Undeterred by Beijing's objections, India and Vietnam Wednesday sealed an accord for oil exploration in the South China Sea and signed half a dozen pacts, including an extradition treaty, to expand their strategic partnership.
India and Vietnam, Southeast Asia's fastest growing economy, also launched a security dialogue and set a bilateral trade target of $7 billion to add more economic heft to their growing relationship.
In a subtle message aimed at Beijing, whose relations with Hanoi are under strain over a host of issues, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called India's strategic partnership with Vietnam "a factor of peace, stability and development" in the Asia-Pacific region. However, he added that the relationship stood "on its own merits".
"A strong India-Vietnam relationship is a factor of peace, stability and development in the Asia-Pacific region. It stands on its own merits. The president's visit has give a new thrust and direction to this partnership," Manmohan Singh said at a joint press conference with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang.
In an important step, state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp's overseas investment arm OVL signed a three-year agreement with PetroVietnam for developing long-term cooperation in the oil sector in the presence of the two leaders.
The pact covers new investments and strengthening presence from drilling-to-dispensing in Vietnam, India, and other countries, ONGC said in a statement here.
The two nations will cooperate on "various fronts in the oil and gas sector-in upstream activities, in refining, in gas processing in Vietnam, in India and in third countries," said OVL managing director D.K. Sarraf, who signed the pact with his PetroVietnam counterpart Phung Dinh Thuc.
India already has stakes in two blocks and is looking for more.
Manmohan Singh also underlined that India and Vietnam were maritime neighbours in the region and would work together to confront security challenges from terrorism, piracy and natural disasters.
"We have to work together to ensure the safety and security of vital sea lanes of communication and continue exchanges in this fields in the future," he said.
China has objected to India's oil exploration deals with Vietnam in its territorial waters in South China Sea, which Beijing claims in full. India has defended the deal, saying its cooperation with Vietnam was in accordance with international laws and has underlined the need for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. India's assertion has been welcomed by Hanoi, which has been wary of Chinese attempts to dominate the region.
The two sides inked a crucial extradition treaty and agreed to boost cooperation across a broad spectrum of areas, including trade, energy, science and technology, IT and conservation and restoration of Indian cultural relics in Vietnam.
Three cultural cooperation pacts were also signed, including one on celebrating the India-Vietnam Friendship Year in 2012. A memorandum of understanding on agricultural research was also signed.
"We have instituted a mechanism of a biennial dialogue on security issues between our ministry of home affairs and its Vietnamese counterpart. The extradition treaty signed today will provide a legal and institutional basis for our cooperation," said Manmohan Singh.
The two countries also decided to more than double their bilateral trade from $2.7 billion to $7 billion by 2015 and agreed to boost the two-way investment. They also agreed to work towards an early finalisation of the India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement in Services and Investment.
The visit of the Vietnamese president to India coincides with a trip by Nguyen Phu Trong, the Vietnamese ruling party chief, to Beijing. On Wednesday, China and Vietnam announced unveiled a slew of steps to reduce tensions in the South China Sea, agreed to hold discussions twice a year to resolve their differences and to set up a hot line between the two countries