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Vietnam, Japan upgrade relations to highest level

Vietnam and Japan have officially upgraded relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” during a visit by the Vietnamese president to Tokyo.

Monday’s agreement came during talks between President Vo Van Thuong and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The two said they would cooperate more closely on security issues, work on defense equipment and technology transfers and start discussing a new Japanese aid program for militaries of like-minded developing countries in the region, the Associated Press reported.

“This is an important event, opening a new chapter in Vietnam-Japan relations,” Thuong said in a speech broadcast on national television.

The deal follows a similar move between Vietnam and the United States last month when American President Joe Biden visited Hanoi. Four other countries: China, India, Russia and South Korea have raised their relationship with Vietnam to the highest level.

“The upgrade is commensurate with the level of Japan’s engagement with Vietnam, especially in trade, investment, infrastructure development, human resources development, and recently maritime security,” Hanh Nguyen, a Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Studies (YCAPS) Research Fellow, told Radio Free Asia.

“It sends a signal to both China and the U.S. that Vietnam is not going to take sides in the great power competition and will continue to pursue its traditional strategy of hedging and multilateralization of foreign affairs.”

Japan is the third-largest overseas investor in Vietnam and the fourth-biggest trading partner. Bilateral trade reached US$47.6 billion last year and neared $37 billion in the first 10 months of 2023 according to the Center for WTO and International Trade of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Japan and Vietnam both have territorial disputes with China, Tokyo arguing with Beijing over sovereignty of islands in the East China Sea and Hanoi clashing with the Chinese government over shoals and land reclamation in the South China Sea.

In 2020, Tokyo agreed to a $348 million loan agreement for Vietnam to build six maritime patrol vessels. 

“I expect that with the upgrade in partnership, it will open up opportunities for further maritime security cooperation, especially capacity building activities for Vietnam’s Coast Guards and Navy, which have been going on for a few years now,” Nguyen said.

“Maritime security equipment transfers, and arms transfer might see more developments. 

“Vietnam in general is more comfortable with Japan as a partner of security cooperation due to Hanoi’s perceptions of Tokyo as a reliable and trustworthy partner, who is also less likely to criticize Vietnam’s human rights record.”

Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division Deputy Director Phil Robertson was more skeptical about the agreement between Japan and Vietnam.

“If everyone becomes comprehensive & strategic allies, doesn’t that denigrate the meaning of Vietnam’s upgrades?” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Thoung is on a four-day visit to Japan, to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Edited by Taejun Kang and Elaine Chan.