July 3, 2023

Vietnam – India Strategic Engagements: From the East Sea to the Indian Ocean in the Context of Indo-Pacific Era

Written By: Vu The Cuong & Do Khuong Manh Linh


As a result of the Indo-Pacific region’s growing geopolitical importance, Asia will eventually emerge, with significant Asian economies like China, India, and the ASEAN countries playing strategic roles. Geostrategic and geoeconomic factors both play a role in maritime diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific. In terms of population, resources, transit routes, growing markets, megacities, and enormous market potential, the Indo-Pacific has become a “blue-eyed region” of the world.

The Indian Ocean plays a significant geopolitical role in the Indo-Pacific regional order. It is a vital trade route connecting the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, making it a critical global shipping lane. As such, it has become a hotbed for competition among major powers, including the United States, China, India, Australia, and Japan.

The Indian Ocean also holds a significant strategic location, serving as a gateway to key regions such as the Persian Gulf, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. This makes it an essential area for military and naval operations, as well as for projecting power and influence in the region. Moreover, the Indian Ocean is home to several small island nations, including the Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles, which have become important players in the region’s geopolitics. These countries have unique maritime and economic interests that have drawn the attention of major powers seeking to expand their influence in the region.

In the Indo-Pacific era, Vietnam and India have intensified their strategic partnerships with an emphasis on growing their economic relations, security cooperation, and cultural exchanges. Both nations have stated their shared commitment to preserving the region’s peace, stability, and development.

The changes in the strategic position of the Indian Ocean under the background of the Indo-Pacific era

The strategic position of the Indian Ocean is increasingly important in the current Indo-Pacific era. This is due to a number of factors, including the rise of China as a regional power, the increasing importance of India as a major player in the region, and the growing importance of energy resources and sea trade routes that pass through the Indian Ocean.

One of the key changes in the strategic position of the Indian Ocean is the increasing focus on naval power projection. Countries such as China and India are investing heavily in their naval capabilities in order to secure their interests in the Indian Ocean region. This has led to an increase in naval patrols and exercises, as well as a rise in the number of naval bases and port facilities being built along the Indian Ocean coast.

Another important change is the growing importance of energy resources in the Indian Ocean. The region is home to some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, and many countries are looking to secure their access to these resources. This has led to increased competition among countries for control of key sea lanes and maritime chokepoints, such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

In addition to these factors, the Indian Ocean is also playing an increasingly important role in global trade. The Indian Ocean is a vital conduit for international trade, as it is home to many of the busiest shipping routes in the world. It is a vital link between the eastern and western hemispheres, connecting three continents: Asia, Africa, and Australia. As a result, many nations are trying to protect their maritime interests in the area and secure their access to these sea lanes. With so many strategic ports and naval bases, the Indian Ocean is a significant area for military activity and geopolitical interests.

Generally, in the Indo-Pacific age, the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean is growing. The region is likely to continue to be a focal point of geopolitical competition and strategic relevance for years to come as countries continue to invest in their naval capabilities and compete for control of vital resources and sea passages.

The driving factors for the development of the comprehensive strategic partnership between Vietnam and India

Driving factors for the development of the India-Vietnam comprehensive strategic partnership After Modi implemented the “Act East Policy,” along with India’s shift to the Asia-Pacific region, Vietnam’s importance to India has become increasingly prominent, and Vietnam also needs strategic support from India. On April 15, 2022, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a telephonic conversation with General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee Nguyen Phu Trong. During the call, Modi stated that Vietnam is one of the important pillars of India’s “Action East Policy” while Nguyen Phu Trong expressed his hope to strengthen the comprehensive strategic partnership with India. Judging from reality, India and Vietnam are further deepening their cooperation, driven by interest factors such as geopolitics, economic and trade cooperation, and the South China Sea issue.


As important countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia, respectively, India and Vietnam have strong political ambitions. From India’s perspective, Vietnam can serve as an important starting point for India to strengthen its relationship with ASEAN and integrate into the Asia-Pacific region. Since Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995, it has increasingly become a pivotal force in the ASEAN region. In order to strengthen its influence in the ASEAN region and expand its strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region, India is trying to use Vietnam to strengthen its relations with ASEAN countries. From the perspective of actual development, Vietnam has played an important role in India’s closer relationship with ASEAN. When serving as the coordinator of ASEAN-India relations from 2015 to 2018, Vietnam actively promoted cooperation between India and ASEAN countries. It not only invited India to participate in exchanges and dialogues in various fields within ASEAN but also actively participated in and organized meetings on ASEAN-India relations. It can be said that Vietnam has promoted exchanges and cooperation between India and ASEAN countries in political, economic, social, and cultural fields during its tenure as the coordinator of ASEAN-India relations and the rotating chair of ASEAN. On this basis, Vietnam can also become an important partner for India’s integration into the Asia-Pacific region. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar emphasized at the fifth anniversary ceremony of the establishment of the Vietnam-India comprehensive strategic partnership that India has always regarded Vietnam as an important cooperative partner and hoped that the two countries would continue to fully tap their existing potential and contribute to the economic development of their respective countries. Therefore, India intends to strengthen cooperation with ASEAN through Vietnam and increase India’s influence in ASEAN.

Judging from Vietnam’s strategic demands, India is an important helper for it to implement the “major powers balance strategy” and seek the status of regional power. Since the implementation of the “international integration” strategy, Vietnam’s comprehensive national strength has improved significantly, and with the improvement of national strength, Vietnam has also begun to pursue the “dream of a regional power.” From the perspective of diplomatic strategy, Vietnam has two strategic demands. The first is to pursue a foreign policy of “balance among major powers.” By maintaining a strategic balance among major powers and good bilateral relations with major powers outside the region, Vietnam’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity are maintained. The second is to continuously improve its comprehensive national strength by strengthening cooperation with major countries, thereby enhancing Vietnam’s international status and influence. Since the reform and opening up, Vietnam has gradually matured its foreign policy of “Great Powers Priority, Neighboring Countries Priority, and Traditional Friendly Countries Priority.”

As an important country in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, India has important strategic value for the realization of Vietnam’s diplomatic goals. One is that Vietnam can use India’s power to hedge against China’s influence in Southeast Asia; the other is that Vietnam can use its strategic relationship with India to promote the rapid development of its economy, trade, military, science, and education, thereby enhancing its comprehensive national strength.


Economic cooperation has always been the core area of India-Vietnam cooperation, and as both countries have entered a period of rapid economic development, economic and trade cooperation have also become an important basis for promoting the development of a comprehensive strategic partnership between India and Vietnam. Since Modi came to power, he has always emphasized the importance of the economy, insisting that the country’s diplomacy must be subordinate to its own economic interests and serve the country’s development strategy needs. For Vietnam, which is in a period of rapid industrialization, strengthening economic and trade cooperation with other countries is also an important part of its foreign relations. Therefore, India and Vietnam have common interests and needs in promoting economic and trade cooperation.

In recent years, trade between India and Vietnam has developed rapidly. When Modi came to power in 2014, the bilateral trade volume between India and Vietnam was only more than 5 billion US dollars, but by 2019, the bilateral trade volume between India and Vietnam had reached nearly 11.2 billion US dollars, more than double that of 2014. In 2020, due to the impact of the new crown pneumonia epidemic, the bilateral trade volume between India and Vietnam was only US$9.6 billion. However, as the epidemic levelled off, trade relations between the two countries gradually resumed. According to Indian data for the financial year April 2021-March 2022, bilateral trade posted a growth of 27% and reached US$ 14.14 billion Embassy of India Hanoi, Vietnam, 2023. It can be seen that the trade between the two countries still maintains a strong development trend.

In addition, the industrial structure of India and Vietnam is being gradually optimized, and the complementarity of commodities is being enhanced, which gives the economic cooperation between the two countries a lot of room for development. At present, India, which is in a period of industrial expansion, has a greater demand for raw materials and other products from ASEAN countries, including Vietnam. After Vietnam undertook the industrial transfer of Western developed countries, its products gradually entered the Indian market. At the same time, India has taken a fancy to Vietnam’s advantages in the fields of market, resources, and manpower, while Vietnam hopes to receive financial and technical support from India in fields such as information technology, automobiles, and steel.

According to data from the General Administration of Vietnam Customs, in 2021, India’s exports to Vietnam will reach US$6.95 billion, an increase of 56% over 2020, and Vietnam’s exports to India will reach US$6.25 billion, an increase of 20% over 2020. Among them, Vietnam’s major exports to India include common metals, computers, electronic products and parts, various communication equipment and parts, mechanical equipment, tools, and spare parts. Compared with 2020, the main products with the higher growth rate of Vietnam’s exports to India in 2021 include plastic raw materials (up 231%), chemicals (up 162%), rubber (up 138%) and coal (up 128%). The main products that India exports to Vietnam account for a large proportion of steel and steel products, metals, cotton, machinery and equipment, etc.

Among India’s exports to Vietnam in 2021, iron and steel exports will be the highest at nearly US$1.4 billion, accounting for 20% of India’s total exports to Vietnam; machinery and equipment, tools, and other spare parts exports will be US$428 million, accounting for India’s exports to Vietnam. 6.2% of the total; exports of other common metals amounted to $405 million, accounting for 5.8% of India’s total exports to Vietnam. Therefore, judging from the bilateral trade volume between India and Vietnam and the types and growth rates of import and export products, the economic complementarity between the two countries is constantly improving, which is of great significance for promoting the import and export trade between India and Vietnam.

Indian Ocean’s Role in Vietnam – India Strategic Engagement

The Indian Ocean plays a significant geopolitical and geoeconomic role in the relationship between India and Vietnam. The ocean is a major trade route that connects the two countries and facilitates the exchange of goods and services. India and Vietnam have a long history of economic and cultural ties dating back to the Champa kingdom in Vietnam and the Indianized kingdoms of Southeast Asia.

Strong historical ties, high-level visits, and solid institutional frameworks characterize the bilateral relationship between India and Vietnam. This is demonstrated by changing trade and investment patterns between the two nations, the creation of bilateral institutional frameworks, and a rise in the focus on “specialized” areas of cooperation, such as those involving the purchase of defence equipment. India and Vietnam upgraded their strategic partnership (2007–2017) into a comprehensive strategic partnership just one year earlier, in 2016, marking the end of their 45-year diplomatic relationship.

Both countries share a strategic interest in maintaining the security and stability of the Indian Ocean region. They have been working together to promote maritime security and counter piracy in the region.

The relationship between India and Vietnam can help promote peace and stability in the Indian Ocean region and Indo-Pacific region in various ways:

  • Shared strategic interest: Both India and Vietnam share a strategic interest in maintaining peace and stability in the region. They have common concerns over China’s expansionist policies and maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea. Thus, by collaborating together, they can create a balance of power in the region and counter any potential threat to their security.
  • Economic ties: India and Vietnam have strong economic ties, with bilateral trade reaching over $14 billion. By enhancing their economic cooperation and trade, they can foster economic growth and development in the region, which can contribute to stability.
  • Defense cooperation: India and Vietnam have been cooperating in the field of defense, including training, joint exercises, and defense equipment procurement. By collaborating in this area, they can enhance their defense capabilities and create a more secure environment in the region.
  • Cultural and people-to-people ties: India and Vietnam also share cultural and people-to-people ties, which can help deepen their understanding and trust. This can lead to stronger cooperation in various areas, including security, economic development, and cultural exchange.

Overall, by working together, India and Vietnam can promote peace and stability in the Indian Ocean region and Indo-Pacific region, which can benefit not only themselves but the entire region.

There are several reasons why Vietnam should consider India as a reliable partner for stability and peace in the East Sea and the Indo-Pacific region:

  • Strategic location: India is strategically located in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which is a critical region linking the East and West. Vietnam, on the other hand, is located in Southeast Asia and has a long coastline that shares borders with the East Sea. India’s strategic location can help in ensuring the safety and security of sea-lanes in the Indo-Pacific region, including the East Sea.
  • Shared commitment to regional stability and peace: India and Vietnam share a commitment to regional stability and peace. Both countries are members of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and have been working together to promote peace and stability in the region.
  • Defense cooperation: India and Vietnam have been strengthening their defense cooperation in recent years. India has been providing naval ships to Vietnam, and the two countries have been conducting joint naval exercises. This cooperation can help in enhancing maritime security in the East Sea and the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Economic ties: India and Vietnam have been strengthening their economic ties. India is one of Vietnam’s top ten trading partners, and the two countries have set a target of $15 billion in bilateral trade. This economic cooperation can lead to greater stability and peace in the region.
  • Cultural ties: India and Vietnam share cultural ties that date back centuries. These ties can help in enhancing people-to-people contacts and promoting greater understanding between the two countries.

In conclusion, India can be a reliable partner for Vietnam in promoting stability and peace in the East Sea and the Indo-Pacific region due to its strategic location, shared commitment to regional stability and peace, defense cooperation, economic ties, and cultural ties.

Trends in Vietnam-India Relations

In the future, in order to achieve their respective national strategic goals, Vietnam and India will further strengthen bilateral cooperation on the one hand and seek their own strategic autonomy on the other.

First, economic, trade, security, and defense cooperation are still important pillars for the development of bilateral relations. Since there are many consensuses on the economic level of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” between Vietnam and India, bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation between the two countries will continue to deepen in the future. In the field of security and defense, both India and Vietnam will focus on strengthening their own national defense and security construction in order to pursue national strategic security.

Second, Vietnam and India bilateral relations will become more balanced and comprehensive. Since India and Vietnam established a comprehensive strategic partnership, in addition to high-frequency interactions in the fields of politics, economy, trade, security, and defense, the two countries are also actively promoting exchanges and cooperation in other fields. As two rising countries in Asia, India and Vietnam not only have great potential for economic development but also have great room for cooperation in some emerging fields. Therefore, future bilateral relations between the two countries will be more comprehensive and balanced.

Third, Vietnam and India will seek their own strategic autonomy and avoid getting involved in the vortex of strategic struggles among major powers. In the future, the cooperation between India and Vietnam will be more based on their own strategic interests, adhere to the independence of foreign strategy, and not be too tied to the strategic track of a certain country, so as to avoid being involved in the political vortex of power struggles among major powers.

Authors Brief Bio: Vu The Cuong is the Deputy Director, Centre for Indian Studies, Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics, Vietnam and Dr. Do Khuong Manh Linh is a Researcher at Centre for Indian Studies, Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics, Vietnam

Note: This article was published by India Foundation in the Indian Ocean Conference 2023 Theme Paper Booklet.


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