This time it is India and Vietnam making new moves in the Great Game of Asian geopolitics, and the new “strategic partnership” on its doorstep isn’t making China happy. The Economist‘s Banyan column offers a useful update on the emerging pattern of Vietnamese-Indian cooperation. India hawks hope, in Banyan’s words, that
“Vietnam could be “India’s Pakistan”, a loyal ally, as Pakistan is for China, that exerts indirect, debilitating pressure on its strategic rival.”
India also wants to push back against what it sees as Chinese provocations. Among these is the apparent Chinese stoking of the unresolved territorial disputes that led to the 1962 war. In recent years it has revived its claim to most of Arunachal Pradesh. No wonder backing Vietnamese claims in the South China Sea appeals to some Indian hawks. Already, in July, an Indian naval ship off Vietnam ignored a radio warning, apparently from the Chinese navy, that it was entering Chinese waters.
Other regional developments make China nervous, including Myanmar’s apparent new tilt towards the democracies. In both official and non-official circles (as I’ve been discovering on this trip), many Chinese interpret all this activity as an American-designed strategy to keep China down. We are nowhere near that clever or far-seeing, but that is not how it looks from China.In any case, the Vietnam-India partnership is part of an emerging strategic reality in Asia. And if the partnership isn’t made in Washington (and it isn’t), it still works very much to America’s advantage. The emergence of an Asian political system with a natural balance of power that limits the ability of any one Asian nation to dictate to the rest serves important American interests, and that looks like what India, Vietnam and some others are trying to build. Maintaining strong US-China relations even as China adjusts to unpleasant realities in the neighborhood is something we need to think carefully about.Stay tuned. There will be more moves in the new great game — and some of them will be quite dramatic.