Japan has agreed in principle to supply Vietnam with military equipment, in a significant deepening of security cooperation between a key U.S. ally and a South China Sea claimant as their leaders met Monday.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc welcomed his Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga, who was making his first overseas trip since taking office last month -- a sign that Suga’s administration is prioritizing Southeast Asia.
"The fact both sides basically agreed on the transfer of defense equipment and technologies is a major development step in cooperation,” Suga was quoted as saying by state-run VN Express after the two leaders held talks in Hanoi. “I believe defense and security cooperation between the two countries will continue to grow."
While the defense export agreement has yet to be signed, it points the way for Japan to sell military equipment and technology to Vietnam. Until now, Japanese security assistance has been to civilian agencies like the Vietnamese coastguard, not its military.
Japan, which has a pacifist constitution, has only just completed its first-ever foreign military sale of defense equipment. That was to another South China Sea claimant, the Philippines, in late-August, selling that country a mix of long-range and mobile air surveillance radars.
Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, called Vietnam a “natural partner” for Japan.
“It shares Japan's concern about China's maritime ambitions in East Asia,” he said. “Given that both Japan and Vietnam worry about the same potential opponent in the same domain, it makes sense for them to cooperate on maritime security. Japan does not have much experience with provision of security assistance, but it has a huge amount of experience with overseas development assistance that can be critical in this regard.”
According to Reuters, Phuc told the news conference that, "Vietnam welcomes Japan, a global power, to continue to actively contribute to regional and global peace, stability and prosperity.”
During Monday’s talks, the two sides discussed the South China Sea, and Suga also referred to it during in a speech to the Vietnam-Japan University, where he vowed to work “hand-in-hand” with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to establish the “rule of law in seas and oceans.”
“Japan is strongly opposed to any actions that escalate tensions in the South China Sea. Japan has been consistently supporting the preservation of the rule of law in seas,” Suga said, also calling for peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to force or coercion.
China claims nearly the entirety of the South China Sea on the basis of “historic rights,” a position unsupported under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone.
Suga travels to Indonesia on Wednesday.
Although Japan is a close U.S. ally, which shares Washington’s concern over China’s assertive behavior, Cooper contrasted Tokyo’s approach to engaging Southeast Asia to that of America.
“I think Japan is stepping up by playing a more proactive regional role since the United States is seen as somewhat distracted at the moment,” he said. “Washington has been playing bad cop with Beijing, but Tokyo can play good cop in Southeast Asia by highlighting both its development assistance and its investment across the region.”
China has not responded officially to the announcement of heightened Japan-Vietnam defense ties. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi finished a tour of five Southeast Asian countries – Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand - on Friday.
Alexander Vuving, a professor with the Hawaii-based Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, believes China views Vietnam as something of a lost cause for its diplomatic initiatives in the region.
“The goal of Wang Yi's trip is to influence the Southeast Asian hosts, particularly in the conclusion of the negotiations for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” he said. The code is a proposed blueprint, currently being hashed out between ASEAN and China, that would govern behavior between competing claimants in the South China Sea. China hopes for negotiations to be concluded in 2021.
“The countries Wang is visiting this month include most of the swing states in ASEAN regarding the [Code of Conduct], while Vietnam is not,” Vuving said.
“Vietnam is seen by China as the bulwark against Chinese domination of the South China Sea. I think China hopes to persuade these countries to swing closer to China's version of the [Code of Conduct], as well as to veer closer to the Chinese side in the larger strategic competition with the United States.”