For decades, Indian foreign policy was shaped by a measure of defensiveness that sought to mask essentially timid strategic ambitions. From the mid-'90s, successive Indian PMs have led the effort towards articulating an implementing a policy regime that is commensurate with India's economic (and military) heft. Old habits, however, seem to die hard even among the commentariat.
It was perhaps not so surprising to see C Raja Mohan's article in IE on the emerging Indo-Vietnamese angle to our China policy. Take the following conclusions.
India does not take sides in these disputes. Delhi has welcomed the multilateral process underway between China and the Association of the Southeast Asian nations to resolve the disputes in the South China Sea littoral.
China doesnt take sides in the Indo-Pak dispute either. But it does not prevent them from building (or trying to build) core strategic interests in the disputed territories, or indeed occupying large parts of the disputed PoK. In a nearly similar fashion, pending ultimate resolution between the affected parties in East Asia, nothing should prevent India from picking up offshore oil/gas assets and claim ownership of them. China cannot possibly counter on legal terms while defending its own case in PoK.
It is true however that mere intent is not enough, it has to be backed by capacity. It is here that a gross underestimation of our own capabilities sometimes is so de rigeur (even with someone as "connected" as Raja Mohan!).
India can never be the decisive player in the South China Sea, which has emerged as one of the world's major flashpoints in the 21st century.
Geography — both political and strategic — reminds us that India's contributions to order and stability in the South China Sea must necessarily be modest for the foreseeable future.
Really?! Are India's Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) to the South China Sea more complicated than China's to Gwadar? Even a cursory look at profile of India's military modernisation programme reflects a desire to acquire long range, trans-oceanic capabilities – C17 heavy transports, P8I long range maritime patrol aircraft, heavy Su30 MKI fighters, LPDs/LHDs/tankers, refuelling aircraft, setting up of amphibious brigades – India is looking to influence outcomes far from its shores. Sure, China is doing the same in a larger scale. But "modest" is a sense of ambition, not of capacity proportion.
Ambition and imagination is what has been lacking in adequate measure in the Vietnam equation. Vietnamese wariness with the Chinese is a variable that can be used effectively. Not as a "tit for tat response" to China as Raja Mohan is suggesting, but to simply increase our own leverage with both China in particular and East Asia in general. The proposal for the export of Brahmos to Vietnam is a typical case in point. It imparts a crucial, game changing capability to Vietnam to counter the PLAN, while sending a message to China that the Pakistani arms transfer is not a one-way affair vis a vis India.
Further (from Raja Mohan)
With nearly 3,400 km of coastline, Vietnam is critical for the maintenance of peace, security and good maritime order in the South China Sea that connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Right point, but where is the imagination? Vietnam is the second choke point in the Indian ocean (after the Malacca Straits) that China needs to "manage" to ensure smooth passage of its trade. A linking up of the Indian Navy with the Vietnamese sends out interesting signals on capabilities, doesnt it? A naval base for IN in Vietnam, while being maybe a trifle premature, formalises the linkages. One doesnt need to station ships permanently. Even a base with modest initial capacities in Vietnam (maybe a frigate or destroyer on patrol around the area all the time) will send out a strong message about India's intent to East Asia in general.
Raja Mohan concludes correctly, when he says
Progress has been incremental and slow. Delhi must demonstrate its commitment to the strategic partnership with Hanoi by accelerating the proposed bilateral cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy and space technology, intensifying support for the modernisation of Vietnamese armed forces, and deepening the naval partnership so crucial for India's future presence in the Pacific.
Well said, but the above requires precisely the ambition that is so marked by inhibitions in the rest of the article!
Vietnam makes for an interesting case study for India's Look East policy. A more imaginative approach is sorely needed, one that involves getting rid of the (timid) shibboleths of the past!