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Vietnam and India are now acting to contain aggressive China

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A silent change is taking place in Asia. Beijing’s unbridled territorial ambitions are compelling regional players to look for trustworthy partners. India, Japan, Vietnam and Australia seek to balance Chinese aggression through local partnerships. Deepening bilateral and multilateral ties is a natural response to the challenge that pervades the region: the rise of a belligerent China. 

Both India and Vietnam face a security dilemma because of China’s regional power ambitions. They fear Asian domination by a single power. Being China’s neighbors, India and Vietnam are rightly insecure about their borders. China has invaded both countries in the past: India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979. 

To raise the cost of another Chinese military aggression, India and Vietnam are joining hands to counter Beijing. New Delhi and Hanoi completed 50 years of diplomatic engagement last year. It is the last five years that have been the most consequential in their diplomatic history though. During this period, the countries have been intensifying cooperation and are in a position to act in concert on many fronts.

The Dragon Spits Fire

Assertive Chinese behavior in the last few years has rattled India and Vietnam. Be it salami slicing in the Himalayas or expansive territorial claims in the South East China Sea, Beijing has upped the ante. 

Countries on China’s periphery have borne the brunt of the dragon’s fire. For example, China claims portions of Indian territory in the western and eastern sectors of its border with India. Beijing also frequently crosses into the Indian side of the disputed border. 

Similarly, Beijing continues to claim all of the South China Sea, disregarding the sovereign rights and claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. China has also repeatedly targeted Vietnamese fishing boats and carried out maritime activities in disputed areas in the Paracel islands chain. Vietnam claims these islands as its territory. So does Taiwan. However, Beijing exercises de facto control over the island chain. China also controls the Spratly Islands and Woody Island. Beijing is turning these disputed territories into military installations in the South China Sea. 

The roots of China’s assertive behavior lie in its self-perception. Beijing views itself as a natural Asian hegemon with great power status. Now, China is seeking to become a superpower and challenge the US for the top of the global totem pole.

New Delhi and Hanoi, like Tokyo and Canberra, do not accept China’s self-proclaimed hegemony. These countries do not see themselves as subordinate to Beijing. Naturally, they are critical of any attempts by China to dominate the post-World War II regional order. 

This is also true of the other players in the region. They might not admit it openly, but Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and South Korea are uncomfortable with Beijing’s unilateral attempts to dominate the region. However, the fear of a backlash from Beijing, a sizable number of citizens of Chinese origin in their own territories and economic dependence on China prevent these countries from voicing their worries. 

Even in 1978, Lee Kuan Yew, the then prime minister of Singapore, caught the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping by surprise, admitting that he was more concerned about Beijing than about Hanoi. Deng had gone to Singapore to mobilize Lee Kuan Yew’s support against an ambitious Vietnam. The canny Singaporean statesman perceptively understood that the long-term challenge emanated from Beijing. Since then, it is clear that Beijing has aroused feelings of insecurity amongst its neighbors in Southeast and East Asia.

The fear of outright dominance by a single power compels Asian nations like India, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam to seek multipolarity. These nations believe that multipolarity will maintain a stable regional order. Therefore, their geopolitical and diplomatic strategy aims to counter China. These Asian nations are only following what eminent theorists like Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer have long posited about achieving a balance of power in international relations. 

Coalescing around shared interests such as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and freedom of navigation of the seas helps regional powers build a coalition against China. Like other Asian countries, both India and Vietnam have concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Both want a multipolar, rules-based regional order that  constricts the space for unilateral adventures by Beijing. Therefore, the recent “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” announced by Hanoi and New Delhi seeks to make structural and institutional changes that make multipolarity a reality. 

From the mid-1970s, New Delhi and Hanoi were on the same side of the geopolitical and ideological fault lines in Asia. Vietnam was communist and India was socialist. Both were close allies of the Soviet Union and harbored a deep distrust of the United States. 

Communist Vietnam soon found that ideological similarities could not avoid geopolitical rivalries. Deng was deeply perturbed about the deepening Soviet-Vietnamese relations. Deng sought to teach the Vietnamese a lesson for “backstabbing” Beijing and siding with Moscow. Deng believed that Hanoi sought regional dominance in Southeast Asia and he wanted China to have that privilege.

Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia to overthrow the Pol Pot regime further poisoned its relations with Beijing. China was Pol Pot’s benefactor. Beijing saw Pol Pot’s regime as a bulwark against Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. Once Vietnam got rid of Pol Pot in Cambodia, Deng attacked Vietnam in 1979. India stood by Vietnam. Moraji Desai, the then Indian prime minister, issued a statement calling for an immediate withdrawal of Chinese troops from Vietnam as the first step towards ensuring peace in Southeast Asia. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s then foreign minister, shortened his visit to China in protest against this invasion. 

Polygamous Foreign Policy

Over the years, New Delhi and Hanoi have followed a multidirectional foreign policy. Neither wanted to anger their giant northern neighbor. Both regularly championed the idea of “strategic autonomy” that focuses on avoiding sclerotic alliances and security commitments. Given the structural changes in Asian geopolitics due to China’s rise, both India and Vietnam are moving closer.

Yet there are limits to Vietnam’s relationship with India. Retired Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan believes that given their relatively small sizes and strategic location, major Southeast Asian countries have no choice but to pursue a polygamous foreign policy. As a result, these countries seek friendship with all and confrontation with none. Vietnam is no exception.

By simultaneously juggling many relationships and contradictions, Vietnam aims to diversify its partners. Fundamentally, Vietnam uses these partnerships to pursue its national interests. India is following the same mantra. India buys oil from Russia, conducts military exercises with the US and welcomes investment from Japan. It is friends with Israel and, at the same time, maintains relationships with Iran. Like India, Vietnam also has meaningful strategic partnerships in place with all five members of the UN Security Council. Both India and Vietnam have defied conventional Cold-War era wisdom of making binary choices. 

Indo-Vietnamese Push for Multipolarity

Over the last few years, Vietnam has become a focal part of India’s “Act East Policy.” As a result, defense and security collaboration have improved. This includes joint exercises and training programs, cooperation and trade in defense equipment. New Delhi has also given $600 million of defense lines of credit to Hanoi. 

Increasing trade and commercial linkages have brought both countries together. Bilateral trade has ballooned from $200 million in 2000 to $14.114 billion in 2021-2022. Several Indian companies are investing in Vietnam. They are in diverse sectors such as IT, education, real estate, textiles and garments, healthcare, solar technology, consumer goods, and agricultural products. India is supporting Vietnam with infrastructure and connectivity projects, development and capacity-building assistance, and digital connectivity. Despite Chinese apprehensions, India also has oil exploration projects with PetroVietnam in the South China Sea. Cooperation in science and technology has also grown at a healthy pace. 

Slowly and surely, a silent change is unfolding in Asian waters. China’s increasing aggression is no longer going unanswered. The Indo-Pacific will not become a Chinese lake. Regional powers are responding. Not only the US and Japan but also India and Vietnam are working more closely together to preserve a multipolar Asia. 

By Ved Shinde – FairObserver.com – February 9, 2023 

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