Accessibility links

Breaking News

Vietnam’s upgraded ties with Japan ‘do not bode well’ for China

FILE - Vietnam's President Vo Van Thuong, left, is welcomed by Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during his visit to Japan, at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Nov. 27, 2023.
FILE - Vietnam's President Vo Van Thuong, left, is welcomed by Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during his visit to Japan, at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Nov. 27, 2023.

Beijing should be concerned about Hanoi’s upgraded ties with Tokyo because the two countries share a common perspective on regional security matters, say experts.

Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the Vietnam-Japan Comprehensive Strategic Partnership on November 27 when Thuong visited Japan.

According to their joint statement provided by Japan’s Foreign Ministry, Kishida and Thuong agreed to expand their cooperation in areas including trade, climate change and economy to achieve a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi went to Hanoi on Saturday to meet with Vietnamese leaders, including Thuong and Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, to sell the idea of “a community of common destiny” with China. Chinese President Xi Xinping is expected to visit Hanoi later this month.

The upgrade in the nations’ relationship from what had been known as an intensive strategic partnership came after a similar move almost three months ago between Hanoi and Washington. The announcement makes Japan Hanoi’s sixth top-tier partner, with Australia, Singapore and Indonesia expected to follow suit.

Kishida touted Vietnam as “a key partner in achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific” and rolled out new military aid known as official security assistance for the country. He offered the same aid to Malaysia and the Philippines early last month.

Addressing the Japanese parliament on November 29, Thuong said that diversifying ties with regional powers, including Japan, was of “strategic importance” to Hanoi. But he still stressed the Four Nos principle, which bans Vietnam from working with any country against a third one. He also reiterated Vietnam’s support for Tokyo’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Japan is Vietnam’s fourth largest trade partner, third biggest foreign investor and a top destination for Vietnamese labor, most of them technical interns. Last year, bilateral trade topped almost $50 billion.

The elevation of ties is an evolution of the intensive strategic partnership which has been in place between the two countries since 2014, according to Nguyen Quoc Cuong, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the United States and Japan, who is now with McLarty Associates.

The upgraded ties with Japan are part of Vietnam’s foreign policy strategy of linking at that level with all regional powers.

The focus of the new comprehensive strategic partnership is economic, not security, Cuong said, with Hanoi going from receiving Japanese aid to contributing to Japan’s growth.

“Vietnam is well-positioned to become a stronghold of the Japan-led supply chain,” Cuong told VOA Vietnamese over the phone from Hanoi last week. “It’s in Japan’s interest to build a strong, prosperous Vietnam.”

Security matters

Because Beijing’s assertiveness is rattling many countries in the region, including Japan and Vietnam, the upgraded ties also have significant security dimensions, according to Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

Vietnam and Japan are engaged in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea and East China Sea, respectively.

Vuving said that since Japan and Vietnam are among the nations most committed to pushing back against Chinese domination in the region, China “is worried about Japan and Vietnam getting closer.”

“The upgrade has confirmed Vietnam’s support for Japan’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and for Japan’s bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council,” Vuving said in an email exchange with VOA Vietnamese last Wednesday. “None of this bodes well for China.”

Raymond Powell, a team leader at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, told VOA Vietnamese in an email last week that Beijing “will certainly be concerned” that Vietnam’s top-tier partners include the U.S. and several of its allies.

“A more networked Vietnam is harder to isolate and coerce, which has been China’s go-to tactic for controlling its neighbors,” Powell said.

Both Washington and Tokyo support the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in 2016 that rejected Beijing’s so-called nine-dash line that expanded its sovereignty claims to include most of the South China Sea.

Vuving said he expected the strengthened ties would pave the way for Japan to provide more robust security assistance to Vietnam such as radar, patrol boats and drones to enhance Vietnam’s capabilities in areas such as protecting its maritime claims.

A year ago, in a major shift from Japan’s postwar self-defense-only principle, Kishida’s government adopted a new security strategy that involves a significant military buildup, including counterstrike capability. The strategy called China “the biggest strategic challenge” — before North Korea and Russia.

“Japanese support for Vietnam can go very far to the upper limits that Japan’s laws allow, but the actual limits will be set primarily by Vietnam, which fears a backlash in its relations with China,” Vuving told VOA Vietnamese.

Powell sees Japan as a strong economic and security partner that has been willing to help Hanoi improve its maritime security in order to “hold off China’s increasingly aggressive South China Sea maritime forces.”

However, Powell said that given Vietnam’s Four Nos defense policy, "it’s highly unlikely" that Hanoi will be pulled into any agreement led by Washington and Tokyo that counters China.

“Both the U.S. and Japan are constrained in what they can offer Vietnam during its disputes with Beijing,” he added. “The best they can likely hope for is statements of support for international law and calls for restraint.”

Vuving cautioned that Hanoi’s comprehensive strategic partnerships with Washington and Tokyo should not be framed as a concerted Western attempt to pull Hanoi away from Beijing. Instead, he said the agreements represent Hanoi’s sovereign deliberation that "its tilt toward China and Russia no longer serves its interests well.”

He predicted that eventually Hanoi will be drawn closer to Japan and the U.S., given that the two countries support Vietnam in the South China Sea and “Hanoi is increasingly realizing that it will have a better future in the economic networks led by the U.S. and Japan.”

Cuong, the retired ambassador, said “peace” was the purpose of the Vietnam-Japan comprehensive strategic partnership. “It’s definitely not aimed at a third party,” he said.

“Hanoi currently enjoys very good ties with Beijing, and it will by no means sacrifice those ties to get closer to Japan and the U.S.,” he said.

Cuong said that having ties at the highest level with all the key regional powers gives Vietnam more leeway in navigating competition between the U.S. and China while maintaining its independent posture.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.