President Pranab Mukherjee on Wednesday said India’s pact with Vietnam for possible oil exploration in the disputed South China Sea was “just a commercial action" and the country has never commented about issues of “sovereignty" over those waters.

The President, while talking to reporters on board his special aircraft after wrapping up his four-day state visit to the South-east Asian country, said no “connection" should be seen between this tour of his and the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India.

Mukherjee will receive the Chinese President at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Thursday. With Beijing objecting to the recent letter of intent signed between India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd and Petro Vietnam for offering oil blocks to the former, Mukherjee said it was important to “keep in mind" that the state-run oil explorer has been present in the South China Sea for long now.

“One point is to be kept in mind. OVL is exploring and exploiting in South China Sea from 1988 and this (recent pact between India and Vietnam in this regard) is just a commercial action.

“There should not be any political angularity to it. We have made no comment about the contentious issue about the sovereignty over South China Sea because the disputes are amongst various maritime countries sharing territory in South China Sea," Mukherjee said when asked about his reaction on questions being raised about the deal.

“We have always based the idea that these issues should be resolved peacefully as per international laws and practices. All disputes are to be settled through dialogue in a peaceful mechanism and there is no scope of use of force or threat of use of force," he said.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea involve both island and maritime claims among Brunei, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who accompanied the President on this trip, said all the seven blocks offered by Vietnam to India for oil exploration fall “within the territorial waters of Vietnam."

He said his ministry was “enthusiastic" about the prospects of the deal. The President said he sees no doubtful reason in the timing of his visit to Vietnam, where India, apart from the oil sector pact, inked six others MoUs on various issues of bilateral cooperation.

“These (his Vietnam visit and Chinese President coming to India) are totally independent issues and one is not connected with other. First of all, we shall have to remember that our external relations with each country is independent with our relation with other country," Mukherjee said.

“In other words India’s foreign policy is never looked at other country through the prism of a third country. Therefore, I do not find any connection between my visit to Vietnam... (and that of the Chinese President coming),“ Mukherjee said.

Asked about his last night’s comments and praise for the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ho Chi Minh City, the President said it was a statement of fact.

“What I had spoken (in Ho Chi Minh City while addressing Indian diaspora) is a statement of fact. At the start of 2007-08 Indian economy started going down, from 2008-09 GDP has come down substantially in last couple of years. These are all facts known to you and I have repeated it," he said.

“The thing is what I have added is that the new government after assuming office has chartered a scheme through which there are possibilities of having larger FDI and GDP growth may increase. (You see) Inflation has been contained. Certain positive signs are there (after the new government came to power)," he said.

The President, who called his visit “highly successful", lauded the courage and resilience of the Vietnamese population. The country has progressed and keeps making forward strides in all fields including economy, “based on the strength of their character and determination", Mukherjee said.

“I am convinced that my visit will provide fresh impetus and momentum to our close friendship and strategic partnership, which is based on civilizational contacts, modern day solidarity and great potential for the future," he said.

The President said India has set a new target of $15 billion worth of trade with Vietnam by 2020. “I am confident that our relations will grow from strength to strength and our strategic partnership will be deepened and expanded rapidly in the coming years. I am certain, that India and Vietnam, as two of the fastest growing economies of Asia will provide stability and growth to this region and the world," Mukherjee said.

He said India expects business partnership and joint ventures to grow in the area of infrastructure, agro-processing, textiles, agro-chemicals, manufacturing, hydrocarbons, energy among others.

“I am happy to inform that in follow up to my visit, the Prime Minister of Vietnam has agreed to visit India in October itself, accompanied by a major business delegation," the President said.

He said India is always going to support Vietnam. “India has always stood by and supported the people of Vietnam. We were with them then, we are with them now and we will continue to stand strongly with Vietnam in the future," Mukherjee said. PTI

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