Vietnam courts India as likely protector in sea spat

China concerns, on top of economic interests, behind greater engagement

NEW DELHI - As China continues to press its claims on islands in the South China Sea, worrying far smaller rivals, Vietnam is cozying up to a potential protector - India.

Top Indian and Vietnamese officials have been busy visiting each other, and are planning more flights and more trade between the two nations.

"There is some increase in engagement... and China is a factor in bilateral ties," said Professor Srikanth Kondapalli at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Vietnam also would like to have somebody who can help them in the South China Sea."

India is not directly involved in the long-time territorial dispute, but its oil exploration there has irritated China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, including the Paracel and Spratly group of islands, putting it in direct confrontation with Vietnam and the Philippines.

While India is not ready to play any role in the territorial claims, it has been quietly stepping up its engagement with Vietnam on other fronts.

On a four-day visit that ended yesterday, India's Vice-President Hamid Ansari called Vietnam a "a regional power in South-east Asia". And when Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister Vu Van Ninh visited India last week, India's External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid described Vietnam as a "major pillar of India's Look East policy".

Vietnam has been urging India to play a direct role in the South China Sea dispute, even persuading India to continue exploring for gas till March next year in a block off the Vietnamese coast, an area claimed by China.

India and Vietnam have agreed to add flights this year between Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Delhi and set up a joint commission for trade. India is building a cultural centre in Hanoi.

Indian conglomerate Tata is in talks with Vietnam's officials to finalise a site to build a US$5 billion (S$6.1 billion) steel plant.

"Our close ties and cooperation with Vietnam are important in the context of the new trends that are emerging in the region and also in the context of the emerging regional architecture," said Mr Sanjay Bhattacharyya, a joint secretary in India's Ministry of External Affairs.

Indian companies are already involved in 70 projects in Vietnam in areas like agriculture, fertilisers and IT with the two countries looking at increasing their bilateral trade from US$4 billion last year to US$7 billion by 2015.

India has given Vietnam a line of credit of around US$4.6 billion, most of which is for a hydropower project.

While Vietnam has obvious economic interests in courting India, another factor is "the fear of China", said Dr Sachin Chaturvedi, a senior fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, an autonomous think-tank under the Ministry of External Affairs.

"Vietnam sees India as a more pragmatic partner," he said.

Nor has India completely ruled out intervening in the South China Sea dispute.

Last month, India's navy chief D.K. Joshi said the navy would respond if India's interests were involved.

"Not that we expect to be in those waters very, very frequently, but when the requirement is there, for example in situations where our country's interests are involved, we will be required to go there," he said.