China has for long seen India as a major competitor and has been engaged in the strategic encirclement of India through its proxies like Pakistan along India’s land borders and its string of pearls strategy in the northern Indian Ocean region. However, India had till recently adopted no pro-active measures to develop counter leverages of its own. This is now changing gradually as India has begun to reach out to its friends in Southeast Asia and further east along the Asia-Pacific rim as part of a carefully thought through strategy to develop some pressure points. The first step in the new “look east” policy is to propel India’s strategic partnership with Vietnam to a higher trajectory.
One month after China objected to oil exploration by India in the South China Sea under a contract awarded to the Indian state-owned company ONGC Videsh Ltd by the Vietnamese and three months after the Chinese navy warned Indian Naval Ship Airawat, which was sailing in international waters between the Vietnamese ports of Nha Trang and Hai Phong, to leave Chinese waters – a warning that INS Airawat ignored, India and Vietnam signed an agreement on energy cooperation. The agreement was signed during the visit of Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang to New Delhi to further cement the India-Vietnamese strategic partnership. The two countries also decided to pursue a regular security dialogue, which has further incensed the Chinese.
The Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, thundered: “China may consider taking actions to show its stance and prevent more reckless attempts in confronting China.” Earlier the paper had warned that prospecting for oil in China-claimed waters would “push China to the limits”. The relatively more moderate People’s Daily also did not mince words: “China must take practical and firm actions to make these projects fall through. China should denounce this agreement as illegal. Once India and Vietnam initiate their exploration, China can send non-military forces to disturb their work, and cause dispute or friction to halt the two countries’ exploration.”
The China Energy News said that “India is playing with fire by agreeing to explore for oil with Vietnam in the disputed South China Sea… its energy strategy is slipping into an extremely dangerous whirlpool.” Such a jingoistic campaign has not been launched by the Chinese media against India in recent times. Chinese analysts are perhaps unaware that ONGC’s association with Vietnam for oil and gas exploration goes back 23 years. For the time being India has chosen to ignore Chinese warnings and continue its activities in accordance with the contract signed by ONGC Videsh with Vietnam.
Recent news reports have suggested that India is considering the sale of the non-nuclear BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to Vietnam. The geo-political implications of India’s enhanced strategic cooperation are not lost on anyone. Some Indian analysts have gone to the extent of saying that India should project Vietnam as “India’s Pakistan” in its quest to develop leverages against China as Vietnam offers India an entry point through which it can “penetrate China’s periphery.”
Clearly, as India begins to flex its maritime muscles, the footprints of the navies and the merchant fleets of both the countries will criss-cross each other in future and there is need for a serious dialogue to avoid clashes. Also, arrangements for security will need to be made in consultation with the government concerned so that Indian assets being employed for legitimate commercial purposes are not vandalised or destroyed by either adversary states or state-sponsored terrorists who can operate with plausible deniability.