India-Vietnam Military Ties in the Headlines with New Vessel Transfer
A deeper dive into the state of defense relations between the two Indo-Pacific powers and the broader strategic realities at play.
While the headlines of a recent India-Vietnam defense ministers’ meeting were largely focused around a vessel transfer, the development also highlighted the ongoing defense activity between the two sides and its trajectory in the context of their own strategic realities and wider Indo-Pacific dynamics.
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India and Vietnam have developed a defense relationship as part of their overall ties, with relations elevated to a strategic partnership in 2007 and then a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016 as previously noted in these pages – making New Delhi, along with China and Russia, the only three countries in the highest tier of Hanoi’s alignments (see select developments in these relationships in the table below). Though both sides reiterate that relations are grounded in millennia of history and culture, there are also shared contemporary strategic realities between the two major Indo-Pacific countries as they cautiously calibrate their ties with neighboring countries like an assertive China which they have outstanding disputes with, traditional partners such as Russia and relatively newer partners like the United States.
Viewed from a broader lens, India also considers Vietnam a key partner in its Act East Policy as it engages Southeast Asia and shapes its own Indo-Pacific approach with countries including the United States, while Hanoi views India as a power to cultivate within its multidirectional foreign policy. That lens is important to appreciate given the flurry of diplomacy often seen on the part of both countries — as a case in point, the same week that we witnessed this defense ministers’ meeting is also one where we have a U.S.-India summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington, and a Vietnam-Korea summit with President Yoon Suk-Yeol making his first state visit to a Southeast Asian country since taking office last May.
Defense relations have only begun to be sustainably advanced and institutionalized over the past couple of decades. Defense collaboration was initially structured through a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed in 2009, which built off of an earlier defense protocol focused around issues such as procurement and maintenance. It was then further developed through documents like the joint vision statement in 2015 or notable firsts such as Vietnam’s inaugural publicly disclosed participation in India’s MILAN joint naval exercises in 2018. Last year saw some notable developments in defense ties as both countries commemorated their 50th anniversary, which included the signing of a new joint vision statement out to 2030 and the inking of an MoU on mutual logistics support – the first-ever agreement of its kind that Hanoi had signed with a foreign country.
The defense ministers’ meeting this week spotlighted the ongoing activity in India-Vietnam ties. The meeting came during an active few months for defense ties, which have seen several notable developments including Minister of Public Security To Lam’s trip to India in April and the visit by Indian naval ships to Da Nang after the conclusion of the ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise in May that we focused on previously – the latter of which was followed by a meeting between the two countries’ leaders on the sidelines of the Group of Seven (G-7) meeting in Hiroshima, Japan. Vietnam Defense Minister Phan Van Giang’s visit to India, which occurred between June 18-19, saw him meet with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh as well as undertake several other activities such laying a wreath at the National War Memorial and paying a visit to Agra which included the famous Taj Mahal.
The interactions were not without significance. The main outcome that was the focus of the headlines was the gifting of the indigenously-built missile corvette INS Kirpan to Vietnam, which was announced after bilateral talks between the two sides. In a testament to growing defense ties, per an official statement by India’s defense ministry, Vietnam’s defense minister also visited the headquarters of India’s Defense Research and Development Organization and discussed ways to enhance defense industrial capabilities by cooperation in areas like defense research and joint production.
At the same time, the inroads made between the two sides need to be kept in perspective. This is especially the case given the underlying defense dynamics on both sides, the strategic realities they confront and the recent record of equipment transfers between the two countries (scroll down and see the table below for more).