Japan- Vietnam Security Matrix in the Indo-Pacific Region
Prof Rajaram Panda

The security scenario centring in the much contested South China Sea continues to be grimmer because of China’s expansionist designs and expanding maritime claims, converting this part of the ocean into the most dangerous hotspot. In its intimidating moves, China has been deploying survey ships in the waters of other nations in the South China Sea and frequently entering other countries’ territorial waters on a continuing basis to assert what it calls its “historic rights” over nearly all of the disputed waterways. Besides China, there are six other nations in the region which have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with claims made by China. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Another member of the ASEAN grouping, Indonesia, though directly not a party to the South China Sea dispute, willy-nilly is dragged into the dispute as Beijing’s claim rights to parts of that sea overlaps Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Of all the claimants, though the Philippines took its case to the international tribunal for arbitration and won it in 2016 but dismissed by China with disdain, Vietnam is the only nation that has stood upfront to deal with the Chinese challenge. Like in the Taiwan Straits where Chinese aircrafts continue to fly into Taiwanese airspace without authorisation to intimidate Taiwan but each time driven back by the Taiwanese aircrafts, in South China Sea too Chinese warships continue to enter into Vietnamese waters only to be met by Vietnamese countermeasures. Such intrusions are motivated either for intimidation or for asserting maritime claims or for survey/surveillance purposes. As per the tracking data, the latest such activity was when a Chinese survey ship with a Coast Guard escort intruded into Vietnamese waters of the South China Sea.1

From all available information, the Shiyan-1 survey ship that intruded into Vietnamese waters is operated by the Institute for Acoustics, a research centre that specialises in underwater acoustics for the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The same ship that had intruded into eastern Indian Ocean in December 2019 was driven away by the Indian Navy as it was suspected of mapping the topography of the ocean floor for military purposes. According to ship-tracking data, while the China Coast Guard (CCG) numbered 2305 that followed the Shiyan-1 retreated, five ships operated by Vietnam’s Fisheries Resources Surveillance (a maritime law enforcement agency separate from the country’s coastguard) monitored both the CCG and Shiyan-1 survey ship and their activities in Vietnam’s EEZ. It may be noted that a country’s EEZ exceeds 200 nautical miles beyond their coastline and provides them certain resource rights to the waters there. Earlier, the same Chinese survey ship was sailing in an area roughly 230 nautical miles from Chichjima, a remote Japanese island located far to the east of Japan where its survey continued to perform till 24 August. A combined cooperative and determined action by like-minded nations which respect global rules is the need of the hour to cope with this new menace.

Amidst all these worrying developments and in line with achieving this objective, one aspect that has drawn little attention is the deepening of relations between Vietnam and Japan. Vietnam refrained from making public condemnation of the latest Chinese moves in order to maintain diplomatic niceties as the issue is sensitive and not to inflame passion as it prepares to welcome the new Prime Minister of Japan Yoshihide Suga. In his first foreign trip after assuming power, Suga chose to visit Vietnam and Indonesia in order to send the message that Japan’s economic and strategic interests are on track and that there would be no departure from that of his predecessor Abe Shinzo.

What could be worth-noticing is that Suga is likely to negotiate sale of defence equipment to Vietnam, which China is not going to take kindly as it sees Japan as a strategic rival. Suga is likely to sign an agreement to export defence equipment and technology to Vietnam as a part of its push to bolster its defence capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region to counter Chinese maritime advances. Security cooperation between Japan and Vietnam has emerged as a significant development in the region because of China’s increasing island-building activities and militarisation in the South China Sea.

As a country heavily dependent on maritime trade for importing critical resources and export of its finished products and thus the requirement for safe maritime trade, Japan has its own strategic maritime interests and this vulnerability drives Japan not to overlook if that trade is likely to be disrupted by another country for its own selfish interests, which is why cooperation with Vietnam and strengthening its capability to secure the maritime route becomes indispensable for Japan. Japan is keen that China is restrained from making further inroads in South China Sea as it has direct impact on Japan’s national security.2

The Constitution of Japan, particularly Article 9, not only prevented Japan to acquire a military but also disallowed Japan to export equipment and technology that can be used for military purposes. Abe did try to do away with this obstructive clause in the Constitution but with half-success. What he did by legislative measures was to reinterpret the peace clause that injected some flexibility into that restriction. The legislative measure adopted in 2014 that allowed Japan to lift its ban on weapons exports were under the Three Principles on Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology.3 This enactment stated that Japan may not transfer arms to a party to a conflict but any such transfer if done must contribute to Japan’s security, and that Japan must give advance consent before the recipient transfers the arms to a third party.

There were more caveats. What the enactment meant was that the recipient country/countries need to acknowledge these principles in an official agreement before such exports take place. Japan has signed such agreements with nine countries so far, including the US, the UK, the Philippines and Malaysia. India and Japan are also negotiating for similar agreement allowing Japan to sell military assets to India. Suga’s visit to Vietnam also could prominently see the issue of defence sale. There is no clarity as of now what Vietnam would want from Japan. Based on its own strength, Japan has been promoting its P-1 patrol plane and C-2 transport plane abroad and also signed a deal with the Philippines in August 2020 to export a warning and control radar system developed by Mitsubishi Electric.

Seen differently, as Japan continues to suffer from a prolonged phase of economic depression and further worsened by the current pandemic, many domestic companies involved in the production of such equipment as patrol planes no longer find their products commercially viable as those demand much time and money to develop and therefore the companies are exiting the defence business despite government support to keep them afloat. This is a major reason why the Ministry of Defence is trying to shore up the industry by signing agreement with friendly countries with a view to boost exports as well as facilitate joint arms development with these signatory countries. Since the enactment of legislative measures lifting a ban on such transfers in 2014, Japan’s only export deal for a finished product, warning and control radar systems developed by Mitsubishi Electric, has been with the Philippines.4 This system shall help Manila monitor the developments in the South China Sea. Japan is negotiating similar agreements with Indonesia and Thailand as it has recognised that there is increasing demand in Southeast Asian nations in view of the changing security dynamics in the region because of China’s assertive postures.

The curiosity now is: what would Suga try to sell to Vietnam? As the world’s only nation now registering consistent economic growth5, Vietnam has adequate disposable capital to strengthen its defence capability to cope with the China challenge. Though at present, roughly 80 per cent of Vietnam’s arms purchases in the past decade came from Russia, it now wants to diversify supply sources, which is why it is working closely with friendly countries such as the United States, Japan and also India. Talks with India too are going on for the purchase of its lethal Brahmos missile system. Seen differently, Japan’s realises that its future in terms of economic and security interests are embedded with the ASEAN nations as all these countries face China’s aggressive posture in equal measures. Like India and Japan, Vietnam too subscribes to the principle of “free and open Indo-Pacific” and supports international norms and the UNCLOS.

The fact that Japan has posted two defence attaches at each of its embassies in the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia shows the importance Japan attaches to strengthening defence cooperation with these countries. The purpose is to gather information and build rapport with local counterparts for shared interests. At another level, bilateral naval exercises and dialogue with defence personnel further complement such measures to strengthen common synergy. Arms exports are only one way to deepen ties but the larger challenge is bigger than seen on the surface. Japan has already donated five TC-90 aircraft used to train pilots as well as multipurpose helicopter parts to the Philippines and patrol boats from Japan Coast Guard to Malaysia.

Japan voiced concerns on the developments in the South China Sea during the annual talks between Japan and the ASEAN grouping that took place virtually in October 2020.6 Emphasising freedom of navigation and over-flight over the disputed waters, Japan’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Mori Takeo “underlined the importance of peace and stability in the region, expressing concerns over recent developments in the East Sea”.7 Further Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu said “Japan will work with various nations to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”8 This remarks coincided with Japan’s Maritime SDF conducting drills in the South China Sea with the US Navy. In the same week Japan also conducted an anti-submarine warfare drill of its own in the South China Sea and made a port call at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay. Around the same time, China’s top diplomat on a five-nation tour of Southeast Asia, visiting Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, and Singapore but excluding Vietnam reminded that “the relevant country will not do things detrimental to regional peace, security and stability”.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi too used the occasion to blast the Quad, a grouping of four Indo-Pacific democracies that includes Japan, Australia, Australia, India and the US. China saw Quad as an initiative that could trigger a geopolitical competition and therefore is a security risk. From all these developments it transpires that Japan’s security interests are enmeshed with that of the ASEAN grouping and that Japan is going to be more actively involved in the region’s security matters more vigorously than before. The common thread that binds this Japanese perception is the looming and ever menacing China challenge. Japan too is strengthening its own defence capability as demonstrated by its unveiling a new submarine named ‘Taigei’ that the MSDF will include in its fleet in March 2022.9 The 3,000-ton warship built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries with a cost of 76 billion yen ($720 million) will be the 22nd submarine in Japan’s military fleet.

As China has embarked on a large-scale strengthening of its military capacity in the East China Sea and plans to expand its air and military operations in the region, Japan too is determined to beef up its own military and maritime footprint in accordance with global laws so that maritime order is maintained. Seen from this perspective, Suga’s forthcoming visit to Vietnam could be an eye opener to Japan’s strategic thinking for the region.

Endnotes
  1. Drake Long, “Chinese Survey Ship Spotted Off Coast Of Central Vietnam”, 15 October 2020, https://www.eurasiareview.com/15102020-chinese-survey-ship-spotted-off-coast-of-central-vietnam/
  2. Junnusuke Kobara, “In Indo-Pacific push, Japan to export arms to Japan”, 14 October 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Aerospace-Defense/In-Indo-Pacific-push-Japan-to-export-arms-to-Vietnam
  3. https://www.mofa.go.jp/fp/nsp/page1we_000083.html
  4. “Philippines radar deal marks Japan's first arms export”, 29 August 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Aerospace-Defense/Philippines-radar-deal-marks-Japan-s-first-arms-export
  5. Ruchir Sharma, “The next ‘Asian miracle’: Vietnam is exporting its way to prosperity, while leaving no one behind at home”, 16 October 2020, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/the-next-asian-miracle-vietnam-is-exporting-its-way-to-prosperity-while-leaving-no-one-behind-at-home/
  6. “Japanese Deputy FM expresses concerns over recent developments in East Sea”, 14 October 2020, http://news.chinhphu.vn/Home/Japanese-Deputy-FM-expresses-concerns-over-recent-developments-in-East-Sea/202010/41807.vgp
  7. “Chinese survey ship spotted off coast of Central Vietnam”, 15 October 2020, https://www.eurasiareview.com/15102020-chinese-survey-ship-spotted-off-coast-of-central-vietnam/
  8. https://nettv.gov-online.go.jp/eng/prg/prg6979.html
  9. “Japan unveils New ‘Taigei’ submarine to be deployed by self defence army in 2022”, 14 October 2020, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/japan/2020/japan-201014-sputnik01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e2899%2eon0ao069c5%2e2ogh

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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