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Tiny Vietnam has a history of punching much above its weight, landing them squarely on the jaws of its opponents. Ask the French, the Americans or even ‘big brother’ China—in the past six decades all of them have been on the receiving end of gritty Vietnamese ire.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise when major international players make a renewed attempt to win Vietnam over to their side, especially at a time when the rise of an assertive China has begun to set the important waterways of the Indo-Pacific region roiling. “Vietnam is being subjected to pulls and pressures from various countries because of developments in the region, especially in view of the proposed ‘Asia pivot’ of the US,” says N. Ravi, former secretary of the Union ministry of external affairs.
The so-called ‘pivot’ for Asia, announced by the US some years back to reassure its allies in the region in the wake of a ‘rising’ China, however, has not yet taken shape. Sceptics wonder if it ever will, since they do not envisage the US pursuing or encouraging any policy that could lead to an overt confrontational path with China. Instead, there is a growing feeling among many Asian countries now, particularly those in China’s neighbourhood, that Washington may not be the ideal partner to deal with the threat from Beijing. Though this has led to a search for other alternative security structures to deal with the China challenge, a clear picture has not emerged.
“Vietnam can’t be taken lightly. They’ve shown this in the past and can show that again.”
The recent spate of sharp exchanges between Vietnam and China on the oil rig installed by the latter near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea has yet again brought the focus back on the difficult relations between the two neighbours. Though Beijing finally decided to withdraw its oil rig back to Chinese waters, the presence of rival naval vessels during their fortnight-long brinkmanship only highlighted the urgent need for a mechanism for resolution of territorial disputes between contending parties in this critical region.
The visit of Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to Hanoi at this juncture, and her decision to hold an interactive session with Indian ambassadors from neighbouring countries, have led to speculations about the likely direction of future India-Vietnam relations. The fact that Sushma is in Vietnam to firm up details of the programme of President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the country in September signals deepening ties.
“Cooperation between India and the ASEAN needs to be more effective and efficient as the security and development landscape is experiencing swift and complex conversions,” asserted Vietnam’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister Pham Binh Minh, while engaging think-tank members of India and ASEAN countries in Hanoi on Monday. During discussions between the two foreign ministers, the possibility of strengthening cooperation in the field of energy, trade and defence was emphasised. Vietnam has already awarded India seven oil and gas blocks in the disputed South China Sea, the exploration work on which could heighten tension among the involved parties.
However, much of what is being done by China, Vietnam or India is also being seen as part of their diplomatic posturing. Their concerns about Chinese assertiveness notwithstanding, neither Vietnam nor India desires any outright confrontation with Beijing at this juncture. But they also realise that they should engage with each other as well as with other regional countries to pursue options to counter the Chinese challenge. China is the largest trading partner for India and Vietnam and their biggest and most important neighbour. But they can expect a better and reasonable behaviour from China as long as they keep hedging about their growing ties to keep Beijing guessing about its outcome.
“Notionally, Vietnam is a country that cannot be taken lightly. This they have shown many times in the past and, if need be, they can show that again,” says Ravi. This definitely would be the message that Hanoi would like to convey to the Chinese. If that happens, there is little doubt that India or other Asian neighbours are not going to object.