At a recent international conference in Delhi on the theme of ‘India-Vietnam: Strengthening Economic Ties’ organised by Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, in association with the Centre for Vietnam Studies and the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, boosting the India-Vietnam economic relationship was discussed threadbare. As ties between the two nations grow – thanks to the current geopolitical environment and rising strategic complementarities – India and Vietnam are looking to take their bilateral relationship to the next level. Pursuant to the establishment of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership during Prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam in 2016, the two sides have taken several measures to develop stakes in each other’s prosperity and security. It’s in this context that the latest conference exploring economic opportunities between the two countries is instructive.
As I have said in my previous articles on India-Vietnam relations, two-way ties need a solid foundation. And predicating the bilateral relationship simply on geopolitical exigencies won’t suffice. This is because international realities are dynamic and subject to change. So if India and Vietnam are serious about establishing long-term ties beyond strategic pre-requisites, then these have to be based on people and businesses. And there’s no denying the fact that the India-Vietnam economic relationship has significant headroom for growth. This sentiment was also echoed by Vietnam’s ambassador to India, Ton Sinh Thanh, at the conference, who was optimistic that the bilateral trade would hit the aimed $15 billion mark by 2020.
Last year, India-Vietnam bilateral trade reached $7.7 billion which was an increase of 42% over the previous year. However, this is still quite low considering that China-Vietnam trade is to the tune of more than $70 billion. In fact, India-Vietnam trade is less than 10% of India’s trade with Asean nations. This needs to be substantially increased if New Delhi and Hanoi are looking to be all-weather friends. That said, while the imperative for increasing economic connections is clear, there needs to be targeted, sector-oriented effort in this direction. And this is where the panellists at the conference threw up some interesting ideas.
According to minister of state for external affairs VK Singh – who had graced the conference as guest of honour – the Indian government’s recently launched Ayushman Bharat scheme that seeks to create a massive network of health and wellness centres – numbering around 1,50,000 – across the country is fertile ground for Vietnamese cooperation. This is because Vietnam too possesses a network of around 11,000 commune health clinics that provide primary healthcare services to the people. These commune-level health clinics are competent at providing vaccination and nutrition counselling, and are in the process of being standardised to detect, monitor and treat chronic diseases. Given the parallels here, India and Vietnam can certainly share experiences, exchange personnel and learn from each other in the primary healthcare sector.
While this was indeed a good suggestion by minister Singh, much more needs to be done to increase the bandwidth of trade and cooperation between the two countries. In this respect, Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia – Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, Mumbai – had an interesting observation. He suggested that such seminars and conferences had to be connected to India Inc. After all, businesses and individuals trade while governments can only act as facilitators. Thus, strengthening business-to-business and people-to-people connections between the two countries needs to be prioritised.
That said, the panel on ‘Make in India opportunities for Vietnam’ saw speakers disproportionately focus on growing India-Vietnam defence ties. For example, former Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha highlighted how India was providing training to the Vietnamese army and that much scope for cooperation existed in co-production of defence platforms, both via public sector utilities and private sector companies. Former Vice Chief of Army Staff, General Arvinder Singh Lamba expounded how New Delhi’s Act East and Make in India policies had brought Vietnam into India’s focus. However, he did mention that progress in bilateral relations was mostly in minds and was yet to fructify on the ground. Nonetheless, he cited the fact that India was considering giving the BrahMos missile to Vietnam as evidence of New Delhi’s deep strategic commitment to Hanoi. He also made a case for defence cooperation by suggesting that India should provide a technology base for Vietnam and that it was time to say Make in India for friends.
Meanwhile, Temjenmeren Ao, research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, called for diversification of Indian investments in Vietnam. Pointing out that India’s initiating of economic liberalisation in 1991 and Vietnam’s 1986 Doi Moi economic reforms had created massive opportunities for commercial exchanges, he listed areas of cooperation as agriculture processing and technology (Vietnam is quite advanced in this segment), transport and connectivity (Vietnam is in the process of upgrading railways and roads and India can help here) and knowledge-based industries such as IT, biotechnology, oceanography and space (Vietnam is focussing on restructuring its economy by enhancing science and technology adoption; again India can help here).
Taken together, there is no denying that ample scope exists for enhancing economic engagement between India and Vietnam. The two sides want to do this and their governments are committed in this direction. However, while the strategic complementarities are clear at the government-to-government level, this still hasn’t percolated down to the people-to-people or business-to-business levels. As a result, India and Vietnam are moving fast on defence collaboration which is within the governments’ remit. True, Indian public sector companies like BHEL and ONGC are already present in Vietnam in strategic sectors such as power and energy. But the private sector needs to up its game. And this is where we need very specific business plans based on market studies, consumer profiles and production value chains. That in turn requires better people-to-people understanding between the two countries. India and Vietnam need to be connected both at the mind and heart.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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