Japan and Vietnam: Asia’s Overlooked Friendship

Prime Ministers Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Shinzo Abe - quietly working together to influence the future of East Asia (Cabinet Public Relations Office)

When the news cycle is dominated by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s resurgence, it’s often easy to forget that there are other major players in East Asia. Two, Japan and Vietnam, have quietly been increasing their economic and military co-operation. After the United States’ long-standing arms embargo on Vietnam was lifted last year, the development of Japan-Vietnamese ties looks set to accelerate; potentially influencing the future of the region.

Japan and Vietnam striving to improve relations with each other should come as a surprise to no one, as both countries are concerned with the ‘Rise of China’. Japan sees China as a rival for regional leadership, because of both its booming economy and its increasing military spending. Japan is also worried about China’s increasingly confrontational approach to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Japan is therefore looking for allies to help contain China, especially as it appears that other Asian countries may now gravitate towards China, and away from the US, which has become more US-centric under President Trump.

Vietnam’s concerns primarily regard China’s increasing military threat – after all, Chinese and Vietnamese states have fought each other for centuries. Many Westerners may assume that China and Vietnam, two single-party communist states, could have come closer together in modern history, but this is not the case. In fact, relations have been poor since the Sino-Soviet Split in the late 1950s/early 1960s, as then-North Vietnam was backed by the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, Vietnam invaded China’s ally Cambodia, followed by a brief war with China itself – violent clashes along the Sino-Vietnamese border and Vietnamese involvement in Cambodia continued into the early 1990s. With China now expanding its military and asserting its dominance over the South China Sea more aggressively, Sino-Vietnamese relations have festered. Vietnam therefore seeks reinforcement from Japan and the US, in the form of opposition to Chinese naval activities, and assistance to Vietnamese development.

Military co-operation is therefore desirable to both nations, as their combined strength would be significant within the region. Japan has one of the world’s strongest and most advanced militaries, even if it is not officially a ‘military’. Japan is already the world’s 8th biggest military spender, but is now expected to boost its spending even more in coming years, after Prime Minister Abe scrapped Japan’s long-standing 1% GDP cap on military spending earlier this year. Vietnam is also one of the strongest nations in the region, and has been rapidly modernising and expanding its armed forces –  defence spending more than tripled between 2006-2015, making it the biggest arms importer in ASEAN, with Vietnam now purchasing advanced weaponry from around the world.

The relationship between Tokyo and Hanoi also has an important economic aspect, which continues to grow. In recent years, Vietnam’s economy has boomed into one of the fastest growing in the world, with an annual growth rate of over 6% per year, and even more impressive rates in the growth of exports and incoming FDI. Japan has been the biggest contributor in much of this economic development, becoming Vietnam’s biggest ODA provider, and its second biggest supplier of FDI. Japanese companies want to expand investments in Vietnam because of its cheap labour, growing market and socio-political stability. Clearly, in the face of a resurgent China, Japan and Vietnam have been drawing ever closer to each other, both militarily and economically for some time.

This is where President Obama comes in. On 23rd May 2016, Obama announced that the United States was lifting its decades-long arms embargo on Vietnam, calling it a “lingering vestige of the Cold War”. While Vietnam is expected to improve its human rights record in return, and is not anticipated to immediately become a large market for US military exports, this decision is nonetheless significant. For Vietnam, it is important to have improved relations so much as to reach such an agreement with the US, due to the latter’s nature as both the world’s biggest arms exporter, and a major opponent of China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. For Japan, the lifting of the embargo by the US, Japan’s only formal treaty ally, was seen as an endorsement for ever-increasing military ties with Vietnam.

The lifting of the US arms embargo on Vietnam by President Obama (here with Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang) could accelerate Vietnam’s militarization, with major help from Japan (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Following the lifting of the embargo, Japan and Vietnam have moved rapidly to increase their ties with each other. Anticipating the embargo being lifted, Abe invited Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to the 2017 G7 Summit as a guest, where they discussed Japanese plans to invest in Vietnamese infrastructure. In January 2017, Abe pledged six patrol ships to Vietnam during a visit to the country, to aid Vietnam in enforcing its claims against China in the South China Sea; undoubtedly as part of a larger plan to strengthen Vietnam. In June, the two nations also agreed to move forward with the TPP, despite President Trump withdrawing the US from the agreement.

Another significant event was Emperor Akihito’s trip to Vietnam, during which he encouraged goodwill and the strengthening of ties between the two nations, even paying his respects at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Although the Emperor’s schedule has no official connection to government policy, it seems far too coincidental that the Emperor would make this visit, the first ever by a Japanese monarch, during such a crucial point in Japanese-Vietnamese relations.

In just over a year since the US arms embargo was lifted, Japan and Vietnam, already two of the most influential nations in East Asia, have pledged to work together on military expansion, domestic development, and international trade – all of which could help define the future shape of the region. So how long until the rest of the world takes notice?

Tristan Fleming-Froy

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