Vietnam prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit has just ended with a sealing of a defence pact. That this significant accord was readied as a follow-up to the defence Memorandum of Understanding signed a scant month and half after president Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Hanoi suggests New Delhi has finally woken up to Vietnam’s seminal importance to India’s strategic well-being.
This special standing of Vietnam in India’s geopolitics, incidentally, took the ministry of external affairs (MEA) and the Indian government more than a decade to appreciate—from the articulation by then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao in 1992-93 of the “Look East” policy to when his successor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, betook himself to Hanoi in 2003 which produced the agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation. Another 11 years elapsed before the advent of the Narendra Modi government and this appreciation growing teeth.
Since 2005, I have been advocating the transfer of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile—the only one of its kind in the world—to Vietnam. In 2007, Hanoi for the first time expressed its keen interest in securing this singularly accurate and lethal weapon to defend itself and deter China from having its way in the disputed sea territories in the South China Sea—almost the whole of which Beijing claims as its own in a brazen bid for a maritime lebensraum. Lebensraum is the concept the Nazi geographer and geopolitical strategist Karl Haushofer coined in the 1930s to justify Germany’s policy of territorial aggrandisement at the expense of the Central European states, Poland and Russia. It refers to the “living space” Haushofer said a vigorous Germany needed legitimately to expand in order to increase its resources base, consolidate its strength, and realise its grand ambition. China is the Germany of the 21st Century and it has got to be stopped.
The case that China is India’s biggest challenge (not Pakistan that Indians and their government get mightily exercised about) and Vietnam is the pivotal state around which New Delhi can obtain a coalition of Asian rimland and offshore countries to ringfence China was a geostrategic scheme first articulated in my 1994 book “Future Imperilled”. So, when the newly founded National Security Advisory Board constituted during Vajpayee’s time met with MEA in the autumn of 1998 and I as member of the board, assuming the Indian diplomats were clued into the theories and practice of geopolitics, asked then foreign secretary K Raghunath why India had failed to respond to Beijing’s calculated policy of nuclear missile-arming Pakistan over the previous decade with a tit-for-tat gesture and a policy of imposing costs on China, by transferring easily nuclearisable missiles to Vietnam, Raghunath replied with practised certitude. “It is not practicable,” he said.
Fast forward 16 years and the impracticable has become Indian policy—the Modi government has decided to pass on the Brahmos missile to Hanoi which, appropriately, finds no mention in the Joint Statement issued by prime ministers Modi and Dung. These anti-ship weapons, for which there’s no counter, will be installed in shore batteries along the Vietnamese coast fronting on the Hainan Island, to deter the Chinese South Seas Fleet based there, and as sentinels for that country’s offshore claims and oil and gas exploration and drilling assets in the South China Sea, and to dissuade the Chinese navy from capturing disputed sea territories as happened in the case of the Paracel Islands.
The MEA during Manmohan Singh’s time turned aside repeated Vietnamese requests for the Brahmos by asserting that the Russian partner company in this project, NPO Maschinostroeyenia was against any such deal. It lost India traction with a strategic partner Indonesia as well, which too had asked for the Brahmos. Denied by New Delhi, Jakarta directly approached Moscow and secured the slightly derated version of the Brahmos, the Ramos. The difference with the onset of the Modi dispensation was that India rather than merely seeking Russian assent for the transfer of this cruise missile to Vietnam pushed for it.
Indeed, the MEA and the ministry of defence (MoD) bureaucrats, who in line with the Congress government’s instincts for kowtowing to Beijing routinely vetoed initiatives over the past decade by the armed forces to improve India’s relative security position vis-a-vis China by using transfers of armaments and forging military-to-military links, are now more receptive.
With the first stirrings of geopolitical common sense in the fusty corridors of the MEA and MoD, New Delhi will hopefully begin to see that Vietnam can be to India what Pakistan is to China. A Chinese nuclear missile-armed Pakistan, enabled by Beijing to grow its indigenous defence industry beyond the screwdriver technology the Indian defence PSUs are stuck at, and thus to acquire a measure of genuine self-reliance has, as per Beijing’s design, contained India to the subcontinent. India, in similar fashion, can prioritise the military build-up of Vietnam (and the Philippines, and Indonesia) as the first tier of India’s distant defence with a view to restricting Chinese options east of the Malacca Strait.
The logic behind such a policy, as I keep repeating in my writings, is that if we don’t have the stomach for a fight with China and cannot muster the will to stand up to Beijing, let’s at least arm the Vietnamese who over a thousand years have bloodied Chinese forces intruding into their country, and never shied away from a fight. It is a cost-effective means of diminishing India’s primary security threat and military challenge and, equally important, of paying Beijing back in its own coin.
India also needs to capitalise on the opportunity to distance Vietnam economically from China, incentivising it with lines of credit and Indian investment to plug into the Indian economy instead. In this respect, the business delegation with Dung, hopefully, returned home with a bag full of deals. A more telling measure would be to increase manifold the Indian stake in Vietnam’s security by investing in its energy resource sector. ONGC Videsh should act quickly on Dung’s offer of new oil blocks inside the Vietnamese claimline in the South China Sea.
The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com