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FAST-FORWARDING INDO-VIETNAMESE TIES

THE HISTORIC OCCASION of the golden jubilee of the Nehru-Ho Chi Minh meeting in Hanoi has provided a valuable opportunity for India and Vietnam to review the whole gamut of bilateral relations so that they can be put on a fast track. The bedrock of the relationship is the solidarity expressed by the people of India with Vietnam's heroic liberation struggle waged over decades. The meeting of the joint commission provided a platform not just to boost bilateral trade but also to look at the potential for a substantive and qualitative improvement in ties. The way Vietnam opened up to India over the past decade, particularly after Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's September 1994 visit, shows how much more the two close friends and strategic partners can do for each other. The cooperation achieved in science and technology and human resource development is not to be underestimated. However, the level of bilateral trade is modest and its structure unbalanced. Two-way trade is estimated to be running at $500 million, with exports from Vietnam last year aggregating a mere $70 million. Hanoi understands the ground realities but would like to see more investments and imports from India in the coming years.

Although Vietnam set out on the path of economic reforms before it joined the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), a lot more needs to be done to attract foreign investment. The ruling Communist Party continues to be wary of the market economy and keeps a close eye on the kind of investment it wants in. Some ASEAN countries have invested significantly in Vietnam but find that the domestic market has not grown as much as they expected; as a result, they have to look at exports out of Vietnam. Like their Indian counterparts, investors from Southeast Asia have found the conditions challenging. For instance, land in Vietnam remains a politically sensitive issue and those looking at venturing into plantations have had to go slow. However, a start has been made with Indian investment in a cashew plantation.

Given its ideological and political reservations on how far to go with economic liberalisation, Vietnam finds in India a congenial partner. Considering India's own experiences with liberalisation against the background of mass deprivation and its inherent capabilities to offer valuable technology, it can be depended upon to provide an impressively educated country like Vietnam critical assistance and inputs to move forward. On the military side, bilateral cooperation has progressed far beyond teaching English or offering a few dozen training spots in Indian military academies. Since Vietnam's Air Force consists of Soviet-made aircraft, India has been able to help service and upgrade them at Hindustan Aeronautics. Information Technology and energy are two key sectors in which Vietnam would like to see more serious Indian involvement. India can offer IT education and training in a significant way but Hanoi will need to build its telecom infrastructure quickly to develop IT. The Vidhesh arm of the Oil and Natural Gas Commission needs to spell out its plan of operations in Vietnam, where it had a head start but failed to consolidate. Nuclear energy is another area of interest for Vietnam, which wants to build a wider energy base. It remains to be seen how India can help in this area given the complexities of the international regime governing nuclear exports and external cooperation. Vietnam has also plans to establish a ship building industry and develop some of its ports. In view of its strategic location in the South China Sea, it wants to exercise the greatest care in identifying collaboration in these sensitive areas, which is why India could be the perfect partner.

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