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SOURCE: SUNDAY GUARDIAN LIVE

India-Vietnam relations are set to scale new heights and acquire greater strategic heft, says outgoing Vietnamese envoy in India, Pham Sanh Chau. After a four-year eventful tenure, the Vietnamese diplomat has many reasons to be proud of, including the construction of the new embassy building and the launch of direct flights between the two countries.

In this wide-ranging conversation, the Vietnamese envoy underlines that although India is a key partner, Hanoi is not building stronger ties with India to counter China. On an emotional note, he adds that as he leaves, India is become a part of his soul. Excerpts from the interview:

Q: You served in India for four years as Vietnam’s ambassador. Do you see greater strategic convergence between India and Vietnam? What’s the way ahead for defence cooperation?
A: In India-Vietnam strategic partnership, the pillar of defence and security cooperation is becoming stronger. Before I came to India, there were hardly any visits by naval ships. Then, when I came in in 2018, the first thing that happened was a visit by Vietnamese Coast Guard ship to Chennai, and then recently I brought another Navy ship to participate for the first time ever in the Navy exercise MILAN in Vishakhapatnam. Just last week, for the first time ever in Vietnam’s history, we sent 45 officers to India for training in UN peacekeeping operations. It reflects a very deep convergence of strategic interests between the two countries and robust mutual trust. After the training, they will be deployed in South Sudan.

Secondly, the defence policy dialogue was initiated during my tenure. Recently, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited Vietnam, where he was received by most of the top leaders of Vietnam, the President, the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister. And during the pandemic, it’s the Indian Navy, which sent a ship with oxygen to the Vietnamese people. We are very grateful for that.

Q: What are prospects of defence industry collaboration between India and Vietnam?
A: My tenure has seen the successful completion of the $100 mn Line of Credit (LoC) with the building of 12 high speed boats, five delivered from Chennai and other seven delivered in Hai Phong. We are now trying to finalise a $500 million LoC. There is a significant shift here: we are moving to cooperation in defence manufacturing and production. We are exploring the possibility of joint production. And since we have strategic trust, this area is full of potential. We participate in DefExpo and we will continue to do so. The two sides will hold talks soon and identify specific areas of defence industry collaboration.

Q: How is cooperation between India and Vietnam on regional and global issues progressing?
A: India and Vietnam support each other at the UN Security Council, where we are both non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. And now, with what’s happening in Europe, the two countries share the same position, what we call the middle power path. We take sides on the peace side, or what other people call the Buddha path. It is quite clear there is a growing convergence of many interests between India and Vietnam.
At the moment, we are witnessing a world, which is full of turbulence. In such a situation, Vietnam and India joins other countries in calling for the respect of fundamental principles in international law. These include non-use of violence, peaceful settlement of disputes and respect for territorial integrity.

Q: Talking about rules-based order, do you think there is a greater consensus today on maintaining freedom of navigation in South China Sea? How is Vietnam managing its relations with India and China?
A: India is a key partner of Vietnam. India-Vietnam relations have scaled new heights and will continue to do so. Vietnam follows a foreign policy of being friends with all countries. We follow the principle of “Four No” that includes not joining any military alliance, not partnering with one country to fight another country, not allowing our land to be used for another country and no use of force. As far as the regional situation is concerned, we call all parties to respect international law. We also ask everybody who can contribute to the upholding of international law.

China is an immediate neighbour and a major power. We give the importance to that relationship, we nurture that relationship and try to keep that relationship on an even keel. We don’t tend to go with India in order to fight against China. We don’t take a side; there is no zero-sum game here. We take the side of peace, the side of international law. India and China are all our good friends. They are both our strategic and comprehensive partners. On South China Sea, we call continuously for respect for freedom of navigation and overflight.

Q: Going forward, what are the key areas, which will animate India-Vietnam relations in the near future?
A: We will stick to the five pillars of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Number one, we need to deepen the high-ranking political visits. Secondly, we need to deepen defence and security cooperation, like we just did recently with a peacekeeping force cooperation, production in defence area, and things like that. Third, we need to boost economy and trade. Fourth, we need to deepen tourism exchange. Our scientific cooperation is very strong and we need to expand that as well. Fifth, we need to increase people-to-people exchange, which is the backbone of our relationship.

I feel happy that during my tenure, we launched a series of direct flights, starting with Indigo in October 2019 and Vietjet in December 2019. Pandemic stalled these flights, but it’s now back to business as usual. Now, we issue 6,000 visas per day, which is 2,400% increase. So it is an explosion. You can imagine if we have 6,000 visas, we need 30 planes to carry these people to go to Vietnam. We are going to open 17 direct flights from Delhi to Ahmedabad to Hyderabad, to Mumbai, to Bangalore, Chennai, to Hanoi and to Ho Chi Minh City.

Q: What are your most cherished memories of India as you head back to Hanoi?
A: What I want to say as my last word is that when I came here, I did not expect that I will love this country. But at the moment I’m leaving, I’m very pleased to say that I have fallen in deep love with the Indian people. And I feel that my destiny has attached me to this land. And this land, as a poet in Vietnam says, when you come, the land is the land but when you leave, the land has become your soul. So the land of India has become my soul. And I certainly will come back very soon.