India Vietnam Relations: From Foundation to Superstructure
Ambassador Neeklakantan Ravi*
Cooperation in the field of energy between India and Vietnam goes back a little over three decades. In 1984, preliminary efforts were made through a study of possible gas reserves in the Red River Basin area in northern Vietnam. However, these efforts did not come to fruition and remained at the study and data analysis stage, since the approach to be adopted for the exploitation of the reserves varied between the two countries. In 1985 India commenced purchase of heavy crude from Vietnam in a small way. However, the quality of the output was such that it could be processed only in a couple of refineries in India.
In May 2006, ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) signed the agreement with Petro-Vietnam for exploring offshore about 120 km from the port city of Nha Trang. However, the activities of the Indian firm were constantly receiving adverse attention from China that kept insisting that India was drilling in a disputed area. India held the view that we should proceed with the drilling as per the commercial contract and leave the territorial issue for the Vietnamese authorities to resolve. This was partly reiterated by the Prime Minister in a media interaction towards end 2011. The joint media release by India and Vietnam issued after the October 2011 visit of the President of Vietnam to India clarified: “Disputes like the East and South China Sea should be resolved by peaceful means in accordance with universally recognised principles including the 1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Sea and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea”. India has been consistent in supporting the freedom of navigation and access to resources in South China Sea in accordance with the principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
However, the middle of 2012 saw OVL reporting that it was not going ahead with the project any further owing to reasons of economic non-viability. Whatever the reason, the timing of this move was a clear desire on the part of India to step back and not muddy the waters in the South China Sea. This was probably an indication that India found it more rational not to over extend its capacity with regard to the problems seen off and on in the South China Sea. The extension of “core interest” of China to cover the South China Sea in 2011 had its fallout on India too.
In November 2013, Vietnam offered India five oil blocks and ONGC Videsh Ltd examined them in terms of their feasibility. In the middle of 2014, Vietnam renewed India’s lease of two oil blocks in South China Sea for another year. This had been under exploration since 2007 based on the agreement signed between ONGC Videsh and PetroVietnam in May 2006. While China was objecting to India’s oil exploration projects in the “disputed” waters, India and Vietnam were looking at enhancing cooperation in the energy sector. A Letter of Intent was signed between ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) and Vietnam Oil and Gas Group (PetroVietnam) during President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Vietnam in September 2014. The LoI is aimed at further consolidating cooperation between India and Vietnam in the sector as well as to pave the way for future collaboration.
Over the last few years, the perception in Vietnam has been that Chinese actions in the South China Sea have significantly eroded goodwill between the two countries. Whether it was the fishing boat incident leading to the killing of Vietnamese fishermen in 2016 (and earlier in 2014) or China’s refusal to accept the decision (delivered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration of the International Court of Justice in June 2016) on China’s “historic claim” over the waters; the assertive position adopted by China has been perceived as arrogance. This in turn is converting the South China Sea into an area witnessing frequent spikes in tension with potential for serious conflict.
Creating an atmosphere of peace requires investing in the future and taking the right steps to achieve that end. Any hark back to the past to rectify history is difficult: history can at best be relived and not rectified. The latter comes at a terrible cost. Each country has self-respect and pride in itself and accommodation alone will provide a chance for peace to succeed. Establishing trust requires convincing the partner about the benefits of the partnership, based on acknowledgement of mutual respect and honesty.
According to some estimates, a little over USD 5 trillion worth of international trade passes through the South China Sea. China’s claims that the construction of facilities in some of the disputed islands is to increase safety in the area, and that other littoral states need not be concerned, is not very convincing. The other countries involved in the dispute feel otherwise. Both of them cannot be right.
The comprehensive strategic partnership between India and Vietnam is an instrument to ensure close bilateral relations with the possibility of extending mutual assistance so that the prevailing atmosphere of peace can be further strengthened, to help sustain respective plans of socio-economic development. Both India and Vietnam are neighbours of China and share some features in their traditions that realize the value of accommodation over assertion. To look back: China and Vietnam issued an eleven-point Joint Communique on November 10, 1991. Item 5 in that states that, “The two sides agreed to continue to take the necessary measures to maintain peace and tranquility along the border and encourage the border inhabitants to restore and develop traditional friendly exchanges so as to turn the Sino-Vietnamese border into a border of peace and friendship.…” India and China signed an agreement in September 1993 to maintain peace and tranquility along their border in the context of their evolving relationship. On the one hand, the Vietnam agreement appears to be affected by tension on the maritime boundary, that with India appears clouded by the not infrequent tensions emerging at the land border, on the other. Thus, even a quarter century after the signing of agreements, the goal of peace and tranquility is still to be reached. This perhaps calls for greater focus on all sides with some degree of sincerity in ensuring that such incidents do not occur. To this end, India and Vietnam should intensify their bilateral cooperation in all those sectors that enhance the security of their respective domestic environments to ensure sustained economic development.
Vietnam is one of the countries with a special place in the list of India’s foreign policy priorities, given its deep significance in India’s strategic and economic interests. The high-level visits exchanged between 2014 and 2016 reflected this reality. The visit of PM Modi to Vietnam, first by an Indian PM since 2001, has marked the starting point for the beginning of a new era in the bilateral relationship. During his visit, Prime Minister Modi announced the extension of a new defence credit line of $500 million and elevated the strategic partnership to the comprehensive strategic partnership, signifying India’s clear commitment to assist Vietnam to build its defence capabilities.
This deepening defence engagement between India and Vietnam is reflective of India’s interest in contributing and thereby shaping the political security order in Asia-Pacific. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement provides the framework for the same and now is the time for the two countries to activate the available levers for achieving the objectives.
1 From the Vietnamese side, these include Nong Duc Manh, Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 2005, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in 2007, Vice President Nguyen Thi Doan in 2009, Chairman, National Assembly of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong in 2010, President Truong Tan Sang in October 2011 and General Secretary of the Vietnam Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong In Novemeber 2013, when as many as 8 agreements covering a variety of fields were signed. The second visit of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in November 2014 to India was indeed a major milestone in the evolution of the bilateral relationship.
From the Indian side, the high-level visits have included, Prime Minister Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2001, Speaker of Lok Sabha, Shri Somnath Chatterjee in March 2007, President Smt. Pratibha Patil in November 2008, PM Dr. Manmohan Singh in October 2010 to attend the 8th ASEAN-India Summit and the 5th East Asia Summit, President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee in September 2014 and Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi in September 2016.
* Ambassador Neelakantan Ravi, Fomer Ambassador to Vietnam and Former Secretary (East), Ministry of External Affairs of India; Indian Council of World Affair (ICWA)