India-Vietnam sea cooperation will be limited

By Zhou Fangyin Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/4 18:48:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Before attending the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a short visit to Vietnam, becoming the first Indian head of government to visit the country in 15 years.

For Indian media, which tend to grab every opportunity to hype up controversies in Sino-Indian ties, Modi's tour of Vietnam was exciting news, and was believed to be a signal showing that New Delhi is attempting to play a more proactive role in the South China Sea issue.

On Saturday, India announced it would provide Vietnam with a $500 million loan for defense purposes. New Delhi agreed to lend Vietnam $100 million to buy defense equipment in 2014.

India and Vietnam seem to share quite a few common interests and similarities in terms of their policies toward Beijing. They both have complicated and unresolved border disputes with China. They both have bitter history of being defeated in border wars with China. They both have doubts and concerns toward China's rising power and influence. During India's emergence, it has always been comparing itself with China. Indian media tend to hail every time their country outruns China in certain fields, and show their depression when their nation's development is surpassed by China's.

Given the South China Sea issue, Beijing-Hanoi relations have not been smooth over the past years. Negative emotions toward Beijing among the Vietnamese people have also been rising.

Under such a backdrop, Modi's visit to Vietnam has without doubt made Indians associate the tour with many strategic meanings, believing that New Delhi and Hanoi might jointly pile pressure on Beijing.

As far as I am concerned, such a possibility cannot be totally excluded, but it will not play a vital role either. India has always been cautious when it comes to directly putting the screw on China. In this regard, the US has never stopped drawing New Delhi over to its side for its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific strategy, but India only showed reluctance toward it and has not responded to Washington actively. This has made the White House quite grouchy.

The fundamental reason behind it is the interests of India and Vietnam. New Delhi and Hanoi both wish to raise their bargaining position while having interactions with China, but neither of them wants direct confrontation with Beijing.

There are many common interests between New Delhi and Beijing in terms of the rise of emerging powers, striving for their own international discourse rights, collaboration among BRICS countries, as well as economic and trade cooperation. India hopes it can improve its underdeveloped infrastructure with the help of Chinese investments and technology.

From the perspective of strategy, the major improvement in the international environment that India faces is mainly a result of China's emergence as well as some nations' hope to use India as leverage to contain China. In the light of this, the best strategy for New Delhi is waiting for a higher bid, instead of actually selling its stance.

For Vietnam, with or without China, cooperating with an emerging power like India is beyond doubt of great value. However, such a bilateral relationship will have only limited influence on China. After all, strong support from Washington and Tokyo has not yet worked in piling enough pressure on Beijing as Vietnam hoped, thus, how effective can India's vague support be?

Over the years, New Delhi has avoided getting involved in other nations' controversies and disputes, in order not to become a troublemaker. But when there is a chance to gain interests, it would normally take advantage of others' conflicts.

But if India-Vietnam collaboration can play a crucial role in containing China, why didn't the two work together long ago? Why didn't the Vietnamese government promote this process earlier?

Vietnam just witnessed the first visit by an Indian prime minister in the last 15 years. During the same period, Chinese former president Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, former premier Wen Jiabao, as well as sitting President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have all paid formal visits to the country. Some of them even visited Vietnam twice during their time in office. Such a comparison can well illustrate what is going on behind Sino-Vietnam ties and Indo-Vietnamese relations.

Some Indian newspapers quoted Indian experts as saying that Modi's Vietnam visit has sent a political message - "India can make the same statement in China's backyard that they do in ours." As a matter of fact, Southeast Asia is not and will never be China's backyard. The reason Indian media said so lies in its arrogance and pride in its relations with smaller countries. The term "backyard" must sound unpleasant to Hanoi.

Therefore, if India does not change its moves and attitudes in its diplomacy, its ties with Vietnam will hardly go smoothly. The basis of India-Vietnam cooperation needs to be further intensified.

The author is a professor at the Guangdong Research Institute for International Strategies.

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