China will be the big elephant in the room when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visits Vietnam in August to co-chair the India-Vietnam joint commission meeting.

The announcement about Swaraj’s visit to Hanoi was made by Vietnam Ambassador to India Ton Sinh Thanh at a media interaction organised by the Indian Women Press Corps (IWPC). He indicated that President Ram Nath Kovind would also visit Vietnam later this year to give an impetus to ties between the two nations.

Significance is being attached to Swaraj’s visit to Hanoi since both India and Vietnam have been grappling with the growing challenge being posed by China on matters pertaining to the South China Sea.

The Vietnamese envoy emphasised that his country has historic evidence to prove its sovereignty over Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. ‘’We have exclusive rights to explore and esploits resources in this maritime area,’’ he added.

In an indirect reference to restrictions being imposed by China on its neighbours in the South China Sea, Thanh said every nation should abide by international laws for freedom of navigation. He said both India and Vietnam had a similar view on the Indo-Pacific region. Matters in this region should also be resolved through open engagement rather than through confrontation.

Asked about China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Thanh said Vietnam had not taken a position on whether to join the project or not.

On India-China ties, he said the relations were based on three main pillars, identifying them as economic partnership, diplomatic and political ties and security and defence cooperation. Last year, the bilateral trade was to the tune of $6 billion. This was indeed small in comparison to the trade potential between the two countries. He said Vietnam was an ideal destination for Indian business honchos for making investments. Both India and Vietnam, he noted, were among the fastest growing economies in the world.

Thanh also hinted that the two countries would hold their defence dialogue soon. On civil nuclear energy, he said India and Vietnam were cooperating in this key area to meet their civil energy needs.