November 18, 2011:
India is always looking for allies against China, but now it has been approached by Vietnam for help in dealing with their common foe. While India is concerned about Chinese claims on Indian border lands, and Chinese warships camping out in the Indian Ocean, Vietnam has to worry about claims on coastal waters, and a neighbor who has not been afraid to open fire when refused. While India and China ought to be natural allies, Vietnam is poor and is asking for a lot of freebies to seal the deal. Vietnam would like Indian help in training Vietnamese submarine crews and Su-30 fighter pilots. Vietnam would also like some cut-rate Brahmos anti-ship missiles and at least one corvette class warship. Vietnam would also like engineering and other help in modernizing a port. In return, India would probably be able to station some warships, and maybe even some warplanes, in Vietnam. India is not sure it wants to be this close to an increasingly hostile China.
The main source of Vietnamese angst is China becoming more insistent that the waters 360 kilometers from Chinese territory (the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ), are more restrictive than the rest of the world sees it. As interpreted by most nations, the EEZ owner can control who fishes there, and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage, or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. China claims that foreign aircraft and ships conduct illegal espionage on Chinese bases and military training within the EEZ and that this is not allowed. The 1994 treaty says nothing about such matters. China is simply doing what China has been doing for centuries, trying to impose its will on neighbors, or anyone venturing into what China considers areas under its control.
In addition to its EEZ policy, China is also annoying its neighbors over who should control the South China Sea. This is a 3.5 million square kilometer (1.4 million square mile) area south of China and Taiwan, west of the Philippines and north of Indonesia. China claims the entire area, as if it were one big EEZ, mainly by claiming ownership of all the tiny islands and reefs there. This has aroused the ire of the neighbors, and caused them to unite against China.
This is often done via ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which has taken a lead role in trying to arbitrate the disputes between ASEAN members and China over ownership of islands in the South China Sea. This move is meant to persuade China to behave in the Spratly Islands. ASEAN was established in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, and later expanded to include Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. All the ASEAN nations have some disputes with China, and are attempting to gain some negotiating leverage with joint efforts like this. China agreed, in 2002, to cooperate with ASEAN over the Spratly dispute, but that was apparently all for show. China seems unconcerned about this coalition, which continued Chinese demands only makes stronger. In response, India is becoming an ally of ASEAN.
India and China were at war briefly in 1963, and lately China has been bolder in making claims on Indian lands. China and Vietnam fought a short, but bloody, war in 1979. In 1988, China and Vietnam fought a naval battle, off the Spratly islands. The Chinese victory was followed by Chinese troops establishing garrisons on some of the islands. In 1992, Chinese marines landed on Da Lac reef, in the Spratly Islands. In 1995, Chinese marines occupied Mischief Reef, which was claimed by the Philippines.
Even neighbors who do not border the South China Sea are anxious about increased Chinese aggression. Mainly this is India, which has a 4,000 kilometer long land border with China. The two countries have tried to work out their differences, but China keeps making claims on India, apparently feeling that these claims are non-negotiable. Chinese neighbors bordering the South China Sea are getting the same impression.