Military Dimensions of Japan-Vietnam Cooperation on the Rise

In mid-April, Japan and Vietnam vowed to expand their defense cooperation during an official visit by Vietnam’s army chief to Tokyo. In an email interview, Corey Wallace, a teaching fellow at the University of Auckland who studies international security and Japan’s regional relations, explained the development of the Japan-Vietnam defense relationship and what it means for each country’s tensions with China.

Oyashio-class submarine.

WPR: What has been the recent history of Japan-Vietnam defense cooperation?

Corey Wallace: While official defense connections began developing when Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a key turning point for the defense relationship came in 2010. After visits to Vietnam by Japan’s vice minister of defense and the Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) chief early that year, in July the two countries agreed to hold regular sub-ministerial level “two plus two” discussions. For Japan this is important because it only has “two plus two” arrangements with the United States, Australia (at the ministerial level) and India (at the sub-ministerial level). After the first Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands fracas between Japan and China in September 2010, Japan and Vietnam appeared to push forward on relations “in all areas” and declared a “Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Asia.” In October 2011, the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding on the enhancement of defense cooperation. These agreements collectively have resulted in the consistent exchange of top political, bureaucratic and military officials between Japan and Vietnam.

WPR: What is the potential for Japanese arms exports to Vietnam?

Wallace: Japan looks likely to export patrol boats to Vietnam, as it has to the Philippines and Indonesia. Officially, such exports come under Japan’s official development assistance (ODA) policy and are labeled “security assistance”; they are not meant to be used for military purposes but to build the capacity of partner countries to address piracy and maritime crime. Nevertheless such exports still indirectly contribute to the military security of these nations, and in any case more explicit “military assistance” is likely in the Japan-Vietnam relationship as time goes on and tensions persist. In 2012 Japan started providing “noncombat” military equipment to Vietnam outside of the ODA framework. Former Japanese Defense Minister Kitazawa recently told the New York Times that Japan was considering submarine exports to Vietnam, which would be a dramatic development.

WPR: How does the growing relationship fit into the regional landscape, especially the two countries' tensions with China?

Wallace: The defense relationship is potentially significant in terms of the balance of military power in the South China Sea. As but one example, if Japan were to export some of its older but still advanced submarines to Vietnam, this would likely come along with training in anti-submarine warfare. This is an area in which the Japanese MSDF has a world-class capability but the Vietnamese navy struggles. In any case, Vietnam has requested cooperation with Japan in the sub-surface domain, which would complement Vietnam’s Russian and Indian links facilitated by the Vietnamese navy’s purchase of six improved Russian-made Kilo-class submarines.

It is important to note, however, that the two sides are also intensively cooperating in economic planning and infrastructure, environmental fields and even in the area of legal and administrative reform. Vietnam’s prosperity is seen by Japan in particular as essential for the integration of the Mekong and the strengthening of ASEAN vis-a-vis China. These nonmilitary dimensions of cooperation will thus remain the priority for both countries, unless the security environment deteriorates further in the region.

World Politics Review


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