Chinese assertiveness: Krishna heads to Vietnam after 'INS Airavat harassment'

NEW DELHI: Weeks after the Chinese navy "harassed" an Indian assault vessel INS Airavat off the Vietnamese coast, foreign minister S M Krishna is headed to Vietnam for talks with the leadership. Krishna will be in Hanoi from 14 to 17 September for the joint commission meeting with his counterpart Pham Binh Minh. 

While the agenda of the meeting is fairly broad, official sources said the leaders could expand the discussion in any way they want. "We don't rule in or rule out any subject," they said, when questioned whether the Airavat incident would come up in the talks. 

In July, India's naval assault vessel INS Airavat was harassed by the Chinese navy, when it was undertaking a goodwill visit to Vietnam, travelling from port Nha Trang to Hai Phong. The Indian ship was "buzzed" on an open radio asking them to leave Chinese waters. 

The incident prompted India to issue its strongest statement till date on open seas in that part of the world. The MEA said, "India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law. These principles should be respected by all." India has, thus far, refrained from joining issue so openly with China in the South China Sea, but with this statement, New Delhi has signalled it has important stakes in that area. 

Sources said the Indian experience was not unique - navies of the US, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei too have reported similar incidents with their ships. 

As China becomes more assertive in the area, India and Vietnam are among the countries who are hedging their bets by intensifying engagement. The defence and security relationship between India and Vietnam is now fairly advanced, with New Delhi training Vietnamese personnel. India is also supplying them with spares for Russian warships and missile boats. Indian and Vietnamese armies have held joint combat exercises in the recent past. 

Sanjay Singh, secretary (east) in the MEA, led the strategic dialogue with Vietnam last month to review bilateral ties. That meeting prepared the ground for the foreign ministers' meeting this week. Indrani Bagchi, TNN | Sep 13, 2011, TOI

In the picture: Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi