The Oil and Natural Gas Commission is apparently going back to the troubled waters of the South China Sea prospecting for oil. According to Chinese media reports, this is a “complete about-turn in India’s policy on the issue.” The reports didn’t say whether China had been given any assurances in this regard, howsoever informally, by the Indian side from which New Delhi is retracting.
The Chinese reports attribute the change of course on India’s part due to political considerations rather than economic interests, ie., in terms of India’s overall containment strategy toward China. They call on Beijing to exert political pressure on New Delhi and Hanoi, warning them against pursuing the ONGC project, failing which to “give a strong response.” The report is here.
The Chinese reaction, in comparison, to the 5-day visit of the Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang to Russia over the weekend, which resulted in many big ideas of cooperation, has been quite matter of fact. Russia and Vietnam have agreed on extensive and deep energy cooperation, but China finds nothing wrong in it.
Interestingly, Xinhua calmly reported even on the military links, including Sang’s offer to give to Russia “preferences in Cam Ranh Bay, including for development of military cooperation.” The western experts were cocksure of Russian-Chinese acrimony breaking out over Cam Ranh Bay and that Moscow was cocking a snook at Beijing.
On the other hand, Beijing seems to estimate that the Russian involvement in the Vietnamese naval base may after all be a good thing to happen as it could be a sure way of frustrating the American hopes to gain access to it. China would factor in that the US never shares its military base with another country. (The US defence secretary Leon Panetta visited Cam Ranh Bay last month.)
In political terms, what emerges is that in the Chinese perception, India is increasingly consorting with the US’ containment strategy, whereas Russia is pursuing an independent foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific within which it is developing a strong partnership with Vietnam. That is to say, China can learn to live with Russia’s desire to strengthen ties with Vietnam. Incidentally, during Sang’s visit to Russia, President Vladimir Putin proposed to raise the partnership to “comprehensive strategic partnership”, which is on par with Russia’s ties with China.
Of course, Moscow takes great care to see that Chinese sensitivities and concerns are duly respected. On the Cam Ranh Bay base issue, there was a flurry of speculative media reports suggesting that Russia was seeking a base in Vietnam. When asked about the reports, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quite explicit:
“In the present conditions, the Russian navy discharges tasks throughout the world’s oceans. Currently, it is specially required in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Eden, where we fight with pirates together with the European Union, NATO, Indians and the Chinese; our ships coordinate their actions. There is nothing strange about it… Piracy is not limited to one region of the world. For example, in the Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia, these guys often misbehave, too. That is why for the Russian navy, while serving abroad in the world’s oceans, it is important to have logistic support capabilities. We have agreement with a number of countries so that Russian ships could harbor and resupply and the crew could take rest. Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay performs minor repair of ships sailing from various countries. The Americans also have their ships repaired and served there. There is nothing sensational in this issue.”
To be sure, Lavrov spoke with the awareness that Beijing would be closely hearing him out. Apparently, the Chinese took the Russian word at face value. Effective Russian diplomacy here. The Western pundits went wrong in their prognosis.
– August 1, 2012