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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc held virtual talks to strengthen bilateral ties and sign seven new agreements. Photo: AFP

India, Vietnam strengthen defence ties amid shared concerns over China’s assertiveness

  • Prime ministers Modi and Nguyen held a virtual summit to enhance security cooperation and discuss ‘peace and freedom’ in the South China Sea
  • Hanoi has had repeated run-ins with Beijing over the disputed waterway this year, while China and India are still locked in a border stand-off
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc have called for a peaceful, “open and rules-based” Indo-Pacific while also proposing to enhance their defence and security partnership – statements made with an eye on China’s growing dominance in the region.

During a virtual summit on Monday, the two leaders agreed to increase military-to-military exchanges through regular ship visits, joint exercises, and training and capacity building programmes across their three services and coastguards. They also agreed to intensify defence industry collaboration.

The summit was the culmination of a series of high-level exchanges between the two sides this year, including a visit by Vietnam’s vice-president to India, a telephone conversation between the two prime ministers in April to discuss the Covid-19 situation, and another online meeting in November during the India- Asean Summit. Vietnam is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
India and Vietnam already have a comprehensive strategic partnership in place but the new vision statement following the summit emphasises “peace, prosperity and people” to guide their relationship with a plan of action for 2021-2023.

Explainer | Why are tensions running high in the South China Sea dispute?

The two prime ministers stressed maintaining “peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and overflight” in the South China Sea. They also discussed the peaceful resolution of disputed claims in accordance with international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) – an international agreement established to define coastal and maritime boundaries and regulate seabed exploration not within territorial claims.

However, Modi emphasised to Nguyen that the proposed South China Sea code of conduct should not undermine the legitimate “rights and interests” of countries that were not a party to these negotiations. China has pressed Asean members to refrain from joint naval exercises and involving countries that are not part of the talks, in what is perceived as a reference to the United States’ increased presence in the waterway.

“The timing and content of the summit are important in the light of Chinese aggression in Ladakh and its continual maritime aggression against Vietnam,” said Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary.

Is an India-Vietnam military alliance about to clash with a China-Pakistan one?

In recent months there have been a number of incidents in the South China Sea in which Chinese vessels targeted Vietnamese fishing boats and carried out drilling and dredging activities in disputed areas in the Paracel Islands chain that is also claimed by Vietnam. China has also refused to accept the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016 in a dispute with the Philippines, ignoring the UN convention.

“The joint statement enunciates much more emphatically than in the past, the shared position of the two countries on the South China Sea and the primacy of Unclos,” Sibal said.

The former foreign secretary felt the mutual support in the face of China’s “expansionism” would send a diplomatic signal to China about the stiffening of positions against its policies and could result in more Asean countries voicing these concerns. He added that it could also lead to Vietnam joining the Quad – the informal forum between the US, India, Japan, and Australia – or the G7 Outreach, two groupings from which China is excluded.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Photo: EPA-EFE

In August, Vietnam expressed concern over China’s repeated military exercises that not only violated its sovereignty but also complicated negotiations for the code of conduct.

India and China, meanwhile, have been locked in a military stand-off along their disputed border since May, pushing bilateral relations to an all-time low.


India has already extended a US$500 million line of credit to Vietnam, announced during Modi’s visit to the country in 2016.

India also handed over a high-speed guard boat to Vietnam, one of 12 such vessels. Five are being built in India and seven in Vietnam, funded by a separate US$100 million line of credit from India.

China-India stand-off: amid push for fresh talks, a winter of uncertainty

The summit also saw the two countries sign seven agreements for cooperation in defence, nuclear energy, petrochemical and renewable energy as well as heritage conservation. The energy partnerships highlighted at the summit cover not only existing agreements in the oil and gas sectors, but also in renewables and cooperation in India’s solar industry.

However, despite media reports about a possible US$1.1 billion investment in oil exploration in Vietnam by Indian company Essar, there was no mention of it in the official statement.

“Vietnam is the new powerhouse in Asia and the emerging hub of FTAs [free-trade agreements] in the world,” said Prabir De, coordinator of the Asean-India Centre at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a Delhi-based think-tank.

The summit has taken relations to a higher level, according to De, who pointed out that bilateral trade could reach US$20 billion by 2022 while there had also been a steep increase in production links between the two countries.

Beijing ‘ready to work with Asean’ on South China Sea, defence chief says

“Given the healthy political relations they enjoy, India and Vietnam may consider a free-trade agreement which would help raise Indian exports to the world using Vietnam as a trade transit country,” he said.

In January, the 13th Party Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam will be held, during which new party leadership will be chosen, particularly the new secretary general who will lay out the priorities for the next five years.

It remains to be seen how keen the new leaders of Vietnam will be in maintaining the momentum in the comprehensive strategic partnership with India in the face of an increasingly assertive China in its neighbourhood.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: India and Vietnam to enhance ties