By Hunter Marston
The general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong succeeded in advancing Vietnam-Japan relations on his trip to Tokyo from September 15 to 18. At a press conference on September 15, Trong and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe announced a series of deals aimed at boosting bilateral trade and defense ties in light of increased tensions in the South China Sea. However, Vietnam will likely remain cautious about its engagement with Japan, as well as other partners such as the Philippines and United States, in order to avoid antagonizing China.
Among the agreements announced by Abe and Trong were a $1.6 million package for maritime security assistance for 2015 to help Vietnam acquire two used Japanese patrol ships, a memorandum of understanding on coast guard cooperation, and pledges by Japan to provide $239 million in official development assistance to build a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City along with $829 million in additional aid for infrastructure projects. The two leaders also agreed to step up collaboration on United Nations peacekeeping operations.
Japan had expanded defense cooperation with the Philippines and Malaysia earlier this year, triggering concerns in Beijing of an emerging regional strategy to contain China. While the United States has deepened its treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, Japan has gradually built up a regional security profile in Southeast Asia. Beijing, meanwhile, continues to expand its military footprint in the South China Sea while maintaining its rhetoric about its commitment to regional peace and stability.
Despite earlier claims that it would halt reclamation of features in the Spratly Islands, China has continued dredging and constructing runways on a number of features. China’s island reclamation activities in the South China Sea have spurred Southeast Asian countries to increase their naval capacities and seek closer relations with the United States and Japan.
Vietnam, in particular, increased its defense spending by 113 percent between 2004 and 2013, purchasing advanced equipment to increase its naval and air capabilities. Hanoi has also sought to strengthen its strategic partnership with Washington in recent years. During his visit to Washington in July, Trong and President Barack Obama discussed shared security concerns in the South China Sea as well as outstanding issues related in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.
Vietnam’s leaders portray recent diplomatic missions as clear successes, but the Communist Party must walk a tightrope in balancing the country’s relations with the major powers competing for influence in the region. Too strong a shift in the strategic landscape may raise eyebrows in Beijing, if it believes that Hanoi’s developing partnerships may pose challenges to China’s security interests.
Vietnam’s efforts to diversify and strengthen its partnerships with the United States, Japan, and India will help strengthen the regional security architecture in the long run, and serve U.S. interests in preserving stability and prosperity in the region by balancing China’s rising power.
In the near term, however, Vietnam will remain sensitive to China’s concerns and avoid any security arrangements that could provoke more assertive behavior from Beijing. Vietnam’s top leaders will likely seek to maintain non-confrontational policies toward China, while at the same time seeking to build relations with other partners. Japan, for its part, will continue to act in a manner that it sees as preserving the existing regional security architecture and conducive to peace and prosperity in the Asia Pacific.