The warships of India and Vietnam on Saturday and Sunday conducted a joint exercise in the South China Sea, notwithstanding Beijing’s displeasure over growing strategic cooperation between the two nations, which both have been at the receiving end of its territorial aggression.
Beijing noted that India had of late been stepping up its strategic cooperation with Vietnam in the South China Sea in order to “exert pressure” on China and end the military stand-off in eastern Ladakh. An article on a website authorised by the all-powerful Central Military Commission of China claimed that India was finding it “severely challenging” to provide logistics support to the soldiers it had deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The INS Kiltan of the Indian Navy participated in a two-day Passage Exercise or ‘PassEx’ with the warships of the Vietnam People’s Navy in the South China Sea.
New Delhi stated that the drill had reinforced the maritime interoperability between the Indian Navy and Vietnam People’s Navy.
The joint exercise took place about a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a virtual summit with his Vietnam counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc and formally handed over to him a high speed patrol boat, which was the first of a fleet of 12 India had pledged to provide the South-East Asian nation to help it guard its maritime boundary in the face of growing aggression of China. New Delhi is providing the patrol boats under a $100 million Line of Credit (LoC) it had earlier extended to Vietnam.
New Delhi moved to step up its strategic cooperation with Hanoi at a time when the Indian Army was engaged in a stand-off with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the LAC in eastern Ladakh.
The South China Sea is a major waterway and the sea lanes in this region account for over US $ 5 trillion of international trade. It has been at the centre of an escalating territorial conflict between China and its maritime neighbours – Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Philippines.
Vietnam has been most vocal among the South East Asian nations in opposing China’s territorial aggression in the region.
The summit between Modi and Phuc on December 21 saw New Delhi and Hanoi tacitly opposing Beijing’s latest move to press Vietnam and the other South-East Asian nations hard to insert in the proposed Code of Conduct on South China Sea certain clauses that would help China keep its rivals like India, the United States and other nations outside the region away from the disputed waters.
“India has never stopped searching for chips to counter China on the land boundary issue, which is an important reason for its strategic cooperation with Vietnam on the South China Sea issue and its exploration of oil and gas resources in disputed waters between China and Vietnam,” Liu Zongyi, Secretary General of the Center of China-South Asia Cooperation at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, wrote in the article, published by China Military Online web portal authorised by the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the communist country.
India’s ONGC Videsh Limited has a long-standing partnership with PetroVietnam for exploration of oil and gas in Vietnam. China, however, has been protesting the role of the OVL of India and other foreign companies in exploration of hydrocarbons in the blocks in the continental shelf of Vietnam.
“At present, the border stand-off between Beijing and New Delhi continues, and India’s logistics support (to its front-line soldiers) at the Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso (one of the scenes of the stand-off in eastern Ladakh) is confronted with severe challenges,” Liu wrote, adding: “Therefore, India intends to exert pressure on China through the South China Sea issue to force China to back off on the border”.
He noted that New Delhi had not only strengthened strategic cooperation with countries around the South China Sea, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, over the past few years, but had also built military facilities near the Malacca Strait, in order to guard against China. “India will not stop at meddling in the South China Sea issue as a means to pressuring China,” he wrote.
Liu’s article was in response to the recent summit between Modi and Phuc, who reaffirmed “the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, while pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), without resorting to threat or use of force.” They also underscored the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, and avoidance of actions that could further complicate the situation or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability, according to a joint statement issued after the summit.
What apparently rattled China was the joint statement issued after the summit between the Prime Ministers of India and Vietnam, emphasizing on the importance of the legal framework set out by the UNCLOS in determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones.
The stand-off between India and China started around late April and early May when the Indian Army responded to the Chinese PLA’s bid to unilaterally change the status quo along the LAC, push the line westwards and transgress into the territory claimed by New Delhi along the disputed boundary. The relations between New Delhi and Beijing hit a new low over the eight-month-long stand-off, particularly after the violent clash in Galwan Valley on June 15. The Indian Army lost 20 of its soldiers in the clash. The PLA too suffered casualties, but never made public the number of its soldiers, who were injured or killed in the clash.