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South China Sea, defence cooperation: India, Vietnam draw 3-year road map to upgrade ties

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New Delhi, Dec 21: India and Vietnam on Monday inked seven agreements to expand bilateral ties in defence, nuclear energy and several other sectors, and vowed to boost practical cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in the backdrop of increasing concerns over rising Chinese military assertiveness in the region.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses during a virtual bilateral summit with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc (unseen)

At a virtual summit with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described Vietnam as an important partner in India's Indo-Pacific vision as well as for its Act East policy, and said peace, stability and prosperity in the region was the common goal of both sides.

In the wake of growing military muscle-flexing by China in the South China Sea region, the two leaders specifically reaffirmed the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, while pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law without resorting to 'threat or use of force'.

Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs Riva Ganguly Das said at a media briefing that there was a strong convergence of views between the two leaders in promoting coordination to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, including cross-border terrorism, terror financing networks and safe havens.

In his initial remarks at the summit, Modi said India looks at ties with Vietnam with a long-term and strategic perspective and that cooperation between the two countries can contribute to maintaining peace and stability in the region.

Vietnam important pillar in India's Indo-Pacific vision: PM ModiVietnam important pillar in India's Indo-Pacific vision: PM Modi

A document, titled 'India-Vietnam Joint Vision for Peace, Prosperity and People', which was released after the summit, said the two sides will step up military-to-military exchanges, training and capacity building programmes across the three services and coast guards as it was agreed that enhanced bilateral defence and security partnership would be an important factor of stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Ganguly Das said Prime Minister Modi stressed that the Code of Conduct negotiations on the South China Sea should not prejudice the interest of other countries in the region.

She said Modi also invited Vietnamese companies to invest in India and highlighted the urgent need for long-overdue review of ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement as a concrete step towards revitalising economic engagement between the two countries as well as the larger ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region.

The secretary said the reaffirmation by the two leaders to enhance bilateral cooperation in all areas of engagement, support each other's national development, and strengthen cooperation against common global challenges provides an important basis to add new substance and momentum to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

In reference to the South China Sea, the vision document said both leaders also underscored the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, and avoidance of actions that could further complicate the situation or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability.

She said both leaders also spoke of the importance of promoting a rules-based order in the region including by upholding international law, especially the UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), adding they affirmed that a peaceful, stable, secure, free, open, inclusive and rules-based region is in the common interest of all countries.

The seven agreements inked include one on implementing arrangements on defence industry cooperation and another on nuclear cooperation between India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and Vietnam Agency for Radiation and Nuclear Safety.

Another pact provides for USD 5 million Indian grant assistance for Army software park at Vietnam's National Telecommunications University, Nha Trang.

Other agreements will facilitate cooperation in areas of solar energy, healthcare and in UN peacekeeping missions.

Ganguly Das said the summit provided an opportunity to hand over one high speed guard boat to Vietnam, launch of two other vessels manufactured in India, and keel-laying of seven vessels being manufactured in Vietnam under the USD 100 million defence Line of Credit extended by India to that country.

She said to implement the India-Vietnam joint vision document, a plan of action for the period 2021-2023 was also signed between the two foreign ministers, which identify concrete follow up actions.

The vision document said both leaders further called for the 'full and effective' implementation of the declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety and the substantive negotiations towards the early conclusion of an effective code of conduct for the region in accordance with international law that does not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of all nations including those not party to these dialogue.

Vietnam, an important country of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), has territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea region.

India has oil exploration projects in the Vietnamese waters in the South China Sea.

China claims sovereignty over all of the South China Sea, a huge source of hydrocarbons. However, several ASEAN member countries, including Vietnam, Philippines and Brunei, have counter claims.

'Both leaders agreed to explore practical cooperation based on convergences between our Indo-Pacific Oceans' Initiative (IPOI) and the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) which Vietnam subscribes to,' the secretary said.

At the East Asia Summit in Bangkok last year, Prime Minister Modi proposed setting up of the IPOI to conserve and sustainably use the maritime domain and to make meaningful efforts to create a safe and secure maritime domain.

The 10-nation ASEAN has reflected its vision for the region in a document titled 'ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP)'.

Ganguly Das said India also agreed to enhance development assistance to Vietnam's Mekong delta region under the Mekong-Ganga cooperation framework, including in critical areas such as water security.

The two sides also agreed to explore new and practical collaborations to build capacities in blue economy, maritime security and safety, marine environment and sustainable use of maritime resources, and maritime connectivity.

Acknowledging the new challenges as well as opportunities brought upon by COVID-19 pandemic, the two sides vowed to work towards reliable, efficient and resilient supply chains.

'They will strive to achieve the target of USD 15 billion of trade turnover at the earliest and will set higher levels of ambition for bilateral trade based on a concrete plan of action and new supply chains located in each other's country,' the vision document said.

It said both sides will actively cooperate to publish an Encyclopaedia of India - Vietnam Cultural and Civilizational Relations to mark the 50th anniversary of India - Vietnam diplomatic relations in 2022.

Ganguly Das said there was a discussion in the context of both India and Vietnam concurrently serving as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, adding both prime ministers agreed that the two countries should work closely to actively promote "reformed multilateralism" to make international organisations, including the UN Security Council, more representative.

'Vietnam reiterated its strong support for India's permanent membership in an expanded UN Security Council,' she said.

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