China, the South China Sea and a new Template for India-Vietnam Relations

Chinese assertion of its ‘peaceful rise’ has come to a naught, and its ‘ charm offensive ’ has been a deception strategy and generated mistrust among neighbours and many other countries across the globe. Beijing has exhibited assertiveness at sea, objected to offshore exploration activities in the EEZ of other claimant States (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam), challenged the internationally accepted freedom of navigation in international waters, and engaged in saber rattling. The other claimants to the South China Sea had thus far attempted to keep tensions in the region low but as sovereignty issues became critical, energy exploration activities were challenged by China, and the disputed features were weaponised, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnamshed their defensive military mode and began to buildup offensive capability albeit not strong enough to challenge the military might of China.

China’s bellicose and confrontational conduct in South China Sea has also triggered new bilateral and multilateral engagements between the other claimants States and extra regional powers who have direct interest in the region. It has also revitalized existing partnerships and one such partnership is between India and Vietnam. Their strategic partnership (2007) was upgraded to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (2016) and both sides are harnessing respective power potential to meet a host of political, economic and strategic challenges confronting them. The security and defence cooperation and capacity building is particularly significant and the two sides are also committed to diversifying and deepening relationship to address the rapidly changing security situation in the South China Sea where India has vital stakes.

Navies Take the Lead
Naval cooperation between India and Vietnam has made significant headway and Indian naval ships have on regular basis called at Vietnamese ports on good will visits. The Indian and the Vietnamese navies have institutionalized arrangements for annual naval exercises andissues relating to South China Sea are discussed. Besides, Indian naval ship visits have also been useful in showcasing Indian naval ship building capability and Vietnam has shown interest in acquiring warships from India. Both sides understand and endorse the imperatives to collaborate in naval ship-building which can potentially bring to bear on Vietnam’s technological advantage in the South China Sea. Closely associated is the issue concerning military interoperability which now covers joint army, navy and air forces exercises, special operations forces training and intelligence cooperation. Vietnam’s interest in acquiring the Brahmos missile from India is well known. The advantages of acquiring this missile is that it is now used by Indian Army, fitted onboard Indian Kilo class submarines which are also operated by the Vietnamese Navy and the Indian Air Force Su 30 fighter jets which are in the inventory of the Vietnamese Air Force.

Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative
At another level, India has shared with Vietnam its vision for the Indo-Pacific particularly the Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI). Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the initiative at the East Asia Summit in Bangkok, Thailandin November 2019. It is an “an open global initiative” and “ draws on existing regional cooperation architecture and mechanisms to focus on seven central pillars conceived around Maritime Security; Maritime Ecology; Maritime Resources; Capacity Building and Resource Sharing; Disaster Risk Reduction and Management; Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation; and Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport.” India believes that the IPOI can be a useful mechanism for “creating partnerships” among interested countries who plan tofocus on “enhancing maritime security, preserving and sustainably using marine resources, building capacity, disaster prevention and management, as well as working together in trade, and maritime transport sectors”.

India and Vietnam see each other as natural partners for the IPOI and both sides plan to build upon the 2016 Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement. During the 17th Meeting (video-conference) of the India-Vietnam Joint Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation, it wasagreed to expand bilateral cooperation to achieve “shared security, prosperity and growth for all in the region”. Both sides have decided to inject “momentum to the economic and defence engagement between the two countries and to explore closer cooperation in emerging areas such as civil nuclear energy, space, marine sciences and new technologies”.

There are numerous convergences between the IPOI and the ASEAN’s Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP). India is committed to the AOIP and it can jointly develop with Vietnam marine scientific research projects in the South China Sea to support UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030 and harness Blue Economy.

Vietnam has been expanding the list of its strategic partners including Japan. Like Vietnam, India has a Special Strategic and Global Partnership with Japan. Vietnam’s commitment to the AOIP, Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP) and India’s IPOI are the important vistas for convergence and building a sophisticated framework for cooperative ocean development programme. India has several stakes in augmenting stability in the South China Sea and as the global strategic order transforms, the essence of the bilateral relations between India and Vietnam should be to contribute to regional stability.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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