China’s aggressive South China Sea stance is bringing Vietnam closer to India with flourishing prospects of strategic partnership.
Close to the visit of Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan during Republic Day celebrations, the visit of Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang to India in March should be viewed from more than the angle of bilateral economic engagement. It has to be seen from the perspective of the two countries' outreach for a strategic role in the South China Sea and countering China's aggressiveness in South East Asia. The back to back visit following Prime Minister Narendra Modi's trip to Vietnam in September 2016 will mark a milestone for strong ties between the two countries, particularly when China is flexing its political and military clout to claim sovereignty in the South China Sea, after losing the battle of arbitration in the UN. Incidentally, both Vietnam and India are the victims of Chinese aggression. The partnership is of paramount importance for India's role in South East Asia under the umbrella of Modi's Act Asia policy.
The paradox to Vietnam's penchant for stronger ties with India is that both Vietnam and China are ruled by Communist regimes and China is the second biggest trading partner of Vietnam, as against India at the 10th position. Analysts feel that despite being its communist peer, Vietnam's one-party regime is widely regarded as more democratic than the Chinese Communist Party. Decisions are collectively made by a 19-member Politburo and the General Secretary, President, and Prime Minister, who are part of it and have high stakes in decision making.
The turning point for closer ties was Narendra Modi's visit, the first by an Indian Prime Minister after 15 years, followed by the election of Vietnam's new President Tran Dai Quang after China defied the arbitration ruling on the South China Sea issue. The visit proved to be a path-breaking achievement to refurbish relations when India – once known as a global leader for its non-alignment stand – offered defence cooperation and elevated the relations from a strategic partnership to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Acknowledging the defence cooperation as the prime mover of the new bilateral relations, India committed a $500 million line of credit for the procurement of defence equipment during Modi's visit.
Why is India a victim of the South China Sea stir? Half of India's international trade passes through South China Sea waters. Besides, China's defiance haunts the maritime right of Vietnam in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEC) in the sea, where India is already engaged in exploring crude oil. In 2006, ONGC was awarded two oil blocks in Vietnam's territorial waters. One of them was relinquished by ONGC. The remaining Block 128 was entangled with the dispute when the Chinese company China Off-shore National Company (CNOOC) invited global bids for nine blocks, which are located in the Vietnam EEC.
In 2014, a dispute arose when Chinese oil rig company conducted oil drilling inside Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEC). At this stage, India was at loggerheads with its off-shore oil drilling operation in Vietnam. Countrywide anti-China protest raged in Vietnam, resulting in 21 deaths. Since then the relations between Hanoi and Beijing began souring.
Even though China and Vietnam are ruled by the Communist regime and China is a major trading partner of Vietnam, it could not make a dent in the preference list of Vietnamese. India is much above China in the Vietnamese choice, despite economic relations between the two countries remaining at a low ebb.
Vietnam is closer to India in terms of people-to-people relations. According to the Pew Research Centre, 66 per cent Vietnamese have favourable opinions about India, as against 19 per cent for China. Further, 56 per cent of Vietnamese have confidence in Modi's leadership for driving world affairs in the right direction, compared to 20 per cent in favour of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The truth is that Modi's visit to Vietnam after the UN arbitration ruling was a shot in the arm for Vietnam. It gave a mental boost for the Vietnamese to make their voice stronger against the Chinese bully in the South China Sea. It sent signals of its concerns through the support of powerful countries and India was one of them. To this end, India's credit line for the procurement of defence equipment and the India-Vietnam Defence Relations of May 2015, underpinned India's bigger role in South East Asia, including the South China Sea.
The upgradation of the 10-year old strategic partnership between India and Vietnam into Comprehensive Strategic Partnership unleashed a deeper meaning for the cooperation between the two countries. India is among the ten trading partners of Vietnam. Currently, the total trade between the two countries is about eight billion dollars. In terms of India's global trade, it is insignificant. It accounts for 2 per cent only. Modi's visit enhanced the target to $15 billion by 2020.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)