Japanese vessels will be allowed to make port calls in a Vietnamese naval base facing the South China Sea next year, the two countries agreed following defense consultations November 6.
According to Japanese media outlets, Japanese defense minister Gen Nakatani and his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh agreed during a meeting in Hanoi that Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces (MSDF) vessels will be allowed to make port calls in Cam Ranh Bay, a deep-water harbor in central Vietnam that is alongside the South China Sea. Hanoi is currently building a facility for foreign vessels which is scheduled to open next year. Japanese officials also reportedly said they hope that the port call will occur sometime in 2016.
The agreement comes as Japanese security forces have been increasing their activities in the South China Sea amid simmering maritime disputes there to which Vietnam is a claimant. The MSDF participated in a humanitarian drill with the United States and the Philippines off Subic Bay in August and held an exercise with the U.S. Navy north of Borneo last month (See: “Interview: The Future of U.S. Military Exercises in the Asia-Pacific”). Separately, Japan is also currently seeking a visiting forces agreement with the Philippines–another South China Sea claimant–that would make it just the third nation to get access to Philippine military bases following the United States and Australia (See: “Japan, Philippines Seeking New Pact on Military Bases”).
The two countries also discussed several other measures to boost defense cooperation. Most notable was agreement on the first ever joint naval exercise between the MSDF and the Vietnamese navy. Japan has already been boosting maritime security assistance to Vietnam over the past few years as part of its intensified engagement with ASEAN states under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (See: “Japan’s ASEAN Charm Offensive”): in August 2014, Japan’s foreign minister Fumio Kishida pledged to donate six vessels to Vietnam to help strengthen its maritime safety (See: “Japan Gifts Vietnam Patrol Vessel Amid South China Sea Tensions”). But joint naval drills between the two nations would be a notable first in their so-called extensive strategic partnership.
China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea dispute has undoubtedly been a key driver in Japan-Vietnam security cooperation. Hanoi has been on the receiving end of several aggressive moves by China, including a tense standoff over Beijing’s installation of an oil rig inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 2014. In that regard, a point not missed by most observers was the fact that the boost to Japan-Vietnam defense cooperation came as Chinese president Xi Jinping was visiting Vietnam. The move was yet another demonstration of Hanoi’s desire to maintain a close relationship with its northern neighbor in spite of tensions while also bolstering ties with other actors including Japan and the United States.
To be sure, despite this recent boost to defense ties, there are still challenges to more forward-leaning measures that some have been calling for, including Japanese participation in joint patrols in the South China Sea together with other allies and partners like the United States (See: “US-Japan Joint Patrols in the South China Sea?”). But given the firsts we have seen in defense cooperation in the Asia-Pacific over the past few years, including between Japan and Vietnam, it is little wonder that so much ink has been spilled forecasting the potential new engagements and alignments that could occur further down the line (See: “The Future of US-Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Cooperation”).