India and Vietnam Unite Against China

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in Hanoi Saturday to discuss their countries’ deepening relationship and sign various agreements. The word “China” rarely passed their lips in public, but that was the topic dominating the get-together. 

Beijing was able to scrub the formal agenda for the G20 of controversial geopolitical issues, like the South China Sea, but that did not mean regional leaders stopped talking about them privately. Modi, before proceeding to host city Hangzhou, stopped off in the Vietnamese capital to discuss the worsening situation in East Asia.

In Hanoi, Modi and Phuc witnessed the signing of 12 bilateral agreements, including one for the sale of Indian-built fast patrol boats to Vietnam, which paid for the craft with a $100 million line of credit New Delhi had previously extended. And for the purpose of “facilitating deeper defense cooperation,” Modi provided another $500 million credit line. The two leaders also issued a joint statement on various issues, most notably freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. 

The most significant aspect to the meeting was symbolic. Modi and Phuc declared that India and Vietnam’s strategic partnership, first, announced in 2007, has been upgraded to a “comprehensive” one.  

Until then, Vietnam had only two “comprehensive strategic partnerships,” one with China and the other with Russia, but those two special relationships are now in doubt. In addition to its stepped up bullying of Vietnam, China now poses a serious threat to Vietnam’s security and sovereignty by demanding territory and water that Hanoi claims as its own. Russia’s relationship with Vietnam is now an open question because of its growing alignment with Beijing. New Delhi, therefore, looks like Hanoi’s most reliable partner—and counterweight—in the region.

For nations bordering the South China and East China seas, India, of all the countries nearby, has become the security provider of choice. It has the heft to oppose Chinese expansionism but no territorial claims there. It is a democratic state and works hard to maintain good relations, even with Pakistan, which has harbored anti-India militants.

No wonder Vietnam, Japan, Singapore, Australia, the Philippines, and the US have all worked steadily this decade to involve India in the affairs of the troubled region. 

Nor has it escaped New Delhi that it has a stake in what happens in East Asian waters. India’s eastern islands are only about 90 miles from the western approach to the Strait of Malacca, and the South China Sea connects the two great oceans on which India increasingly depends for its prosperity. India is separated from the rest of Asia by the Himalayas, so Indian businesses are especially dependent on sea-borne commerce. About 55 percent of its trade, for instance, crosses the South China Sea.

That makes New Delhi interested in what happens in that crucial body of water. “China’s consolidation of power in the South China Sea will have a direct bearing on India’s interests in its own maritime backyard, the Indian Ocean,” Brahma Chellaney, the noted New Delhi-based author and analyst, told me last year. “In fact, China’s quiet maneuvering in the Indian Ocean, where it is chipping away at India’s natural geographic advantage, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South China Sea.” So, as he notes, “If China gets its way in the South China Sea, it will become far more assertive against its other neighbors, including India.” 

New Delhi understands its interests are affected by events far from its borders, which explains why Modi is the first Indian prime minister to travel to Vietnam in 15 years—and why he isn’t shy about developing and announcing India’s comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam.

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