In a move with significant geopolitical implications, Vietnam has formally asked India to play a greater role in the South China Sea, a bilateral invitation New Delhi seems willing to oblige with a wary eye cast towards China.
Hanoi’s proposal, made last week at the Delhi Dialogue IX, a regular meeting between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), aims to counterbalance Beijing’s rising assertiveness in the maritime region without breaking its fragile peace.
India’s involvement in the region is in-line with its “Act East” foreign policy, a gambit that envisions a more wide-reaching role in regional affairs like disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. India said at the same meeting that greater engagement with Asean is a key part of the policy initiative.
Some analysts describe the policy as India’s own “pivot”, the Asia-centric policy of previous US President Barack Obama that aimed to engage Asian nations while positioning 60% of America’s naval fleet and air force in the Asia-Pacific region. The policy pronouncement arguably intensified US-China competition for influence, particularly in the South China Sea.
While the Donald Trump administration’s commitment to that plan is in doubt, evidenced to some by reduced freedom of navigation patrols in the maritime since his election last year, the region’s geopolitics have always been more multilateral in nature than a mere bilateral struggle for power and influence.
“Asean supports India to play a greater role in the political and security domain, and create a rule-based region,” said Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh at the meeting. “We hope India will continue to partner our efforts for strategic security and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea on the basis of international law and legal convention.”
There are three main motivations behind Vietnam’s invitation to India, namely stronger bilateral cooperation between the two sides, promoting involvement of more large nations in agreement with a rules-based order in the South China Sea, and greater Indian input into Asean, a regional grouping which Vietnam sees great value in and wishes to strengthen as a counterweight to China’s influence in the grouping.
Reciprocally, India will gain needed diplomatic support for its “Act East” gambit, a revamp of its previous “Look East” policy towards the region, while at the same time counterbalancing China’s ambitions in the South China Sea at a time Beijing is moving aggressively into the Indian Ocean through new port developments in the region.
Vietnam is also supporting India’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council, a position New Delhi has long sought. India has recently flexed its naval muscle in nearby waters by sending warships to monitor the Malacca Straits, a strategic chokepoint through which much of China’s fuel and trade travels.
India has diplomatic, strategic and economic reasons to become more active in the South China Sea. Hanoi recently granted a two-year extension to Indian oil firm ONGC Videsh to continue its exploration activities at block 128 off the southern coast of Vietnam in waters contested by China. The concession was due to expire in mid-June.
ONGC Videsh has been exploring offshore blocks in the region since 2006 and signed a joint exploration agreement with state-run PetroVietnam in 2011, though it briefly halted in 2012 due to what the company said were “operational” issues. The assumption at the time was that the stoppage was influenced in part by Chinese pressure.
India is openly concerned by China’s perceived aggression in the South China Sea and its fast-rising naval capabilities. “The modernization of the Chinese Navy is truly impressive. It is actually a major, major cause for concern,” Indian Navy Chief D.K. Joshi said back in 2012, suggesting India would forcibly protect ONGC vessels from Chinese interference.
India has since watched closely as China has periodically hassled Vietnamese fishermen and oil and gas survey ships in the maritime area. Both Delhi and Hanoi have strongly supported the need for rule of law and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, as outlined in the United Nation Convention of the Law on the Sea (UNCLOS).
Minh also said that Asean could learn from India regarding the handling of maritime disputes, likely referring to the nation’s own maritime arbitration case with Bangladesh adjudicated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague with Bangladesh, a verdict that went in Dhaka’s favor and New Delhi accepted.
Beijing openly rejected without consequence a similar PCA tribunal’s decision last July in favor of the Philippines and against China’s expansive nine-dash-line map that lays claim to most of the South China Sea. Vietnam has considered but so far shied from filing a similar UNCLOS-related suit against China over its contested maritime claims and remained oddly quiet after Manila’s win last July.
To be sure, Vietnam has asked multiple nations to play a greater role, or at least lend diplomatic support, in the South China Sea – so far with varied degrees of success. A similar overture made to South Korea earlier this year has not yet borne fruit in terms of actual strategic support.
India, Japan and the US all support freedom of navigation and patrols, underscored by a bilateral US-Vietnam naval drill held last week out of Vietnam’s deep water port at Cam Ranh Bay in the country’s central coastal region.
Washington has sought regular berthing rights at the strategic facility, where a new international port was recently opened and Russia maintains a still strong Cold War legacy presence, but Hanoi has made it clear it would not consider exclusive rights for any one nation.
While a US withdrawal from the region would not be welcomed by Hanoi, which sees the deterrent value of a strong US presence nearby, cooperation with India was poised to improve regardless, as Vietnam puts a premium on relations with larger powers. Like India’s non-alignment policy, Vietnam avoids reliance on any specific country.
Vietnam and India became comprehensive strategic partners last year – Hanoi’s top echelon of ties which China and Russia also share. Strategic partnerships have become increasingly common and not always meaningful across Asia in recent years, but there is genuine value for both sides in enhanced Indo-Vietnamese cooperation.
Historically both countries were arms clients of Russia, and Vietnam would often purchase second-hand gear from India. They now still share strong interoperability as both possess Russian Kilo-class submarines, with many Vietnamese submariners trained in India. India provides more military support to Vietnam than any Southeast Asian country, including satellite cover to help monitor Vietnam’s waters.
As part of a US$500 million line of credit for defense purposes announced last September, India has since sold its 25-mile range surface-to-air Akash missiles to Vietnam. It has also promised to eventually ship the more lethal BrahMos ramjet supersonic missile which can be launched from a submarine, a crucial capacity for deterrence in the South China Sea.
The missiles are likely an irritant to China, though a tentative peace for now holds in the maritime region. While China and Vietnam maintain various protocols on South China Sea sovereignty issues, recent meetings on military and border matters have inexplicably been cut short.
Indian engagement in the South China Sea won’t resolve the region’s long-running disputes, but another great power’s involvement in the region will help to mitigate the risks of any large country taking undue advantage of smaller ones with overlapping claims and interests in the globally strategic waterway.