WSJ, on the growing friendship between India and Vietnam:
India is the latest country to get drawn into the South China Sea dispute. Earlier this month, Beijing told New Delhi that its permission was needed for India’s state-owned oil and gas firm to explore for energy in two Vietnamese blocks in those waters. This follows reports of a Chinese vessel confronting an Indian Navy frigate off Vietnam in late July.
Vietnam quickly cited the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to claim its sovereign rights over the two blocks in question. Hanoi has been sparring with Beijing over the South China Sea in the past year, so such a response was expected.
What’s new is New Delhi not taking Chinese aggression in that region sitting down. It immediately decided to support Hanoi’s claims.
Hanoi fought a brief war with Beijing in 1979 and has grown wary of the Middle Kingdom’s increasing economic and military weight. That’s why in some quarters of New Delhi, Vietnam is already seen as a counterweight in the same way Pakistan has been for China.
That’s not to say good India-Vietnam relations wouldn’t exist otherwise. Vietnamese have traditionally held Indians in high regard because of the latter’s support for Vietnamese independence from France and their opposition to U.S. involvement in the country. And New Delhi formulated a “Look East” policy as early as 1991, to capitalize on East Asia’s economic growth. But the rise of China has given this relationship a powerful strategic—not to mention urgent—dimension.
New Delhi’s abiding interest in Vietnam, though, is in the defense realm. It wants to build relations with states like Vietnam that can act as pressure points against China. With this in mind, it has been helping Hanoi beef up its naval and air capabilities.
Given that Vietnam and India use similar Russian and erstwhile Soviet defense platforms, New Delhi could easily offer defense technologies to Hanoi. Talks are ongoing for India to sell the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, an Indo-Russian joint venture. Such arms could allow Vietnam to project regional power and improve deterrence against China.
The two nations also have stakes in ensuring sea-lane security, as well as shared concerns about Chinese access to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Hence, India is helping Vietnam to build capacity for repair and maintenance of its defense platforms. At the same time, the armed forces of the two states have started cooperation in areas like IT and English-language training of Vietnamese Army personnel. The two are also sharing their experiences in mountainous and jungle warfare.
Naval cooperation, however, remains the focus. Here, Vietnam has given India the right to use its port of Nha Trang in the south; the Indian Navy has already made a port call. It is not entirely clear what the final arrangement would look like, but the symbolism of this is not lost on China.
This is the way to counter Chinese aggression in the region. If they could convince the other nations involved in the South China Sea flap to work with them, even a dominant China would have to pull back.