• Japan and Vietnam look to increase security cooperation
  • Japan will provide assistance for infrastructure projects

Japan will extend 100 billion yen ($832 million) in infrastructure aid to Vietnam and provide patrol boats as the two countries vow to expand ties amid growing concern over China’s muscle-flexing in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

Japan will supply Vietnam’s coast guard with 200 million yen ($1.7 million) worth of used ships and equipment, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said after meeting with Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Japan’s aid to Vietnam and commitments from both countries to increase security and defense cooperation signal a new alignment of interests among Asian nations that increasingly view China as an economic and military threat. Closer relations between Vietnam and Japan, a close U.S. ally, will be viewed suspiciously by Beijing.

Territorial Claims

“Japan wants to give the Southeast Asian states resources so they are not totally victimized by China,” Zachary Abuza, principal of Southeast Asia Analytics, said by phone from Boston. “Chinese assertions of sovereignty in the South China Sea scare Japan more than any other country. Almost all of its energy comes through there.”

Competing territorial claims between Vietnam and China in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes have strained relations between the two countries. China placed an oil rig in waters near the contested Paracel Islands last year, triggering clashes between Vietnamese and Chinese boats and anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam. Tensions have also risen over China’s reclamation of reefs in the South China Sea, even as its Communist neighbor remains by far Vietnam’s largest trading partner.

High-Level Visits

Since the oil rig incident, the pace of high-level visits between Hanoi and Washington has picked up. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was in Hanoi in June, followed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in August. Trong invited President Barack Obama to visit Vietnam during Trong’s July visit to Washington, the first time a Vietnamese Communist Party chief has traveled to the U.S.

Trade between Japan and Vietnam was $27.6 billion last year, with Japan importing $14.7 billion in goods from the Southeast Asian country, according to data released by the General Department of Vietnam Customs.
Japan agreed to provide Vietnam with maritime patrol ships last year. The U.S. is also providing Vietnam with six patrol boats, part of an $18 million military aid package.

Multinational Exercises

Trong, during his Washington visit, called for closer relations with the U.S. and said, “We highly appreciate the United States’ increasing interest in the situation in the East Sea.” Vietnam refers to the South China Sea as the East Sea.

Closer ties between Vietnam and Japan could lead to multinational military exercises that include the U.S. Navy, Abuza said.

“There are limits to what the U.S. and Vietnam can do in terms of bilateral military exercises,” he said. “Vietnam is keen on the multinational dimension and that is where Japan plays such an important role.”

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