Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong agreed Monday to work more closely on security, possibly involving Tokyo’s new defense aid program, as Hanoi grows more concerned about China’s maritime military buildup.
The two sides said they will increase defense-related exchanges and discuss cooperation via Tokyo’s Official Security Assistance program, through which Japan gives defense equipment to countries with shared values.
The summit in Tokyo — Thuong’s first visit to Japan since taking office this year — came as Japan marks its 50th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations with Vietnam and with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Vietnam, which sits in a key position on a sea lane between the Pacific and Indian oceans, is locked in a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, where Beijing has been expanding its military presence, straining the neighbors’ close relationship.
Stability in that region is important to Japan, which relies on imported resources such as oil and natural gas. Kishida stressed in the joint statement that Vietnam and ASEAN are “important partners for Japan to realize a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
Japan’s OSA program, a central element of the support discussion, was launched just this year, with the Philippines, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Fiji chosen as the four recipients for the first year.
Kishida visited the Philippines and Malaysia in early November to prepare for a commemorative Japan-ASEAN summit that Tokyo is slated to host in December. Japan agreed to supply coastal radar systems to Manila and continue discussions with Kuala Lumpur on providing equipment.
Tokyo and Hanoi eye deeper cooperation beyond the OSA framework. The JS Izumo helicopter carrier — the largest ship in Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet — docked at the Vietnamese port of Cam Ranh in June. Kishida and Thuong agreed to build on this foundation to expand joint training, and to promote information sharing between their respective coast guards.
Vietnam is working to move closer to Japan as well. Thuong and Kishida agreed Monday to upgrade the bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership, Vietnam’s highest level of diplomatic relations.
Japan becomes Vietnam’s sixth such partner after China, Russia, India, South Korea and the U.S. Washington just joined the list in September during a visit by President Joe Biden to Hanoi.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, told Thuong in an October meeting not to forget the “original aspiration of carrying forward traditional friendship” between China and Vietnam.
Vietnam, like China, is a one-party state under Communist Party rule. China is also inextricably linked to Vietnam economically, accounting for 24% of Hanoi’s total trade last year, above the ASEAN average of 19%.
But Beijing also poses a security threat to Hanoi with the countries’ dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea. This has set Vietnam apart from neighboring Cambodia and Laos, which are drawing closer to China with Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
Though Vietnam has tried to keep all its diplomatic bases covered, including China, Beijing’s maritime militarization — including the construction of artificial islands — has spurred Hanoi to place more weight on its relationships with Tokyo and Washington.
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