This picture taken and released by the Vietnam News Agency on 12 September, 2021 shows Vietnam's President Nguyen Xuan Phuc (R) bumping elbows to greet Japan's Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi during a meeting in Hanoi. (Photo: ATR/ Vietnam News Agency/ AFP)

This picture taken and released by the Vietnam News Agency on 12 September, 2021 shows Vietnam's President Nguyen Xuan Phuc (R) bumping elbows to greet Japan's Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi during a meeting in Hanoi. (Photo: STR/ Vietnam News Agency/ AFP)

Vietnam and Japan Partners Amid Superpower Rivalry

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If two recent high-level visits by China and Japan to Vietnam are of any indication, Tokyo appears to have gained the upper hand over Beijing when it comes to courting one of Southeast Asia’s most important players.

In recent weeks, attention has focused on comparing the Vietnam visits of the US Secretary of Defense and US Vice President to that of the Chinese Foreign Minister. It is worth noting that at the same time Wang Yi was in Vietnam, the Japanese Defense Minister was also there. While China’s main goal was to highlight the strength of bilateral relations with Hanoi, Japan has achieved greater success both in the context of bilateral relations and in the broader perspective as a credible regional actor in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the era of tense and complex US-China competition, ASEAN member states such as Vietnam have been courted by the two major powers. According to China’s peripheral diplomacy, Vietnam should be at the inner ring and hence the center of China’s foreign policy. However, this has not turned out to be the case. The best example is the fact that Wang Yi had paid official visits to all Southeast Asian states last year and at the beginning of this year, except Vietnam. This is even more significant as Vietnam held the ASEAN Chair in 2020.

Wang Yi’s visit to Hanoi in September sought to reverse this trend. Still, compared to the achievements of the American administration’s recent engagements with Vietnam, its effects can hardly be called impressive. During his stay in Hanoi, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. He also co-chaired the 13th Meeting of the China-Vietnam Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation with Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh.

Wang Yi’s visit focused on three issues: emphasising ideological affinities, stepping up vaccine diplomacy, and warning on the issue of the South China Sea (SCS). The main tangible effect of the visit was the promise to provide Vietnam with an additional batch of three million Covid-19 vaccines by the end of the year. While China has supplied 190 million doses of vaccines to Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, it is worth noting that there is ‘selective hesitance’ towards Chinese vaccines in the region, due to concerns about the reputation as well as quality of Chinese vaccines. While most ASEAN countries appraised China’s support in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic the most, the majority of the respondents from Vietnam have praised the US and Japan.

Kishi’s visit to Vietnam has opened the way for the Vietnamese government to indirectly support the US-led ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy and Quadrilateral Security Grouping initiatives, which are in line with Hanoi’s strategic interests

Although Wang Yi’s presence received a lot of coverage in Vietnam and abroad, it appears that Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi’s visit got more strategic traction. Minister Kishi signed an agreement on transferring defense equipment and technology at a meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Phan Van Giang. Thus, Vietnam became the eleventh country to have such an agreement with Japan (similar agreements have been signed with the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia). This can be interpreted as Hanoi’s step towards diversifying its sources of defense equipment. At present, the vast majority of Vietnamese military equipment comes from Russia, occupying the first place (66%) in terms of arms imports. In the case of the modernisation of the Vietnamese army, Japan can play a crucial role because an attempt to secure the sources of weapons from the United States could meet with strong repercussions from Beijing. Future Japan-Vietnam cooperation will likely involve the export of Japanese naval vessels.

Another issue that deserves attention in the context of Kishi’s visit to Vietnam is the consensus of both countries on the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region and cooperation in the area of cyber security. It is an element of building a common bloc amid China’s increasingly coercive maritime activity as well as technological expansion through various initiatives such as the Digital Silk Road, which tech giants like Xiaomi or Huawei carry out. Moreover, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and Nobuo Kishi expressed their support for settling disputes and differences in the sea by peaceful measures based on respect for international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is extremely compelling because it stands in stark contrast to Wang Yi’s warning regarding external interferences in the South China Sea. Hanoi appears to have given short shrift to Beijing’s warning.

The bottom line is that Kishi’s visit to Vietnam has opened the way for the Vietnamese government to indirectly support the US-led ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy and Quadrilateral Security Grouping initiatives, which are in line with Hanoi’s strategic interests. As aptly pointed out by Nguyen Huu Tuc, there are four ways Vietnam can participate in the FOIP without raising red flags in Beijing, at least not immediately. The visit of the Japanese minister of defense is a perfect example of the implementation of at least three of them. The first is proactive interaction with individual QUAD countries. The second recommendation relates to participation in capacity-building projects in defense-security cooperation. Last but not least is promoting the rules-based international order, freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Although Kishi’s visit did not bring any direct progress regarding the fourth element indicated by Nguyen Huu Tuc, which is greater engagement in infrastructure development initiatives, it is worth noting that Japan is China’s main competitor in this regard when it comes to the Southeast Asia region. Moreover, in the case of Vietnam, Japan is its main source of infrastructure investments.

Considering the recent interactions of the United States, China, and Japan in Vietnam, it can be argued that the best solution for Southeast Asian countries is to deepen cooperation with middle powers like Japan in the face of major power rivalry. The case of Vietnam proves that such an arrangement comes with relatively large benefits in terms of improving security capabilities and general development, with a low risk of repercussions from either Beijing or Washington. Therefore, it is a win-win situation because Southeast Asian countries gain an opportunity to enhance their hedging position vis-a-vis superpowers.

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