Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, on a visit to Hanoi this week, announced that Japan will provide Vietnam with six naval ships for the purpose of patrolling the South China Sea. The deal will amount to 500 million yen (roughly $5 million) and is likely to anger China, which recently faced off against Vietnam over the positioning of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters off the Paracel Islands. The deal marks a continuing trend in Japanese foreign and security policy of stepping up arms exports and defense deals following the lifting of Japan’s self-imposed 1967 ban on weapons imports. Japan is also exporting weapons to India, and will collaborate on defense development with the U.K. and France.
Kishida announced the deal by noting that both Japan and Vietnam have agreed upon “maintaining peace and stability” in regional waters. Additionally, he added that both sides had agreed that maritime disputes ought to be resolved “in accordance with maritime law.” Vietnam recently threatened to take China to an international court over the oil rig dispute. Notably, Japan is selling Vietnam used surveillance vessels. According to Reuters, the ships will be accompanied by “training and equipment to help the coastguard and fisheries surveillance effort.” Additionally, according to anonymous Japanese government sources, Japan will further provide Vietnam with radar equipment. “I hope that this support will contribute to the enhancement of Vietnam’s maritime law enforcement capability,” Kishida said.
As the BBC notes in its coverage of the deal, Japan’s decision to sell maritime surveillance vessels to Vietnam, understood in combination with the United States’ recent base access deal with the Philippines, represents an effort by East Asia’s two major status quo powers to counter China’s revisionist efforts in the South China Sea. Since 2012, Beijing has become far more assertive in its attempts to administer disputed waters in the South China Sea.
For Vietnam, the deal sends a strong message to China. Relations between Vietnam and China, up until the HYSY-981 oil rig incident, were relatively cordial although tensions remained. A good degree of solidarity existed between the Communist parties of the two countries and they cooperated on a range of matters. With this deal, Vietnam signals to China that it is looking for friends elsewhere in the region and finding them. Vietnam also cooperates on military matters with India and Russia.
Japan, a status quo Asia-Pacific power, has also offered maritime surveillance aircraft to India. Specifically, it will likely conclude a deal to sell 15 ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious landing-and-take-off aircraft. Between its deals with India and Vietnam, Japan is making clear its desire to see other Asian states uphold the principles of freedom of navigation around the Asian landmass. Japan, a major net importer of energy, is particularly vulnerable to maritime traffic interdiction in the South and East China Seas. It relies on oil and commercial goods shipments originating in the Persian Gulf. “International security is getting more complicated… prosperity only comes with stability in the South China Sea and the East China Sea,” noted Kishida. In particular, Japan is wary of China’s attempts to uphold its dashed line claims in the South China Sea. China’s territorial claim is sweeping and encompasses almost the entirety of the South China Sea.