World View: As Other Asian Nations Back Down, India and Vietnam Become Allies Confronting China

Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh (L) and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj shake hands ahead of a meeting in New Delhi on July 4, 2017. Vietnam's deputy prime minister is on an official visit to India. / AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH …
PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

This morning’s key headlines from GenerationalDynamics.com

  • Vietnam protests China’s military drills near the Gulf of Tonkin in South China Sea
  • India and Vietnam become allies in confronting China

Vietnam protests China’s military drills near the Gulf of Tonkin in South China Sea

India's Narendra Modi with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi (Reuters)
India’s Narendra Modi with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi (Reuters)

Vietnam on Thursday protested China’s military drills in waters off the month of Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea.

In reply to reporters’ queries about the move of China, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that all activities of foreign countries in the waters belonging to Vietnam’s sovereign right and jurisdiction should comply with Vietnam’s legal regulations and international law, especially the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

It is doubtful that China will honor any international law. China repeatedly violates other countries’ sovereign territories and threatens to use its massive military to kill anyone who doesn’t do as they demand.

In July, Vietnam again protested China’s military drills violating Vietnam’s sovereignty and, as usual, they were ignored.

In June, China demanded that Spanish company Repsol, under contract with Vietnam, stop drilling for oil and gas in a block that clearly belongs to Vietnam under international law. Vietnam refused. A month later, China threatened to use military force against Vietnamese targets, and Vietnam was forced to step back. Even worse, Vietnam may now be forced to pay Repsol hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Despite this setback, what is becoming clear is that little Vietnam is becoming the only country around the South China Sea willing to stand up at all to gargantuan China.

The Philippines used to stand up to China, but under president Rodrigo R. Duterte, the country has simply given up, with the attitude that China is going to win anyway, so why fight? Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, which previously had expressed some opposition to China’s belligerence, have also given up.

China even gloated about this three weeks ago in a China Daily editorial, following the meeting of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). According to the article:

It seems, however, that Vietnam almost put a spanner in the works by attempting to push its own agenda during the meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers.

According to media reports, Hanoi struck a less harmonious note by hypocritically trying to insert tough language criticizing China’s island building in the South China Sea, something Vietnam did first, resulting in a delay to the issuing of their joint statement on Saturday.

But with none of the other ASEAN members being like-minded, Vietnam’s proposed phrases were not included in the communiqué released on Sunday.

China’s island building in the South China Sea is a clear violation of international law, as decided in July 2016, when a Tribunal at the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague eviscerated all of China’s claims to the South China Sea. ( “13-Jul-16 World View — Philippines humiliates China in harsh Hague Tribunal ruling over South China Sea”)

China is an international criminal that has repeatedly lied about its claims in the South China Sea. And yet, they won a victory in ASEAN removing any mention of China’s criminal activities from the final statement. Even the Philippines, which won the Tribunal ruling last year in July, has almost completely given in to China.

It seems that only Vietnam, among the South China Sea nations, is still willing to stand up to China. Vietnam Plus and Reuters and Vietnam Plus (23-Aug) and CNN (14-Aug) and China Daily (7-Aug)

India and Vietnam become allies in confronting China

Of course, Vietnam is not completely alone in confronting China. Japan is very confrontational with China and has discussed allying with Vietnam against China.

The United States conducts Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea, sailing intelligence-gathering ships near China’s illegal man-made islands, infuriating Chinese officials. The US is also confronting China in Central Asia. As we reported in last week’s analysis of Donald Trump’s speech on Afghanistan, the US is confronting Pakistan in Afghanistan and is also maintaining its two air bases, in Bagram and Kandahar International Airport, as forward bases in any future war with China. India and the US recently signed a logistical support agreement.

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, what is most interesting is that the US, India, and Vietnam, along with Japan, appear to be forming a military alliance to encircle and confront China. India has good reason to ally with Vietnam in confronting China. They share concerns about China’s control of the South China Sea, and China’s access to the Indian Ocean.

India is already providing Vietnam with a $100 million line of credit and has sold Vietnam four offshore patrol vessels that are likely to be used against China in the South China Sea. India is helping Vietnam to build capacity for repair and maintenance of its defense platforms, and the armed forces of the two states have started cooperation in areas like information technology and the English-language training of Vietnamese Army personnel. India has also accepted Vietnam’s invitation to drill for oil in the same region that Repsol abandoned.

The most intriguing issue has to do with the possible sale by India of sophisticated BrahMos anti-ship cruise missile systems to Vietnam. Such a sale would dramatically change the power balance in the South China Sea. Vietnam has been asking India since 2011 to purchase the BrahMos systems, but India has refused, fearing to anger China.

In 2016, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi made it clear that it was no longer as hesitant. The Modi government last year directed BrahMos Aerospace, which produces the missiles, to expedite this sale to Vietnam. Two weeks ago, the government of Vietnam appeared to confirm that it had acquired the missiles from India. However, sources at India’s Defense Ministry denied selling the missiles to Vietnam. After that, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry gave an ambiguous statement that neither confirmed nor denied the sale.

What we now know that we did not know then is that India and China were having back-channel negotiations to back down from the standoff on Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau. In public, Chinese media were making vitriolic and offensive threats and accusations against India, saying that China’s military would wipe out India’s military unless India withdrew, and also saying that no negotiations were possible unless India unilaterally withdraw. That all turned out to be China’s usual hot air, because the negotiations were already in progress and resulted in a mutual pullback.

So India’s denial of the BrahMos sale to Vietnam came at a time when those negotiations were going on, and we still don’t yet know whether India denied the sale because they had completed the same but didn’t want to upset the negotiations, or because they really hadn’t sold the missiles. Asia Times and The Diplomat (22-Aug) and New Delhi TV (23-Aug)

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KEYS: Generational Dynamics, Vietnam, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Gulf of Tonkin, China, South China Sea, Repsol, Philippines, Rodrigo R. Duterte, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, BrahMos anti-ship cruise missile system, Bhutan, Doklam Plateau
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