Originally Published 2013-09-05 14:36:47 Published on Sep 05, 2013
China's increased assertiveness in the South China Sea has been pushing Japan and Vietnam towards greater security cooperation. Bilateral security cooperation has been increasing.
Strengthening Vietnam-Japan Security Cooperation
"China's increased assertiveness in the South China Sea has been pushing Japan and Vietnam towards greater security cooperation. Bilateral security cooperation has been increasing; last month's visit of Vietnamese Deputy Defence Minister Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh's to Tokyo saw the conclusion of the second Defence Policy Dialogue between the two countries. Crucially, the meeting highlighted that although the two countries share common concerns in the region, security cooperation between the two remains constricted to noncombat issues. The article argues that military ties have an enormous scope to increase, especially in the face of a further deterioration of regional security.

Recent developments

Conducted as a part of activities to mark the 40th anniversary of Japan-Vietnam diplomatic ties, the second Defence Policy Dialogue emphasised the necessity to resolve disputes and differences by peaceful means and to avoid armed conflicts when it came to sea and island sovereignty issues. The dialogue also saw the conclusion of an agreement declaring mutual support in research capacity building and in the management of sea areas. A common interest was identified to actively participate in international forums with an aim of developing rules, and a code of conduct for the sea, in conformity with international law.

Notably, the recent dialogue closely followed the visit of Admiral Kawano Katsutoshi, Chief of Staff of Japan’s Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) to Hanoi on 2 May. Meeting Vietnam’s Minister of National Defence General Phung Quang Thanh, the Admiral expressed his wish to continue strengthening cooperation between the two armies and in particular the two navies, and visited the Navy High Command and other units of the Vietnam People’s Navy.

Apart from high-level military exchanges there has also been increasing cooperation between the navies of the two countries. Last month, for the first time a training vessel from the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG), the Kojima, docked at Tien Sa Port in the central city of Da Nang for a five-day visit. Although the two countries’ coast guards have maintained cooperative ties since 2000, the recent event becomes crucial in the light of the fact that there has been a significant growth of external involvement at the Tien Sa Port in recent months.1

Japan has also been involved in capacity building exercises for the Vietnamese Navy. In March, officials from the Vietnam People’s Army were invited to Japan for a short training course on peacekeeping operations2. Additionally in October 2012, JMSDF officials and other personnel travelled to Hanoi where they gave a short-term seminar to medical officers in the Vietnamese navy on diving medicine.3

Factors promoting security cooperation

Pham Binh Minh, Vietnam’s Foreign Minister laid out the country’s concerns about an increasingly assertive China. Talking at the foreign ministers’ retreat held after the Annual Ministerial Meeting, Minh was quoted as saying, "ver recent months the situation has aggravated due to series of Chin moves to impose their 9 dash claim. Apart from Scarborough Shoal, China announced the establishment of Sansha City , which covers almost all the South China Sea? Offshore Company invited bidding for nine oil and gas blocks within Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf with several points only sixteen miles off Vietnam’s coast. serious violations of Vietnam’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over its EEZ and continental shelf UNCLOS. go against the spirit of the DOC, create a serious concern for the maintenance of peace and stability, bring about long term consequences and implications."4

Unlike Vietnam, Japan is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute. Nevertheless, being an island nation whose economic prosperity relies on the free flow of maritime trade, it is directly impacted by developments in the region. Notably, Japan is entirely dependent on foreign oil sources and approximately 90 percent of its supplies pass through the South China Sea.5 The import of crude oil and raw materials is clearly critical to the energy and resource-scarce country6. The Fukushima accident, which caused the government to move away from nuclear power, further escalated Japan’s dependence on the South China Sea. Following the accident,
Japanese imports of petroleum products climbed 33.7% and natural gas climbed 11.4%. Evidently therefore, Japan has critical economic interest in ensuring stability in the region. This explains its support for Vietnam’s call for a peaceful resolution of the ongoing disputes in conformity with international laws.

Japan is also mindful of the possibility that China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, if unchecked, could adversely impact Japan’s interests in the East China Sea. Ian Storey, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore explained this and stated, "If China coaxes or coerces its Southeast Asian neighbors into accepting the questionable justifications for its claims to sovereignty and "historic rights" in the sea, existing legal norms ?will be undermined. This could dilute Japan’s claim to ownership of the Senkaku Islands (which China calls the Diaoyus) in the East China Sea, if Beijing decides to use similar arguments."7

The significance of a military cooperation between the two nations becomes all the more potent when one compares the defence budgets of the three nations. In 2012, China’s official defence spending was 106 billion USD. In comparison Japan’s was 60 billion USD and Vietnam’s was 3.4 billion USD.8 Evidently, there is a growing imbalance of power in the region explaining the escalated cooperation among the East Asian countries.

Besides an aggressive China, Japan’s internal political environment also explains its increasing cooperation with Vietnam. The electoral victory of conservative leader Shinzo Abe as Japan’s Prime Minister has surged a radical transformation in the country’s security policy. Notably, Abe’s first overseas trip after returning as Prime Minister was to Vietnam and Indonesia. While delivering a speech at Jakarta he stressed that one of the five new principles for Japanese diplomacy is to ensure that the maritime domain remained "governed by laws and rules, not might". Abe’s government has also shown immense interest in the revision of the Japanese constitution, untouched since 1947, and in particular Article 9, which places restrictions on the use of military power for the purposes of national security. Integral to his plans to reassert Japan’s status as a world power is the strengthening of the Japan Self-Defence Force (JSDF). The new Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) administration announced additional procurements of helicopters and is seeking an approximate 1% rise in defence expenditure for fiscal year 2013-14. Although this rise is modest compared to neighbours such as China, it is the first increase for 11 years and symbolic of the LDP’s intent.9

Factors limiting bilateral security cooperation

Despite facing similar security threats and having common interests in the region, Japan-Vietnam security cooperation remains embryonic. An understanding for this can be gained by looking at various factors that limit military cooperation between the two countries.

First, both Japan and Vietnam are economically reliant on Beijing, which serves as the largest and the second largest trading partner of Tokyo and Hanoi. Understandably, both countries remain cautious of not concluding agreements that will upset China. The seriousness of this can be gauged from the fact that a decline in Japan’s exports to China by 10 percent in 201210 caused the overall trade deficit to rise to a record high 17.4 billion USD by January 2013. This in turn, seriously limits Japan’s provision of military aid to the South East Asian nations including Vietnam.

Second, although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative LDP has shown interest in revising the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, there continues to be strong public opposition to this. Opinion polls conducted by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun in March and April 2012 found that 54 percent of respondents oppose the LDP’s proposal, compared with 38 percent in favour of it.

Third, under Abe, there seems to be an ideological resurgence in Japan, hailing the country’s democratic features. Soon after getting elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrote in the Syndicate, "...Japan’s diplomacy must always be rooted in democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights... I firmly believe that, in 2013 and beyond, the Asia-Pacific region’s future prosperity should rest on them as well". Abe displayed a commitment to this cause when he ordered Japanese diplomats to take the lead on an effort at the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish a commission of inquiry to collect evidence of North Korea’s crimes against humanity. Although so far, Japan’s ties with Vietnam have remained independent of the latter’s domestic human rights situation, chances of this factor limiting bilateral security cooperation in the future cannot be ruled out.

Fourth, it is interesting to note that while Tokyo’s military engagement with the Philippines (another country involved in a territorial row with Beijing in the South China Sea), has grown both in number and substance,11 its ties with Hanoi remains constrained to noncombat areas like peacekeeping, disaster relief, medical training, and antipiracy. Rather than seeing this to be rooted in some differences between Japan and Vietnam, an understanding for this can be traced to the fact that Vietnam is already in a similar military engagement with Russia.12


In the face of an increasingly confrontational China in the Asia Pacific, Japan is looking to form what it calls the "coalition of the willing". Vietnam, a country which is not only involved in a territorial row with China but has identified a proactive engagement with the world as one of its top priorities for augmenting its defence capacity, presents itself as a natural ally. Nevertheless, defence cooperation between the two nations has remained at its nascent stage. It has to be seen if with a nationalist leader driving Japan’s defence policy, and with no signs of resolution of the ongoing territorial disputes in the region, Hanoi will tread the Manila path and conclude a more serious military agreement with Japan.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)


  1.    In April the port welcomed two US naval Vessels- USS Chung-Hoon and USNS Salvor. This was followed by the four-day friendship visit to Vietnam by the Eastern Fleet of India in June.

  2.    Offshore Islands Defense", Japan Defense Focus, No. 39, April 2013, Available at: http://www.mod.go.jp/e/jdf/pdf/jdf_no39.pdf

  3.    Defense of Japan 2013, Chapter 2, Section 2: Promotion of Defense Cooperation and Exchanges

  4.    Carlyle Thayer, "ASEAN’S Code of Conduct in the South China Sea: A Litmus Test for Community-Building? ", The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Available at: http://www.japanfocus.org/-Carlyle_A_-Thayer/3813

  5.    Ian Storey, "Japan Steps Up to the South China Sea Plate", The Wall Street Journal, 9 July 2012. Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303567704577516252626896574.html

  6.    Roslan Rahman, "Japan Taking a New Role in the South China Sea?" Stratfor, 30 September 2011

  7.    ibid

  8.    SIPRI, Military Expenditure Database, 2013

  9.    "Beyond Abenomics: Japan’s grand strategy", IISS, Edition No. 18, 17 June 2013, Available at: http://www.iiss.org/en/publications/strategic%20comments/sections/2013-a8b5/beyond-abenomics--japan--39-s-grand-strategy-928a

  10.    Mitsuru Obe, "Japan’s Exports Set to Recover, Forecast Says", The Wall Street Journal, 19 February, 2013, Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323495104578313732001550060.html

  11.     It has been reported that Japan is going to conclude its biggest security related aid package as it provides Philippines with ten 10 Coast Guard patrol boats.

  12.    Last year Russia concluded an agreement to supply Vietnam with six Kilo-class diesel submarines. Worth $3.2 billion, this is the largest deal in Russia’s history of defence exports.

Courtesy : South China Sea Monitor

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