Global Response To Secure South China Sea And Advance India-Vietnam Cooperation – Analysis


India has scaled up its engagement in the naval domain in the Indian Ocean region response to the threat perception that has heightened in recent months in a multi-prolonged ways. First Defence Minister Rajnath Singh travelled to Maldives on a three-day visit, the first in 11 years, to discuss maritime issues with his counterpart Mariya Didi. The visit was in tune with India’s commitment to capacity building of friendly countries and partners in the region. Singh gifted one Fast Patrol Vessel ship and a Landing Craft to the Maldives National Defence Forces. Both India and Maldives are working together to address shared challenges, including maritime security, terrorism, radicalisation, piracy, trafficking, organised crimes and natural disasters.

This was followed by Air Force Chief Air Marshal V. R. Chaudhari embarking on four-day visit to Sri Lanka. Further, in a boost to expand India-ASEAN military cooperation, the maiden ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise (AIME) began on 2 May with war games in South China Sea. Navy Chief Adm R. Hari Kumar was in Singapore for the exercise and also to take part in the International Maritime Defence Exhibition (IMDEX-23) and International Maritime Security Conference (IMSC) hosted by Singapore.

The inaugural AIME-23 was scheduled from 2 to 8 May. This provided an opportunity for Indian Navy and ASEAN navies to work together closely and conduct seamless operations in the maritime domain. While the Harbour Phase of the exercise was held at Changi Naval Base from 2-4 May, the ‘Sea Phase’ of the exercise took place at South China Sea from 7 to 8 May. 

The inaugural edition of the naval and maritime defence event IMDEX was held in 1997 and has since been expanding every year. Established in 2009, the IMSC was co-organised by Singapore Navy and Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). The conference brings together navy chiefs, strategic thinkers and maritime stakeholders to exchange ideas and discuss ways to enhance and foster mutual security in the maritime commons.

Indeed, the India-ASEAN exercise is a big signal. It was in 2022 the two sides upgraded their 30-year-long ties to that of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and the joint drill was the first such major joint event. That decision came amid growing Chinese belligerence vis-a-vis neighbours, not only along its land borders but also its vital seas and waterways including the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Taiwan Straits.   

The first ever joint military drill between India and the ASEAN was significant as several ASEAN member nations are facing territorial threats from China due to its aggression in the South China Sea. Indian Naval Ships (INS) Satpura and Delhi with Rear Admiral Gurcharan Singh, the Flag Officer commanding Eastern Fleet, participated in the weeklong exercise. While INS Delhi is India’s first indigenously-built guided missile destroyer, INS Satpura is an “indigenously-built guided missile stealth frigate”. Both vessels are a part of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet based at Visakhapatnam and fitted with state-of-the art weapons and sensors.  

As mentioned, the AIME-23 is significant as several members of the ASEAN grouping are facing territorial threats from China due to its aggression in the South China Sea. South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, where almost a third of global maritime crude oil trade passes. The international community and the ASEAN countries are deeply concerned over China’s sweeping territorial claims, which includes virtually all of South China Sea and their adjacent waters. A 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling in The Hague had invalidated China’s claims. In view of the critical importance of South China Sea for maritime commerce, it needs to be governed in accordance with international laws, rules of law and law of the sea. China has gone ahead and built artificial islands in the sea with a view to strengthen its claims. China has been violating on a continuing basis with the objective to set its own rules which others are expected to accept. India has therefore stakes to see that peace and stability is maintained. With India too, China is frequently engaged in border conflicts and India has therefore compelling reasons to work with several powers in the region to contain China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific. 

This time too, when India was exercising with its ASEAN partners involving nine ships, six aircraft, and over 1,800 personnel from across the grouping’s nations and were trawling international waters along the transit route to the Philippines, several Chinese ships were seen shadowing Indian ships. India monitored these Chinese ships when those appeared in a portion of the South China Sea where a flotilla of ASEAN nations’ warships was engaged in military drills. Beijing issued no formal warning or objections to the flotilla, however. 

When the naval ships and aircraft from India, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei were exercising in the Vietnamese Exclusive Economic Zone, the Chinese boats moved towards them. However, the militia boats and naval vessels crossed each other without any face-off. The Chinese surveillance vessel Xiang Yang Hong 10 and at least eight maritime militia ships, a front for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) were seen about 100 nautical miles away from the area where the exercises were taking place.  

The irony is most of the ASEAN countries, India, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have deep economic relations with China. These countries are careful that security issues do not derail their economic interests. Probably, China is aware of such vulnerabilities of its trading partners and continues in its expansionist designs. But its violations of global rules cannot be condoned. 

In order to contain China, and worried over national security in the Indo-Pacific, the smaller affected nations are bolstering their own defences and coordinated response such as joint military exercises. In recent times, particularly since 2020, India’s ties with China are also frayed when worst fighting in decades erupted on the Himalayan border. Even on the eastern sector, China has been claiming parts of Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls South Tibet, and renamed many Indian towns and peaks in the state. It lodges protest whenever any Indian political leader visits the state. It also protested when India’s honoured guest Dalai Lama visited the Indian state some time ago. Despite such political tensions, bilateral economic ties remain robust, though the balance of trade has remained always against India.  

Though the presence of Chinese vessels into the path of the India-ASEAN maritime exercise could have been coincidental but it remains unclear whether it was directed related. Ships participating in the exercises are expected to track simulated vessels of interest and practice dealing with unplanned encounters to reduce the likelihood of accidents or miscalculations. In April, the US demanded China to stop the provocative and unsafe conduct in the South China Sea. Chinese and Philippine ships came close to collision in the South China Sea in April when the Philippines and the US were engaged in a bilateral military exercise. 

With such activities, India-ASEAN relationship gets a further boost. ASEAN is a regional grouping comprising 10 South East Asian countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. The organisation is crucial to India’s Act East Policy. Since the free trade agreement in goods was signed in 2009, trade between the two sides has expanded significantly. In 2022, the value of bilateral trade amounted to over $110 billion. Both sides are committed to upscale this.  

Yet, with tensions rising, the possibility of a confrontation looms. The ASEAN as a grouping as well as member-states individually have preferred a cautious approach and sought to balance between China and the US on security matters. ASEAN’s engagement in war games with India is important as its signals India’s willingness for military cooperation vis-a-vis Chinese belligerence in South China Sea zone of conflict.  

Vietnam China’s main target

For quite some time China has been conducting illegal activities in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. In the latest move, China unilaterally and illegally issued fishing ban in the South China Sea from 1 May to 16 August. This diktat by China violates Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracel) as well as its sovereignty rights and jurisdiction over the waters and EEZ defined in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In order not to exacerbate the situation and exercising restraint, Vietnam issued a polite but firm request to China that it respects Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its maritime zones, and not complicate the situation. 

After Vietnam noticed Chinese vessel Haiyang Dizhi 4 recently operating in Vietnam’s EEZ, Deputy spokeswoman of the Foreign Ministry Pham Thu Hang demanded on 6 April that China strictly comply with international law. Vietnam’s law enforcement forces at sea always remain vigilant and monitor presence of Chinese vessels frequently. Vietnam has sufficient legal basis and historical evidence testifying to its sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracels) and Truong Sa in accordance with international law, as well as the sovereign right and jurisdiction over the sea areas established in line with the 1982 UNCLOS. Therefore, China’s scientific survey and research in Truong Sa and sea areas without permission from Vietnam violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over Truong Sa and the country’s sovereign right and jurisdiction over its sea areas. 

Recently, President of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) Judge Albert Hoffmann lauded Vietnam’s efforts in enforcing the 1982 UNCLOS during a working session with Vietnamese Ambassador to Germany Vu Quang Minh at the ITLOS headquarters in Hamburg on 24 April. He also praised Vietnam’s contribution to the building and negotiation of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) between ASEAN and China. Established on 1 August 1996, the Hamburg-based ITLOS has jurisdiction over any dispute concerning the interpretation or application of the UNCLOS, and over all matters specifically provided for in any other agreement which confers jurisdiction on the Tribunal. 

Deepening defence ties with Vietnam

Although India and ASEAN have much to gain from greater cooperation, the relationship has moved at a snail pace. While ASEAN’s wariness over drawing Chinese ire and apprehension over India’s domination are to blame to some extent, Indian tardiness in prioritising its Act East policy is also subject to analysis. Opportunities for cooperation on shared concerns over shared threat perception are opening. India must not let these opportunities slip away.    

Of all the ASEAN states, India finds a lot of convergence of interests with Vietnam, the fastest growing economy in the grouping, in cultural, economic and security domains. Both countries have prioritised to exploit the potentials therein for mutual benefits and also for the peace and stability of the region. In order to coordinate defence related activities, both have posted defence attaches in each other’s missions in Hanoi and New Delhi. The hosting of the Indian Defence Attache Col. Dheeraj Kotwal at a reception by Vietnam’s Deputy Defence Minister Sen. Lieut. Gen. Hoang Xuan Chien on 5 May in Hanoi testify to the traditional friendship and comprehensive strategic partnership aimed to achieve practical outcomes in the defence domain. 

Exchange activities and cooperation mechanisms are developed in a flexible manner. Indian government has offered credit to the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defence. Among planned activities between the two sides include cooperation between combat forces, collaboration in defence industry and UN peacekeeping and mutual support in multilateral forums. These fall in line with the Joint Vision Statement on defence partnership towards 2030, which focuses on such activities as cooperation in defence industry, UN peacekeeping, cyber security, maritime security and transfer of used boats. Defence cooperation between the two countries is therefore one of the bright spots in the relationship. 

The onus lies on India and the ASEAN, particularly on Vietnam, to put pressure on China to comply with international law and not to use threat of using force to settle disputes. India with the G-20 presidency in 2023, has added responsibility to launch initiatives for maritime and aviation security, peacekeeping, stabilising the region, enhancing coordination and funding for ASEAN countries, including Vietnam, to strengthen their defence and maritime security capabilities, thereby creating a favourable environment for the early promotion of an effective COC in accordance with international law.       

From the above discussion it transpires that the Asian region is destined to remain volatile for quite some time and the security matrix shall be determined by China’s aggressive posture and the coordinated response by the adversarial nations. India and Vietnam shall play critical roles in this new situation.        

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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