In July 2023 India gifted a fully operational, in-service, naval missile corvette, INS KIRPAN to Vietnam. The vessel departed for Vietnam on June 28 and reached Cam Ranh on July 8. This is a prominent naval port in the Cam Ranh Bay lying astride a wide expanse of South China Sea at a distance of 300 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City. The transfer of the warship comes a year after India handed over 12 high-speed boats to the Vietnamese Navy to boost its maritime capabilities.
These actions by the Indian Government are supreme benchmarks in India’s strategic relationship with the South East Asian Country. It dates back to the year 1954. India’s Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the first visitors to Vietnam after its victory against the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. This relationship sustained itself despite the presence of the occupying American troops in South Vietnam and even after the China Supported North Vietnamese communist militia overran Vietnam.
Subsequent Vietnamese history truly demonstrated Vietnamese determination for humanism in dealing with Cambodia. And after repeated attempts at diplomacy through intermediaries in Beijing, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia on Dec. 25, 1978 to end the genocidal Pol Pot Regime. Less than three months later China decided to invade Vietnam to support Cambodia, a regime it supported. The Chinese invaded Vietnam with 200,000 to 600,000 infantry troops and 500 tanks along two fronts. Facing them were 100,000 soldiers from the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). China, apparently, did not count on the level of resistance and withdrew after receiving a bloody nose. Amongst the Vietnamese milieu this achievement is symbolic. In this war India had stood by Vietnam.
What is material is to fathom that both India and Vietnam are deeply disturbed by the intransigence of the People’s Republic of China with their claims on South China sea (SCS). India noted that the initiative by the Philippine regime to seek an arbitration by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague was logical. This PCA was rightfully constituted under the Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
It was expected to consider all claims on a legal framework to address the conflictual condition created by the claims of the regime in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). And its July 2016 award ruled against the PRC’s maritime claims. Importantly the “fact of history” in the latter’s claims were outright rejected. The PRC chose “not only” to not acknowledge the legitimacy of this award but rejected it and claimed that any resolution of the dispute should be through bilateral negotiations between claimants. Analysts are viewing this attitude as that of “strong arming” the claimants into submission.
What is material is to fathom that both India and Vietnam are deeply disturbed by the intransigence of the People’s Republic of China with their claims on South China Sea.
The vastness and gross intermingling of interests of several key players in the SCS exacerbates the situation with the PRC on one side and Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines on the other. Principally, it emerged from claims on the Spratly and Paracels Islands which lie across the Vietnam coast .
The 1800 kms long Vietnamese Coastline faces these Islands There are several disputes involving both island and maritime claims of these Southeast Asian countries, each of which is linked with a different collection of countries; but at the heart of this dispute is the Nine Dash Line area claimed by the PRC, which covers most of the SCS and aggressively overlaps Exclusive Economic Zones of the abovementioned countries. The Chinese rhetoric smells of enforcement of maritime control of tracts of the sea they claim. Throughout the period of deliberation by the PCA, the PRC inflicted a continuous barrage of media harassment against the process whilst publicly abstaining from participation.
However, all sea faring nations, including India, would want the SCS to remain as international waters, with quite evidently in the conceptual edifice of the “Freedom of Navigation in the International Waters” as spelt in the UNCLOS. There should be a rule of Law.
PRC and common equations
Several postures emanating from the PRC clearly and deliberately aim at interfering with Indian interests in the affected region. There was a report of INS Airavat, an Indian Naval Ship, whilst on a friendly visit to Vietnam, having been told that the Indian ship was entering Chinese waters. This incident occurred on 22 July 2011 when the Indian ship was about 80 kilometers from Vietnam’s coast when it was communicated with by a source that “identified” itself as the Chinese Navy.
Although there was no confrontation faced by the naval vessel, the communication clearly conveyed an obstruction to the “Freedom of Navigation and Right of passage in international waters.” As recently as in the Month of May 2023, the navies of India and Vietnam were part of the inaugural Asean-India maritime drills held in the South China Sea. Chinese surveillance vessel Xiang Yang Hong 10 and at least eight maritime militia ships, a front for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), sailed towards the area where the naval drills were held.
The Chinese vessels moved towards the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam, and it was not clear whether the purpose was to keep an eye on the naval exercise or to make a foray into Vietnam’s EEZ, where China is engaged in a maritime dispute.
As recently as in the Month of May 2023, the navies of India and Vietnam were part of the inaugural Asean-India maritime drills held in the South China Sea. Chinese surveillance vessel Xiang Yang Hong 10 and at least eight maritime militia ships, a front for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), sailed towards the area where the naval drills were held.
A little over a month later after September 2011, PRC and Vietnam signed an agreement with a view to contain the dispute over the SCS, India’s state-owned foreign oil exploration arm, “ONGC Videsh Limited” signed a three-year agreement with the Vietnamese “Petro Vietnam” for exploring some segments in the SCS. This legitimate deal elicited a rather ominous response from the PRC when a member of their foreign ministry tersely broadcast that “China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the island”.
And that “China’s stand is based on historical facts and international law. China’s sovereign rights and positions are formed in the course of history and this position has been held by the Chinese Government for long … we are opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China’s jurisdiction. We hope the foreign countries do not get involved in the South China Sea dispute.” What history?
The vast maritime expanse of the SCS encompasses major sea lanes traversing the waters. These are the arteries of trade of deep interest to not only countries straddling the sea but also to the rest of the world including India. The PRC regime, therefore, should not play war games.
-This story earlier appeared on www.thefinancialexpress.com