Vietnam’s Relations with Japan, U.S.: Deepen Trilateral Cooperation for Regional Stability

Vietnam is accelerating its efforts to strengthen its relationship with Japan and the United States. Concerns over China’s hegemonic activities may have prompted this move. Japan-U.S.-Vietnam cooperation should be harnessed for the sake of regional stability.

Vietnamese leaders have repeatedly described Japan as a reliable partner. This was also said by President Vo Van Thuong when he visited Japan in November, and by Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh when he came in December.

Vietnam’s emphasis on Japan is also reflected in the fact that Thuong and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed at their summit meeting to upgrade bilateral relations from an extensive strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

For Vietnam, this is the highest level of diplomatic relations. It also upgraded its relationship with the United States, with which it once fought a war, to the same status last September. Japan and the United States are now equally placed with China and Russia, nations traditionally friendly to Vietnam.

These moves could be evidence that Vietnam believes it needs to cooperate with Japan and the United States to deal with China, which continues its aggressive maritime expansion in the South China Sea.

Vietnam’s maritime security capabilities are greatly inferior to those of China. Chinese oceanographic research vessels and China Coast Guard ships have entered Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone on numerous occasions, and a Vietnamese fishing boat sank after being hit by a Chinese government ship.

It is only natural for Japan and the United States to support the enhancement of Vietnam’s capabilities, as partners working together to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific.

In addition to patrol vessels and other supplies that Japan has provided in the past, Tokyo plans to give defense equipment to Vietnamese forces for free, and is currently working out the details. Washington is also keen to accelerate its security cooperation with Vietnam.

Increasing Japan-U.S. involvement with Vietnam through such actions as the provision of equipment and the expansion of joint drills would serve as a deterrent to China’s maritime expansion.

However, like China, Vietnam’s political system is ruled by the Communist Party alone. Vietnam has also come under international criticism for its human rights conditions. It is essential for Japan and the United States to stress that respect for human rights is tied to Vietnam’s interest, while persistently urging improvements.

In December, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Vietnam for the first time in six years and agreed with Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, on 37 items, including building a railroad linking the two countries and strengthening trade relations. Xi is clearly trying to draw Vietnam closer to China to counter Japan and the United States.

China’s own coercive words and actions have brought Vietnam closer to Japan and the United States. The Xi administration needs to acknowledge this.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 22, 2024)