India-Vietnam Defence Ties Boom, Courtesy Chinese Moves In South China Sea

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Indian and Vietnamese warships taking part in a bilateral exercise off Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam in April this year.

NEW DELHI: India-Vietnam defence ties are thriving. And while neither side will say this in as many words, this is largely to counter growing Chinese hegemony in the region. The close defence ties being forged between the two countries will see the Vietnamese Chief of General Staff and First Vice Minister of Defence, Lieutenant General Phan Van Giang in New Delhi next week.

The visit comes close on the heels of a visit by the First Vice Minister of Public Security Lieutenant General Bui Van Nam. And New Delhi will be welcoming Vietnamese Vice-President Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh next month.

Growing Chinese muscle-flexing in the resource-rich but contentious South China Sea has been viewed with concern by both New Delhi and Hanoi. Given contesting claims, vessels of Vietnam and China were involved in a face-off lasting nearly four months in waters that Hanoi claims are part of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The face-off finally ended on October 24.

On Thursday, Vietnam’s Ambassador to India Pham Sanh Chau expressed appreciation for “India’s position on the South China Sea, especially on the importance of maintaining peace and security in the region, respect for international law, including United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and peaceful settlement of disputes given the context of recent serious incidents in Vietnam’s territorial waters”.

The Vietnamese envoy was speaking at a round table to mark the third anniversary of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership organised by the Delhi-based India Foundation, an independent research centre. The inking of this pact also indicated the growing strategic convergence between the two countries.

India’s stated position with regard to the disputed South China Sea has been for the freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in international waters, in accordance with international laws like UNCLOS.

Significantly, New Delhi also sees the sea lanes passing through the South China Sea as vital for peace, stability and development of the wider Indo-Pacific region. Nearly 30 per cent of the world’s crude oil supplies pass through the South China Sea, not to mention trade worth an estimated $5 trillion.

As part of its efforts to boost the capabilities of the Vietnamese military, India has also provided two substantial lines of credit—one for $100 million that will help Vietnam equip its border guards with high-speed patrol vehicles; another for $500 million where both sides are working to identify specific projects for Vietnam’s requirements.

Vietnam is also preparing to welcome Indian warships at the Fleet Review which Hanoi is hosting as the current chair of ASEAN. The growing maritime engagement also saw the Indian and Vietnamese navies participate in the second edition of the bilateral naval exercise in April this year.

The India-Vietnam strategic convergence extends to the area of energy as well. ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) has been in Vietnam for three decades and has in the past experienced Chinese muscle-flexing while exploring for oil off the Vietnamese coast. China’s contention has been that the oil blocks are in its territorial waters.

While some of the oil blocks explored by OVL have proved to be commercially unviable, New Delhi’s messaging to Beijing in being physically present in Vietnam’s EEZ is clear—Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea will be countered.

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