(Forbes, July 19,2017): China and Vietnam have talked peacefully over the past year about cooperating despite a bitter, decades-old maritime sovereignty dispute. China needed to reconcile because a world arbitration court ruled in July 2016 against the legal basis for its claims to most of a 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that overlaps waters heavily used by Vietnam. Vietnam wanted to talk because it depends so heavily on China’s economy, its top source of trade as of early 2017. Leaders in Hanoi weren’t sure whether U.S. President Donald Trump would help Vietnam military the way his predecessor Barack Obama had.
Now Vietnam is pushing for stronger ties with India. The two countries have explored together for oil in the South China Sea — the one Beijing believes is mostly its own — since at least 2014 when the overseas subsidiary of India’s state-run firm ONGC and PetroVietnam Exploration Production Corp. signed an agreement for exploring three oil blocks despite bristling in Beijing, Indian media reported. That cooperation was extended last year and again this year.
Vietnamese Foreign Minister Phạm Bình Minh told Indian President Pranab Mukherjee last week on a visit to New Delhi that he wanted to “step up” a year-old strategic comprehensive partnership, Viet Nam News reported. The partnership should contribute to “stability, security and prosperity,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quoted saying last year. The Vietnamese prime minister had suggested in April that two-way trade should reach $15 billion by 2020. Vietnam-China trade totaled $95.8 billion in 2015, per this news report.
But the Vietnamese have resented China over centuries of territorial disputes including a war in the 1970s and a boat-ramming incident three years ago over a Chinese oil rig in the disputed sea.
Courting India means smart diplomacy for Vietnam. India has the world’s fourth-strongest armed forces, research database GlobalFirePower.com says, offering a deterrent against Chinese influence over Vietnam. India offers Vietnam credit to buy weapons and trains Vietnamese sailors, says Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities. The two had agreed earlier to accelerate patrol boat production for Vietnam and India has said it would bolster naval training.
“One of the most fruitful areas that Vietnam is benefiting from relations with India is in defense cooperation,” Nguyen says. “India’s possession of some technological transfers in weapon production from Russia is also what Vietnam is looking to, to upgrade its stockpile.”
Vietnam, which also signed a 33-point partnership declaration with India in 2007, has championed relations with that country as well as with Japan and Russia “to avoid being caught in the middle of strategic rivalry between a rising China and the United States,” Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia, argues in a 2016 paper. Vietnamese leaders are ill at ease about Washington’s exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, a would-be boon to Vietnamese exports, as well as Hanoi’s uncertainty about continuity of U.S. defense aid.
India, which feels its own squeeze from China’s growing military and economic influence, values the Vietnam relationship as a way to keep Beijing in check, scholars such as this one with the China Policy Institute in the United Kingdom say. India calls closer ties with Vietnam part of its Act East policy.
“Modi has been seeking stronger relationships with states that have ongoing disputes with China on multiple fronts,” the institute scholar says. “Clearly, Vietnam has emerged as a pivotal state…as a strategic partner in countering China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean region.”