Getting real with Hanoi

Nov 19 2013, 00:57 IST
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C. Raja Mohan C. Raja Mohan
SummaryIndia’s ties with Vietnam must break with the sentimentalism of the past.

As India receives the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Trong, Delhi must seek a bold expansion of the strategic partnership with Hanoi. India and Vietnam have long enjoyed a special relationship. But the changing circumstances in Asia demand a very different partnership between Delhi and Hanoi. Earlier, it was all about India’s expression of political solidarity with Vietnam. Delhi must now explore with Hanoi the prospects for jointly shaping the Asian balance of power.

In the past, Delhi was ready to pay a price for its genuine political warmth towards Vietnam. In the late-1960s and early-’70s, Delhi risked Washington’s displeasure by denouncing the American bombing of Vietnam. In strongly supporting Hanoi’s military intervention to save Cambodia from the genocidal Pol Pot clique in the late-’70s Delhi incurred some costs in East Asia, because the United States, China, Japan and Southeast Asia were all at loggerheads with Vietnam then.

All that, however, was in the domain of diplomacy. There was little economic content to the relationship, since both India and Vietnam chose insular approaches for national development. It was only at the turn of the 1990s, as both countries opened up their economies, that a deeper foundation for the relationship could be built.

After Vietnam opened up its oil sector to foreign companies, Indian firms were among the first to win contracts. Energy security and economic cooperation are likely to figure high in the talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Trong. But the current churn in Asian geopolitics demands greater strategic coordination between the two nations. For Vietnam, India is central to its strategy of winning new friends through a range of strategic partnerships. It is up to Delhi now to recognise the full import of Vietnam for Indian security.

Part of the problem is that India’s chattering classes continue to see Vietnam through the 20th century lens of anti-colonialism. For many generations of Indians, Vietnam’s successful wars against the French and the Americans, in the face of great odds, made it the veritable symbol of Asia’s resilient nationalism. Calcutta’s Marxists renamed Harrington Street, where the US consulate is located, as Ho Chi Minh Sarani in a tribute to the founder of modern Vietnam.

One hopes the irony is not lost on Calcutta, as Washington and Hanoi now embrace each other amid the shared fears of a rising China. There was little room, of course, for historical nuance in India’s

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