India and Vietnam share suspicions of China, but their recent bilateral agreements do not suggest an aggressive attempt to counter Beijing. Vietnamese Communist Party General-Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong finished his trip to India on Nov. 21. The trip produced a number of memoranda of understanding, with Vietnam offering to give India exploration rights in five of its offshore hydrocarbon blocks, another in Uzbekistan that is controlled by Vietnam, and to let an Indian firm build a large thermal power plant. The two sides also promised to expand ties in areas as diverse as security and defense, law enforcement, scientific research and public administration.
In recent years, India’s long-stated “Look East” policy has taken on more substance as the country has intensified its efforts to compete for its share of the rapid growth in East Asia and to rebuild political and security relationships in light of China’s obtrusiveness. After several years of increasing assertiveness on borders from the Himalayas to the South and East China seas, combined with its expanding economic influence, Beijing provoked a general reaction, partly coordinated and partly not, from the full range of its neighbors and from the United States.
Suddenly, routine diplomatic relationships became more energetic and old animosities softened. The United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia have each in their way showered attention on Southeast Asian states; Vietnam and the United States forgave and mostly forgot their bitter war. Japan amplified its diplomatic efforts to replace memories of its colonial aggression with its more cooperative modern self and has even begun a thaw of sorts with its long-standing rival Russia. India’s recent outreach to Japan and the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and its stepping up of cooperation with its old partner Russia, fit into this pattern. Myanmar’s opening up, motivated by its own calculations regarding economic and strategic needs, restored an ancient bridge between India and Indochina, even as New Delhi focused on improving maritime connections across East Asia.
The motivation to resurrect old ties by no means stemmed from a perceived Chinese threat alone — in fact, these states all simultaneously seek good relations with China and in many cases compete for opportunities in China as its economic model changes. Nevertheless, the Asian giant provides a unifying concern among states on its periphery and among global powers like the United States.
The obvious temptation is to consider the latest Vietnamese-Indian dealmaking as yet another example of regional balancing against China. But Vietnam’s latest invitation to India to continue exploring in its offshore does not pose any immediate threat to the Communists to the north. If anything, the Vietnamese offer is palatable to India because it skirts around Chinese territorial claims. India is already in the process of withdrawing from two exploration blocks that overlapped with China’s claims, where it claimed to find few resources yet still had incurred Beijing’s displeasure. If it pursues part or all of Vietnam’s latest offer, it will have retained its stake in Vietnam’s offshore energy resources — where its national energy companies can diversify their assets and gain needed experience — without running unnecessarily high risks of escalating tensions with China. India’s other agreements with Vietnam also mostly reflect business interests more than any concrete leverage or affront to China.
India’s preference for inoffensive offshore energy projects goes hand-in-hand with China’s recent efforts, under a relatively new administration, to backtrack from its more domineering tendencies (though not uniformly) and revive its image as a predictable business partner. The trick for Beijing is to convince its neighbors that their anxious preparations are unnecessary and halt the momentum of all the strategic balancing. Playing into its favor is the fact that most of the major powers, not least of which is India, have little inclination to commit heavily to Vietnam and become party to its ancient antagonism with China.
However, just as it would be reductive to attribute every Indian business deal in the region to fortifying against China, so too would it be rash to dismiss the fact that the accumulation of such relationships will eventually form a significant Vietnamese hedge against China. Beijing sees a rising trend in which its smaller southern rival successfully, or at least promisingly, courts powerful outside players. These deals fill space that China might otherwise be able to fill were it to negotiate directly with a cash-strapped Vietnam. Meanwhile, any future scenarios in which China might want to treat Vietnam roughly could provoke negative responses from foreigners.
China has scared away investors from offshore exploration in its disputed zones, and India’s latest actions suggest that it does not wish to provoke China in the midst of its cooperative mood. However, if Vietnam can bring in the Indians, Russians and others to develop its resources in undisputed areas and help Hanoi acquire the technology to exploit offshore resources, it will gain a better position as well as a chorus of supporters that may someday challenge China’s extended territorial claims. At any rate, Vietnam cannot afford to simply give up the game to China, and the other players have shown more interest, not less, in recent years, because they see that there is a real risk of Beijing winning a sphere of influence for itself without having to fight much for it.