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Thayer Consultancy Background Brief:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


Carlyle A. Thayer
Will Chinese Assertiveness
Drive India and Vietnam
Defence Ties Closer?
August 25, 2020
What is the likelihood of Vietnam and India strengthening ties, especially militarily, in
view of the Chinese recent show of force in the South China Sea, including the dispatch
of a bomber to Woody Island in the Paracels?
Q1. In recent days, China is said to have deployed bombers in the South China Sea,
and Vietnam has reportedly briefed India about the deteriorating situation. What
further steps do you think Vietnam will undertake in the days ahead?
ANSWER: This is not the first time China has deployed bombers to Woody Island. In
2018 China dispatched several H-6K long-range bombers on test flights to Woody
Island where they practiced take offs and landing. Two weeks ago, satellite imagery
revealed that China deployed at least one H-6J missile-carrying bomber to Woody
Island.
Given the fact that Vietnam made its brief to India public, it is likely Vietnam is
engaging in a diplomatic exercise to call out China’s actions with the objective of
eliciting political support.
China’s deployment of the H-6J bomber was a response to stepped up U.S. naval and
air exercises in the Philippine and South China Seas. If the deployment of the bomber
is temporary, following the precedent set in 2018, it is unlikely that India and Vietnam
will drastically alter the trajectory of their defence relations.
Q2. How likely will Vietnam strengthen defence ties with India? What types of
equipment is it likely to purchase from India? And what will a strengthened alliance
mean for China which is also drawn in an ongoing standoff in India?
ANSWER: Vietnam and India have long-standing defence cooperation ties stretching
back thirteen years. Russia, Belarus and Israel are the top three providers of military
equipment to Vietnam. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
arms transfer data base covering 2007-19 records only one Indian sale to Vietnam,
four 35 metre Ocean Patrol Vessels to Vietnam’s Border Guards valued at US $100
million.
Vietnam’s military is equipped with Soviet-era legacy equipment and platforms as well
as newer Russian equipment and platforms. In the past Vietnam has purchased spare
parts for its naval ships and aircraft and paid India for maintenance and upgrading of
engines for its jet aircraft.
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In 2014, Vietnam initiated discussions with India to acquire Brahmos cruise missiles.
In 2016, Vietnam also discussed the acquisition of India’s Akash surface-to-air missiles.
The Brahmos missile is co-produced by India and Russia both of whom have been
reluctant to anger China by selling this advance system to Vietnam.
Any strengthening of India-Vietnam defence ties would be driven by continued
Chinese belligerence towards both India and Vietnam and would most likely be
incremental. Both India and Vietnam do not want to aggravate their relations with
China. In sum, China’s deployment of a single H-6J bomber should not be viewed as a
game changer in strategic terms necessitating a sudden acceleration of India-Vietnam
defence ties.
As background, it is important to note that Vietnam and India have been strategic
partners since July 2007. Their Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership included five
major areas of cooperation, including “political, defence and security cooperation.”
Under this heading India and Vietnam agreed to cooperate in six areas including
defence supplies, training, and technical assistance. In 2011, defence cooperation
expanded to include Indian training of Vietnamese submariners and air force pilots
and Indian assistance for the modernisation of Nha Trang port. In 2014, India offered
Vietnam two lines of credit totalling US $400 million for the purchase of unspecified
defence equipment. The first line of credit, US $100 million, was committed in 2016
when Vietnam’s Border Guard and India’s Larson & Toubro Ltd. signed a contract for
the construction and delivery of four Ocean Patrol Vessels.
In 2016, India and Vietnam upgraded their bilateral relations to a comprehensive
strategic partnership. India offered Vietnam a third line of credit of US $500 million
and a further US $5 million to set up a technology software park in Nha Trang.
Q3. Vietnam has also reportedly sought a greater role for India in oil and gas
exploration off its coast in the South China Sea. Will we see greater cooperation
between the two sides on this front?
ANSWER: India’s Oil and Natural Gas Company’s (ONGC) international arm, ONGC
Videsh Limited, has been operating in Vietnam since 2011. In 2014, ONGC Videsh took
up Vietnam’s offer of an additional oil exploration block. Vietnam is certainly pressing
foreign oil companies to remain committed to Vietnam. But any future greater
cooperation between India and Vietnam would be clouded by commercial
considerations such as financial viability as well as the risk of Chinese harassment of
oil exploration operations in disputed waters. ONGC Videsh currently operates Block
128 which is bisected by China’s nine-dash line.
Q4. What about Vietnam’s relations with China? How badly will it be affected?
ANSWER: As noted, India-Vietnam defence cooperation ties are of long standing.
China is quite pragmatic about Vietnam’s web of strategic partnerships that include
not only China but also India, Japan, Russia and twelve other countries. But China is
unlikely to resort to any major punitive action if bilateral relations develop gradually.
Vietnam and China are comprehensive strategic cooperative partners, the highest
level of bilateral relations among Vietnam sixteen strategic partners. They maintain a
network of relations through party-to-party, government-to-government, military-
to-military and people-to-people ties. China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner. In
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2019, Vietnam's trade deficit with China rose to US $34.04 billion from $24.15 billion
in 2018.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are the major irritant in bilateral relations.
But Vietnam does not want this dispute to be the sole focal point of their relationship.
This year, it should be recalled, the Vietnam and China Coast Guards conducted their
nineteenth joint fishery patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin from 21-13 April. More recently,
the Vietnam People’s Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Navy conducted their
28th joint patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin from 25-26 June. In response to US Secretary of
State Mike Pompeo’s call for an anti-Communist Party of China coalition, China has
responded with reference to Vietnam by stressing their common adherence to
socialism.
Bilateral relations come under a high-level Joint Steering Committee co-chaired by
Wang Yi and Pham Binh Minh, respectively, members of the Politburo of Communist
Party of China and the Vietnam Communist Party. On 21 July this year, China and
Vietnam held the 12th Meeting of their Joint Steering Committee for Bilateral
Cooperation via video conference. On 23 August, Wang Yi and Pham Binh Minh held
a video conference meeting to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of their land
border treaty.
Q5. What would you say is India’s interest in the South China Sea apart from global
commons and the freedom of navigation?
ANSWER: Under Prime Minister Modi, the slogan of his predecessor Look East was
changed to Act East. India seeks economic and technology linkages with members of
the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vietnam is key to this strategy
because of anti-colonial ties dating back to the 1940s.
Strategically, India seeks to counter China’s expansion in the Indian Ocean region by
establishing ties with Vietnam which border on the South China Sea by building up its
capacity for maritime security.
Q6. Any other views that you would like to share on the India-Vietnam-China triangle.
ANSWER: Vietnam operates through a framework of “diversification and
multilateralization” of relations. This policy has achieved notable success. Vietnam has
twice been the unanimous choice of the Asia block at the United Nations General
Assembly as its candidate for non-permanent membership on the Security Council.
Vietnam has been successful both time with a resounding majority vote. In other
words, Vietnam has a leverage of relations it can draw on for support if China gets too
aggressive.
Vietnam tries to offset any triangular relationship by drawing in other major powers,
particularly Japan, Russia, and the United States, to insulate itself from the pressures
that a triangular relationship would impose. Vietnam offer all strategic partners equity
in Vietnam as an independent and autonomous actor.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Will Chinese Assertiveness Drive India and
Vietnam Defence Ties Closer?” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 25, 2020.
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