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Defence diplomacy acts as a support mechanism to sustain cooperative structures in the strategic domain, to safeguard strategic spaces, and explore mutual cooperation in defence. This translates as a soft deterrent against any adversary. Defence relations between India and Vietnam have acquired importance against the backdrop of China’s island-building activities in the South China Sea, expansion of China’s Sanya submarine base and India’s security concerns due to frequent deployment of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. Referring to India’s ties with Vietnam, K. Subramanyam said, “We have a large stake in ensuring that the pressure is contained. That has been our basic policy from the fifties. The only country that can do this is Vietnam, the most capable nation of the region. That is why where the strategic interests of India and Vietnam coincide.”[1]


Defence relationship between two countries is usually seen from four different perspectives. Firstly, has there been a long-standing buyer-supplier relationship, as has been the case with India and Russia? Secondly, has the country developed niche products, which would enhance warfighting or develop intelligence and information that might be critical during times of war? Thirdly, have the two countries entered a joint venture that would help explore the international market and also reap benefits of such a joint venture? Do the two countries have a common threat that needs to be contained and therefore, is there a defined strategic objective?  In the case of India-Vietnam defence ties, the common threat, which is perceived as China, is cited as the reason for the development of such a relationship. However, this is clearly not the case because neither Vietnam is going to fight against China in the Indian Ocean nor India is going to fight against China in the South China Sea; but gathering information and intelligence before any war is the smart way to prepare for an emergency situation in any country’s defence and military strategy.


An evaluation of India-Vietnam defence relations brings out different reasons for such a relationship to emerge and flourish. Both India and Vietnam use Russian and earlier, Soviet era weapons, which need maintenance and upkeep; and therefore, it is usual for buyers to look for spares in whichever way possible. Interestingly, while NATO allies have an inventory of spares, such a facility is lacking in the case of erstwhile Soviet era weapons and military systems. Hence, on the one hand, India has scouted for spares for its aging MIGs; and on the other, Vietnam has been seeking spares for its Petya class ships. India had earlier provided 5000 tons of spares for Vietnamese Petya class of ships. The request came once again for spares of these ships.


Further, any country has to prepare for depreciation and phase out of weapons systems after their life cycle ends, even after usual upgradation and maintenance. Thereafter, the common concern that crops up for any country is to look for new systems. In that case, a country that uses similar or identical systems is the customary reference point to get information about life cycle costs, operational effectiveness of such systems and training of the personnel and technicians. Vietnam seeks India’s assistance in such a scenario. For instance, India has been using Kilo class submarines for quite a while and when Vietnam wanted to evaluate two different Kilo class submarines offered by Russia (636M and 877EKM), it reached out to the former to seek information. India was using the 877 EKM submarines, which were upgraded to 08773 in 2010 and hence, looking into operational costs and other aspects of 877 EKM, Vietnam settled for 636 M that was more modern and agile in comparison to 877 EKM.[2]  The benefit was that India being a friendly country would provide training and maintenance assistance, whenever such requirements arise in the case of these new submarines.


Vietnam has been apprehensive of Chinese incursions near its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Vietnamese Defence White Paper of 2009 made an indirect reference to China with regard to its military strategy, as well as its enhanced defence expenditure. The white paper listed China’s advanced weapon systems, intelligence and surveillance systems. It expressed concerns with regard to the widening gap between defence capabilities of major powers and countries such as Vietnam.  Given the fact that such a reference was made about a decade back, it is pertinent to look into Vietnam’s shopping list and understand how the country is preparing for modernization and developing its capabilities.  


Since 2009, according to SIPRI military expenditure and weapons procurement data, Vietnam has purchased air search radars, Surface to Air missiles, patrol crafts, multi-purpose aircrafts, transport helicopter, guided rockets, surface to surface missiles for coastal defence, BVRAAM for spider missiles, trainer aircrafts, Gepard-3 Frigates, project-636 E kilo class submarines, Su 30 MK2 combat aircrafts, anti-submarine warfare torpedo, corvette, and off shore patrol vessels. Interestingly, while most of these systems have been sourced from Russia, Belarus, Romania, and Slovakia, Vietnam has also started purchasing weapon systems from the US, France, Israel and South Korea. This clearly means that it is diversifying its military weapons basket. Most of the purchases that have been made are for coastal defence and protection of its assets in the South China Sea. The killing of 64 Vietnamese soldiers in 1988 in a naval clash with China, in the South China Sea, still lingers in the minds of the Vietnamese, and in order to avert the recurrence of such an incident, the Vietnamese soldiers and sailors want to build ‘sting’ and deterrence capacity.


Vietnam has been looking for private weapons manufacturers in India. It had ordered two fast attack crafts from Larsen & Toubro (L&T). Purchasing fast patrol craft from India, manufactured by L&T, serves two purposes for the two countries. It opens the defence market for the private players; and it demonstrates the capacity of the private industry in India’s defence sector. Within India, corporations/companies such as Mahindra & Mahindra, Tata, and L&T have been meeting requirements of the Indian defence industry in terms of non-lethal weapon systems, radars and related defence equipment, but the market size is very limited. Garden Reach ship builders had bagged an order for two ships from the Philippines for being the lowest bidder, but failed to meet most of the financial requirements of the order. The Indian Government would like the private players in the Indian defence industry to exhibit international utility before being granted bigger orders from the Indian defence forces.


There are other aspects of the relationship, which take the discourse into two different areas. First is the case of Vietnam’s defence expenditure and its defence industry. This will provide an understanding of the purchases that Vietnam has been making in the international market and whether its own defence industry has the capacity to serve its interests in the long run. Within Vietnam, the stress is on developing Government-to-Government sales, as has been adopted in India too very recently due to lobbying by many defence middlemen and groups[3]. Vietnam shipyards has developed shipbuilding capacities and has been exporting large ships (30,000 to 50,000 DWT) and  container ships (100,000 DWT) to South Korea, Australia and countries in Europe, but these are mostly cranes, tankers or container ships. The Vietnamese defence industry has been involved in manufacturing infantry guns and military communication equipment too. This clearly shows that Vietnam needs to develop its defence industry in a big way to meet its requirements and prepare for the future. Vietnam’s defence weapons are still erstwhile Soviet and Russian origin, and in such a scenario, India acts as the possible partner for setting up its defence industrial base as it has vast experience in licensed production of Russian weapons and aircrafts.


With regard to limitations, there are a few issues related to India’s defence export policy and the limited capacity that Vietnam has in the defence sector. Brahmos and other critical equipment have been a bone of contention between the two countries. The narratives from the two sides are different. India has stated that there are reservations from the Russian side as it feels that Vietnam is interested in Yakhont (P-800 Oniks) missile, which is the platform on which Brahmos was developed; while Russia claims that India is holding back the sale to Vietnam until the hypersonic version of Brahmos is developed.


India, on a Line of Credit (LOC), has offered USD $500 million to Vietnam for upgrading its defence industry, but Vietnam has not been able to utilize the amount on an annual basis and has in fact, requested India to diversify it into the civilian domain also. Defence equipment sales such as radars and other non-lethal equipment would create a market for India, but Vietnam has so far not been able to chart out a complete perspective planning and budgetary process to utilize these Lines of Credit. Vietnam has also opened up possibilities of cooperation with India in launching military and civilian satellites for the surveillance of Chinese activities and protecting its personnel on the islands of the South China Sea. The project is still in its initial phase and it has the potential to push the relationship on to a much more advanced level of partnership. While there is no denying the fact that defence cooperation between the two countries is growing but it needs a strategic vision and a clear mindset to catapult it into a higher trajectory.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.



[1] Quoted in C. Ravindranatha Reddy, India and Vietnam: Era of friendship and Cooperation 1947-1991, Emerald Publishers, Chennai, 2009, p.36.


[2] Author’s interaction with the former Defence Attache of Vietnam (September 16, 2018).