Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu paid a four day official visit to Vietnam from 9 to 12 May. It was aimed at enhancing India’s comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam. It is common knowledge that India-Vietnam partnership has stood the test of time. Besides interactions with top political leaders of Vietnam, Mr Naidu addressed the Indian community at an event and hailed the relationship between the two countries.

Among his engagements, the Vice-President held meetings with his Vietnamese counterpart Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Chairperson of the National Assembly of Vietnam, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. Mr Naidu delivered the keynote address at the 16th United Nations Day of Vesak Celebration at Tam Chuc Pagoda in Vietnam’s Ha Nam Province.

The event was themed as “Buddhist Approach to Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Sustainable Societies”. While interacting with the Chairperson of the National Assembly, Mr Naidu stressed the importance of regular exchange of visits between parliamentarians via the India-Vietnam Parliamentary Group to promote better understanding and to strengthen legislative cooperation between the two countries.

In order to deepen the human relationship and to reflect the historical bond that exists between the two countries, an event under the ‘India for Humanity’ initiative launched to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi was organized in Vietnam. Mr Naidu met the Vietnamese beneficiaries of the Jaipur Foot Artificial Limb Fitment Camp. Such events are a reflection of the fact that India- Vietnam relations are built on a firm foundation of close cultural, historical and civilizational links.

Bilateral ties are marked by mutual trust and understanding as well as strong cooperation in regional and international fora. Regular exchange of visits by top political leaders from either country have elevated bilateral ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2016 visit to Vietnam. Mr Naidu’s visit followed a series of high-level exchanges in 2018 including the visits of the Prime Minister in January 2018 and the President in March 2018 of Vietnam to India.

These exchanges have resulted in robust cooperation in several areas, expanded defence and security ties, forged new economic and commercial linkages and deepened peopleto- people engagement. The two sides share a common desire to promote peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. Of the approximate 30 million Indians settled in over 70 countries, the number of Indians settled in Vietnam might appear to be fewer, but their role as India’s cultural ambassadors is of immense value.

As of 2011, their number totalled about 2,000, mainly in Ho Chi Minh City. This has risen to about 2,900. Prior to the Vietnam War, there was a vibrant Indian community consisting primarily of Tamils, and especially the Chettiars. Reaching out to Indians overseas has emerged as an important instrument of India’s foreign policy. Top political leaders visiting foreign countries officially have often interacted with the Indian diaspora.

Which is why while addressing the Indian Community and Friends of India in Hanoi, Mr Naidu underlined the fact that the Indian government’s priority has been to reach out to the Indian community overseas. The Vice-President appealed to the Indian diaspora in Vietnam to cherish their roots and carry the message of India to the world. This historical relationship has been nurtured on the basis of trust and goodwill by successive generations of leaders.

During wide-ranging talks with his counterpart Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh to enhance bilateral and multilateral cooperation, Mr Naidu reiterated the importance of building a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, based on respect for national sovereignty and international law. The strong bilateral relationship between the two countries is based on mutual trust, understanding, convergence of views on regional and international issues.

Affirming their stand a day after the Indian Navy participated with the navies of the US, the Philippines and Japan in their first joint naval exercise in the disputed South China Sea, where China is flexing its military muscle, was therefore significant. Indeed, Vietnam is a strategic pillar of India’s Act East Policy and this country’s key interlocutor in ASEAN. Hence both countries have called for a Code of Conduct in South China Sea.

As highlighted by the Prime Minister in June 2018 at the Sangri La Dialogue, India remains committed to the principle of an open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture based on freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded economic activities and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. The Indo-Pacific is a biogeographic region, comprising the Indian Ocean and the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, including the South China Sea.

The US has conducted a series of “freedom of navigation” exercises in the disputed sea, triggering protests from Beijing over what it says is infringement of sovereignty. While China claims this oceanic space almost in its entirety, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have contending claims on areas falling within their exclusive economic zones. At the bilateral level, relations are robust in many areas.

This makes the equation multifaceted. Both countries are strengthening cooperation in defence and security, peaceful use of atomic energy and outer space, science and technology, oil and gas, renewable energy, infrastructure development, agriculture and innovation-based sectors. In the economic sphere, bilateral trade presently stands at $14 billion. It doubled from $7.8 billion three years ago.

Both have fixed a target at $15 billion… to be reached by 2020. Given the trends, it seems to be achievable. Connectivity has been an issue for quite some time. At the moment, there is no direct flight between New Delhi and Hanoi. Surveys conducted by airlines indicate that it will not be commercially viable.

However, direct air connectivity between the two capitals could be a possibility with the Indian carrier Indigo deciding to start a direct flight between the two capitals later in 2019. If and when it materialises, both countries will have crossed another frontier to further boost trade and tourism.

(The writer is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow)