With An Eye on China, Vietnam and Japan Move Closer

20 September 2015

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Vietnam’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited Japan last week amid increasing regional security tensions, particularly in the South and East China Seas. Vietnam is exercising a hedging foreign policy against China by strengthening its strategic partnership with major powers, particularly the US and Japan. 
Vietnam and Japan have convergent strategic interests. Territorial disputes in the East China Sea, nationalism, and historical antagonism have put Japan at loggerheads with China. Diplomatic and political tensions between the two countries will not recede anytime soon.

Japan under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has embarked on a more proactive and assertive foreign policy and security strategy in the Asia Pacific region.  Despite public criticism and discontent, Abe’s administration is reinterpreting Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, also known as the “Pacifist Constitution.” This will enable Japan to send its military forces abroad.

This enhanced strategic partnership between Vietnam and Japan aims to develop the economies as well as to implement a collective hedging or even deterrent foreign policy  against a more assertive China. They both believe China challenges and threatens the regional security order and status-quo.

“It is very significant that we shared grave concerns over continuous unilateral actions to change the status quo and increase tensions in the South China Sea, which includes large-scale land reclamation and building of outposts,” Prime Minister Abe said, implicitly referring to China.

Vietnam Diversifies Its Ties
It was Trong’s first visit to Japan since he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 2011. As general secretary, Trong controls Vietnam’s two most powerful policymaking bodies. His predecessor, Nong Duc Manh, visited Japan in 2009.

From the Vietnamese perspective, the visit reflects its foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, diversification and multilateralism, and active international integration by deepening partnerships with all major powers. 

The Japan visit connects the two economies, enhances political trust and promotes cooperation on issues of common concern. Notably, Japan commits to support Vietnam in strengthening maritime capacity. 
Since establishing diplomatic relations in 1973, especially after the end of the Cold War, Vietnam and Japan have overcome past obstacles and have advanced their relations. 
Cooperation developed rapidly after the establishment of a strategic partnership in 2009, which was later upgraded to an “extensive strategic partnership” in 2014. Mutual trust has been reinforced through high-level visits and regular contacts between leaders of the two countries. 
Economic Ties
Japan has been the largest provider of Official Development Assistance to Vietnam over the last 20 years. In  2015, Japan pledged a record high of $3 billion. Since 1992, Japanese aid to Vietnam adds up to $20 billion.
Aid focuses on infrastructure development, improving the investment environment, poverty reduction, education, health, urban development, and environment.
As of April, Japan is the second largest investor, after South Korea, in Vietnam with 2,661 investment projects, accounting for $37.7 billion.  On trade, Japan is the fourth largest trading partner of Vietnam after China, US, and South Korea. In 2014, bilateral trade volume reached $28 billion and is expected to hit $30 billion this year.
Vietnam regards Japan as a key development partner in realizing its industrialisation strategy through doubling investment in such priority sector as: electronics, energy, automobile, and agro-industry.
Moreover, the realization of the ASEAN Economic Community by the end of this year and the conclusion of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership will open up new opportunities for both countries to scale up trade and investment opportunities. 
Defense Ties 
As far as security and defence cooperation is concerned, Japan wants to support Vietnam in maritime security and safety at sea, capacity building in peacekeeping operations, cybersecurity, international terrorism, and transnational crimes.
In 2014, Japan granted Vietnam six patrol boats for monitoring the body of water the Vietnamese call the East Sea and the Chinese call the South China Sea. Japan also is interested in helping Vietnam strengthen law enforcement where Vietnam and China have overlapping claims.  This year, Japan pledged $1.7 billion of maritime security aid to Vietnam.

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