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Vietnam Seeks Greater Defense Ties with India

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Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh (R) shakes hands with General Dalbir Singh Suhag, Chief of the Indian Army Staff, in New Dehli on Jan. 16.


The disputed waters of the South China Sea have been quiet recently, as a nationalistic Beijing has sought to reassure its neighbors of its peaceful intentions by toning down the rhetoric and hesitating from taking any further aggressive actions.  Yet here in Vietnam, Beijing’s previous hard talk and aggressive actions have not been easily forgotten by government officials or the general populace, despite Beijing removing in July the offshore oil rig moved to waters off the Vietnamese coast in May.

Last week, Vietnamese officials flew to New Delhi to meet with their Indian counterparts as part of the Vietnam-India Defense Dialogue, to discuss the need for a closer strategic defense partnership.   The dialogue marked Vietnam’s first discussions on mutual defense with the newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.  In a joint statement, the prime ministers of India and Vietnam agreed “freedom of navigation and overflight in the East Sea should not be impeded and called the parties concerned to exercise restraint, avoid threats or use of force”.

Despite warnings from China, India has extended a $100 million concessional line of credit (LoC) to Vietnam for the purchase of at least four new 140-ton fast patrol boats, which will be used to patrol Vietnam’s waters and Exclusive Economic Zone.  India is already providing assistance in training Vietnamese to operate Russian Kilo-class submarines and Vietnam is pressing for India’s assistance in training for its Air Force pilots to fly Sukhoi fighter jets.

The close defense cooperation between Vietnam and India stems in part from their mutual economic cooperation on joint oil exploration projects in the South China Sea.  PetroVietnam and India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) inked an agreement last year to explore for oil and gas in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone.   Last Tuesday, in response to a question concerning the joint exploration efforts of India and Vietnam, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reiterated, “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and its adjacent waters. We have no objection to countries who want to carry out legitimate and lawful oil and gas cooperation in waters that we have no dispute over.” Beijing has previously criticized India/Vietnam joint oil and gas cooperation in the South China Sea, stating such joint exploration activities off the Vietnam coast are illegal.

The problem with Beijing’s apparent conciliatory statement — having no objection to countries cooperating in waters Beijing has no disputes over — is that Beijing claims jurisdiction to over 90 percent of the waters of the East and South China Sea.  Neighboring countries such as Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam will not be content to limit their joint or sole exploration efforts to just 10 percent of the waters.  Beijing should make greater efforts to work together with disputant countries, including India, in sharing the vast resources of oil and gas in these waters, and sign joint exploration and production sharing agreements with its neighbors, while leaving the question of sovereignty for a later discussion.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666