Modi's Vietnam visit assumes greater significance after South China Sea ruling

Clashes and skirmishes in the SCS with China has driven Vietnam to strengthen its ties with India and other powers like US and Japan.

 |  5-minute read |   18-08-2016
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam early next month, his third substantive tour to the region, will possibly be the most momentous of them all.

Modi’s first visit to the region was to Myanmar in November 2014 to take part in the ASEAN-India and East Asia Summits (EAS). During this visit Modi declared the transformation of the "Look East Policy" launched by prime minister Narasimha Rao in 1992 to "Act East Policy".

This was designed to infuse greater energy in this initiative, expand geographical coverage under its ambit, and invest strategic content to India’s engagement with ASEAN as well as with a broader canvas encompassing other East Asian countries including Japan, Australia, South Korea, Pacific Island nations, etc.

Also read: Is Beijing asking India to choose between NSG and South China Sea?

Partnership

His second visit took place in November 2015 to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for ASEAN-India as well as EAS, from where he travelled on a bilateral visit to Singapore for elevation of bilateral partnership to strategic level, as also to commemorate the 50th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations.

He also paid a one-day visit to Singapore in March 2015 to attend the funeral of former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Modi’s forthcoming bilateral visit to Vietnam is likely to take place after his participation in the G-20 Summit in China on September 4-5, and in ASEAN-India and EAS in Vientiane, Laos on September 6-7.

Modi’s tour to Hanoi is expected to significantly augment bilateral partnership in strategic, defence, economic and commercial spheres. It will provide a vigorous impetus to the "Act East Policy" which has been expanding rapidly since its launch. Modi’s visit would have been decisive and pivotal just for these reasons alone. What, however, will make the sojourn momentous is the critical timing of the visit.

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague under the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) gave its judgment on the complaint filed by the Philippines against Chinese claims and activities in the South China Sea (SCS). The court declared that China did not enjoy any historical rights in SCS as it had been claiming under the nine-dash line and also that it could not claim any Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the small artificial structures it had created.

Also read: Wrong to criticise India over South China Sea stance

scsbd_081816015729.jpg Vietnam has been facing frequent and aggressive harassment from the Chinese navy in areas it rightly considers under its jurisdiction in accordance with provisions of UNCLOS.

It was a clear, comprehensive verdict against China. The verdict was largely along expected lines, perhaps more favourable to the Philippines and more detrimental to Chinese interests than anticipated. China did not participate in the proceedings of PCA as it did not consider it competent to adjudicate on the issues of sovereignty in SCS.

PCA’s judgment, however, did not address the sovereignty issue but coverage and usage of the waters of SCS as per provisions of UNCLOS.

China declared the judgment "null and void". It has resorted to some aggressive posturing while simultaneously indulging in bellicose and intimidatory statements from the highest level of government. It has also sought to open channels of communication with the Philippines to solve the issue on a bilateral basis.

Also read: While Beijing builds in South China Sea, India dithers over its own

Dispute

Although Vietnam was not a party to the dispute, its position on legal status of SCS and exploitation of its fishery and energy resources is as strong as that of the Philippines. It has been facing frequent and aggressive harassment from the Chinese navy in areas it rightly considers under its jurisdiction in accordance with provisions of UNCLOS.

Tension has erupted in the open over the past several years with clashes and skirmishes in the sea. This has driven Vietnam to strengthen its ties with India and other powers like the US and Japan. Last two years have seen intense exchange of visits between India and Vietnam.

President Pranab Mukherjee and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj travelled to Hanoi in September and August 2014, respectively.

During Mukherjee’s visit, India clearly enunciated its position on maritime security, freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of SCS dispute in accordance with provisions of UNCLOS. A far-reaching visit by Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Van Dung to India took place in October 2014 during which PM Modi stated that defence relations with Vietnam were quite significant for India.

Defence

May 2015 witnessed the visit of the Vietnamese defence minister to Delhi and June this year saw the return visit by India’s raksha mantri to Hanoi. During Vietnamese defence minister’s visit, Modi assured him of "India’s full commitment to the strategic partnership between the two countries."

A Joint Vision Statement, outlining the trajectory of bilateral defence cooperation through 2020, was signed. This heightened exchange will be capped by Modi's forthcoming tour. In 1992, India and Vietnam established extensive economic ties. Defence ties benefited hugely from India’s Look East policy.

Military cooperation includes sale of military equipment, sharing of intelligence, joint naval exercises and training in counterinsurgency and jungle warfare. India regularly deploys its warships for goodwill visits to Vietnamese seas. India is providing a $100 million credit line to Vietnam which will be used to buy four large patrol vessels that will enable it to secure its waters.

Bilateral trade and investment are likely to receive special attention. ASEAN-India free trade agreement came into effect in 2010. Bilateral trade expanded significantly to $3.92 billion by the end of 2012. As of 2015, bilateral trade stood at $ 7 billion.

Target for 2020 has been set at $15 billion. This appears eminently achievable.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Writer

Ashok Sajjanhar Ashok Sajjanhar @asajjanhar

The writer is secretary, National Foundation for Communal Harmony.

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