Even as Vietnam and China continue to conduct tit-for-tat naval maneuvers in the South China Sea, Hanoi has started making direct calls for foreign involvement in the two nations’ maritime territorial dispute. While many commentators saw this as a thinly veiled invitation to the United States, it could also be a precursor to India establishing a permanent presence in Vietnamese waters. India has apparently responded favorably to Vietnam’s offer of permanent berthing rights in Na Thrang port. The move would not only add military heft to India’s “Look East” policy, but is also emblematic of a larger Indian effort to counter China’s activities in South Asia.
Although Vietnam more than held its own in its 1979 border war with China, its record against the latter at sea is less impressive, as incidents in both 1974 and 1988 show. Even in 1979, Chinese naval action against Vietnam was only checked by the presence of Soviet ships. Since then the asymmetry in naval power between China and Vietnam has grown exponentially in the former’s favor, while Hanoi has lost its Soviet-era security guarantees. Although Vietnam’s decision to hold live naval drills in the wake of the cable-cutting incident in mid-June was seen as a show of resolve, it did little to temper ongoing Chinese surveys in disputed areas.
Clearly Vietnam requires a more credible naval power to intercede on its behalf to prevent the Chinese from upping the ante any further. That power could be India. In a move that had been in the offing for some time, India appears to have finally greenlighted long-term basing for it ships at Na Thrang, just south of China’s new naval base at Sanya on Hainan Island.
The offer on Na Thrang was reiterated by the Vietnamese Chief of Naval Staff Vice Adm. Nguyen Van Hien on his recent visit to India. Nguyen visited two key Indian shipyards and conducted meetings on securing Indian help for augmenting the size and capabilities of the Vietnamese navy. While Indian public shipyards are actually at full capacity owing to domestic orders, newly established private shipyards will probably be awarded contracts to supply Vietnam with offshore patrol vessels and fast attack craft. In any case, India will continue to train Vietnamese naval personnel and help maintain any equipment that Vietnam sources from Russia. New Delhi has also agreed in principle to sell Vietnam the Brahmos supersonic anti-ship missile and possibly Prithvi surface-to-surface missiles.
Less visible, but no less critical, is the Indian IT industry’s involvement in devising network-centric solutions for the Vietnamese armed forces. Criticized in the past for not putting enough heft in its Look East policy, the current tensions in the South China Sea have provided India an opportunity to display to Southeast Asia its willingness to help maintain the Asian balance of power.
A permanent presence in Na Thrang will essentially be the other bookend of India’s efforts to counter a possible “third Chinese island chain” in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The Indian Ocean end is brought up by the Andaman and Nicobar tri-service Command, which is being progressively beefed up with more assets and facilities. Na Thrang would allow India to monitor the South China Sea side of the Straits of Malacca as well, effectively securing India’s energy and commercial shipping originating in the Far East, while putting a greater swathe of China’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs) within the Indian navy’s reach.
Indian planners see the ability to threaten Chinese SLOCs as the ultimate counter to Chinese pressure from across the Himalayas. China has recently moved away from the position of neutrality in Indo-Pakistani affairs it officially held since the 1990s. Not only is the PRC’s recent rhetoric inimical to India’s position in Kashmir, the entry of Chinese troops into Pakistani-controlled Gilgit-Baltistan raises the specter of a two-front war for Indian military strategists. The very public Pakistani offer of basing facilities in Gwadar for the Chinese navy may have been the last straw. By entering the South China Sea in this manner, India is essentially signaling that Asian politics can no longer be compartmentalized into U.S. State Department classifications.
Interestingly enough, the move comes at a time when other major powers are calling for a greater Indian role in Asian affairs. Tokyo seems to have set things in motion when it kicked off a trilateral dialogue between Japan, the U.S. and India in April. This was followed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration on her recent visit to India that New Delhi should be more assertive in Asian affairs. The sentiment was echoed by the Australian defense minister in a speech at the Brookings Institution. It seems that Beijing, through its recent actions, has managed to resuscitate the so-called quadrilateral initiative involving India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. That grouping came apart after conducting just one joint naval exercise in 2007, when a torrent of protest by China about a bloc being built against it in Asia caused Australia to back out.
The Chinese are seemingly cognizant of the hardening of India’s stance and the backing that it is receiving from various quarters. For the first time in many months, China has signaled its support of a greater role for India in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In bilateral meetings with visiting Indian politicians, the Chinese have apparently also expressed their willingness to back India for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council, provided that India delinks its own bid from that of Japan.
However, India is unlikely do so because it needs further Japanese investment and technology, even as economic ties between the two Asian powers continue to deepen. Their burgeoning relationship also means that India has a very direct stake in keeping the waterway that connects it with Japan — as well as with South Korea — an “international” rather than a Chinese affair. The mantra in South Bloc at the moment seems to be that if the Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean, then the South China Sea is not China’s south sea.
Saurav Jha studied economics at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy issues and clean energy development in Asia. His first book for Harper Collins India, “The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power,” was published in January 2010. He also works as an independent consultant in the energy sector in India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.