New Delhi (The Straits Times/ANN) – Vietnam and India have agreed to cooperate more closely in military and maritime affairs, establishing New Delhi as a key outside player in Asean aligned with the region’s most formidable military power.
The announcement came hours after Vietnam and China – with which India competes globally for economic and political influence – announced a series of steps to reduce tensions in the South China Sea.
‘India and Vietnam are maritime neighbours,’ Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared yesterday after holding delegation-level talks with visiting Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang. ‘We face common security challenges from terrorism, piracy and natural disasters. We believe that it is important to ensure the safety and security of the vital sea lanes of communication and have agreed to continue and strengthen our exchanges in these fields.’
The deals inked between the two, now celebrating 40 years of diplomatic relations, included one on joint exploration for oil and gas in the contested waters of what Vietnam refers to as the East Sea. There were also agreements on agriculture, fisheries, cultural exchanges and an extradition treaty.
India will continue to assist in ‘capacity building’ of the Vietnamese armed forces and maintaining its Russian-built tanks and jet fighters.
‘Depending on their requirement, we are happy to assist them,’ said Mr Arun Goel, who heads the foreign ministry directorate in charge of Asean states and Australia.
The oil exploration deal adds to evidence of India’s toughening stance on China. India is beefing up infrastructure along the China frontier and is also said to be raising two new strike forces that can penetrate deep into Chinese territory as a counter punch to any assault.
In recent weeks, the Chinese foreign ministry has objected to India’s ONGC Videsh prospecting for oil in Vietnamese waters in the South China Sea. In July, an Indian warship sailing between two Vietnamese ports was told to leave the waters, orders it ignored.
China’s claims to the entire South China Sea, including the Paracel and Spratly groups of islands, have collided with the claims of Vietnam and the Philippines and raised worries in Malaysia and Brunei.
Now India – by robustly defending its right to jointly conduct exploration with Vietnam, offering to service Vietnam’s Russian-built weaponry and sending its warships there for port calls – has vaulted into the troubled waters as a key player.
Partly on account of the strengthening strategic relationship, Mr Sang, who took office in August, chose India as the first nation outside Asean that he would visit as President.
Meanwhile, Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong travelled to China for talks with President Hu Jintao. They agreed to ease tensions in the disputed sea, including setting up a telephone hotline and holding discussions twice a year.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency said a six- point agreement was signed on Tuesday by Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun and his Vietnamese counterpart Ho Xuan Son. The agreement calls for the two sides to seek ‘basic and long-term solutions for sea-related issues, in the spirit of mutual respect, equal and mutually beneficial treatment’.
Vietnam and India also said they planned to boost trade.
Mr Sang said there will be efforts to raise bilateral trade, now at less than US$3.5 billion (S$4.5 billion), to US$7 billion by 2015.
Separately, Vietnam has promised to fast-track a US$5 billion investment by India’s Tata group. Delayed by four years because of regulatory and land issues, it would be, when cleared, the biggest single investment to flow to Vietnam.
‘We understand the importance of the Tata Group,’ Mr Sang said after a speech to a business forum. ‘Indian and Vietnamese officials are trying their best to kick- start the project.’
Mr Sang, who began his India visit in Bangalore, was given a ceremonial welcome in the forecourt of the 340-room presidential palace yesterday. He leaves today for Mumbai.