China pushes India east"¦ toward Vietnam

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A recent diplomatic row with China highlights India's moves to beef up its influence in the East Sea via more cooperation with Vietnam, observers say


Indian Navy personnel march on Indian Independence Day at the Red Fort monument in New Delhi. India's recent actions demonstrate that countries are looking for ways to balance the power scale against China and to ensure freedom of navigation for significant sea lines in the resource-rich East Sea, analysts say.

China's "peaceful rise" has led other regional countries to work together as a counterweight to the new superpower, a development evinced by India's recent moves to strengthen its presence in the East Sea and its cooperation with Vietnam, political analysts say.

When receiving Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna during his four day visit to Vietnam on September 17, President Truong Tan Sang welcomed India's "Look East" policy.

He hailed the active participation of India in the region and supported the strengthening of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-India dialogue.

President Sang said Vietnam has always appreciated "the traditional friendship and multilateral cooperation with India and will actively promote the Vietnam-India strategic partnership for bilateral benefits and for peaceful stability and development of the region."

Krishna's Vietnam visit came amid a new row between China and India, exemplified by the fact that the Indian company ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) has begun exploring oil and gas in two blocks in Vietnam's East Sea waters. The East Sea is also known as the South China Sea.

Beijing had in a demarche "” a formal diplomatic representation of a government's official position "” to India stated that unless its permission was granted for exploration in Blocks 127 and 128, OVL's activities there would be illegal, the Hindustan Times reported on September 15.

India's ministry of external affairs (MEA) said China's objections have "no legal basis" as the blocks belong to Vietnam.

In New Delhi, external affairs ministry spokesperson Vishnu Prakash expressed India's determination to go ahead with plans to enhance cooperation with Vietnam in the energy sector.

"ONGC Videsh Ltd has been in Vietnam for quite some time in offshore oil and natural gas exploration and they (Vietnam) are in the process of further expanding cooperation, with Essar Oil Ltd also being awarded a gas block in Vietnam," Prakash said.

In Hanoi, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi on September 16 reaffirmed Vietnam's indisputable sovereignty over the two blocks, stating that any objection like China's "holds no legal basis and is thus invalid."

"Vietnam reiterates that cooperation projects in oil and gas between Vietnam and its foreign partners, including those in Lots 127 and 128, lie within its exclusive economic zones [EEZs] and continental shelf and are completely under Vietnamese sovereignty"¦ in line with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and with international practices, as well as with multilateral and bilateral agreements to which Vietnam is party," he said in a statement.

During his Vietnam visit, Krishna and his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh decided that they would extend their cooperation to defense and various economic sectors over the next three years.

On September 20 The Asian Age cited unnamed sources as saying that the BrahMos Aerospace - the Indo-Russian joint venture that has developed the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile - is keen to sell the missile to Vietnam.

Sources also confirmed that Vietnam is already on a list of about 15 "friendly countries" "” a list drafted by a joint Indo-Russian supervisory council "” to whom the BrahMos missile can be sold. So far, the BrahMos missile has not been sold to any third country.

On September 2, the Times of India reported that the Indian naval assault vessel INS Airavat was harassed by the Chinese navy when it was traveling in open international waters in the East Sea on a routine call at a Vietnam port.

The INS Airavat paid a friendly visit to Vietnam between July 19 and July 28. On July 22, the INS Airavat sailed from Nha Trang Port in south central Vietnam toward the northern port city of Hai Phong, where it was to make another friendly visit. According to the Times of India, about 45 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast on the East Sea, the Airavat was "buzzed" on an open radio channel.

"This is a typical Chinese approach," one source familiar with the incident told AFP, adding that Chinese enforcement vessels try to assert "that this is their territory and what are you doing in their territory?"

The Indian Navy officially denied the report.

Counterbalancing act

Analysts say that India's recent actions demonstrate that countries are looking for ways to balance the power scale against China and to ensure freedom of navigation for significant sea lines in the resource-rich East Sea.

Mohan Malik, a security analyst at the Honolulu-based Security Asia-Pacific Center For Security Studies said that the US, India, Japan and Vietnam have become "increasingly uneasy" as Beijing has made it clear that it would not tolerate another maritime power operating in the East Sea.

"China's rapid economic growth, military power, and hyper-nationalism at home are shaping Chinese public expectations and limiting possibilities for compromise with other powers," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"The geopolitical chess game is intensifying as Chinese and Indian navies show off their flags in the Indian and Pacific oceans with greater frequency," he said, adding that India's total trade volume with East Asian economies now exceeds that with the European Union or the US. He said this was a factor driving strategy.

Malik also said that Beijing is increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect of India's rise and it has derided US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's calls to India, made most recently in Chennai this year, to play a greater role in East Asia.

"India's naval activism has encouraged countries ranging from South Korea and Japan to Vietnam and Indonesia to view India as a possible counterweight to the future China in Southeast Asia," he said.

Malik predicted that China's military alliances and forward deployment of its naval assets in Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Myamarese ports would prompt India to respond in kind by seeking access to ports in Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan.

"Vietnam will be a major beneficiary of India's evolving maritime strategy," he said.

Vinod Saighal, former general director of the Indian army's military training unit, said the US, the majority of ASEAN countries and other countries in East Asia like Japan and South Korea look forward to a stronger Indian presence in the ASEAN region, the East Sea and the Far East.

"India's commitment to strengthening Vietnam's defensive capability and closer cooperation in defense, trade and the entire gamut of relations between the two countries  would result in 'strategic reassurance' for Vietnam," Saighal said. "Going a step further, it would allow Vietnam to more purposefully safeguard its national interest."

"China's phenomenal augmentation of its offensive capability should force these countries, notably Vietnam, India and Japan, to cooperate much more closely in the field of common defense and keeping the South China Sea as well as South Asia at a later stage free from Chinese hegemonic designs," he said.

Iskander Rehman, an international fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in India, said it would be in both India and Vietnam's interests if New Delhi worked towards assisting Vietnam in the enacting of an effective strategy of sea denial geared towards China's rapidly growing fleet.

"Although much media attention has been lavished on China's new aircraft carrier, it will be a long time before China will be able to deploy a full carrier strike group. For the next five to ten years, both India and Vietnam's main security naval concerns will revolve around China's large submarine fleet which can operate stealthily in the clustered shallow waters close to the Chinese coastline," he said.

Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at the University of New South Wales, said Vietnam has already taken the first step by offering commercial repair facilities at Cam Ranh Bay to all countries.

"This action is not directly aimed at China but it does demonstrate that other major powers have a national interest in the South China Sea," he said.

Thayer said some Indian defense analysts look on their relationship with Vietnam as a counter to the China-Pakistani relationship.

"In this view, China will have to act with more circumspection with Pakistan or face the prospects of a closer India-Vietnam relationship."

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