NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems set to give India’s ties with South-East Asia a boost in September, with plans to visit Vietnam against the backdrop of an international tribunal ruling against China’s claims over disputed islands in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
Though there has been no formal announcement of the prime minister’s visit to Vietnam, Indian officials said it could happen after his visit to Hangzhou, China, for the Group of 20 meeting on September 4-5 and the India-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Laos on September 6-7.
The visit is expected to be key for two reasons.
The first is that the visit comes after a crucial ruling by a Hague, Netherlands-based tribunal in July, rejecting China’s claims in the South China Sea in response to a case brought in by the Philippines in 2013. The Hague court found Beijing’s claims of historic rights to most of the South China Sea had no legal basis. Besides China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims over uninhabited islands and features in the South China Sea.
The Hague ruling is seen as encouraging for these countries, including Vietnam.
India’s interest in the South China Sea stems from the fact that approximately 50 percent of its trade with Asia passes through the critical waterway.
China is likely to follow the visit keenly given that it is wary of India-Vietnam ties that have grown in substance in the recent years, almost coinciding with China’s stepped-up activities in the South China Sea since 2011.
Vietnam and China have overlapping claims in the area, which include the Spratly and Paracel island groups.
India has sought a resolution of the South China Sea dispute based on international law and under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which mirrors the positions of Vietnam and the Philippines. China, on its part, has said that the dispute should be resolved by the parties concerned.
The second reason why Modi’s Vietnam visit will be crucial is that it will be the first bilateral visit to the country by an Indian prime minister in 15 years. President Pranab Mukherjee visited Hanoi in 2014 and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited India within months. During Mukherjee’s visit, India had extended a $100-million line of credit to Vietnam for defense procurement, with Vietnam looking to use it for getting patrol boats to bolster its naval presence in its territorial waters.
In June, the defense minister Manohar Parrikar visited Vietnam during which the purchase of an interceptor craft for Vietnamese coastal and maritime security was discussed. This could be one of the deliverables during Modi’s proposed visit.
Since India joined the Missile Technology Control Regime in June, there has been speculation that the country could export the Brahmos missile to Vietnam.
The missile is jointly produced by India and Russia.
Indian naval ships increasingly have been making port calls in many countries in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.