Vietnam envoy pitches for real code of conduct in South China Sea (Interview)

vietnam-envoy-editorThe Special Commemorative Summit is poised to open a new chapter in the history of India-ASEAN relations. With India and ASEAN emerging as the fastest growing region in the world, there are enormous possibilities for expanding and diversifying this mutually energising relationship across the spectrum.
In this interview with Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief, India and World, Vietnam’s Ambassador to India Ton Sinh Thanh argues that given India’s close historical and cultural connections and its growing economy, India should play a bigger role in the extended Indo-Pacific region. To fructify this huge potential, enhancing connectivity will be a potential game-changer in taking India-ASEAN strategic partnership to new heights.
Amid the churn in the South China Sea, the Vietnamese envoy also pitches for a real and abiding enforceable code of conduct and argues that the sea of Southeast Asia is an open sea of all countries, including India. 
(Excerpts from the interview)asean-edition-special-cover
Q) India has invited the leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries as Guests of Honour at the January 26, 2018 Republic Day parade. How do you look at the significance of this unique gesture?
A) This is first time ever India has invited the leaders of all 10 ASEAN nations to the Republic Day parade and celebrations on 26 January as the Chief Guests. It is more special as the India–ASEAN Commemorative Summit 2018 will be held on January 25, with the participation of 10 heads of state or government of all ASEAN countries. This flagship event is considered a milestone in ASEAN–India relations of 25 years of Dialogue Partnership, 15 years of ASEAN-India summit-level and 5 years of Strategic Partnership between ASEAN and India.
The summit will open a new page in the relations between the grouping of 10 countries in the Southeast Asia and the leading power in South Asia. It shows that India highly values the partnership not only with each ASEAN country member but also the whole association. The presence of ASEAN leaders in India also showcases the growing importance of India to ASEAN.
vietnam-modi-fishQ) What steps and initiatives are needed to deepen strategic partnership between India and ASEAN? 
A) Strengthening ASEAN-India partnership is a high priority for both sides. It is time for the two sides to realize the agreements signed, particular in connectivity and trade; to speed up the negotiations on RCEP and ratification of the investment liberalization agreement. More regular interactions at all levels between India and ASEAN country members, particularly among business community through trade fairs, B2B interactions, exchanges of tourists, technical cooperation schemes, skills and capacity building should be encouraged.
With the experience of 25 years, India and ASEAN have identified quite clearly what areas to focus on. We also understand what the challenges are. Connectivity is a potential game-changer in bringing India and ASEAN closer. The projects to connect Northeast India to Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries should be accelerated. There also need to be more air connectivity. There are direct flights between India and some Southeast Asian countries but not all like Vietnam.
The economic cooperation, too, has a lot of potential. India is now a big economy and a big market and Southeast Asian countries are also emerging as major economic centres. Together we are the fastest growing region in the world. This presents enormous possibilities in terms of trade, investment and tourism.
Q) Given the competing power games in the region, how do you look at India’s role? Do you think India should play a bigger role in ASEAN? Do you see India as a balancing and stabilizing force in ASEAN and the extended East Asia region?
A) I agree that India should take a greater role in Indo–Pacific Region, including ASEAN region. In doing this, India has some advantages like close historical, cultural and religious connections and the geographical proximity. India shares maritime border and even land border with many ASEAN member countries. Moreover, the relationship between ASEAN and India has been always peaceful, warm and almost free from any problem. India is welcome to engage more actively in the region.
India has a proactive policy towards Southeast Asia and ever since Mr Modi came to power, the interaction has been much more dynamic and diverse, with more projects and initiatives. The role of India in Southeast Asia is important in terms of economic cooperation. Southeast Asian countries need to diversify this economic partnership without being too dependent on one or two partners. In terms of strategic balance, I think India is a strong power in the region.
vietnam-navyQ) How do you look at the prospects of India-Vietnam cooperation in safeguarding freedom of navigation and promoting maritime security in the region?
A) Vietnam and India have been working closely in the international forums and underscored the importance of maintaining peace, stability, maritime and aviation security, security and freedom of navigation and aviation in South China Sea. They both upheld the principle of settling the disputes in South China Sea through peaceful means in line with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Q) How do you look at China’s activities in South China Sea?
A) Everybody knows what is still going on there. That is why it is imperative to have a real and abiding and enforceable code of conduct.  At the same time, the sea of Southeast Asia is an open sea of all countries, including India.  They should play a constructive role to maintain peace, stability, security, safety of navigation and aviation in the region.
vietnam-pm-indiaQ) PM Modi’s historic visit to Vietnam in September 2016 laid out an ambitious multi-faceted agenda to transform India-Vietnam relations. How do you see then progress in bilateral relations since PM Modi’s visit and what’s the way ahead for this crucial relationship?
A) The visit by PM Modi to Vietnam in September 2016 marked a significant turning point in India–Vietnam relations. During the visit, our strategic partnership was upgraded to the comprehensive strategic partnership. So far, the two sides have focused on implementing the agreements signed and make progressive strides in trade and defense cooperation. The two countries enjoy a very good political relationship and share views on almost all multilateral issues. The credit lines that India provides Vietnam are being actively implemented by two sides.
I believe that the forthcoming visit to India by our Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to attend the India–ASEAN summit 2018 and to be a Chief Guest at Republic Day ceremony as well as the upcoming state visit to India by our President Tran Dai Quang will further consolidate our strategic partnership in a more comprehensive and effective manner.
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