India-Vietnam ties set tone for new form of non-alignment

Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (l) and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greet each other during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on November 20, 2013. Source: AP

Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (l) and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greet each other during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi on November 20, 2013. Source: AP

New Delhi and Hanoi could take the initiative in developing a “third path” of cooperation that looks after mutual interests while at the same time stays clear of the US-China rivalry over Asia.

Vietnam Communist party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s recent India visit was not just another routine bilateral event but rather an indicator of a “third path” of mutually beneficial cooperation, at a time when China and the US are fiercely competing for dominance in Asia and in the rest of the world.

There was a lot of press coverage in anticipation of the visit long before Trong came to India, and this is not just due to the fact that this is the third visit by high-ranking Vietnamese officials to India in the past two years.  The hype is also not due to the upcoming visits to India of a few East Asian leaders, including Japanese Emperor Akihito, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and Prime Minister of South Korea Park Geun-Hye. The point is that in the past few years, especially when keeping in mind the “strategic pivot” and “return to Asia” announcement by Hilary Clinton, the global geo-political rivalry of the US and China, the two leading world powers, is now set in Asia. That said, the US regards many parts of Asia including the South China and East China seas, where China has disputes with its neighbours over the ownership of a few islands, as regions of vital interest.

However, due to a few reasons, Washington is simply lacking headspace for direct intervention into Asia-Pacific and East Asian issues: the ongoing Afghanistan campaign, the notorious “Iran issue” and the economic problems of the US for example.

Therefore, the tactics of “proxy confrontation” is gaining momentum for the US, as it is delegating the burden of this confrontation to smaller countries using them as tools while staying virtually away from the conflict. This underlies the US policy of overtures with the Asian countries, each of which has individual points of tension with China. These are the US traditional partners – Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as countries of recent interest. Vietnam, which still remembers the immense damage and countless lives taken in the 1960-70s war, is one of them.

The US sees India as an important element in its tactics of controlling China: India’s economic and military potential is comparable with China’s, and New Delhi would rather not see Beijing’s grip extend over Asia in general and over South Asian countries in particular. India’s ‘Look East’ policy, developed in the 1990s and actively implemented in the 21st century, should be considered as an attempt at counter-play.

 This policy essentially aims at full integration with the East and South Asian countries. It should be noted, however, that even though India is not keen on letting China’s influence expand, nor is it strategically interested in playing up to the US policies as its tool. This was highlighted by the recent events in Indian foreign policy on Iran: Washington pushed Delhi to join its sanctions on Iran and curb purchases of Iranian oil. These measures hit not only on Iran but on India itself by driving up the domestic oil prices and therefore consumer products prices too.

The key outcome of the Vietnam Communist party leader’s visit to India was the agreement on the oil and gas exploration and the subsequent extraction in the South China Sea. The issue is quite delicate for both countries. The South China Sea is the point of China’s standoff with almost all littoral countries, including Vietnam. India’s activity in the region is also unnerving Beijing.

The signed agreement applies to the areas on the Vietnam shelf neighbouring with the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. These islands, called ‘Nansha’ in China, are part of a set of territories that are disputed between the Middle Kingdom and its neighbours.

 These disputes are not only complicating the plans on economic exploration of these rich in natural resources areas but also directly impede freedom of navigation in these waters. But since the areas meant for joint exploration are placed on the shelf area not contested by China, the signed agreement was taken keeping Beijing in mind.

In fact, India-Vietnam cooperation (and the signed agreement in particular) is a good example of how in the flaring US-China rivalry for dominance in this part of the world there are opportunities for a “third path” of cooperation without confronting any of the sides, nor teaming up with anybody, let alone executing anybody else’s policy. The key point here is a mutually beneficial cooperation, not directed against the interests of third parties.

During the Cold war, the Non-Aligned movement, where India was one of the co-founders and leaders, played a visible role on the world arena. It was eventually forgotten, but the increasing fight between the US and China for global dominance poses a question of reinventing a similar movement in a new form, more appropriate for nowadays. India and Vietnam could initiate such a comeback.  

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