China’s shadow loomed over the India-Vietnam virtual summit on Monday with PM Narendra Modi stressing to his counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc that negotiations for a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the disputed South China Sea (SCS) waters should not undermine the interests of other countries or third parties in the region while hailing Hanoi as a pillar of India’s Act East policy.
The summit saw the two countries sign seven agreements in areas as diverse as defence, petrochemicals and renewable and nuclear energy with the highlight being a framework agreement for cooperation between defence industries. The agreement is expected to help Vietnam utilise two defence lines of credit India announced earlier, $500 million and $100 million, for the Asean country.
Modi’s reiteration of India’s position on CoC is significant as both India and the US fear that China could influence Asean countries into accepting an agreement that ignores the rights of third countries that are not party to the South China Sea disputes. Beijing has so far seemed reluctant to incorporate or acknowledge these rights in the CoC.
India and Vietnam announced implementation of the High Speed Guard Boat (HSGB) manufacturing project for Vietnam Border Guard Command under the $100 million line of credit with India handing over a completed vessel. Seven more HSGBs will be manufactured in Vietnam. As defence remains the central pillar of India’s comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam, both leaders also agreed to further institutionalise such exchanges through mutual logistics support, regular ship visits, joint exercises, exchanges in military science and technology, information sharing, and also cooperation in UN peacekeeping.
As expected, in the light of growing Chinese expansionism which has affected both India and Vietnam, the two countries discussed the security situation in the SCS in detail with both leaders reaffirming the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. In a joint vision document, they also underlined the significance of pursuing 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.
“Both leaders 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,” the document said.
Modi reiterated that Vietnam was an important pillar of India’s Indo-Pacific vision. “Both leaders agreed to explore practical cooperation based on convergences between our Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI) and the Asean Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) which Vietnam subscribes to,” MEA secretary (east) Riva Ganguly Das said.
Importantly for India, as the countries prepare to take over as non-permanent members of the UNSC, Vietnam resolved to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including cross-border terrorism, terror financing networks and safe havens, and said it would be put into action through greater coordination in bilateral, regional and global efforts. While Vietnam is encouraging India to invest more in its oil and gas sector, another contentious area with China given the SCS disputes, the focus on renewable energy is something new in bilateral ties.
There was a discussion in the context of both India and Vietnam concurrently serving as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, Das said.
“Both prime ministers agreed that India and Vietnam should work closely to actively promote ‘reformed multilateralism’ to make international organisations, including the UN Security Council, more representative, contemporary and capable of dealing with current challenges. Vietnam reiterated its strong support for India’s permanent membership in an expanded UNSC,” she added.