China’s maritime encroachments in the South China Sea continue unabated amid Covid-19. China’s infringement upon the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of littoral states such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, as well as its conducting of naval drills in disputed waters in July have reflected its intransigence in adhering to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. On July 25, U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo stressed that the South China Sea is “not China’s maritime empire,” calling for a global coalition to counter China’s “disgraceful” actions.

The tension in the South China Sea deserves India’s attention. China’s claim to more than 80 percent of the sea poses a potential threat to India’s freedom of navigation and its economic presence in Southeast Asia, which is a vital concern for New Delhi. India has recently expressed its interest in carrying out navigation activities in the South China Sea, just as China has been upping the ante in disputed waters. Recent Chinese activities may have awakened India to China’s ambition of establishing de facto control over the contested sea.

India, while remaining so far neutral in its position on the South China Sea disputes, should be prepared for China’s aggressive expansionism. In the wake of China’s increased assertiveness under Xi Jinping, there have been calls for a review of India’s China policy. Former Indian ambassador to Beijing and Washington Nirupama Rao noted in July that China’s recent behavior has triggered “a rethink of China policy” among countries “across the Indo-Pacific and in Europe.” India’s desire to play a more prominent role in bridging the Pacific and Indian Oceans is bound to face challenges if it fails to recognize China’s ambitions.

India and Vietnam now find that they share security concerns in the South China Sea cauldron. China’s increasing attempts at intimidation in disputed waters have caused anxiety among Vietnamese leaders, and China’s maritime ambitions are putting India’s own  strategic goals in the region to the test. Strengthening India-Vietnam defense ties would seem a logical outcome of current geopolitical tensions rising from China’s attempts at hegemony in Southeast Asia.

In contrast to the centuries-old mistrust between China and Vietnam, India-Vietnam ties have enjoyed consistent positive momentum since colonial times, when India offered persistent support for Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle. Now, both countries have maintained that momentum and have articulated a shared vision of “peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and over-flight and unimpeded economic activities in the South China Sea.” After its standoff with China in 2019 at Vanguard Bank, where the Chinese vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 conducted an illegal seabed survey within Vietnam’s EEZ, Hanoi apprised New Delhi of the incident. This move, by implication, reflects the sincere and trustworthy nature of the India-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

But despite growing India-Vietnam defense ties, no significant breakthroughs have been realized. Despite discussions since 2014, India has not yet agreed to sell Brahmos cruise missiles to Vietnam. Similarly, a deal for Vietnam to acquire the Akash surface-to-air missile, over which the two sides began talks in 2016, has yet to materialize. Little progress has been made since the Indian government appears unwilling to upset China for fear of becoming targeted for economic coercion. In 2017, the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times declared that India’s possible sale of equipment to Vietnam and military-to-military ties would amount to “a strategic arrangement or even revenge against Beijing,” and that China “will hardly sit with its arms crossed.” As China’s illegal incursions into Vietnam’s EEZ mount, procuring modern defense systems from India would likely serve to further deter China from instigating an attack against Vietnamese vessels.

In the past, Vietnam maintained a delicate balance between the United States and China. But Vietnam’s recent tilt toward the United States shows that it is open to  shifting its approach. As Vietnam’s stance becomes clearer, it further opens the door for India’s engagement. Vietnam has gained new importance in U.S. strategic thinking, with the 2019 U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy labeling it one of the “key players in ASEAN.” It is also the ASEAN chair this year. This status means it could help facilitate India’s growing role in regional affairs. This would coincide with New Delhi’s interests as evidenced by its embrace of the Quad.

The time is ripe for a more robust India-Vietnam relationship. India should be more vocal in supporting Vietnam’s stance in the South China Sea. It could also provide maritime training to Vietnam’s Coastal Guard. The two countries should work to complete deals for providing modern Indian defense equipment, including the Akash and Brahmos missiles, to Vietnam. Indian defense support could enhance Vietnamese combat capability and showcase the strength of the bilateral relationship amid Beijing’s muscular moves.

Additionally, India’s involvement in the South China Sea and joint maritime activities with Vietnam would put China’s risky expansionism to the test. An Indian military presence could augment Vietnam’s defensive capability while also cutting defense expenditures. In the future, India and Vietnam could foster cooperation with other middle-powers in the Asia Pacific such as Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and Australia, to further check Chinese belligerence in disputed waters. Another possible trajectory of trilateral coordination between India, Vietnam, and the United States or India, Vietnam, and Japan on the same format and basis as the existing U.S.-India-Japan trilateral cooperation deserves thorough exploration.

Forging defense ties with Vietnam would suit the logic of India’s growing interests in the South China Sea amid China’s increasing strength and clout. India’s engagement in the contested sea, along with its diplomatic and military support for Vietnam, could accentuate the vital role that New Delhi has been vying to play in Southeast Asia.

About Huynh Tam Sang

Huynh Tam Sang is a Lecturer of the Faculty of International Relations and Research Fellow of Center for International Studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City. His main fields of interest are Vietnam’s foreign policy, U.S.-China strategic competition, and security and conflict in the South China Sea.