President Pranab Mukherjee’s trip to Vietnam days before the Chinese strongman Xi Jinping’s visit to India might seem a carefully orchestrated diplomatic manoeuvre by India. Not really. Visits abroad by Presidents and Prime Ministers are worked out weeks in advance. In fact, Mukherjee’s visit to Hanoi was scheduled well before President Xi’s South Asia itinerary was firmed up.
But there is no denying that the coincidence in the schedules of the Indian and Chinese presidents does underline Delhi’s expanding geopolitical opportunities with both Beijing and Hanoi at a moment when Sino-Vietnamese relations have seen so much tension.
The trilateral dynamic between India, China and Vietnam is not new. India was one of the few countries in the world that supported Vietnam when it sent its army into Cambodia at the end of 1978 to end the genocide there by the Pol Pot regime. This brought great diplomatic costs to India, but Delhi was determined to stand by Hanoi and preserve measure of balance in Indo-China.
Beijing, which backed the maniacal Pol Pot clique, chose to teach Hanoi a lesson by attacking Vietnam in 1979. But poorly equipped Chinese forces, that were barely coming out of the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution, were routed by Vietnam.
India’s then foreign minister in the Janata Party government, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was caught right in the middle of the conflict between Beijing and Hanoi. Vajpayee was in China on a bold mission to normalise ties with Beijing that had frozen after the 1962 war. As war broke out on the Sino-Vietnamese border, Vajpayee cut short his visit to China in protest against Beijing’s aggression and returned to Delhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a lot better placed than Janata government, whose diplomacy fell between two stools: normalising relations with China while standing by its friend Vietnam.
As in the late 1970s, so in the 2010s, Vietnam faces a mounting challenge from China amidst Beijing’s assertiveness in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. To cope with the rising China, Vietnam is looking to multiple partners in Asia and beyond.
Vietnam has reached out to the United States, with which it had fought a prolonged and heroic war from mid 1960s to the mid 1960s. Vietnam has agreed to more intensive defence exchanges with Washington and stepped up security cooperation with Japan, Australia and a number of its neighbours in South East Asia, including the Philippines and Indonesia. It has begun buying advanced weaponry from Russia.
India has been of very special strategic interest to Vietnam. Through the decade long tenure of the UPA government, Delhi has steadily expanded its defence cooperation with Vietnam and assisted Hanoi’s urgent effort at modernising its military forces.
Faced with an intensifying maritime territorial dispute with China, Vietnam has been specially interested in strengthening naval cooperation with Delhi. Indian Navy frequently visits Vietnamese ports and has been training Vietnamese submarine force.
While Vietnam wants to further deepen this defence engagement, the UPA government wondered how far should Delhi go in backing Hanoi against Beijing. The Manmohan Singh government was concerned about drawing Beijing’s ire and its impact on India’s relations with China.
The Modi government has signaled a different approach. Much like China, which does not limit its strategic relationship with Pakistan because of Indian concerns, the Modi government apparently believes it can build a partnership with Vietnam on its own merits without worrying too much about what Beijing might think. President Mukherjee’s visit might show-case this new approach.
India’s intensive high level engagement with China and Vietnam could mark a maturation of India’s Asian strategy under the Modi government. India is now ready to engage all major Asian countries with each on its own merit.
This translates into a twin track Indian diplomacy in Asia; build on the new economic possibilities with China but don’t allow Beijing to define the limits of India’s partnership with Japan and Vietnam.
In defining this new and long overdue approach, Modi is simply emulating the realism of Xi Jinping who wants to befriend Delhi while holding onto China’s special ties with Islamabad and build new partnerships with Maldives and Sri Lanka.
(The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a Contributing Editor for The Indian Express)