Vietnam has emerged as a favourite country of the Japanese politicians. Several top leaders from Japan had selected Vietnam as their first country for foreign trips. Last year, the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had chosen Vietnam as the first destination after assuming the Prime-ministership. His predecessor Abe had also made his first visit to Vietnam soon after taking over as the PM. For Japan, Vietnam has been very significant but of late its salience has increased enormously. It was not surprising that Japan’s Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi also selected Vietnam as the first destination after taking over as the Defence Minster. All these suggest that there has been a substantive progress in the extensive strategic partnership between Japan and Vietnam.
The reasons for closer relationship between these two countries are not far to seek. Both these countries are suffering because of the Chinese aggressiveness and expansionist approach. For both the South China Sea (SCS) remains a life-line. The Chinese illogical claims of the nine-dash lines are worrisome as both are dependent on this strategically important region for trade and connectivity with outside world. For Vietnam, it is also a matter of sovereignty as not only China usurped its islands after a war in 1970s but since 2006, it is regularly encroaching in its EEZ and territorial waters. So far Japan is concerned, it facing Chinese attempts to occupy the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea (ECS).
A significant defence deal has been formalised now between the two countries. Japan’s Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi and his Vietnamese counterpart Phan Van Giang at a meeting in Hanoi on the 11 th September agreed to enhance the defence cooperation between the two countries.
Crucially, the two leaders agreed to deepen defence ties through high-level engagement bilaterally and also strengthen multilateral cooperation. The agreement inter alia includes intensified consultations for the transfer of defence equipment including vessels, enhance port calls in Vietnam by Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) vessels and aircraft and elevation of cooperation in peacekeeping operations. Additional memorandums to facilitate cooperation between the defence authorities of Japan and Vietnam in the fields of cybersecurity and military medicine had also been signed. This genesis of this agreement can be traced to PM Suga’s visit last year. At that time the media reports had indicated that Japan plans to sign an agreement to allow it to export defence equipment and technology to Vietnam.
There had been significant statements made in view of serious challenges emerging in the SCS. According to the Japan’s Defence Ministry statement, Kishi and Giang agreed on the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region. During the talks, Kishi expressed Japan’s strong opposition to “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion or any activities that escalate tensions". Of course, China was not named but reference was obvious. While discussing the regional security situation in the SCS and ECS, Kishi stated that it is important to uphold and reinforce a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.
The trend is very clear. Japan is looking to expand military cooperation in the region and has signed similar agreements with the Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia. It also has similar agreements with US and UK. Though in all now Japan has such agreements with 11 countries, yet Vietnam occupies a significant position in Japan’s strategic calculus. Vietnam is the strongest opponent of the Chinese claims in the region. It has faced the Chinese coercion, aggressiveness with remarkable strength. It is also the non-Permanent Member of UNSC, where important issues are being discussed and coordinated approach is imperative for opposing unjustified acts of China.
Interestingly, the signing of this agreement coincided with the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister to Vietnam. He met with his counterpart and Secretary General of the VCP. He wrapped up his visit by saying Beijing plans to donate three million doses of its coronavirus vaccine to Vietnam. He also remarked that China and Vietnam should refrain from any unilateral actions regarding the SCS that could complicate the situation and magnify disagreements. Ironically, it is China which is indulging in unilateral actions creating problems in the region.
The Global Times in an article written by its staff, revealed the Chinese worries over this agreement. It states: “Japan’s transfer deal of defence equipment and technology to Vietnam not only intends to substantially improve defence cooperation between the two countries, but also is a new move by Japan to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific over regional security issues”. China’s worries over Vietnam’s closeness with other countries were palpable when Kamala Harris visited Vietnam. A rumour was spread about an infectious disease to delay her arrival, which was utilised by the Chinese Ambassador to announce that 2 million doses of vaccines would be donated to Vietnam. China would be naïve to think that Vietnam could sacrifice its sovereignty for medical or economic needs.
In essence, the agreement is strategically significant- bilaterally, regionally and internationally. This has paved the path for further collaboration for the maintenance of peace not only in the SCS and ECS but in the entire Indo-Pacific. The agreement would deepen the extensive strategic partnership between the two countries as both the countries desire to expand their cooperation in all field and also strengthen cooperation not only between Japan and Vietnam but also between Japan and ASEAN as Vietnam has the heft to take along others on the right path. This also important in making progress towards the free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific vision that would ensure stability and peace in the entire region. The Quad is going to meet in about ten days. Hopefully, the decision to have Four Plus would be taken to fully actualise the concept. An objective assessment suggests that the Chinese influence in the region is declining since the Covid-19 surfaced in Wuhan, despite its strong economic ties with the countries. The BRI projects are becoming unpopular and countries are not willing to fall into the debt trap diplomacy. The Chinese worries are based on the realisation of the ground realities.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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