As India receives the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Trong, Delhi must seek a bold expansion of the strategic partnership with Hanoi. India and Vietnam have long enjoyed a special relationship. But the changing circumstances in Asia demand a very different partnership between Delhi and Hanoi. Earlier, it was all about India's expression of political solidarity with Vietnam. Delhi must now explore with Hanoi the prospects for jointly shaping the Asian balance of power.
In the past, Delhi was ready to pay a price for its genuine political warmth towards Vietnam. In the late-1960s and early-'70s, Delhi risked Washington's displeasure by denouncing the American bombing of Vietnam. In strongly supporting Hanoi's military intervention to save Cambodia from the genocidal Pol Pot clique in the late-'70s Delhi incurred some costs in East Asia, because the United States, China, Japan and Southeast Asia were all at loggerheads with Vietnam then.
All that, however, was in the domain of diplomacy. There was little economic content to the relationship, since both India and Vietnam chose insular approaches for national development. It was only at the turn of the 1990s, as both countries opened up their economies, that a deeper foundation for the relationship could be built.
After Vietnam opened up its oil sector to foreign companies, Indian firms were among the first to win contracts. Energy security and economic cooperation are likely to figure high in the talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Trong. But the current churn in Asian geopolitics demands greater strategic coordination between the two nations. For Vietnam, India is central to its strategy of winning new friends through a range of strategic partnerships. It is up to Delhi now to recognise the full import of Vietnam for Indian security.
Part of the problem is that India's chattering classes continue to see Vietnam through the 20th century lens of anti-colonialism. For many generations of Indians, Vietnam's successful wars against the French and the Americans, in the face of great odds, made it the veritable symbol of Asia's resilient nationalism. Calcutta's Marxists renamed Harrington Street, where the US consulate is located, as Ho Chi Minh Sarani in a tribute to the founder of modern Vietnam.
One hopes the irony is not lost on Calcutta, as Washington and Hanoi now embrace each other amid the shared fears of a rising China. There was little room, of course, for historical nuance in India's left-liberal sentimentalism on Vietnam. After all, Ho sought and gained American support in reversing the Japanese occupation. Equally important was the inspiration that Ho drew from the American declaration of independence in announcing the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in September 1945.
India is now dealing with a very different Vietnam. Thanks to a population of nearly 90 million and rapid economic growth in recent years, Vietnam is emerging as a formidable power in its own right. India must now view Vietnam from the perspective of realpolitik rather than the sentimentalism of the past.
As Vietnam seeks greater room for manoeuvre against its giant neighbour China, Hanoi is strengthening security cooperation with the US and Japan, powers that it once fought. Vietnam is also reviving its traditional defence relations with Russia. Even as it seeks to balance Chinese power, Hanoi is stepping up its engagement with China. Hanoi's realists have no desire to invite a needless military confrontation with China and understand the complex dynamics of a multipolar world.
Building a strong partnership with India is an important part of Vietnam's strategy of defence diversification. Ever since the formal declaration of a strategic partnership in 2007, India has steadily expanded defence cooperation with Vietnam. Delhi has reportedly offered a credit line of $100 million to Hanoi for the purchase of patrol boats from India. The Indian navy has also apparently agreed to train Vietnamese submarine crews as Hanoi begins to acquire six kilo-class submarines from Russia. India can be of considerable use in modernising the Vietnamese navy and helping it absorb new weapon systems. Hanoi has welcomed India's naval forays into the South China Sea since 2000 and offered regular access to its port facilities.
Despite considerable advances in security cooperation between the two countries, there is some concern in Delhi about the dangers of being drawn into Hanoi's conflicts with Beijing in the South China Sea. While the tyranny of geography limits India's role in the Pacific, an intensive naval engagement with Vietnam serves many important Indian objectives.
One, a secure Vietnam will help stabilise a littoral that is increasingly important for India's trade and energy security interests. Two, maritime security cooperation with Vietnam will reinforce the long-standing norms on freedom of navigation and preserve the South China Sea as a global commons. Three, India can no longer view the eastern Indian Ocean and the South China Sea as separate theatres. Imbalance in one will inevitably destabilise the other. A sustained Indian naval presence in the South China Sea must be seen as a critical element of Delhi's Indian Ocean strategy.
Four, India must come to terms with the fact that what it does with one country is bound to affect its relations with others, notwithstanding the declarations to the contrary. For international relations is not a series of discrete bilateral relations. The answer lies not in circumscribing one's own options but in intensifying engagement with all. The challenge is to mitigate the potential negative consequences at a higher level and in an expanded geopolitical framework. For its part, Vietnam has put India at the very core of its national security strategy. Delhi must do the same, for a robust defence partnership will allow India to generate more options for its security in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.