Amid High-Level Visits, India Strengthens Jordan, Vietnam Ties
Back to back visits from King Abdullah of Jordan and President Tran Dai Quang of Vietnam, in this week and the next, are the latest hallmark of New Delhi’s growing desire to come up with a regionally balanced foreign policy.
King Abdullah, who arrived on 27 February, is following up on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Palestine and Oman. To reach Ramallah, the de factoadministrative capital of Palestine, Modi had to go via Amman, and Abdullah took the occasion to host him at his palace, while facilitating his transit to the Palestinian capital.
President Quang is ranked number two in the Vietnamese hierarchy, after Secretary General of the Party Nguyen Phu Trong, the third being Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc – who attended the special ASEAN summit with his fellow government heads as chief guests for the Republic Day 2018.
The India-Jordan Relationship: Rekindling Old Fires
The Modi government has shown a marked preference for building ties with Jordan. The Prime Minister had met King Abdullah for the first time on the sidelines of the UNGA in September 2015. This was followed by a visit by President Pranab Mukherjee to Jordan in October 2015, the first by an Indian head of state.
India has long-standing ties with Jordan. The erstwhile Crown Prince of Jordan, Hassan bin Talal, was a special friend of Rajiv Gandhi. After a hiatus, relations were renewed by King Abdullah’s visit to India in December 2006.
Jordan is not endowed with energy resources. The relationship is more a meeting of minds of two countries that feel threatened by Islamist radicalism. This facet of the relationship is underscored by King Abdullah’s special address at the India Islamic Centre in Delhi on ‘Promoting Understanding and Moderation’.
In recent years, aware of the burden Jordan faces because of refugees, India has been donating money for humanitarian assistance to the country. As a stable state in the otherwise volatile Middle East, ties with Jordan go beyond the mere calculation of oil, trade, or investment.
President Tran’s visit over the coming weekend comes in the wake of the recent trip by Prime Minister Phuc. In 2016, Prime Minister Modi had visited Vietnam, and the two countries had worked out agreements for cooperation in a number of areas including IT, Space, and information sharing on shipping.
India had also offered Hanoi a $500 million Line of Credit to promote deeper defence cooperation, on top of an earlier $100 million. The tempo of high-level visits suggests that India-Vietnam relations are on the cusp of reaching a qualitatively higher level, driven in part by geopolitical convergence.
So far, India’s economic ties with Vietnam have been somewhat spotty. Vietnam’s major trading partner remains China. India-Vietnam trade was around $ 7.6 billion in 2017 – a tenth of the Vietnam-China trade.
Vietnam’s trading and investment links with China, Japan and South Korea offer opportunities for Indian companies as well.
Vietnam has a well-established diplomatic framework, which seeks to balance its ties between its major “threat” China, and powers like Russia, the United States and India. It is not keen to be drawn into the orbit of any of these powers and seeks good relations with all of them.
Last year, Vietnam hosted the APEC Leaders’ summit and welcomed several heads of state, including Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. When he visited Washington in May, Vietnamese Prime Minister Phuc became the first South-east Asian leader to be received by Trump.
China’s Relationship Status With Vietnam: It’s Complicated
Strained ties between China and Vietnam, over their maritime boundary, were aggravated last year by tensions over a Spanish company exploring for oil in Vanguard Bank, an area claimed by China.
This led to the suspension of border defence exchanges between the two countries and a veiled threat of use of force by China, leading Vietnam to back off. A meeting between their foreign ministers in August was also cancelled.
As China’s neighbour, with both land and maritime borders, as a country that has fought a brief war with China, and also as one of its major trading partners, Vietnam’s relations with China are complex. The two countries have resolved their land border dispute and have settled their maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin area.
In 1974, while Vietnam was involved in liberating the South, China quietly occupied the Paracel Islands also claimed by Vietnam. Later, in 1988 China threw the Vietnamese out of the Johnson Reef through military action. China’s over-the-top claims in the South China Sea has led to continuing tensions between the two.
Vietnam follows a policy of “cooperation and struggle” with China. As part of this, its Defence Minister visited Washington in August. It was later announced that an American aircraft carrier would visit Cam Ranh Bay in 2018. China holds exercises in the Gulf of Tonkin and the Paracel islands over Vietnamese protests, yet the number of Chinese tourists in Vietnam, and their bilateral trade are at a record high.
Vietnam maintains close political ties with China, and the two communist parties interact at various levels. Early last year, the Secretary General of Vietnamese Communist Party, Trong, met Xi Jinping in Beijing. Their joint statement called for the two countries to “manage their maritime differences,” and avoid complicating the issues.
Forward Movement in India-Vietnam Ties Likely
Given this background, we are likely to see a modest forward movement in India-Vietnam ties. Besides the Line of Credit, which is being used to purchase Indian-made patrol vessels, India provides training and support for Russian-origin military equipment, like Kilo-class submarines, and Sukhoi fighters.
An Indian satellite tracking station is being set up and this has military applications, though it is billed as a civilian facility. There has been talk of Vietnam acquiring the Indo-Russian Brahmos, but so far there has been no confirmation of any sale.
After the Indian acquisition of the Israeli Spyder short-range quick reaction missile, the Vietnamese are also evaluating the system.
India’s imperatives in the East and West are not the same. But, both are important. In the East, it has important economic goals.
If India’s manufacturing revolution is to succeed, it needs to find a way to be part of the important value chains that link countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, and other countries of Southeast Asia.
As far as the West is concerned, it depends on the region for the bulk of its energy supplies and is now seeing this as an important source of trade and inward investment, and of course, remittances. But with the rise of China, both also carry heavy geopolitical obligations and commitments.
Balancing all of it is the major challenge for the country.