India extended a $100 million export credit to Vietnam for defense deals and tightened energy ties on Monday, signaling a more confident foreign policy ahead of a visit this week by China's President Xi Jinping.
India's new accords with one of China's rivals for influence in the South China Sea came as Xi visited the nearby islands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, a reminder of the geostrategic jostling that is becoming an increasing feature in Asia.
During a visit to Vietnam by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, the two countries said in a joint statement that the credit line would open new opportunities for defense cooperation and that details of what Vietnam would buy were being finalized.
"The leaders agreed that defense and security cooperation was an important pillar of the strategic partnership between the two countries," the statement said.They also agreed to "consolidate" energy cooperation following a 2013 agreement under which PetroVietnam offered India's ONGC oil and gas blocks for exploration and production.
India and Vietnam have deepened military cooperation over the past decade and under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is pushing ahead with a new strategy to establish itself as an arms exporter using export credits to leverage foreign sales.
The money may help slow-moving talks to sell Brahmos cruise missiles to Hanoi.
Vietnam is building a naval deterrent to China with Kilo class submarines from Russia and it would like to add India's missile technology to its defenses.
India and Vietnam have both traditionally depended heavily on their mutual Cold War partner Russia for military knowhow. The Brahmos itself was developed with Russian help.
Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam's military at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, said he believed Vietnam was seeking India's ship attack variants of the missile.
Indian tests showed the supersonic cruise missile could be successfully fired from ships, which matched Hanoi's goal of creating a meaningful deterrent against China.
"This is leading-edge technology that would further omplicate the ability of the Chinese navy to operate off the Vietnamese coast with impunity, particularly in the south of the South China Sea," Thayer said.
"The Vietnamese do not want to be in a situation where they wake up one morning and discover the Chinese navy has surrounded one of its bases in the Spratlys," he said, referring to a disputed island chain.
Business is growing fast between India and China, but the rising powers' ties are also defined by competition for energy and regional clout, as well as a border dispute that led to war 50 years ago.
Long insecure about China's strength, India elected Modi in May partly because of his promises to build an economically-strong nation that could hold its own on the world stage.
The timing of Mukherjee's visit to Vietnam may not have been planned to coincide with Xi's South Asia tour, but it underlined India's new twin track diplomacy, foreign policy analyst C Raja Mohan wrote in the Indian Express newspaper on Monday.
"Much like China, which does not limit its strategic relationship with Pakistan because of Indian concerns, the Modi government apparently believes it can build a partnership with Vietnam on its own merits without worrying too much about what Beijing might think," Mohan said in his column.
Also on Mukherjee's trip, India's Jet Airways and Vietnam Airlines agreed to start flying between Delhi and Ho Chi Minh City from November 5, via Bangkok.
Xi will be in India from Sept. 17-19.