Modi’s Vietnam Visit strengthens the Indo-Vietnam Ties

Whenever I pass the busy Ho-Chi-Minh Road in South Delhi, I am invariably reminded of an extremely cordial and thriving friendly relationship between India and Vietnam. The foundations for bilateral relationship were laid by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Vietnam’s founding father Ho-Chi-Minh. Like India, Vietnam had to fight to colonial forces to gain independence and struggle for freedom indeed bought the nations together. Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the first visitors to Vietnam after it obtained independence from France in 1954. In reciprocation, President Ho Chi Minh made his first bilateral visit to India in 1958 ushering both countries into a realm of friendship. India established official diplomatic relations with North Vietnam in 1972 and subsequently granted Most Favoured Nation status to Vietnam in 1975.

India supported Vietnam’s freedom struggle- the first Indochina war, condemned US military intervention during Vietnamese war or the second Indochina war (a war against forces of South Vietnam and the US), bolstered the reunification process and was one of the few non-communist countries to extend help in Cambodian-Vietnamese war. Contemporary relations are strengthened by high level state visits and burgeoning trade and economic links. By 1992, under Look East Policy India reoriented its focus of engaging with South East Asian Countries and subsequently, rejuvenated ties with Vietnam by inking various agreements in oil exploration, agriculture and manufacturing. Besides, centuries old historical connect between both countries are revitalizing people to people connect. Records indicate that India’s trade and cultural links dates back to as old as 2nd century.

Vietnam’s Indic Connect- A Brief History

A careful study of the accumulated cultural treasure throws significant light on the traditional and religious links between India and Vietnam.  Central Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia were an integral part of the ancient Indochinese, Champa Kingdom that included a collection of Cham polities that extended till Laos. Champa Kingdom existed from 2nd century through 19th century reached its zenith by 9th century and was eventually absorbed into the Vietnamese state. Champ had five major principalities- Indrapura, Amaravati, Vijaya, Kauthara and Panduranga.  Records indicate that each of these regions followed Indic traditions that are essentially rooted in Hinduism.

Most of the archeologically preserved places reflect how the art and culture of Champa Kingdom was shaped by Hinduism. The culture of the region was influenced by forces from China, Cambodia, Java and India till AD 192. But by 4th century the region was pervaded by the Indic cultural influences and prevailed till 19th century. Sanskrit was adopted as the state language and Shaivism was the official religion of the kingdom. They also worshipped Earth Goddess Lady Po Nagar. Inscriptions in Sanskrit found on the dilapidated Shiva temples in the My Son temple complex clearly corroborates these facts. (A piece on the My Son temple: Champa indeed had strong maritime linkages with the Sri Vijaya Empire of Malay Archipelago.

Predominance of Hinduism was interrupted when two principalities adopted Mahayana Buddhism in 10th century. Almost during the same period, Arab traders trotting the maritime waters from Persian Gulf to South China Sea for spice trade began to bring Islamic cultural and religious influences to Champa. By 17th Century Royal families converted into Islam. Chams which follow Islamic faith are called Beni Chams and Balamon Chams preserved Hindu traditions. Balamon Chams and Balinese people are now one of the surviving non-indic Hindu communities in the World. Also, most Cambodian Chams are Muslims, Vietnamese Chams are Hindus.

Similar to that of Angkor Wat of Cambodia, Vietnam had an immense temple complex, My Son which was destroyed during Vietnam War. My Son temple was designated as UNESCO site in 1999. The advent of French Jesuit Missionary changed the societal composition of Champa and French perused the pretext to intervene in Vietnam’s affairs. French who landed in Vietnam for fostering trade links began accumulating territories and eventually usurped the entire Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the leased out Chinese Province of Guangzhouwan (Currently Zhangjiang). These regions together were referred as French IndoChina. With occupation of French, Chams were reduced to a minority. Beni and Balamon Chams are now present in Central and South Vietnam.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day sojourn to Vietnam on September 2nd enroute Huangzhou was aimed at giving fresh impetus to India’s Act East Policy. This visit to Vietnam by an Indian Prime Minister comes after a gap of 15 years, Atal Bihari Vajpayee last visited Hanoi in 2001. (Man Mohan Singh visited Vietnam in 2010 to attend India-ASEAN meet). Modi’s first visit to this region was to attend the ASEAN-India Summit and East Asian Summit (EAS) at Myanmar. In 2015, he visited Malaysia to attend ASEAN-India and EAS when he travelled to Singapore also. This is Modi’s third bilateral visit to the region and Vietnam’s visit is highly watched for the geopolitical significance and the longstanding relationships shared by both the countries.

Ever since China’s adamant refusal to accept the verdict of Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that rejected China’s territorial claims over 80% of South China Sea (SCS) the region has become potential zone of conflict. Having suffered harassment of China, Philippines pulled China to International Court and Vietnam had put its strong foot forward opposing Chinese claims. Vietnam indeed has been India’s trusted friend and for various geopolitical reasons the roiling ferment in the region has pushed Hanoi into Delhi’s embrace. Overwhelming Chinese presence in India’s neighborhood and its relentless dissonance with India over various issues prompted India to buttress the military capabilities of pressure points in its immediate vicinity.

Nearly 50% of India’s trade passes through SCS and has oil exploration interests in the territorial waters claimed by Vietnam. Escalating militarization of SCS stands against vital interests of both countries. During Modi’s current visit as India and Vietnam celebrate 10th year of Strategic Partnership and 45th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic ties both countries fervently aspires to upgrade its strategic defense ties and bilateral relationship.

Earlier in May, President Obama in a bid to erase the legacies of the past and to obtain access to Vietnamese port Cam Ranh Bay announced complete lifting of arms embargo. Days after the announcement, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar with high-level defense industry delegation travelled to Hanoi to review its pending request of 2011 for sale of supersonic missile Brahmos and to strengthen military ties. India then provided $100 million Line of Credit for procurement of offshore patrol boats. By mid-June India entered nuclear regime Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) whereby it could export of missile technology.  Modi government directed the BrahMos Aerospace (that produces missiles) to expedite sale of missiles to Vietnam and four other Countries (Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and Chile).

India always honored the aspirations of Vietnam and Hanoi reciprocated consistently by supporting India’s quest for permanent membership at the UNSC. Pertaining to defense cooperation, Vietnam sought help from India to modernize its military capabilities because of the commonalities of the platform (both countries have frigates and submarines of Russian Origin) and India agreed. As both countries agree to intensify defense cooperation India might eventually gain some valuable strategic inputs from Vietnamese military which effectively aborted Chinese efforts that failed to check its aggression against Cambodia during the third Indochina war.

On his arrival in Hanoi, Modi was accorded ceremonial welcome at the Presidential Palace and was received by the President Tran Dai Quang. Modi laid wreath at the Monument of National Heroes and Martyrs, visited the Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh was laid to rest. Accompanied by the Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and President, Modi visited the two-storied wooden stilt house of Ho Chi Minh near the palace. He also met General Secretary of Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong who appreciated India’s stand on the South China Sea.

In lieu of shared interests, Modi announced that India and Vietnam will upgrade the strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership at the Joint Press Statement. At Hanoi, both countries signed 12 agreements and memorandum of understanding (MoU) ranging from defense, information technology, space, sharing of white shipping information, avoidance of double taxation, health, medicine, cooperation in cyber security, scholarships for Sanskrit and Buddhist studies. In a bid to upgrade defense ties, India has offered $500 million fresh Line of Credit for defense cooperation and pledged $5 million towards building an Army Software Park at the Telecommunications University in Nha Trang. An agreement was reached between Larsen and Turbo (L&T) and Vietnam Coast Guards for construction of high-speed patrol boats. But Modi didn’t make any announcement of the much anticipated agreement on the sale of BrahMos missile. Perhaps Modi wanted to avoid any major blow up of the fragile regional equilibrium just before his scheduled talks with President Xi Jinping.

Regarding trade and investment, India is one of top ten trading partners of Vietnam and the bilateral trade has increased from $500 million in 2005 to $7.1 billion in 2015. Vietnam is an emerging nation with strong potential for growth and investment. Modi has invited Vietnam’s participation in all the flagship programs of his government and sought facilitation of ongoing Indian projects in Vietnam. Modi has set a bilateral trade target of $15 billion by 2020. As an esteemed member of the ASEAN Vietnam and signatory of TTP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), it is a favorable destination for Indian investors.

Furtherance of soft diplomacy has been an integral of Modi’s foreign policy. In continuance with his trademark diplomacy, Modi visited the Quan Su Pagoda and interacted with the Buddhist Monks and invited them to visit India. The last Indian leader to visit the Pagoda was Dr. Rajendra Prasad in 1959. Invigorating the traditional linkages between India and Vietnam, Modi was in praise for the Buddhist ideals. While India and Vietnam share robust bilateral ties which include defense cooperation, trade and economic linkages, people to people interactions can aid in deepening the strategic relationship. Promoting tourism and cultural exchanges can indeed strengthen these friendship bridges. To promote such interactions, exploring and appreciating the strong historical connect would be of immense help. As a matter of fact, both countries share a rich legacy of tradition, culture, religion and language which is almost 2000 years old.

India’s proactive engagement in all likelihood with Vietnam would antagonize China. Hawkish Chinese strategists may not shy away from exaggerating the upgradation of ties as an attempt to develop Indo-Vietnam axis. But unlike Sino-Pakistan axis that foments cross border terrorism and threaten the security of country, India doesn’t support the anti-China agenda. Moreover, the dynamics of relationships both countries hold towards China is very different. Both countries are on same page with regards to disputes of South China Sea. Indeed, like India, Vietnam is averse to the idea of forming military alliances and steadily developed seamless solidarity and trust. India having shed hesitation under Modi should now emerge as the regional balancing power and contribute towards “stability, security and prosperity of the region”. While Modi was in Hanoi on a bilateral visit, a stealth fighter J-20 of Peoples Liberation Army Airforce (PLAAF) was spotted in the Tibetan region close to Arunachal Pradesh (1).



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