While seeking to build an architecture for cooperation and security in Asia, India cannot ignore Vietnam’s importance in ensuring a stable balance of power.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger makes some interesting revelations about China’s invasion of Vietnam in March 1979 in his recent book, On China. He explains how Deng Xiaoping made elaborate preparations to invade Vietnam by embarking on a charm offensive, with visits to Japan, South-East Asia and last, but not the least, to the USA. In Washington, DC, Deng spoke of the “parallel interests” of China and the US and the need to “coordinate our activities and adopt necessary measures” following Vietnam’s 1978 Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union.
While President Jimmy Carter paid lip service to peace, he offered “intelligence briefings” to the Chinese even as Deng asserted, “China must still teach Vietnam a lesson.” Mr Kissinger reveals that Deng indicated that China’s plan was to mount “a limited punitive strike, followed by a retreat” in Vietnam, as it had done during the 1962 conflict with India. He, however, fails to acknowledge that the Vietnamese gave the Chinese a bloody nose during their “punitive strike” on their southern neighbour.
The wheels of geopolitics have turned full circle over the past three decades. After ‘strategic geniuses’ like Mr Kissinger and Mr Zbigniew Brzezinski contributed significantly to China’s ‘rise’ by advocating liberal transfers of investment and technology, the Americans are now finding China increasingly ‘assertive’, with its mercantilist policies designed to corner the world’s natural resources and its propensity to use force to enforce maritime boundary claims with virtually all its neighbours.
One sees a similar Chinese ‘assertiveness’ in dealing with boundary issues with India. Not only is claim being laid to the entire State of Arunachal Pradesh, but China is now alluding to the length of the Sino-Indian border as 2,000 km instead of the actual length of 3,488 km, thereby excluding its borders in the western sector with Jammu & Kashmir from the ambit of differences over the Sino-Indian border.
Forever apologetic and defensive in dealing with an ‘assertive’ Beijing, South Block has yet to acknowledge that this constitutes a significant change in China’s approach to the issue of Jammu & Kashmir and indeed to the entire border dispute. A similar pusillanimity appears to characterise our response to indications of China giving consideration to projects to divert the water of Brahmaputra, while adopting an approach similar to its policies on the Mekong basin.
Clearly alarmed by China’s growing ‘assertiveness’ on its maritime boundaries with virtually all its neighbours, ranging from Japan, South Korea and Vietnam to the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined ASEAN Foreign Ministers at an ARF meeting in Vietnam in July 2010, expressing concern about growing Chinese disinclination to work constructively to resolve differences. American concern was again expressed at a meeting of Defence Ministers of ASEAN and its partners in Hanoi in October 2010.
During the past year China has not hesitated to use force along its maritime boundaries with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Tensions have grown significantly between China and Vietnam in recent months. In May this year, a Chinese fishing boat escorted by two Chinese naval vessels deliberately rammed into a Vietnamese seismic survey ship. Following protests by both sides and demonstrations in Vietnam, Hanoi embarked on naval exercises off its central coast. China responded with large-scale exercise in the South China Sea in which fighter aircraft participated.
On June 14 Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung served notice about the possibility of an impending military mobilisation, while the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the Global Times, warned Vietnam that China would answer any “provocation” with “economic or even military counter-strikes”. If China colluded with the US to attack Vietnam in 1979, the Chinese now warn the Vietnamese against “unrealistic” expectations of American backing. Vietnam was told: “China will take whatever measures are necessary to protect its interests in the South China Sea.”
Vietnam, in turn, is strengthening its defences with the acquisition of six kilo class submarines, SU 30 MK 2 fighter jets and MI 17 helicopters from Russia. Vietnam’s Naval chief and Deputy Defence Minister Vice-Admiral Nguyen Van Hein visited New Delhi on June 27. Prior to his visit, Hanoi had permitted Indian naval ships to berth at Nha Trang Port in southern Vietnam. Vice-Admiral Hein visited Indian naval dockyards in Mumbai and Vishakhapatnam. Maritime cooperation will be a crucial element in India’s defence cooperation with Vietnam. Both countries extensively use equipment of Russian origin.
Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee told Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on May 8 that India would continue to assist Vietnam in the modernisation of its armed forces, focusing attention primarily on its Air Force and Navy. Mr Mukherjee also spoke of enhanced intelligence cooperation with Vietnam. Unfortunately, given our disgraceful incompetence and inability to utilise opportunities for oil and gas exploration that Vietnam provided to ONGC, India cannot be said to enjoy an image of efficiency in Vietnamese eyes.
Moreover, we need to be far less inhibited in dealing with defence cooperation with Vietnam than our mandarins in the Defence Ministry are generally given to being. If we are really serious about developing Vietnam’s capabilities to defend its maritime boundaries, we should be prepared to transfer potent weapon systems like Brahmos missiles to that country. China has, after all, shown no inhibitions in transferring a range of missile systems to Pakistan. Moreover, we should avoid subjecting Vietnam to the inefficiencies of public sector enterprises like ONGC and NHPC which have under-performed in our eastern neighbourhood.
India needs to play an active role in building an inclusive architecture for security in the South China Sea and across the Asia-Pacific. We are expanding defence ties with Japan and participating in multilateral naval exercises. Should we not elicit participation by Vietnam in such exercises? While describing the national traits of the Vietnamese, Mr Kissinger writes: “Hanoi was not any other country’s proxy. It fought for its vision of independence, which assigned to Vietnam the dominant role that Beijing had played in East Asia. To these single-minded survivors of centuries of conflict with China, compromise was inconceivable between their idea of independence and any outsider’s conception of stability.”
While seeking to build an architecture for cooperation and security in Asia, no country, least of all India, can or should ignore the importance of Vietnam in building a stable balance of power in the continent.