Despite China having made noises about India exploring for oil in the Phu Kanh Basin of the South China Sea, Vietnam said on Thursday that New Delhi was within its rights to do so because the area came under its “exclusive economic zone.” Vietnam had been displeased with India’s decision to suspend exploration operations in block no. 128 over a year ago. The issue was the subject of diplomatic sparring among the three countries: Vietnam claimed that this block was within its exclusive economic zone; China said this claim crossed over into its maritime domain; and India maintained that it merely took up an offer from Vietnam, a sovereign country.

On Thursday, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, at a meeting here with his Indian counterpart Salman Khurshid, again egged on India to continue with “exploration and exploitation work” in the South China Sea. It was in deference to Vietnamese sensitivities that India didn’t announce withdrawal from block no. 128, but only “suspension of work.” Vietnam has said it has given India time till next year to consider taking up exploration again.

India also indicated its willingness to play the game. “We have expressed our commitment to continue our collaboration with Vietnam in… exploration. We have reiterated that these are commercial ventures by Indian companies. We have reiterated India’s commitment to free passage in the international waters, and if there is an issue, it should be settled bilaterally through dialogue in a peaceful manner,” Mr. Khurshid told journalists.

Vietnam’s urging came a month after its President Truong Tan Sang visited Beijing. The Chinese state media then reported that the two sides had agreed to establish a hotline to resolve incidents involving fishing boats in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese President has now received an offer from U.S. President Barack Obama to visit Washington later this month. The general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam has also been a visitor to Beijing and is scheduled to visit India later this year.

Though Vietnam has been hedging its bets, sources in the government say, it solidly backed India whenever China objected to its exploration activities in the Phu Kanh Basin. When China served a démarche after India began moving heavy equipment into the Phu Kanh Basin some years ago, Vietnam issued a statement claiming sovereignty, along with a note that said the Chinese had no legal basis to claim ownership.

Following the 15th Joint Commission Meeting here, India signed an agreement for $19.5 million in credit to Vietnam.

India already has stakes in two blocks in the Nam Con Son Basin. These were allotted to it, along with Russia [then Soviet Union], during the Cold War in 1988. At that time, the two countries were steadfast allies of Vietnam, while Hanoi suspected China of playing the U.S. game to control its influence in South East Asia.

China and Vietnam fought a brief, but bitter, border war, and the years before and after the Cold War also saw Thai-Chinese support to opponents of the Cambodian regime, which was backed by Vietnam.

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