In 1964, during a general knowledge test in the 7th grade, I failed to correctly name the guerrillas then fighting in Vietnam. My answer was Americans as against the correct one, Viet Cong. To make up for that cardinal sacrilege, I had to atone with a visit to Hanoi, the capital of the modern state of Vietnam. Visiting that country for a soldier is like a good pilgrimage and opportunity came a few days ago as I was invited to be a part of the Indian delegation to attend the Indian Ocean Conference 2018 at Hanoi.
It was organised by India Foundation, the high-profile Delhi-based think tank. One may just wonder, why organise an event about the Indian Ocean so far away from the ocean itself? In fact, Hanoi has no connect with the Indian Ocean and Vietnam as a nation appears quite far removed from any interests in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). So this needs a little explanation.
For India, Vietnam is a crucial nation within the ASEAN grouping. Not to be forgotten is Vietnam’s resilience and ability to respond to unjust threats against its security from larger neighbours. Having virtually humiliated two reputed armies, the French and the American, Vietnam went on to defeat China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1979 as the Chinese vented their frustration on a perceived hapless people.
Speaking to the common Vietnamese one is struck by their level of geopolitical understanding and sense of pride. They put forth their perception that they fought against subjugation but did not carry that enmity beyond the wars. They realise that both the US and China are important nations vying for domination of the region in which Vietnam exists. Yet, they are also aware that stepping into geopolitical camps only comes at a cost. Hence multilateralism and interest-based partnerships with bias towards none remain Vietnam’s concept.
With the IOR and that of the Pacific being viewed as a continuum and not demarcated by boundaries, the Indo-Pacific region is yet emerging in the understanding of the world and will probably take some time in doing that. Merely naming the US Pacific Command as the US Indo-Pacific Command does not change thinking and equations, although it is along with other steps a definite trigger towards that. From a US and Western point of view, visualising the region of the Indo-Pacific as a single entity helps draw in multiple important players who may not be inimical or wary towards Chinese growth and ambitions but are yet watchful and do consider China with varying degrees of skepticism.
Vietnam in the Pacific Rim and India in the IOR are two standout nations. Both have fought wars with China and also have very high volumes of trade with it. They are located in high growth regions and have been achieving good growth in recent years. Almost like India, Vietnam cannot fully reject nor embrace its northern neighbour. There is a territorial issue over the South China Sea islands and unlike Philippines, Vietnam does not display any will to compromise. Similarly, it is not willing to toe the Singapore-Japan-South Korea mode of acquiescence to the US regional agenda.
The great game being played by China in the Pacific and the Indian oceans to limit navigation for others and facilitate it for itself through coercion and influence building provides a common challenge to India and Vietnam besides the international community in general. The purpose of holding the Indian Ocean Conference first in Singapore in 2016, then in Colombo in 2017 and now in Vietnam 2018 was also to message the importance of India’s Act East Policy, which includes the outreach to ASEAN and East Asia besides enhancing awareness on the Indo-Pacific.
It was good to see that India invited Chinese officials and academics in good measure. In keeping the ongoing great game in the Indo-Pacific a little more transparent and allow engagement to flow, India is only doing what it should. Reset after the run of meetings with the Chinese through 2018 requires engagement for continuity. However, that need not be from any position of weakness or lack of understanding.
The continuous Chinese attempt to paint India red over alleged attempts by it to take ownership of the Indian Ocean was countered by the Indian delegation’s pitch against China’s attempts to helm in India through supposed economic cooperation with India’s neighbours but actually virtual quasi-military activities in the IOR. The Indian Ocean Conference is now a regular feature in the annual Indian strategic calendar.
There is a need to consider balancing the strategic messaging by perhaps conducting it next in Mauritius and then in Bangladesh before returning to Malaysia and Indonesia. A point that emerged in sideline discussions was whether India should consider a regional Quadrilateral alongside Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Perhaps the larger international body with the US, India, Japan and Australia may be sending signals not as conducive to a cooperative Indo-Pacific. Whether the US and China should both be special invitees for such engagement is something for consideration. One thing is for sure; as the Indo-Pacific gets murkier and more complex, a single annual Indian sponsored strategic engagement may soon to be too little for India to straddle the complexities which are likely to arise.
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps