The India-China competition and rivalry in Asia play themselves out in several ways including as a series of bilateral sub-plots. Beijing develops a cluster of relationships along India’s periphery with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh while India seeks closer ties with Singapore, Vietnam and Japan.
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was in India this week to strengthen a crucial strategic partnership that is held together by economic prospects and shared concerns about Beijing. Vietnam has longstanding territorial disputes with China and is perhaps as enthusiastic about ties with India as Japan is. Hanoi looks at New Delhi as a counter to Beijing and as a source of weapons, technology and training, and offers India energy exploration opportunities in the South China Sea.
India has reciprocated by stepping up high-level dialogue and assisting Vietnam’s military modernisation. India trains Vietnamese navy personnel in handling Russian submarines and is pondering a request to train pilots flying Sukhoi aircraft.
New Delhi has been mindful of Beijing’s sensitivities without yielding on strategic signalling. India has not yet agreed to Vietnam’s request for the Brahmos anti-ship cruise missile but it will transfer four naval patrol vessels to monitor its seas as part of a $100 million line of credit for defence procurement.
Similarly, India is unlikely to pursue new oil ventures in contested areas of the South China Sea, but will explore projects elsewhere in the Vietnamese waters.
Such a balancing act shows sound judgment by both India and Vietnam, which after all simultaneously strengthen ties with China notwithstanding their security concerns. India-China bilateral trade is worth $66 billion and the Modi government is seeking more Chinese investment to fuel the country’s growth.
China, meanwhile, is Vietnam’s biggest trade partner with annual volumes reaching $50 billion, far more than the India-Vietnam trade, which is worth $7 billion.
China and Vietnam also aim to address thorny bilateral issues as New Delhi and Beijing are. China’s state councillor Yang Jiechi was in Hanoi for talks while Mr Nguyen was in New Delhi. The Asian balance of power is still a work in progress. This is clearly a time for quiet consolidation.