On Sept. 22, India downplayed recent Chinese objections to its joint oil-exploration venture with Vietnam in the South China Sea, pointing out that India has been drilling in the area since 1988 and has no plans to stop. This diplomatic spat followed China's announcement Sept. 17 of its "oceanic science and development" plan, which the New Delhi-based Times of India said would have "security implications." The plan did not specify where this oceanic development would occur, but Beijing received approval from the U.N. International Seabed Authority on July 11 to explore for polymetallic sulphides in the Southwest Indian Ocean Ridge. Asked to comment on plans by ONGC Videsh, India's largest oil company, to undertake two oil-exploration projects with Vietnam's state-owned oil major PetroVietnam in the South China Sea — almost all of which China claims as territorial waters — a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman reaffirmed China's "indisputable sovereignty right" without referring to India, though the warning was implicit. The exploration would occur in the Phu Khanh Basin, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Vietnam's central Phu Yen province and in an area of marginal interest to China. Nevertheless, Beijing's position was later elaborated on by China's partly state-owned Global Times, which called the joint venture a "serious political provocation." In fact, ONGC Videsh and PetroVietnam signed a seven-year contract in 2006 without any major diplomatic reaction from Beijing. Both companies are expected to sign a memorandum of understanding regarding drilling activities during Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang's state visit to India in early October. Once again, diplomatic jousting among powers in the region is revolving around oil and mineral exploration in contested waters
, but the most significant development is the strengthening relationship between India and Vietnam. India appears to be turning more toward Vietnam as it tries to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia and counter China's influence in the region, and Vietnam sees a natural partner in India as it tries to secure some level of control in the South China Sea. But there is a limit to how far India can go in this dalliance, which China is watching very closely.
Vietnam and India have enjoyed a stable strategic partnership for more than a decade, but, in a series of high-level exchanges over the past month, both countries appeared to express a growing interest in bilateral cooperation, particularly in the security realm. Aside from oil exploration projects in the South China Sea, India is seeking the right to use Nha Trang on the southern coast of Vietnam as a naval port and has offered to help the Vietnamese navy learn to operate a Kilo-class submarine, which Vietnam recently purchased from Russia, as well as train its forces in anti-submarine warfare. The recent strengthening of the partnership is likely due to China's assertiveness over disputed waters in the South China Sea and its intention to contain Vietnam's and India's strategic spheres of influence. The alignment was accelerated following renewed tensions with China early in 2011, when Chinese navy patrol boats reportedly harassed Vietnamese and Philippine seismic research vessels
. Cooperation between Vietnam and India in the South China Sea definitely falls into the strategic sphere for Vietnam. The South China Sea, particularly the Paracel Islands, serves as an important maritime buffer to defend the country's narrow, vulnerable waist, roughly where North Vietnam and South Vietnam were once split at the 17th parallel. The South China Sea also provides a sea route for Vietnam to import raw materials and to export manufactured goods and other commodities, and it is thought to be an abundant source of energy and other natural resources important for development of regional economies. Hence, Vietnam's new maritime strategy prioritizes exploration of the South China Sea, where longstanding territorial disputes with China have prompted Vietnam to multilateralize the issue. India, a regional player that rivals China in size and power, is a natural choice for a strategic partnership with Vietnam. But unlike Vietnam, India is not strategically focused on the South China Sea, nor is the sea critical to its economic and energy security at the moment. For India, the alignment with Vietnam reflects a desire to jump into an increasingly internationalized issue in hopes of gaining a foothold in the region and helping counterbalance China's influence. More important strategic issues brew elsewhere. New Delhi and Beijing are embroiled in a border dispute involving some 125,000 square kilometers (48,000 square miles) of land that India needs as a buffer, and cooperating with a country having a territorial dispute in the South China Sea helps distract Beijing from the border dispute. India is much more interested in what happens in the Indian Ocean, along its border with Kashmir and in neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka. India and China have long competed for control in the Indian Ocean, especially the Andaman Sea, which lies along the west coast of Myanmar and leads to the entrance to the Strait of Malacca. And Beijing is clearly on the move in the region, establishing port agreements with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and expanding its economic and political clout in other peripheral countries. This, along with expanded Chinese infrastructure and a growing troop presence in Kashmir, has enabled Beijing to gain the upper hand
in its border dispute with India. With its reinvigorated "Look East" policy, New Delhi envisions a trilateral defense arrangement with Japan and the United States to contain China. Bringing Vietnam into the equation helps achieve that by allowing access to coastal Vietnamese military bases on the South China Sea. Moreover, with Washington's renewed interest in the Asia-Pacific region, increased Indian involvement in the South China Sea — the geopolitical center point of Asian affairs — could help India gain some strategic leverage and economic benefit by broadening its security sphere and tapping into other external markets. However, despite the strengthening relationship between India and Vietnam, many obstacles remain to a long-term strategic partnership. While Vietnam sees India as a natural partner, it understands that India has a limited interest in the South China Sea and higher priorities elsewhere and would not likely intervene in a quarrel between China and Vietnam. Given how sensitive China is about third-party involvement in the South China Sea, India knows there is a limit to how much China will tolerate in terms of an Indian-Vietnamese alignment.
A Possible Warning from Beijing
Beijing may have already fired a warning shot. Media spotlighted a brief confrontation July 22 between a Chinese warship and Indian naval vessel in the South China Sea, 45 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast, following the latter's visits to the southern Vietnamese port of Nha Trang and the northern port of Hai Phong. A Chinese warship reportedly demanded that the Indian ship, the Shardule-class amphibious warfare vessel INS Airavat, identify itself and explain its presence in the South China Sea. Later, both China and India downplayed the issue and denied that there was a confrontation. China has long held the upper hand over Vietnam, which has resisted Chinese domination for centuries. Since uniting North Vietnam and South Vietnam in 1975, Hanoi has also resisted Beijing's attempts to limit Vietnam's dominance over Indochina and presence in the South China Sea. Beijing is particularly sensitive over any foreign power's involvement with Vietnam. The latest tensions between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea paralleled harsher rhetoric from Vietnamese state media. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City also saw large anti-China protests, which may have been encouraged by authorities. The July 22 confrontation between China and India, if there were one, would have been intended not only to warn India but also to send a message to Vietnam. India may have limited options, but its growing interest in Southeast Asian affairs and its strategic need to counterbalance China could pay dividends. The South China Sea is growing in importance as an economic focal point for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the renewed interest in the region by the United States and Japan could be beneficial to India. Whether China likes it or not, a number of multilateral mechanisms are already planned or are in place, including a proposed U.S.-Japan-India trilateral meeting and the Sixth East Asia Summit
, which will be held in mid-November in Jakarta, Indonesia. The East Asia Summit is an annual gathering of countries in the region that began primarily as an economic conclave but is growing and evolving into a platform for discussing regional security issues as well. But while India and Vietnam do have common interests and want closer military ties, their different priorities and levels of exposure to China will prevent them from moving too far too fast.