On August 1, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida announced during his visit to Hanoi that Japan would provide Vietnam with six vessels to boost its capacity for maritime security. A month earlier, it was reported that Japan’s Diet was also considering giving Vietnam Overseas Development Assistance in the form of new patrol boats for its maritime enforcement agencies.
Media commentary at the time stressed the defense aspect of this development. Reuters, for example, reported that “the deal represents a notable shift in the two countries’ close diplomatic and investment ties towards defense, a move likely to irk an increasingly assertive China…” Reuters described the vessels as “navy boats.”
In fact, the six vessels consisted of two former Japanese Fishery Agency patrol boats and four used commercial fishing boats. The boats are quite small, weighing in at between 600 and 800 tons.
The six vessels are being provided under Japanese grant aid to Vietnam valued at ¥500 million ($4.86 million) that also includes lifeboats, radar and training. The deal for the six vessels was signed by Foreign Minister Kishida and Vietnam’s Minister for Planning and Investment, Bui Quang Vinh.
The boats are expected to be delivered by the end of 2014 and will be used exclusively by the Vietnam Coast Guard and Fishery Surveillance Force.
The momentary flurry of media coverage on the provision of the six patrol boats gave the impression that this was a major new step forward in defense relations. In fact, Japan and Vietnam have been steadily developing defense ties since 2011. A major step forward was taken earlier in the year. This provides the context for Japan’s provision of six patrol boats.
In March, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Truong Tan Sang elevated their eight-year old strategic partnership to an Extensive Strategic Partnership during the latter’s official state visit to Tokyo. This development was a continuation of Abe’s consistent support for defense and security ties with Vietnam.
When Prime Minister Abe was in office for the first time (2006-2007), he elevated bilateral relations with Vietnam to a formal strategic partnership with his counterpart, Nguyen Tan Dung. Japan became Vietnam’s second strategic partner after the Russian Federation.
In 2007, Japan and Vietnam agreed to establish a Joint Cooperation Committee that would meet annually at the ministerial level to review all aspects of their bilateral relations under the strategic partnership. A forty-four point agenda was adopted under seven major headings including exchanges and policy dialogues on security and defense.
Four years later, in 2011, Japan and Vietnam adopted a Plan of Action to implement the strategic partnership. This led to the opening of Defense Attaché offices in each country and the inauguration of a formal Defense Policy Dialogue.
More significantly, Japan and Vietnam agreed to a wide-ranging Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation. The MOU included: defense exchanges at ministerial, chief of staff and service chief level; naval goodwill visits; annual defense policy dialogue at the deputy defense minister level; cooperation in military aviation and air defense; and personnel training including scholarships for defense personnel to study and train in Japan.
In addition, the MOU also provided for cooperation on non-traditional security issues by the two countries’ coast guards in areas like search and rescue, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. Other areas of cooperation included counterterrorism, maritime salvage, IT training, military medicine, and peacekeeping.
Regarding personnel training, an article in Vietnam’s Army newspaper published in September 2013, noted that, “in terms of training, many Vietnamese cadets have taken part in long-term study course in Japan. The number of Japanese scholarships for Vietnamese cadets has increased in recent years.”
When Prime Minister Abe returned to office in late 2012, he made his first overseas trip to Vietnam early the following year. While in Hanoi, Abe announced the provision of $500 million in loans to Vietnam on the 40th anniversary of Japan-Vietnam diplomatic relations.
High-level defense contacts continued throughout the year. In Tokyo in April, the chief of the general staff of the Vietnam People’s Army held discussions with his counterpart from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. In May, Vietnam hosted the visit by the chief of staff of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. In July, the Japanese Coast Guard patrol ship, Kojima, visited Tien Sa port, Da Nang on a goodwill visit.
In August, Senior Lt. General Nguyen Chi Vinh, Vietnam’s deputy defense minister, attended the 2nd Vietnam-Japan Defense Policy Dialogue in Tokyo. The meeting reviewed ongoing programs including exchanges of defense delegations, training, humanitarian assistance, search and rescue, maritime security and possible cooperation between national defense industries. The two deputy defense ministers reiterated their long-standing commitment to resolving maritime sovereignty disputes peacefully on the basis of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The following month, Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera made his first official visit to Vietnam for consultations with his counterpart, General Phung Quang Thanh. The two defense ministers agreed to expand cooperation in human resource training, unexploded ordnance clearance, modernization of maritime enforcement agencies and military technology. When Minister Onodera met with Prime Minister Dung, Dung requested Japanese assistance in foreign languages training, UN-led peacekeeping and the modernization of Vietnam’s marine police forces.
In November 2013, Japan and Vietnam held their 4th Strategic Partnership Dialogue in Tokyo at the deputy foreign minister level. The agenda included foreign policy, national defense and security, and regional and global issues.
The following month Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Tokyo to attend the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit marking 40 years of dialogue relations, as well as the 5th Mekong-Japan Summit.
While in Tokyo, Dung met Abe to discuss their strategic partnership and their convergence of interests in the East China and South China Seas. According to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, Abe and Dung “agreed on the importance of ensuring peace, stability and development in the region, including peace, security and safety and freedom of navigation and aviation based on international law.”
A major turning point in bilateral relations took place in March 2014 with the state visit of President Truong Tan Sang to Japan. As noted, Prime Minister Abe and President Sang issued a joint statement raising their relations to an Extensive Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Asia.
The Joint Statement included 69 separate points. The sub-section on defense cooperation committed both sides to implement the 2011 MOU on defense cooperation effectively and to continue their Defense Policy Dialogue at vice-ministerial level.
The two leaders also agreed to continue to exchange delegations at the ministerial, senior official and expert levels; promote cooperation between the various armed services, human resource development, capacity building and naval ship visits.
In their discussions, Abe and Dung reaffirmed “the importance of ensuring peace, stability and development in the region, especially the guarantee of maritime and aviation peace, freedom, security and safety based on international law as well as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Abe noted, in particular, that Japan was willing to assist Vietnam in enhancing its capacity in maritime law enforcement.
In February 2014, Vietnam hosted a visit by a delegation from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force that had just completed a four-month deployment to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia. The Japanese were received by the deputy commander of Vietnam’s Air Force Division 370; both sides discussed pilot training exchanges.
In June 2014, the Japanese landing ship Kunisaki docked at Tien Sa port, Da Nang as part of a U.S. Navy-supported Pacific Partnership. The purpose of the visit was to exchange information regarding military medicine, such as emergency aid, treatment of burns and heart disease.
Vietnam-Japan defense cooperation took shape in 2011 as tensions in the South China Sea increased. Both countries shared a convergence of strategic interests in opposing China’s use of civilian maritime law enforcement vessels to assert sovereignty claims. This convergence of interests led to the formal adoption of a comprehensive Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Cooperation in October 2011.
Japan’s decision to provide grant aid to assist Vietnam in acquiring six small patrol vessels for civilian maritime security is the natural evolution of a growing defense-security relationship. Both Japan and Vietnam confront China’s use of civilian enforcement vessels and fishing boats to advance its maritime sovereignty claims. Japan alone among Asian states has the capacity to stand up and resist Chinese maritime assertiveness. It is in Japan’s interest to assist Vietnam in building up its civilian maritime security capacity. In return, Vietnam can be expected to provide diplomatic and political support to Japan in the region’s multilateral security institutions.