Three significant developments concerning India-Vietnam defence cooperation merit attention. First, earlier this month, India formally handed over six high-speed boats built for the Vietnamese Border Guard Force. These boats are part of the 12 boats that were offered by India to Vietnam under a US $100 million Defence Line of Credit. Notably, five boats were built in India by Larsen & Toubro (L&T), an established naval shipbuilder in India, and the balance were constructed at Hong Ha Shipyard in Vietnam.
Speaking at the handing over ceremony, the Indian Defence Minister emphasised that the above project was a “precursor to many more cooperative defence projects” between the two counties. Furthermore, the project is a symbol of India’s policy of ‘Make in India-Make for the World’ and that Vietnam could potentially be part of the Indian “defence industries transformation through enhanced defence industry cooperation.” The Indian and Vietnamese defence ministers also agreed for an early finalisation of the $US 500 million Defence Line of Credit to be extended to Vietnam.
It is not known if the above boats would be deployed in the East Sea (South China Sea), but these can potentially reinforce Vietnamese claims over reefs, shoals and islands in the region that are also claimed by China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan. These countries have set naval modernisation as high priority and envisage acquiring/building high-end naval platforms. Although there are no signs of an arms race between Vietnam and the other ASEAN claimants in the East Sea, it is China that has triggered a naval build up in the region.
Vietnam’s acquisition plans include building ships indigenously as well as acquiring from friendly countries such as India and Japan. As far as the latter is concerned, the Vietnam-Japan defence cooperation pivots on maritime capacity building programmes including supply of patrol vessels, training and exercises. Perhaps the Vietnam-Japan 2021 defence agreement is noteworthy as it envisages “transfer of defence gear and technology, possibly including patrol planes and radars”.
Second, India and Vietnam signed “Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Mutual Logistics Support”. It is a significant agreement and the statement by the Indian Ministry of Defence has labelled it as a “major step towards simplifying procedures for mutually beneficial logistic support”. Vietnam thus joins the list of six other countries i.e. Australia, France, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the US with whom India has signed logistic agreements. Although the details of the MoU are not known, it is fair to assume that it would be limited to supply of fuel and access to Vietnamese ports for Indian Navy ships. It could even include landing agreements for Indian military aircraft particularly the long rage maritime patrol aircraft of the Indian Navy.
Third, India announced another capacity building initiative by “gifting two simulators and monetary grant towards setting up of Language and IT Lab at Air Force Officers Training School for of Vietnamese Armed Forces”. This US $ 1 million grant is meant for the Vietnamese Air Force Officers Training School and according to the Indian Defence Minister “the laboratory shall substantially contribute to raising language and IT skills for Vietnam Air Defence and Air Force personnel.” It is to be noted that since 2018 a two-member Indian Army Force Training Team (IAFTT) has been imparting English language training to the Vietnamese pilots who are deputed to India for flying training.
The above developments reinforce the ongoing bilateral defence cooperation initiatives that mandate both sides to engage in operational (joint exercises and port calls) and training activities between the two militaries. The higher military level engagements involve “defence policy dialogues, military to military exchanges, high level visits, and cooperation in UN Peace Keeping”.
The US has not supplied any major military hardware to Vietnam although it has been receiving defence articles since 2015 under bilateral State Department-funded Security Assistance Programme and the Foreign Military Sales route. It was also provided US $81.5 million to “support the implementation of the Indo-Pacific Strategy.”
However, Vietnamese military has acquired Russian origin naval and air platforms (Kilo Class submarines and SU-30MKK fighter jets) and the bilateral trade in arms increased from US$ 293 million (1993-99) to US$ 6514 million (1999-2018) and constituted nearly 84 percent of all its military purchases.
Vietnam has been quite careful not to rile China. It has also been extremely selective in choosing military hardware particularly from western sources including India and Japan.
It is fair to argue that China is keeping a close watch on Vietnam’s defence engagements with India and Japan. However, Beijing has shied away from making any critical observations or expressing concerns over the ongoing Vietnam maritime capacity building programmes by India and Japan. This could be partly due to the current nature and content of defence cooperation which does not include supply of major military platforms such as fighter jets or submarines.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
Featured Image Source: Twitter/@rajnathsingh
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.