20 September, 2011
How the domestic political scene clouds a significant foreign policy move abroad can be exemplified by an almost unreported Vietnam initiative by India. But for the Chinese opposition to the entry of ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) in South China Sea for oil hunt, which helped SM Krishna’s Vietnam visit get some mention in newspapers, the much praiseworthy Vietnam engagement would have been lost as yet another boring foreign jaunts of Krishna.
It's true, like China disputes its territory with India, South China Sea also is ‘disputed’ for Beijing and though it reserves the right to have interventions in any other land considered ‘disputed’ by a neighbouring country, like its PLA's presence in PoK. OVL first began its operation in South China Sea in 1992 with Petro Vietnam and British Petroleum (BP) and successfully discovered a 58-billion-cubic-metre gas field. A financial crisis compelled OVL to withdraw for a decade and again the opportunity arrived when BP offered to seel its stakes in Nam Con Son gas fields (with an area of 955 square kilometres). According to reports, OVL has invested $217 million and could invest up to $377.46 million. Chinese objection was specific to OVL’s exploration in blocks 127 and 128.
Full maks to India for responding befittingly to the Chinese objection.
Vietnam is one of the our significant strategic partners in South East Asia. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh had played a leading role in strengthening bilateral relations during their visits in 2000 and early 2001. Later, Manmohan Singh understood the strategic importance of this region and India signed a special strategic partnership treaty with Vietnam in 2007, giving emphasis to defence exchanges, military training and joint military exercises. Indian Naval ships have been making frequent goodwill visits to Vietnam ports.
China was feeling quite uncomfortable about the growing warmth between New Delhi and Hanoi and when Financial Times of London reported that a Chinese warship confronted the Indian Navy vessel shortly after it left Vietnamese waters in late July, everyone tended to trust it till China and India both contradicted the report.
The fact is that China wants to emerge as the maritime super power from Gwadar to South China sea, its vast maritime empire has helped its clout grow several times more than its immediate neighbours. Hence its discomfiture over India’s growing presence in an area which it treats as under ‘its influence’ can be well understood.
Like India experienced and resisted the brutal attacks of the foreign invaders and long spells of colonial rule, Vietnam too faced Chinese, French and American assaults and their long colonial subjugation, finally unshackling from their control and emerging as a proud sovereign country.
Apart from the shared values of freedom and patriotism, we share more than a thousand year old civilisational link. The entire region was once known as Champa in Indian literature and history. Vijaya was a city-state in the ancient kingdom in what is now Vietnam. It was the capital of Champa for several centuries. The ancient kingdom of Champa was situated in the central coast of Vietnam at one time stretched from the Ngang Pass (present Quang Binh province) to the upper basin of Dong Nai river. A senior diplomat and former secretary in the Ministry of External affairs, JC Sharma, has written a book on the ancient Shiva temples of Vietnam. Jawaharlal Nehru had shown great interest in this region and he helped Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia as well as helping Ho Chi Minh, despite US reservations about his communist regime. Time magazine, in its October 1955 issue reported that Lao’s Premier Katay Sasorith on one of his Delhi visits, urged Nehru to help them, saying "Laos was an outpost of Indian civilization when there was competition between India and China ... We look to you today for help."
Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam together were known as Indochina and had looked upon India as their natural ally and friend. But being under the colonial spell of the British, our governance and foreign policy had a western fixation, which continues even today.
India’s eastern move began quite late suffering from delayed milestones. The Southeast and the Eastern region, which had been a region civilisationally inclined towards India, had not received any significant attention till lately. Even today, India has a total trade of about $3bn with Vietnam, while China almost reached a trade level of $24bn in 2010 and may cross the $25bn mark by this year. It’s noteworthy that in spite of a long history of hostilities towards Vietnam (in 1979, China attacked Vietnam forcing India’s foreign minister Vajpayee to cut short his China trip midway. The war cost Vietnam more than one lakh soldiers and China lost more than 40,000 PLA men.) China has improved relations dramatically since the 90s. In 2009 Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had met his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao in Beijing and both had shown their resolve to meet the goal of raising two-way trade to US$25 billion in 2010, alongside keeping trade balance and increasing cooperation between their border localities. On the contrary India feels satisfied with opening of English teaching schools and IT training centres. I must add here that OVL’s presence is an exception and certainly deserves praise.
With a feeble overall Indian investment history, it was quite expected that China considers itself as a lord of this region, and hence it objected to India’s oil and gas exploration bid with Petro-Vietnam in South China sea. While one must applaud India’s growing investment in this region, though a bit too delayed one, the Chinese discomfiture with it must make us alert. Beijing’s encirclement of India from Gwadar to Bay of Bengal is now quite well known. It has also sent its troops to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, an area that is disputed and is claimed by India. Its open intervention in Nepalese politics, creating an atmosphere of disaffection against India has also been exposed. Almost at every international forum China has been opposing Indian interests. Its military and economic aid to Pakistan has a direct bearing on India’s security.
Indian presence in South East Asia and the east needs more power push and a long-term strategic planning. The future lies in the east. The Indian tiger must reinvent its roar. The dragon will learn to adjust to the new realities.