By Nantoo Banerjee
Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Defence Minister Arun Jaitley may not be fully aware how the United States made India play a pawn under the UPA’s 10-year-long Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh regime in America’s psychological war against the People’s Republic of China, trying to contain the latter’s geo-political ambition and keep control of the vital South China Sea that handles $5.5-trillion-worth global cargo movement annually. The US is keen to set up a shipbuilding cum repair yard at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay with India and Vietnam as key stakeholders, mainly for the use by its naval ships. Over 600,000 ocean going vessels, including naval ships, move through South China Sea per year. The proposed yard codenamed ‘X-52-5’ was earlier considered as financially non-viable.
The risk of conflict in the strategically located South China Sea is real. It covers shorelines of six independent nations — China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines — having competing territorial and jurisdictional claims, particularly over rights to exploit the region’s extensive reserves of oil and gas. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that the South China Sea bed contains 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. Energy starved-China, the world’s largest economy by the latest IMF ranking under the purchasing power parity (PPP) method and the home of the world’s largest population (1.35 billion), is increasingly peddling its trade and financial influence and military might across the littoral states and beyond to the discomfort of the USA that ruled the seas and the Ocean (Pacific) since the end of the 2nd World War.
India’s ‘Look-East’ policy pushed by Manmohan Singh seemed to contain an unwritten US agenda. Vietnam shares the longest continuous coastline with the South China Sea, much longer than China’s shoreline. How else can one explain the UPA government’s move to tie-up with the US, Vietnam’s former foe turned friend, to set up at an ultra-modern dockyard and ship repair facility at Cam Ranh Bay? When India itself spends millions of dollars annually on ship-repairs, dry-docking and ship acquisitions, of naval and merchant vessels, wouldn’t it have been more logical and beneficial for the country to convert its growing alliance with the US to set up a world-class ship-building cum repair yard in the Bay of Bengal instead with, maybe, common friends such as Japan and Australia as partners, in preference to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay? The Indian bid to partner the US to set up a tri-nation shipyard venture at Cam Ranh Bay has not only angered China, which sees a clear US plot to dock its navy in the strategic Vietnamese water, but also upset India’s time-tested ally Russia since the latter too is interested in partnering Vietnam for the shipyard project.
For at least three reasons, India should stay away from the Cam Ranh Bay project. Firstly, it does not bring any direct benefit to India that boasts over 6,000 km coastline and nearly $ 900 billion annual foreign trade, mostly sea-borne, must have a world-class shipbuilding and repair yard for itself. Globally, ships are regarded as strategic assets. The last time that India decided to build a big shipyard was before the Bangladesh war in the early 1970s by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at Cochin (now Kochi). It has a capacity to build up to 75,000-tonne Panamax-type vessels. Naval yards such as Garden Reach, Mazagon Docks and Vizag are well over half-a-century old. Traditionally, India imported Russian, Polish, Japanese and Korean built ships. Secondly, Vietnam is an odd place for India to build and repair ships. Socialist Vietnam’s relationship with Communist China, its former close ally through the 1970s, has deteriorated over the years after its victorious war against the USA with Chinese and Russian support. Thirdly, both China and Russia are against India partnering the US to encourage a US Navy’s strong proxy presence at the strategically placed Cam Ranh Bay. China would rather welcome if Vietnam accepts Russia, with which it has built a strong relationship especially after the BRICS association, as a partner in the project, replacing the US. Ironically, Hanoi, has been persistently avoiding Russian package offer to build the yard.
India has already been bitten once by China, under the threat of which India’s state-run ONGC had to surrender its joint venture partnership with Vietnam to explore oil in the disputed South China Sea. India is under no diplomatic compulsion to partner the US to jointly fish in the troubled Vietnamese water. This is not to undermine the importance, economic and diplomatic, of India’s growing relationship with Vietnam, a trusted old ally. India’s engagement with Vietnam grew steadily over the years, since the end of the Vietnam war, four decades ago. India was among the first to offer credit to Vietnam to help rebuild its war-ravaged economy and dispatched railway wagons to help internal goods movement in the ’70s even though India depended heavily on foreign aid for the country’s development, those days.
India would do well to recognize the fact that freedom of navigation in the region has long been a contentious issue, especially between the United States and China over the right of U.S. military vessels to operate in China’s two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The US is highly apprehensive about China’s military expansion and its regional intentions. Lately, China has embarked on a substantial modernization of its maritime forces to enforce its sovereignty and jurisdiction claims, by force if necessary. China is developing capabilities that would put U.S. forces in the region at risk in a conflict, potentially denying US Navy’s access to the western Pacific. Russia too has been keen to step up naval cooperation with Vietnam and return to the strategic Cam Ranh Bay. Russia was active at the Bay until 2002 when it decided to pull out for unknown reasons. Cam Ranh’s deep draft is capable of receiving ships of over 100,000 DWT each. Earlier, Japan, France and the US had maintained bases there. Geo-economically, an Indian entry in the Vietnamese Bay in such an explosive atmosphere will do the country more harm than good. (IPA Service)