About a fortnight back, Vietnamese city of Hanoi, hosted an unusual meeting of the defense chiefs of ASEAN and eight other countries. During such international gatherings, discussions generally take a course, where representatives of governments make some kind of policy statements and care is taken not to offend any of the participant countries or raise any bilateral issues. This Hanoi gathering was no different. In this conference, even though no one spoke about it openly, the undercurrent was about relations between China on one hand and all other Pacific rim nations in south east Asia, who are feeling threatened by the aggressiveness of China in South China Sea. International news media concentrated mainly on this aspect of the discussions at this gathering and a meeting that took place on the side lines, was mostly neglected by most news channels. This meeting was held between India’s defense minister and defense secretary and their counterparts from Vietnam. From the scanty details or reports that are available on the media about this meeting, the meeting might turn out to be of great significance for future.
Before we go into the media reports, it might be a good idea to look at some historical facts and comparisons. This might lead us to fully appreciate the significance of this meeting. After re-unification of Vietnam in 1975, the civil war within its borders was finally over. However the situation across its western border with Combodia, was far from being stable. Vietnam was getting pulled into the civil war there by continuous border incursions. After murderous Pot Pol regime took control of Combodia in 1977, he unleashed a rein of terror on the country. There ware many attacks by Pol Pot soldiers inside Vietnam. Faced with growing Khmer Rouge belligerence, the Vietnamese leadership decided in early 1978 to support internal resistance to the Pol Pot regime. On December 3, 1978, Radio Hanoi announced the formation of the Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS). This was a heterogeneous group of communist and noncommunist exiles who shared an antipathy to the Pol Pot regime and virtually total dependence on Vietnamese backing and protection. With things going out of hand, the Vietnamese assembled 10 infantry divisions along the border, and with strong armour and air support, they entered Cambodian territory on December 25, 1978. By end of March 1979the Vietnamese had control of all significant cities and towns in Cambodia.
China was very much angered by this rapid takeover of Combodia by Vietnamese forces and defeat of the Pol Pot regime supported by it. China responded with large troop deployments along the China-Vietnamese border. Eventually, on February 17, 1979, the People’s Liberation Army moved into Vietnamese territory, by which time the Cambodian capital had already been captured by the Vietnamese and the Pol Pot regime toppled. Chinese advanced towards Hanoi at a high speed, although straining their supply lines and loosing tens of thousands of troops in the process. The Chinese army captured Cao Bang on March 2 and Lang Son on March 4. The following day, however, the Chinese leadership suddenly announced that it would cease offensive action, apparently after meeting fierce and unexpectedly harsh resistance by the well-trained and experienced Vietnamese forces.By 1982 the war in Combodia was fully over and Vietnamese forces returned back to their country with a peaceful western border.
I found that there was great amount of synergy and similarity between what happened in India between 1959 to 1971 with this Vietnamese history, though not in strict chronological order. Remember 1961 invasion by Chinese troops in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh or 1971 war with Pakistan and help to Mukti Bahini of East Pakistan for liberation of Bangladesh. This legacy of conflicts with China has resulted into a common concern for both India and Vietnam. Both India and Vietnam have large troop concetrations on their borders with China and are always on guard to lookout for any mischief. India has a unsettled border dispute with China whereas Vietnam has an unsettled dispute about ownership of Spartley Islands in the South China Sea.
Obviously this common concern of both India and Vietnam is bringing them together. There are also other synergies. Both these countries import majority of arms from Russia. Besides there is the common ancient bond of Hinduism. Indian strategists perhaps failed to realize this earlier, when east Asia was not on India’s priority list. Only in 1991, when Late P.V. Narsimha Rao was the prime minister of India, the government officially adopted “Look East’ policy giving due importance to East Asia. This policy was vigorously pursued during tenure of Bajpai government and later also. Major improvements have come about in India’s relations with East Asian countries as a result of this policy such as FTA with Thailand, Singapore and now with ASEAN. Newly developing relationship with Vietnam must be seen in this context.
Coming back to to the Hanoi meeting, I found somewhat detailed news about this meeting on China daily website as a report by Global Network reporter Li Zongze. I think,this was perhaps expected. The highlights of this meeting are as follows, as per this report. This report says that
Indian defense minister, defense secretary and India’s ambassador to Vietnam talked with Vietnam defense minister . Both sides expressed satisfaction with results obtained from Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation signed in 2009. India and Vietnam have decided to expand bilateral military cooperation. India will expand its military assistance to Vietnam and help Vietnam to achieve military modernization. India has agreed to share with Vietnam its defense related knowledge of information technology for military purposes and cooperate with Vietnam in military training. India and Vietnam armies would hold joint mountain warfare training programme in India next year. India will provide support for Vietnam to improve and upgrade its military capabilities in Vietnam, especially Vietnam Navy. New Delhi will also help build, rehabilitate and do maintenance forVietnam Naval ships. Vietnam on its part has invited Indian Navy to visit Vietnam Ports and would provide repair, maintenance and fuel facilities for its ships.
Reporters asked the two defense ministers, whether India would apply the same model of cooperation with Vietnam that it has with Indonesia in the defense-related IT sector or whether Vietnam would seek India’s expertise in pilots’ training of for Russian-made combat aircraft as recently agreed with its southeast Asian neighbor Malaysia. No definite reply was given to this question.
This report in China daily, tells us about the depth of relationship India and Vietnam are trying to develop. The agreement regarding providing service and maintenance facilities to Indian Naval ships appears to be a major indicator of the things to come as Vietnam ports are right there in the middle of South China Sea.
If we see this agreement in light of the statement made by India’s defense minister during the ASEAN + 8 meeting, things would be clear ever further. He said “ Indian Navy was actively engaged in anti-piracy patrolling in the Gulf of Aden for over two years now and the security of sea lanes is important for the Asia-Pacific region, that is now one of the most important drivers of global economic growth. The growing role of non-state actors and cyber threats in growing terrorism threats are markers in the evolution of the global security construct during the last decade or so. Given the transnational nature of the challenges, it is important to develop synergy and build institutionalized cooperative arrangements. Through the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) and the Malacca Straits mechanisms, we are partnering with other countries in the region to improve the safety of navigation in the region.”
No one should be surprised to see in future, presence of Indian Naval ships in the South China Sea. However, a defense deal could be just a starting point in relationship between two nations. What is more important is the trade and tourism industry. Vietnam is a great tourist destination and I hope that in coming years, many Indian tourists would visit that beautiful country.
Recently a remarkable change appears to be taking place in Chinese media attitude towards India. I came across two articles in Chinese media, which were difficult to even imagine few months back. Mr. Du Youkang is the chief of ‘The center for South Asian studies’ at Fudan University. In an article written in China Daily, he says that the rise of India and China was the 21st century’s biggest development, and both countries must work to deepen ties. He urges both to be vigilant against elements inside their countries and outside trying to stir trouble and derail a growing relationship. There is much that was common between the two countries, not least their desire to meet the challenges of globalization in a Western-dominated international economic system. Surprisingly he also says further something that is just unbelievable. China and India share a lot of common views on many major international issues such as a multi-polar world, reform of the international economic and financial system, South-North relations, democratization of international relations, climate change and World Trade Organization talks. In recent years, the two sides have enhanced coordination and cooperation over these issues to protect their as well as the entire developing world’s interests.
Mr. Qui Hao of the National Defense University, advices India in his article in the Global Times that India, would do well not to blindly follow America’s policies in the region, especially if it really wanted to be a global player. India, China and the United States were bound up in a triangular relationship, and as the two weaker parts of that relationship, it was important that they maintained stable ties so that Washington didn’t exploit their differences.
I found these articles really amazing, since after decades of consigning India to being a back water regional power, bickering and fighting with its neighbours, Chinese suddenly have started bracketing India with themselves and US.
This change in Chinese attitude, perhaps is a result of realization that it has taken up too many hot potatoes in its pockets and is crossing the paths with too many neighbouring countries around. The importance of US$ 60 Billion trade between India and China could also be a significant factor . If there is indeed such a change in Chinese attitude, India must no doubt welcome it. It is difficult to imagine how this could have happened? I am not even trying to suggest that the Looking East policy adopted by India could be one of the reasons. But one thing appears certain. China is realizing that it is getting isolated with only N. Korea and Pakistan remaining with it as neighbours and loyal buddies.
India’s ‘Looking East’ policy seems to have started paying real dividends, as relations and trade, not only with easterly neighbours ,but also with ASEAN, improve. Its time now to look east, even further and deeper.
26 October 2010