Over the years, Vietnam has emerged as India’s closest partners in South-East Asia. In 2016, the relationship was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, reflecting the importance both countries attach to the ties. Vietnam’s Ambassador to India, who has spent nearly four years in Delhi, spoke to our Editor-in-Chief Nitin A. Gokhale on the importance Hanoi attaches to its India partnership and what Vietnam will do about China’s s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Excerpts:
Q: So Mr Ambassador, you’ve been here for four years. Can you tell us as to where the India-Vietnam relations stand today and what do you see in the immediate future?
A: Vietnam-India relations have a very long history. It is a traditional and very close relationship. In fact, we have had more than 2000 years of interaction, based on religion, culture and commerce. Also, as you know Buddhism was born in India and it spread eastwards and reached Vietnam a long time ago. And not only Buddhism, but Hinduism also came to Vietnam. There in fact was a Hindu kingdom that was set up in Vietnam a long time ago when the Kalinga kingdom sent the vessels to South East Asian countries. Even when Vietnam and India were colonies, during the struggle for Independence, the freedom fighters from both countries already had contacts with each other and supported each other. After Independence, the Indian people supported Vietnam during our struggle and the war against the return of French colonialism from 1946 to 1954. It was also very special when the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited Vietnam right after our victory over the French Colonialism in 1954. The relationship between Vietnam and India began to develop on a more official level after Dien Bien Phu victory, with the establishment of consular relationship in 1956. Hồ Chí Minh, our first President, visited India in 1958. So there were very special relations between the leaders of the two countries and that special and close relationship between both countries remains even today. Our official diplomatic relations had been set up in 1972 when Vietnam was in a very fierce struggle for reunification, and it was very meaningful support from India. Last year we celebrated 45 years of official diplomatic relations between the two countries. Over the last 45 years and more, our relationship has been only been growing to a higher and higher level. A landmark of our relationship was the establishment of the strategic partnership between the two countries in 2007. In 2016, when Prime Minister Modi visited Vietnam, our strategic partnership and our relationship was upgraded to another higher level —comprehensive strategic partnership — which is the highest level of partnership that Vietnam has other countries. This kind of a comprehensive strategic partnership is based on a high level of mutual trust and on very strong convergence of strategic interest of the two countries.
Q: Ok, and what are those strategic interests?
A: We have the same challenges, the same purpose of economic development and we also have the same purpose of maintaining peaceful environment for our development. Especially, the relation between the two countries is without any problem.
Q: Right, which is very rare. You’ve mentioned about comprehensive strategic partnership as being the highest level of partnership and that there are no problems between the two countries. So, what are the main areas of convergence that you see, which you are working on?
A: Our comprehensive strategic partnership has five pillars. The first one is the political and diplomatic pillar. We mostly have common views on all international issues. We support India to become permanent members of the UN Security Council when it is expanded. We also support India and its Act East policy and so India also supports Vietnam in our foreign policy. India and Vietnam also have a strong defence cooperation and security cooperation well. We have many programmes in training, equipment supplies and information sharing. We also have strong economic cooperation. Trade between Vietnam and India is increasing quite fast. Last year, it increased 40 per cent. So the trade volume has now reached US $7.6 billion. And in the last six months of this year, it has grown even faster — at 50 per cent.
Q: That’s great. So what are the main trade items that we do?
A: This year, we expect it to reach more than US $10 billion. The basket of trading now is expanding, not just in agricultural products but also manufacturing products. This is a good sign as both Vietnam and India seem to be coming in the same value chain of manufacturing, and so we can supply to each other. So the economic and trade corporation is the third pillar.
The fourth pillar is that of science and technology cooperation. We have several projects and programmes including space programmes, nuclear energy for peaceful use and many others.
Q: So there must be a lot of exchange of scientists?
A: Yes, there is exchange of scientists and joint projects. The fifth pillar is the cultural and education cooperation, which is also very good. In education, we are not only receiving scholarships from the Indian Government, which is around 150 every year and increasing, but also other Vietnamese students go to India to study, using their own finances.
Q: How many of them come to India every year?
A: Around several hundreds of them. But we hope we can do more, in economic cooperation, science technology, education and culture. Because there is a lot of potential, especially economic potential, since both Vietnam and India are big markets. India is a market of around 1.3 billion people and Vietnam’s market is nearly a 100 million and both economies are growing pretty fast. India’s market is growing at more than 7 per cent and Vietnam’s market is growing at over 6.5 per cent and I think there’s still a lot of scope to expand the economic cooperation, especially in investment. I’m expecting more investment from India to Vietnam.
Q: So is there any particular sector that you are looking for, in terms of manufacturing or science or any other?
A: Opportunities are there in all sectors.
Q: Are there any concessions given?
A: Yes, a lot of concessions are given. Vietnam has the most liberal investment regime. That’s why we receive about US $20 billon every year in foreign direct investment, and last year alone, we got more than US $30 billion.
Q: Are you making any special efforts in India to attract investment, like any road shows?
A: Yes we have done a lot. Continuously every year, we have about four to five promotional activities and we also promote tourism from India. We know that Indians love travelling and more than 20 million Indians go abroad every year. Many of them go to South East Asia. So we expect that more Indian tourists will come to Vietnam. At present the numbers stand at just over a 100,000 people a year, which is a very small number in comparison to the actual potential.
Q: Yes, but we need direct flights I think.
A: Yeah, yeah. We expect that Indian Airlines or any other airline from India will soon fly directly to Vietnam.
Q: And are you working on that?
A: Yes, I have met with a couple of airlines here but they are still considering. We expect that the airlines will take action soon as the opportunity is waiting for them.
Q: Yes. Some of us have found it very useful to visit Vietnam as tourists.
A: Definitely, many Indians now want to go to Vietnam as tourists. But it takes a longer time with a stopover somewhere in between. It is time for the airlines in India to start direct flights to Vietnam. It would take only four or five hours if they flew directly, instead 9 to 12 hours if you have a stopover somewhere before reaching Vietnam and this is a waste of time for the people to travel.
Q: Right. So let me turn to the defence relationship, since that is also one of the main pillars like you said. You mentioned about the training that the Vietnam armed forces are doing in India. What is India giving you in terms of supplies, hardware, etc., and are you looking for something more?
A: India supplies many kinds of equipment that are necessary for our defence and it’s just the beginning.
Q: Right. You also mentioned about a lot of convergence between India and Vietnam on political and diplomatic relations. Now I think ASEAN nations are doing a common set of code of conduct in South China Sea. So how is that working out?
A: There’s some progress in the negotiations. They have agreed on the framework for the code of conduct and now we are negotiating the details so that it will be binding and effective.
Q: Also, like India had some oil exploration in South China Sea. What is the status there?
A: The status is very good. India has been there since 1988 and was one of the earliest investors to Vietnam, and it is beneficial to both countries.
Q: Is it still continuing or did India withdraw from there?
A: No, no, it’s very much continuing.
Q: I’m asking because there was pressure from China to withdraw from there, for the Indian company ONGC Videsh.
A: No, it is within our exclusive economic zone.
Q: Right. The other thing is Prime Minister Modi made a big speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue talking about Indo-Pacific. How do you see Vietnam’s role in this entire Indo-Pacific construct?
A: We are both in the Indo-Pacific region. India is at one end of this vast area, and Vietnam, like the other ASEAN countries is at the centre of it. So we both play a very important role in the Indo-Pacific region.
Q: One other question I have is about India’s opposition regarding the Belt and Road Initiative by China. What is Vietnam’s stand on China’s Belt and Road Initiative?
A: We will support any initiative or any programme which is in our interest. We shall oppose any project or programme or initiative that violates our interest, our sovereignty, or our legitimate rights.
Q: Right. So there is no decision that’s been taken to join the BRI yet?
A: As I said to you, we shall make a decision based on our national interests.
Q: And how do you see India’s approach to BRI?
A: That’s India’s decision to make.
Q: Right, that’s there of course. Since you said there is a lot of convergence, do you have normal discussions about this with India on BRI anytime or is it that only bilateral issues get discussed?
A: We do discuss everything, yes. As friends, I do believe we discuss everything. But the final decision is yours and likewise for us.
Q: The Indian President is likely to visit Vietnam this year, is what we have been told.
A: Yes, that’s another landmark in our relation. After the visit of our Prime Minister and President to India earlier this year, this will be another high level visit from India to Vietnam. So this year will be a very significant year for Indo-Vietnam relations. I hope there will be another advancement in our relationship.
Q: And when is that expected? Any dates set yet?
A: It’ll happen towards the end of the year.
Q: Ok. One final question about India-Vietnam relations. India has very good relations with the United States, and Vietnam also has a very stable relationship with them. How do you see the U.S. role in the Indo-Pacific scenario?
A: We also have quite a good relationship with the U.S. and we also have good relations with all the other major powers. So I think it’s good for the balance of power in the region.
Q: Right, so as far as India-Vietnam relations are concerned, you already mentioned that there is no problem between the two countries. If you have to pick, say, two or three major factors that you think are the driving force, apart from those pillars or within the five pillars, what would you pick? What has more emphasis, is it defence and economic trade or is it culture and education?
A: I would emphasise all five pillars. Culture and education cooperation is as important as the others. Vietnam needs to develop human resources for our development. And education is necessary in many different ways. So every pillar is important. The economic pillar has now become a strategic pillar. The science and technology pillar too is very important as we are now living in an era of the fourth industrial revolution. It’s the foundation for everything.
Q: How do you look back on your own tenure in Delhi? Do you feel satisfied and happy?
A: Yes, after four years serving here as Vietnam ambassador, I feel quite satisfied that the relations between Vietnam and India have seen good progress and in all fields. My mission as ambassador to India has been fulfilled with the relationship between our countries being brought to a very high level. I have a dream to take it to fly higher. But I am going to leave India for good, so I can only hope that my successor will continue my dream.
Q: But you’ll always remain friendly with India I’m sure.
A: Yes, I am leaving but my heart will go on to stay with India, which for me is always a great nation and a great friend of Vietnam.
Q: I wish you the very best for your next assignment and thank you very much for your time.
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