Look East plus
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Vietnam's oil block offer is crucial to the strategic link that India needs to secure its energy interests.
Vietnam's offer of five exploratory oil and gas blocks on a nomination basis to ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) reinforces Hanoi's outreach to New Delhi to not just enhance economic and energy cooperation but also elevate the bilateral relationship to realise the potential of the strategic partnership formally announced in 2007. Beijing has had reservations about Indian oil exploration in the South China Sea, but Vietnam has underlined that India has the right to pursue oil exploration there — in Vietnam's "exclusive economic zone". OVL has blocks in Vietnamese waters. But New Delhi's wariness of ruffling Beijing's feathers has limited the scope of such ventures. OVL relinquished Block 127, another was found dry. It held on to Block 128 at Hanoi's request but plans to withdraw from it too. The MoU for the joint development of the five new blocks, signed during Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong's visit, exempts OVL from the competitive bidding process.
The India-Vietnam relationship has been special since the days of the Vietnam War. The imperative for Delhi and Hanoi now is to expand their redefined and updated partnership into a search for a new Asian balance of power. For all the talk of a "Look East" policy, Indian foreign policy, when it comes to Vietnam, has always been burdened by its anti-colonial history. This, even as Hanoi moved on to strike a radically new partnership with its old enemy, Washington DC. India is a natural partner for Vietnam as the latter seeks more room for manoeuvre against China in a maritime territorial dispute that has seen Hanoi draw closer to Tokyo and Washington. India would rightly not like to confront China — with whom all of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, has very close economic ties — but it cannot waste every opportunity to bolster its own security and economic interests. Moreover, Delhi has to look beyond bilateral partnerships with states and integrate itself into the strategic network of Southeast and East Asia. Delhi cannot separate the Indian Ocean and South China Sea theatres when it comes to the freedom of navigation in the global commons and leveraging its economic and energy pursuits.