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Japan And Vietnam Have An Alliance Going On

February 26, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Vietnam’s official military news agency announced last week a meeting between the Deputy Defense Minister and the Japanese ambassador to lay the groundwork for “defense relations.” Few details about the substance of their conference in Hanoi were revealed except for the terse wording on the press release, which read “the two ministries boosted delegation exchanges…cooperation on personnel training, maritime security and aviation security, and overcoming war consequences.”

The addition of “war consequences” is a vague reference that may be connected to World War 2 and Vietnam War sites where unexploded ordnance are found. The possibility of arms sales between Hanoi and Tokyo is nil.

The past several years marked a flowering of Vietnam’s diplomatic relations as its trade partners grew into regional allies. Hanoi even maintains a “defense cooperation agreement” with China, whose claims over the Paracel and Spratly Islands has caused a rift between the two countries. But friendly visits and staged exercises have shown the Chinese and Vietnamese militaries going through the motions of cooperativeness and China’s own Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Wei Fenghe arrived just days before the conference with Japan’s ambassador.

Vietnam is also basking in a warm relationship with the US and this week’s summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un is proving how valuable its position in the Asia-Pacific is. Not only does Vietnam enjoy ballooning trade ties with its former Cold War adversary but its government may exert a powerful influence on North Korea’s efforts at overhauling its economy to attract foreign investment. When it comes to Vietnam’s military alliances, however, there’s little evidence of US and other Western countries having any role in either modernization or upgrading the state-owned military-industrial sector.

In fact, there’s not much going on between Vietnam and Japan on a military-to-military basis except for cross-training and modest aid promises. Like its neighbor the Philippines, Vietnam is expected to receive material support from Japan for patrolling its maritime territory. Beyond this, however, Japan has little to offer a country that sees Russia as the main supplier of its military equipment and is establishing a long-term partnership with India. Last year saw the arrival of Indian companies that specialize in military products, with the full support of New Delhi, whose uses can be valuable for Vietnam’s armed forces.

If Tokyo were to expand its strategic relationship with Hanoi in the 2020s, there are at least five sectors it can either influence or modernize for Vietnam’s benefit. These are automotive, aerospace, communications, robotics, and shipbuilding. The transfer of dual-use products, equipment, and perhaps expertise in each of these sectors represent a serious advancement for Vietnam’s own state-owned sector. If Japanese companies helped establish automotive supply chains in Vietnam, for example, these have a direct benefit for the armed forces who can then source spare parts locally rather than carry on with maintaining outdated vehicles.

Another potential breakthrough in local capabilities is in robotics. Vietnam’s state-owned companies have leapt ahead of their neighbors in ASEAN when it comes to drone production. If Japanese technology is transferred to Vietnamese companies who supply the armed forces, locally made unmanned aircraft and vehicles will enjoy a significant advantage over regional efforts at the same. But trying to forecast the extent of a Japan-Vietnam alliance this early isn’t helpful as the latter country’s own foreign relations takes precedence over informed analysis.

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