Vietnam-Japan: Quantum Leap in Strategic Ties

03 Apr, 2014    ·   4367

Rahul Mishra and Shamshad A Khan analyse why the time is ripe for Japan and Vietnam to enhance and strengthen their bilateral relations

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to Japan from 16-19 March is significant, for symbolic, political, economic and strategic reasons. During his visit, President Sang held meetings with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; and by addressing the Japanese Parliament’s House of Representatives, the Diet, became the first State Guest to address the House since French President Francois Hollande did in June 2013.

The visit complements Japan’s manoeuvres in Southeast Asia since it expedited its efforts to regain the ground lost to China in the East Asian region. To this end, Abe visited the ASEAN countries in 2013, and became the first Japanese prime minister to do so in a span of 12 months. In the past year, Japan has, apart from supporting ASEAN on the issue of a “code of conduct” in the South China Sea, signed several agreements with various ASEAN countries in economic and security domains. Naturally, ASEAN countries are enthused by Abe’s overtures.

Sang’s Japan visit should be viewed against this backdrop. Both Vietnam and Japan are anxious of China’s maritime assertions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea respectively. The Japan-China stand-off over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the issue of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) further complicate the situation. China’s assertions over Paracel Islands have posed security challenges to Vietnam.

Strategic Ties: Gathering Momentum
The upgradation of the erstwhile 2009 Strategic Partnership Agreement to the Extensive Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Asia during the visit has given a boost to the strategic relationship. Vietnam and Japan have convergent views on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Ever since Abe assumed office, Japan has been using all fora to criticise an increasingly assertive China. During the previous East Asia Summit held in Brunei, Abe supported the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and stated that Sea Lanes of Communications must be governed by “rule of law” and not by “force.” Abe further stated that the “South China Sea is directly connected to the peace and stability of the region” and urged all the parties not to “change the status quo unilaterally.” He opined that changing the status quo will impact the “global maritime order.” The recently concluded Japan-ASEAN joint declaration reiterates Japan’s commitment to maintain maritime safety and freedom of navigation in the region.

Evidently, Vietnam has taken the lead to strengthen maritime cooperation with Japan.  Towards the conclusion of Sang’s visit, both sides discussed the possibility of Japan sending patrol boats to Vietnam for strengthening the latter’s coastal security mechanism. Clearly, China plays a role in bringing them closer on the security front. Strategic uncertainties, unfolding in the region, have compelled countries of the Indo-Pacific, to rethink their security policies and practices. The revised Vietnam-Japan strategic partnership agreement should be seen in that context.

Deepening Economic Ties
Currently, Japan is Vietnam’s biggest investor and the third-largest trading partner. The Hanoi-Tokyo bilateral trade turnover stood at $25 billion in 2013. In 2013, Japan invested over $5.7 billion in Vietnam, via FDI – highlighting it’s the former’s growing importance in the latter’s economy.

Moreover, Vietnam is one of the prime recipients of Japanese Official Development Assistance, having received $ 1.55 billion in 2013. The two countries also aim to double their bilateral trade volume from the current U$25. Evidently, Vietnam’s single party system, tranquil social fabric and stable national dynamics attract investors from the region including Japan.

Regularising Mechanisms for Mutual Benefit
During Sang’s visit, Hanoi and Tokyo agreed to upgrade and regularise high-level exchanges and work together proactively in critically important sectors such as defence and security, science and technology, and healthcare and education. There is a pressing need for Japan to invest in Vietnam’s educational sector. Taking cognisance of Vietnam’s immense human resource potential, Japan has agreed to upgrade major universities in the country to meet international standards.

Additionally,  Japan agreed to help Vietnam in six key areas, within the Vietnam-Japan cooperation framework. Tokyo will also help Hanoi in building the Ninh Thuận 2 Nuclear Power Plant. Agreements regarding the construction of the Thai Binh thermal power plant, the North-South Expressway, and the development of the Haiphong International Gateway Seaport too have been finalised.

The rapidly changing politico-security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region makes it logical for both Vietnam and Japan to find more avenues for bilateral cooperation such as diplomatic exchanges and greater investments and cooperation in strategically important areas such as naval patrols, nuclear energy and capacity development programmes for the youth. Both Vietnam and Japan need each other’s support both to safeguard their interests vis-à-vis China and to realise their own potentials.

Given the proactive measures undertaken by both nations in the recent months, it is evident that there cannot be a better time to enhance bilateral.