Recent summits between India, Vietnam and Japan raised matters of mutual concern involving China, even if it was not mentioned by name. Though deals were done with China in mind, there are limits to how far they can go

Pragmatism is the guiding principle for Asia’s countries when it comes to China. While rising Chinese economic might, military strength and influence pose challenges, they also need to ensure cordial relations for the sake of development, prosperity, peace and stability. That has to be especially so for neighbours such as India, Vietnam and Japan, which have territorial disputes with Beijing.

Recent summits between Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his Indian and Japanese counterparts, Narendra Modi and Yoshihide Suga, raised matters of mutual concern involving China, but made no mention by name. There was no disguising where worries lay, though; defence deals were among agreements struck, the shoring up of Vietnam’s military being seen as important for mutual interests.

The disputed South China Sea, which Beijing claims 90 per cent of, is of interest to Vietnam for its rich fish stocks and oil and gas, while for India and Japan its waters are essential for shipping. At both summits, statements were made about adhering to international accords and ensuring non-militarisation.

But there are limits to how far pacts can go, Vietnam’s guiding principle for foreign policy being “three noes” – no to alliances, no to joining forces to fight another and no to basing rights for foreign troops.

So, while Phuc and Modi agreed on a plan of action for relations to 2023, the military aspect among the seven deals signed had limited reach. India has a US$100 million line of credit for Vietnam to build 12 high-speed patrol boats to improve coastal security. In his opening remarks at the summit, Modi said that peace, stability and prosperity were the nations’ “shared purpose in the Indo-Pacific region”.

During Suga’s talks in October, an agreement was made to increase defence cooperation, with Japan making initial steps to export military equipment.

Defence and ensuring maritime rights and shipping are not the crux of relations with Vietnam, though; trade, manufacturing and supply chains are even more significant. Hanoi and New Delhi have a history of strong bilateral relations, particular respect being paid to India being a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Trade has grown substantially in the past two decades and Indian firms have major Vietnamese investments. But rising costs and the trade and technology dispute between China and the United States have enhanced Vietnam’s position, with electronics and telecoms firms relocating there to set up manufacturing hubs.

India and Japan have security concerns and geopolitical interests in Southeast Asia and defence deals with Vietnam make sense. But as long as they are broached sensibly, such pacts should not alarm Beijing.