Sushma Swaraj with Vietnam foreign minister Pham Binh Minh in Hanoi on Monday. (AFP)
Hanoi, Aug. 25: When President Pranab Mukherjee visits Vietnam next month bearing the gift of a part of the sacred Bodhi tree from Bodh Gaya, the spotlight could be on a possible agreement giving India the right to explore a few more oil blocks in the South China Sea.
The possibility assumes significance in view of the competing claims by China and Vietnam over areas of the South China Sea. Chinese President Xi Jinping is to visit New Delhi next month but the date has not been finalised.
Sources said that ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL), the overseas arm of the state-run ONGC, considered it economically feasible to explore “a few” among the five blocks Vietnam had offered last November.
Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, here for bilateral talks, met her Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh today and discussed, among other things, hydrocarbon cooperation.
OVL had taken up joint exploration for hydrocarbon with Petro Vietnam at two other blocks off Vietnam’s South China Sea coast but withdrew from one after finding no hydrocarbon.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said Vietnam had offered five oil blocks in addition to the two already given. “If they (OVL) find some blocks are feasible for exploration, they will take further action,” he said.
Pham Binh Minh sought India’s help in settling the territorial and maritime disputes in the region. At the third round table of the Asean-India Network of Think Tanks here, the Vietnamese foreign minister said the region faced security issues and territorial disputes and that India had an important role in maintaining peace in the region.
Pham Binh Minh also asked for India’s cooperation in human resource development, manufacturing and information technology.
Sushma did not touch issues of safety and territorial disputes but Akbaruddin said there should not be any impediments to navigation and commercial activities in the region pending a solution to such issues.
“We are not party to the disputes. The parties should resolve the issue according to international laws. Pending the solution, there should not be impediment to navigation and other commercial activities,” Akbaruddin said.
Former President Rajendra Prasad had in 1959 presented a part of the Bodhi tree to Vietnam, nearly 80 per cent of whose nine crore people are Buddhists. An Indian embassy official said the one to be gifted by Mukherjee might be planted at Phat Tich on Hanoi’s outskirts.
Manmohan Singh had made a similar gift to South Korea as Prime Minister in March this year.
Of the nearly 10,000 Vietnamese who visit India every year, some 90 per cent travel to Bodh Gaya in Bihar. The tourist flow from India remains equally low — only 10,000, compared with 1.9 million Chinese visitors to Vietnam.
The tourist inflow may increase after November, when Jet Airways and Vietnam Airlines are likely to start direct flights from New Delhi and Mumbai to Hanoi. Many Vietnamese tourists now visit India by chartered flight.
Sushma stressed the need to improve bilateral trade, whose volume stood at $8 billion in 2013-14. India wants it raised to $15 billion by 2020.