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India And Vietnam Are Teaming Up Versus China

June 20, 2018

Pictured is Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman standing between two Vietnamese Su-30MK pilots who are also twin brothers. Via Raksha Mantri/Ministry of Defense.

India’s defense minister led a delegation in a three-day visit to Vietnam that lasted from June 13 until 15. No less than President Tran Dai Quang welcomed Nirmala Sitharaman in Hanoi on the day after she arrived. The purpose of her trip was never explicitly stated although its aim was clear enough–to strengthen Delhi’s budding alliance with Hanoi as a counter-balance against China.

In the course of her visit Sitharaman was shown aboard a Vietnamese warship in Cam Ranh Bay and toured an airbase. She also attended two events that revealed the depth of India’s commitment to Vietnam. By the end of her trip it was obvious India wants its staunchest ally in Southeast Asia to strengthen its domestic military industries.

Vietnam’s state-owned media immediately produced bland reportage on Sitharaman’s activities. But a close reading of news about her visit to Hanoi’s own defense ministry on June 13 sheds some light on what exactly transpired. During a meeting with her counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich it was agreed that both sides will continue their “comprehensive strategic partnership,” a term used for an arrangement where India transfers both military capabilities and skills to its regional partner. The extent of this partnership was described by Vietnamese media as:

The two…reviewed the recent results of bilateral defense cooperation and agreed on the direction and measures to boost defense cooperation in the coming time. The two ministers stressed the need to continue the existing cooperation mechanisms like the Deputy-Ministerial level dialogue, consultations for officers of the Army, Navy, and Air Force service. They discussed cooperation areas between arms and services, training, defense industry, strategic research, war consequence relief and UN peacekeeping operations.

It was later revealed that Sitharaman and her delegation held a conference with defense ministry officials to establish new goals for the strategic partnership. The following day, on June 14, Sitharaman met with President Tran and briefed him on the conference’s salient points. According to Vietnamese media there are now three areas where both countries are cooperating. The first is continuing the established cross-training schedule where Indian military personnel are sent to Vietnam as instructors. The second is related to an information technology enterprise. Third and last is connected to Vietnam’s own fledgling defense industry.

…Sitharaman briefed the host upon the outcomes of the talks held earlier, which emphasized the importance of maintaining and expanding cooperation in training and IT and defense industry development. She affirmed that India always treasures and wants to beef up the comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam. She also stressed that there is still much room for Vietnam and India to boost cooperation, especially in the realm of security-defense.

In relation to the second and third objectives Sitharaman did attend a groundbreaking ceremony on June 13 at a location in Nha Trang called the “Army Software Park.” She also delivered a speech at an evening function of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) on June 14 where she announced that Indian companies were prepared for joint ventures with Vietnamese firms. Vietnamese media did mention at least 16 Indian companies joined Sitharaman in Hanoi. A real breakthrough for India, however, was Sitharaman’s announcement that Bharat Electronics Ltd. (BEL) was opening a local office.

Vietnamese media even hinted that both countries might soon be jointly producing military equipment:

At the event, the two sides discussed a wide range of topic including research collaboration, design – manufacturing, technological transfer, defense goods purchase, and cooperation in defense industry and human resources training.

Sixteen companies from India introduced their outstanding research studies in suggestion for bilateral partnerships.

BEL is a state-owned company specializing in computerized subsystems for aircraft, armored vehicles, and ships. If Vietnamese companies are receiving licenses to assemble products made by BEL isn’t clear yet, but the possibility of Indian communication tools, electronic warfare jammers, and radars being used in Vietnam should worry Beijing. It’s bad enough that Hanoi is rumored to have dibs on BrahMos supersonic missiles, but if Indian manufacturers open local factories then China must entice the Vietnamese with more warm diplomacy.

What Sitharaman’s trip to Vietnam proves is India does have its own strategic roadmap for surrounding China–aside from its role in the Quad Alliance–and Southeast Asia must accept it’s now a contested region between Asia’s two emerging giants.

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