It can help counter Chinese assertiveness
by Harsh V. Pant
INDIA’S relations with China have entered a new phase as New Delhi asserts its rights in the international waters of the South China Sea and deepens its engagement with Hanoi. The Indian External Affairs Minister was in Vietnam last week when India snubbed China and made it clear that ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) will continue to pursue oil and natural gas exploration in two Vietnamese blocks in the South China Sea. Asking countries “outside the region” to stay away from the South China Sea, China had issued a demarche to India underlining that Beijing’s permission should be sought for exploration in Blocks 127 and 128 and that without it, OVL’s activities would be considered illegal. Vietnam, meanwhile, had underlined the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to claim its sovereign rights over the two blocks being explored. India decided to go by the Vietnam’s claims and ignore China’s objections.
The official Chinese reaction to the Indian decision was an assertion that China had undisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and its islands and that Beijing remained opposed to any country involving itself in oil and gas exploration there. But the official media has come out all guns blazing. The Global Times, an influential Communist Party-run newspaper, called India’s dealings with Vietnam a “serious political provocation” that would “push China to the limit.” It went on to argue that “China should try every means possible to stop this cooperation from happening.” Expressing its concern over the involvement of extra-regional powers in the South China Sea, the paper claimed, “China and relevant countries should digest the conflicts within the South China Sea, but when other countries step in, China should oppose them with all involved having to share the blame and resulting losses.” Though the paper often expresses the more hard-line nationalist sentiment in the party, main editorials are published with the approval of the Communist Party.
India’s bold move is aimed at asserting India’s legal claims in the international waters of the South China Sea as well as strengthening its relationship with Vietnam. Both moves unsettle China which views India’s growing engagement in East Asia with suspicion. With China expanding its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, India is staking its own claims in East Asia. Most significant in this regard is India’s growing engagement with Vietnam. Bilateral ties between India and Vietnam have got strengthened in recent years with the focus on regional security issues and trade. Traditionally, India has had a favourable presence in Vietnam with its support for Vietnamese independence from France and eventual unification of the country as well as its opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War. With the rise of China in recent years, their ties have become strategic in orientation. The two states promulgated a Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Cooperation in 2003 in which they envisaged creating an “Arc of Advantage and Prosperity” in Southeast Asia and have initiated a strategic dialogue since 2009. During his visit to Hanoi last week, the Indian External Affairs Minister, along with his Vietnamese counterpart, co-chaired the 14th India-Vietnam Joint Commission Meeting on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation and agreed to add greater content to bilateral relations in the fields of defence and security, trade and investment, education and culture.”
Bilateral trade has grown since the liberalisation of Indian and Vietnamese economies with the trade volume now exceeding $2 billion. The signing of the India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement and India’s recognition of Vietnam’s market economy status will further boost economic ties. Vietnam has backed a more prominent role for India in ASEAN as well as India’s bid for the permanent membership in the UN Security Council.
Given that Vietnam and India use the same Russian and erstwhile Soviet platforms, there is a significant convergence between the two in the defence sector. Vietnam has sought Indian help in the modernisation of its military hardware. India’s exploration interests near the Vietnamese coasts have been threatened by China’s diplomatic offensive. Delhi and Hanoi have significant stakes in ensuring sealanes security and preventing sea piracy while they also share concerns about Chinese access to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Indian strategic interests demand that Vietnam emerge as a major regional player and India is well placed to help Hanoi achieve that objective. It has been argued in Indian strategic circles that just as China has used states in India’s periphery to contain India, Delhi should build states like Vietnam as strategic pressure points against China to counter it.
India has decided to work with Vietnam to establish a regular Indian presence in the region as part of a larger Delhi-Hanoi security partnership with Vietnam giving India the right to use its port of Nha Trang. Delhi and Hanoi have significant stakes in ensuring sealanes security and preventing sea piracy while they also share concerns about Chinese access to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Indian strategic interests demand that Vietnam emerge as a major regional player and India is well placed to help Hanoi achieve that objective.
India has been helping Vietnam for beefing up its naval and air capabilities. If the South China Sea is a disputed area for China and India should refrain from entering the fray so as to respect Chinese sensitivities, then India can rightfully ask China to do the same in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, an area recognised by all major powers as a disputed territory. Yet China has had no compunction in enlarging its military and economic presence in the region.
A common approach on the emerging balance of power is evolving with India and Vietnam both keen on reorienting their ties with the US as their concerns about China rise. And a similar commonality of views is emerging among major powers on the South China Sea disputes which will hopefully force China to moderate its maximalist position on this issue. India’s entry into the scene was overdue. Now it should focus on building strategic partnerships with regional powers. Vietnam is a good place to begin this process.
The writer teaches at King’s College, London.