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India on Monday decided to ramp up its engagement with Vietnam in the oil sector and is assessing whether to explore hydrocarbons in five new blocks that have been offered, a move that could rile China which has publicly asked New Delhi to keep off the disputed South China Sea.
The Indian desire to deepen its ties with Vietnam, especially in the oil sector, was conveyed to its top leadership by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. "The external affairs minister mentioned that India is already engaged and committed to continue cooperation with Vietnam (in the oil sector) and is also looking to expand cooperation with Vietnam in this sector," ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.
He said both sides also discussed "briefly" the five oil blocks which Vietnam had offered to India during the visit of secretary general of Vietnamese Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong last November. "OVL (ONGC Videsh) is looking at them in terms of feasibility," he said.
Asked if the new oil blocks are situated in the disputed territory of South China Sea, Akbaruddin said, "These have to be assessed. These are, according to Vietnam, within its domain."
Swaraj's visit to Vietnam comes just days after Hanoi renewed India's lease of two oil blocks in the South China Sea for another year.
China and Vietnam have an acrimonious relationship due to their standoff over the South China Sea, a huge source of hydrocarbons.
China has been objecting any activity in South China Sea region including Indian oil exploration as it has territorial disputes with some ASEAN countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
Terming the South China Sea as a disputed region, China had in March 2012 warned India to refrain from undertaking exploration in the resource-rich Vietnamese blocks in order to ensure "peace and stability" in the area.
"The area is a disputed one. So we do not think it will be good for India to do (explore oil) that," then deputy director general of Asian department in China's ministry of foreign affairs Sun Weidong had said.
In February this year, a Chinese government think-tank researcher had warned India against participation in oil projects with the Vietnamese government on disputed islands of the South China Sea.
Incidentally, during the meeting with her Vietnamese counterpart and deputy PM Pham Binh Minh, Swaraj was shown a presentation on the South China Sea. Swaraj reiterated India's stand is clear that it is not a party to this dispute in the