region. There have been two armed skirmishes between China and Vietnam in the sea – one in 1974 and another in 1988.
Vietnam, like India, is cautious of China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region and has a huge incongruity with Beijing over several islands and exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea. Despite the recent armistice promises made by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi while meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Phạm Bình Minh, China is still stretching its military bases over the South China Sea.
It was for this precise reason that India and Vietnam ramped up their defense cooperation to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2016 during the official state visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Vietnam. Since then, Vietnam has expressed interest in procuring BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles and the Akash surface-to-air missile defense systems. Vietnam has a very important role in India’s Act East Policy.
During Modi’s official visit to Hanoi in 2016, India acknowledged a US$500 million defense line of credit for Vietnam to simplify the acquisition of defense gadgets. India is also helping train Vietnamese fighter pilots to fly Su-30 jets and has been helping Vietnamese submariners operate Russian-origin Kilo-class submarines.
India has also serviced and upgraded more than 100 MiG fighter planes of the Vietnam Air Force and provided them with enhanced avionics and radar technology. The Indian Navy has had wide-ranging cooperation with Vietnam People’s Navy, predominantly in training, repairs, maintenance and logistics provision intended for capacity building.
The visit by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to India in January as one of the chief guests for Republic Day and for the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit and a state visit by President Tran Dai Quang in March were remarkable moments in two countries’ relations. Both leaders reiterated the pertinent role of India in the Indo-Pacific region and vowed support for the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy.
The joint naval exercise was channeled just weeks in advance of Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s scheduled visit to Hanoi. Her visit will be reciprocated by the chief of general staff of the Vietnam People’s Army and the commander-in-chief of the Vietnam People’s Navy, who are scheduled to visit India this year. Both meetings will have a brainstorming deliberation over developing fresh strategies for strengthening bilateral defense cooperation.
India and Vietnam have been allies of shared prosperity since attaining independence from their colonial powers. Both countries have huge prospects of becoming two of the top economies in Asia in the forthcoming decade.
Before the recent naval exercise, armies of both countries had their first joint military exercise in Jabalpur, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, in January. Furthermore, in March, India steered the jumbo naval exercise “Milan” at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands together with prominent maritime powers in the region, including Vietnam.
India’s subtle outlook is that it vows a supportive, comprehensive and meticulous security framework that amplifies collective regional security and overall global stability. Many defense activities with Vietnam are gearing up that will be in the limelight in the coming months, which will not only set new benchmarks in bilateral relations but will also take India’s Act East Policy to grander statures.
Abhishek Mohanty is studying M.A Politics: International and Area Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is a Junior Research Associate at German Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance- Bangkok, Junior Researcher at Center for Southeast Asian Studies- Jakarta, and Research Intern at Center for Vietnam Studies- New Delhi. He is a member of Kalinga-Lanka Foundation. Research interests include critical analysis of foreign policies, regional and global issues of Indo-Pacific countries.
This article was first published in Asia Times on May 29, 2018.