Modi’s Vietnam visit vs. China

Modi’s Vietnam visit vs. China

Rajeev Sharma
All cannot be well when bilateral relations between China and India, Asia’s number one and number three economies respectively, are sliding down. In fact, “sliding down” will be a diluted version of interplay between these two major Asian powers which have fought a war against each other way back in 1962.
The India-China bilateral relationship needs to be watched very closely 24/7 even in usual circumstances but it has become all the more imperative after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Vietnam, a backyard of China on Sept. 2-3. Significantly, Modi visited Vietnam hours ahead of his visit to China for attending the G20 summit.
Vietnam has become an important lynchpin in the dynamics of Asian power play in recent years and the India-Vietnam-China triangle has become curiouser even more recently. Modi’s Vietnam visit confirms this louder than ever before. India is increasingly using Vietnam to poke China in the eye just as China is doing the same to India by its strategic partnership with its all-weather friend Pakistan.
This in a nutshell is the message of Modi to China after just completing his maiden official visit to Vietnam, the first one by an Indian prime minister to Vietnam in 15 years. Modi’s Vietnam visit is game changer and seeks to turn the heat on China, which fought a bloody war with Vietnam in 1979 and continues to have frosty relations with Hanoi.
If any evidence of the veracity of this argument was required, here are several.
First and foremost, India and Vietnam decided to upgrade their nearly decade-long “Strategic Partnership ” to “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”.
Second, India announced a new Defense Line of Credit to Vietnam worth $500 million, after exhausting the $100 million Line of Credit for defense given by the previous Indian government headed by Manmohan Singh. The new LC will give a fillip to defense ties between India and Vietnam and demonstrates the Modi government’s intent to use its relations with Vietnam to counterbalance China, just as China has been trying to counterbalance India by stepping up the gas on its bilateral ties with Pakistan.
Third, the two countries have decided to intensify their bilateral relations in many more fields like space, energy, connectivity, trade and economy, science and technology, cyber security, health, culture, tourism, people-to-people exchanges — apart from the usual defense and security and regional and international cooperation.
The new Comprehensive Strategic Partnership will be driven by the two countries’ foreign ministers. A significant part of the burgeoning India-Vietnam relationship which should worry China is the two sides’ decision to further step up their cooperation in exploration of oil and gas. China has repeatedly warned India to stay away from oil and gas exploration in Vietnam, saying that such exploration bids are being conducted in territories which are claimed by China. But India has ignored these warnings.
Expectedly, the South China Sea figured in the two sides’ discussions as well as in the Joint Statement. Expectedly, both India and Vietnam ticked off China on the issue. However, the two sides preferred to couch their views on the SCS issue in a carefully moderate language.
During Modi’s Vietnam visit, the two sides signed as many as 12 agreements. These agreements included such diverse subjects as space, double taxation, UN Peacekeeping matters, health, information technology, cyber security, defense and shipping. But there were a few important issues from China’s perspective which were discussed during Modi’s visit with his Vietnamese interlocutors but have not been publicly shared by the two sides. Here are the prominent ones.
(i) Sale of BrahMos missiles to Vietnam: The Vietnamese side reiterated its long standing demand that India should sell BrahMos missiles to Vietnam. However, the Modi government decided to keep this issue under the carpet for now as he was to be on Chinese soil a few hours later and such a move would have been a bad diplomatic move from India and disastrous for India-China relations. India has already deployed BrahMos missiles and Sukhoi fighter planes in Arunachal Pradesh which has riled China no end. BrahMos missiles are jointly produced by India and Russia. Another related issue is that India has just got membership of MTCR. Technically, India can still sell BrahMos missiles to Vietnam as this missile is of 290-km range, well within the 300-km cap set by MTCR.
(ii) Though the two sides have put in public domain many things about their growing defense ties, they have refrained from making their specific roadmap public during this visit. This issue will come up during their upcoming meetings at the level of senior officials.
(iii) US and Japan have enlarged their footprints in Vietnam: The Indians were given to understand by their Vietnamese interlocutors that the United States, Japan and the Philippines would be synchronizing their defense and security postures in the region and sought India’s cooperation. The Indian response is still awaited.
(iv) The two sides exchanged views on their respective positions to be unveiled during the East Asian Summit in Laos on Sept. 8, during which the South China Sea issue is expected to figure prominently.
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