When the Chinese navy carried out drills almost simultaneously in four sea regions this week, many were awed by the show of force – but few questioned the intended audience.Experts were near unanimous in viewing the drills – in the South China Sea, East China Sea, the northern Yellow Sea and the Bohai Gulf – as Beijing’s response to what it sees as increased belligerence from the United States. Washington has recently sent aircraft carriers to the South China Sea, sailed a destroyer through the Taiwan Strait, flown reconnaissance aircraft and B-1B bombers over the region and sided with Southeast Asian nations in their territorial disputes with China.

As Josef Gregory Mahoney, a professor of politics at Shanghai’s East China Normal University, put it: “China is facing an escalating risk of President Donald Trump sparking an incident in the South China Sea, possibly involving Taiwan.”The message China’s drills sent in response was clear: while China does not want a war with the US, if one comes it is ready and able to fight – and on multiple fronts if need be.

Hong Kong-based warship joins drill in South China SeaBut while the intended audience may have been Washington, the show of force also had an effect on nations much closer to home. In particular, analysts say, it has encouraged a developing military partnership between Vietnam and India – a partnership many experts see as being aimed at countering China in much the same way as the China-Pakistan alliance is seen as countering India.

Shared Interests

Vietnam has been angered by satellite images showing China recently deployed at least one H-6J missile-carrying bomber to Woody Island, one of the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

The images prompted Vietnam’s foreign ministry last week to warn the bombers’ presence on the island – known as Yongxing in China and Phu Lam in Vietnam – not only violated Vietnamese sovereignty but “jeopardised peace” in the region.CORONAVIRUS UPDATEGet updates direct to your inboxSIGN UPBy registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy

The images are thought to have been high on the agenda when Vietnamese ambassador Pham Sanh Chau met Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla last Friday to brief him on escalating tensions in the South China Sea. They are also thought to have featured in discussions during a virtual meeting between Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar and his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh on Tuesday.

Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said this was not the first time China had deployed bombers to the Paracels – it dispatched several H-6K long-range bombers there in 2018. However, Vietnam’s openness about the ambassador’s meeting was significant.

“Given that [this time] Vietnam made its brief to India public, it is likely that Vietnam is engaging in a diplomatic exercise to call out China’s actions with the objective of eliciting political support,” Thayer said.

In reaching out to India, Vietnam had showcased not only a comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries but also showed its continued support of India’s freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, said international relations lecturer Huynh Tam Sang from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City.

“India and Vietnam now find themselves at a geostrategic convergence. Both sides oppose China treating the South China Sea as its backyard and have interests in preserving peace and stability in the contested waters,” Huynh said.

Vietnam’s diplomatic moves would encourage India’s engagement in the South China Sea, Huynh said, adding that boosting defence cooperation would send “a timely message” to Beijing.

Mohan Malik, a visiting fellow of the NESA Centre for Strategic Studies (a regional centre of the US Department of Defence), likened the India-Vietnam partnership to China’s relationship with Pakistan.

“Just as Islamabad and Beijing closely coordinate and support their military moves against India, New Delhi and Hanoi have now begun briefing and supporting each other vis-à-vis Beijing. And just as Pakistan favours a strong Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, Vietnam favours an Indian naval presence in the South China Sea,” Malik said.

Chinese air force troops carry out air defence drill over the South China Sea

Chinese air force troops carry out air defence drill over the South China Sea

“Both India and Vietnam perceive China as an irredentist and expansionist power that can never be territorially satiated and therefore presents a clear and present danger. India seeks to do to China what China has done to India, that is, containment and encirclement,” Malik added.

Brothers in Arms

Vietnam would continue strengthening ties with India to address shared concerns about China’s growing assertiveness throughout the Indo-Pacific, said Derek Grossman, senior defence analyst at the Rand Corporation, a Washington think tank.

“This is likely to involve information sharing, military training and perhaps weapons procurement,” Grossman said, adding that the two countries’ militaries were highly complementary as they both largely relied on Soviet-era or Russian equipment.

But some analysts said there were hurdles to increased military ties.

Chinese exercise in Tibet after border clash with IndiaMalik said that since the Indian military was currently on a war-footing for a possible two-front conflict with China and Pakistan, its ability to provide real-time military help to Vietnam was limited. “However, their intelligence sharing pact would come in handy for monitoring the movement of the Chinese navy’s surface and subsurface vessels,” Malik added.

Thayer pointed out that while India-Vietnam defence ties went back 13 years, there was only one Indian sale to Vietnam during that time recorded on the arms transfer database from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: four 35 metre ocean patrol vessels, valued at US$100 million, that were sold to Vietnam’s coastguard.

In 2014 and 2016, Vietnam began discussions with India to buy the Brahmos and Akash missiles, but since the Brahmos missile was jointly produced by India and Russia, it was not sold to Vietnam for fear of angering China, Thayer said.

“Any strengthening of India-Vietnam defence ties would be driven by controlled Chinese belligerence towards both India and Vietnam, and would most likely be incremental. Neither India nor Vietnam want to aggravate their relations with China,” Thayer said.

“In sum, China’s deployment of a single H-6J bomber [to Woody Island] should not be viewed as a game changer in strategic terms necessitating a sudden acceleration of India-Vietnam defence ties,” Thayer said.

Oil and Gas

Another aspect of the India-Vietnam relationship discussed by Pham and Shringla was whether India could take a greater role in exploring for oil and gas off the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea.

India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s international arm ONGC Videsh has for several years operated in waters claimed by both Vietnam and China, with Hanoi’s blessing but opposition from Beijing.

Malik said greater India-Vietnam cooperation in such explorations could be expected given China’s massive infrastructure development and dam construction in the disputed northern areas of Pakistani-held Kashmir.

Grossman said greater collaboration was a win for both nations; India diversified energy resources while Vietnam got to treat “its exclusive economic zone as such and not as an overlapping sovereignty dispute with China that forces it to ask permission from Beijing before proceeding”.

Mahoney said Vietnam needed help in oil and gas exploration and its choices were either India or China.

Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

“The only way forward is either to resolve the conflict with China and then move forward with Beijing, or do so more securely with India,” Mahoney added.

Thayer said any future India-Vietnam cooperation would be complicated by commercial considerations such as financial viability and the risk of Chinese harassment of any oil operations in disputed waters.

Huynh said a breakthrough in cooperation over exploration between India and Vietnam was unlikely ahead of the 13th Vietnam Communist Party Congress expected to begin in the first quarter of 2021.

What’s in it for India?

While freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was central to India’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, Malik said even more important to New Delhi was to counter Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over the vast majority of the disputed waterway.

Malik said India could not afford to be a bystander to the dispute as over US$200 billion worth of Indian trade passed through the South China Sea.

Thayer said that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi

, the slogan of his predecessor “Look East” had become “Act East” as New Delhi sought economic and technological links withSoutheast Asian

countries. Vietnam was key to this strategy due to its anti-colonial ties dating back to the 1940s, Thayer said.

Grossman said India was also “probably interested in keeping China distracted in the South China Sea to constrain Beijing’s future activities and designs in the Indian Ocean region”.

He noted a report this week had claimed India was developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in part to counter Chinese development of Thailand’s Kra Canal, across the Bay of Bengal and within range of the strategically vital Strait of Malacca.

Cost For Vietnam?

However, while both Hanoi and New Delhi may see the benefits of their blossoming partnership, analysts said caution would be wise, particularly for Vietnam.Vietnam could not afford an expanding conflict with China as Beijing had “powerful levers at its disposal”, especially in relation to trade, water security and the South China Sea, said Mahoney.

“Vietnam knows that Indian and US needs and interests do not align completely with Hanoi’s, and that neither Washington nor New Delhi can be counted on if things turn really bad, or again, if either of those countries see changes in leadership,” Mahoney said.

Thayer said even though territorial disputes in the South China Sea were the major irritant in bilateral relations between Hanoi and Beijing, “Vietnam does not want this dispute to be the sole focal point of their relationship”.

And since Vietnam operates through a framework of diversifying and multilateralising its relations, as well as drawing in other major powers such as Japan, Russia and the US, Hanoi knew that it had “a leverage of relations” it could draw on for support “if China gets too aggressive”, Thayer said.