Vietnam’s solution to China’s posturing up is to reach out to allies. The stronger diplomatic ties may become the best weapon in Vietnam’s arsenal.
By Oliver Ward
As tensions grow over the South China Sea, Vietnam and India continue to strengthen their ties in the face of Chinese adversity. The Vietnamese government renewed their deal with state-run Indian oil firm, ONGC Videsh. The company have begun drilling in an area of block 128, part of which sits within a U-shaped region which China claims in the South China Sea. The move brings already strained relations even closer to tipping point.
Indian-Vietnamese cooperation has deepened
Indian and Vietnamese bilateral trade now stands at US$7 billion annually. According to Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, he expects this figure to rocket to US$15 billion by 2020. Militarily, India is offering naval ships and satellite coverage to the Vietnamese government under a US$500 million defence credit package. They are also training Vietnamese pilots and offering submarine training. This level of military cooperation is more than India has with any other country.
Direct investment from Indian companies in Vietnam stands at around US$1.1 billion. The oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea is not the only high-profile project. The two governments are also collaborating over the construction of a thermal power plant in Soc Trang.
The Indo-Vietnamese relationship heightens tensions in the region
Chinese relations with Vietnam are delicate. Vietnam’s new bedfellow is introducing a third player into the dynamic, which is only increasing the fragility of the situation. A friendship meeting arranged at the Chinese-Vietnamese border was cancelled when drilling in the region began. Chinese General, Fan Changlong, also ended a visit to Vietnam early.
India’s own relationship with China has also been put on ice since the drilling began. Xi Jinping refused to meet with Nerandra Modi in a bilateral meeting at the G-20 summit in Hamburg.
It is a strategic alliance for Vietnam
The decision to move closer to India is a tactful move from President Quang. Chinese-Indian relations have deteriorated over a border dispute. The Vietnamese government are striking while relations have soured to promote India as a powerful military ally in the South China Sea dispute.
This is part of the Vietnamese strategy. We are seeing similar stances adopted towards the US and Japan. Japan have provided Vietnam with six ships to help with maritime patrols and Tokyo and Hanoi have announced their first ever joint naval exercise. They have also provided 28.6 billion Yen (US$239 million) in assistance. The money is to be spent on a new hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi will also receive a 100 billion Yen (US$835 million) investment in infrastructure.
Social media users across Vietnam are calling for the US to form military coalition with Japan, Australia and India to protect the contested waters. The Chief of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. endorses this plan but there has been no formal agreement.
There are signs of intense preparation
As tensions rise there are rumblings in Vietnam of intense military preparation. Not only is the government’s strategy to strengthen diplomatic ties with China’s opponents, they are also strengthening defence capabilities at home.
Increased military spending in Vietnam means they are now the world’s eighth largest arms importer. The government has also opened a port facing the South China Sea which could be used to launch naval vessels.
Tran Bang, a veteran from the former Sino-Vietnam border conflict, said, “beefing up defence capability is necessary for Vietnam to defend itself.”
These rumblings suggest that Vietnam are preparing for a conflict. For a country as small as Vietnam, their diplomatic ties are one of their strongest weapons. The renewed oil deal with India may antagonise Beijing, but it equips the Vietnamese government with another indispensable ally in the region. China would do well not to underestimate the ties of the small Vietnamese nation.