Will Pham Minh Chinh and Kishida’s Romance achieve a counterbalance to China?

  • Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met his Vietnamese Pham Minh Chinh counterpart in 2021.
  • The developments in Ukraine are changing the regional dynamics.
  • The two seek to further long-standing relations between their countries and deter China in the South China Sea.
Pham Minh Chinh and Kishida
Prime ministers Pham Minh Chinh and Kishida / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Why are Kishida and Minh Chinh in romance?

Answer: China’s assertive role has deepened their long-standing ties and consolidated their role in Pacific affairs.

As the People’s Republic of China gets more geopolitical clout in the Asia-Pacific region, Prime ministers Fuimo Kishida and his Vietnamese counterpart, Minh Chinh have gotten closer to coordinate an answer, strengthening their defense ties in the region in a deal signed in October, 2021. Additionally, the current events in Ukraine and the parallels that can be drawn in the region will be key to their agenda.

The two actors have found ways to foster an already well consolidated relationship between the countries. Current Vietnamese Foreign Minister,  Bui Thanh Son said that Vietnam considers Japan “a long-term strategic partner of utmost importance and wants to bolster cooperation with the country.” Additionally, Former Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe chose Vietnam as his first official destination to visit. Also, in May 2014, Abe stressed that Tokyo would provide Southeast Asian nations its “utmost support” in their territorial disputes over the South China Sea. Both Japan and VietNam have signed the Comprehensive and progressive agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership or CPTT in 2018 and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership RCEP in 2021, respectively.

They have also taken part in military drills, e.g., in 2019, the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) held a joint naval exercise off the southeastern coast of Vietnam. In March 2020, The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a U.S.-led grouping that also includes Australia, India and Japan, invited Vietnam to join talks. This invitation comes due to Hanoi’s location right in the heart of the Indo-Pacific, a maritime zone that the Quad seeks to safeguard and especially, Japan due to its energy and trade dependence within the South China Sea/East Sea.

Recently, in 2021, Japanese Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo visited Vietnam as part of his first overseas trip. Both sides also made reference to the connectivity between Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Moreover, both states signed the Japan-Vietnam Defense Equipment and Technology Transfer Agreement. This move will bolster a commitment to promote coordination towards the signing of memorandums in military medicine and cybersecurity and both nations pledged to work on a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Tokyo and Hanoi have common concern over China’s strategy in the Asia-Pacific and especially with regards to the South China Sea. Although Minh Chinh has not taken a harsh tone nor sanctioned Russia, both Japan and VietNam will speed up a contingency plan as Beijing watches over the events in Ukraine and acts depending on the international community’s response.

What is Driving Kishida?

Answer: Kishida seeks to deter China’s military power in the South China Sea as the invasion of Ukraine raises questions about Taiwan’s status.

Kishida, like Minh Chinh, wants to counterbalance Chinese growth in the region. China has become considerably more assertive in the South China Sea or Eastern Sea and threatens not just Japanese trade, but also could threaten the most crucial energy routes for East Asian countries to transport oil and natural gas from the Persian Gulf, which Japan is highly dependent on this area as Tokyo is the largest LNG buyer in the world.

Because Japan’s constitution prohibits the formation of a traditional military, the country has maintained only a Self Defense Force (SDF) with the sole mission of protecting the Japanese mainland. Nevertheless, the increasing role of China has led Tokyo to undertake a significant program of military modernization designed not only to improve its ability to defend the homeland and surrounding waters, but also to project military power to more distant regions.

Additionally, since 2014, Japan ended a decades-long ban on overseas arms sales and consequently, in 2020, Japan planned to sign an agreement with Vietnam to allow it to export defense equipment and technology to the country. For the first time, senior Japanese government officials expressed unusually strong statements stressing the importance of Taiwan’s security, which is driven largely by concerns over protecting Okinawa, a potential Chinese takeover over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and a nuclear North Korea.

Therefore, a military cooperation with Minh Chinh provides Tokyo with an ally in the event its sovereignty comes under threat under the principles of non-intervention in Asia. Additionally, on an official state visit in Hanoi, Japanese Defense Minister, Nobuo Kishi clarified that “Japan will work with Vietnam to achieve North Korea’s “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles of all ranges”.

Finally, a romance with Minh Chinh grows at a time where Japan seeks to reduce its economic dependence on Xi. China is Japan’s biggest export destination, accounting for 22% of overall share. Trade between China and Japan is at its highest and a potential clash or change within Beijing in the South China Sea, the Japanese economy and energy supplies would be significantly hampered. In a 2010 flareup over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, China blocked vital exports, such as rare earths, to Japanese industry.

As a result, in 2012, Japan and Vietnam launched a joint research center in Hanoi to improve extraction and processing of the materials and thus, reduce China’s advantage over rare-earth elements. Japan is also taking a key role to diversify its manufacturing production chains. Minh Chinh, therefore, becomes a paramount partner for Japanese manufacturing lanes. For instance, Hoya Corporation, which produces hard-drive components, is expected to move to both Vietnam and Laos from China. 

What is Driving Minh Chinh?

Answer: Minh Chinh wants to foster ties with Japan in order to secure VietNam’s position and claims in the South China Sea or East Sea. 

Since 2009, VietNam and Malaysia have filed a joint submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to extend their continental shelves beyond the standard two hundred nautical miles from their coastlines, which China views it as a challenge to its territorial claims in the South China Sea or East Sea. Over the years, VietNam and China relations have worsened, while Hanoi’s partnership with Japan has gained leverage.

Vietnamese Prime Minister, Minh Chinh wants to deepen VietNam-Japan relations by considerably expanding their security alliances and strengthening the security commitment between the two allies. In 2021, Tokyo and Hanoi signed the Japan-Vietnam Defense Equipment and Technology Transfer Agreement. This agreement will allow accelerated consultations for the transfer of specific equipment including vessels. Both sides also specified a commitment to promote coordination towards the signing of memorandums in military medicine and cybersecurity. Minh Chinh cannot counter China on its own, therefore working with a key ally as Japan, holding the same core geostrategic interests provides VietNam with an extra leverage in both economic and military capabilities.

Moreover, Minh Chinh considers that the ongoing US-China trade dispute and the  SARS-CoV-2 pandemic evidenced the importance of securing and diversifying supply chains in the Asia-Pacific region to depend less on China’s, in which VietNam could take the lead. For instance, Nike sportswear to Samsung smartphones are manufactured in this ASEAN nation. Additionally, Hanoi has gotten on top of the list for Japanese investors, with over 40% for Japanese investors.

China is Vietnam’s trop trading partner, in 2020, China exported $104B to Vietnam. Tensions with China have increased Minh Chinh’s apprehension and worrisome towards China over the disputed South China Sea or East Sea. Minh Chinh’s policies are focusing on diversifying Vietnam’s main trade partners and Japan can be key both domestically and internationally. For instance, since 2010, both Japan and VietNam signed a deal over rare earths and Vietnam has agreed to help supply Japan with rare earths.

What is Kishida Doing?

Answer: The Japanese PM deepened ties with VietNam to diversify and protect supply chains and secure the Asia-Pacific region.

Kishida’s unconventional rise to power means that domestic political stability is a precondition of his political continuity. Undoubtedly, one of his key pressure points is East Asian Security. Well before Kishida held Japan’s top office, Tokyo recognised VietNam’s key strategic role in its policy. Both states affirmed their cooperation on security issues including tensions in the South China Sea and the threat posed by North Korea.

Plus, both states also committed to strengthen cooperation at international multilateral forums. For instance, at ASEAN Chair 2020, Minh Chinh welcomed Japan to play the role of a major power and make further contributions to peace. Kishida, at the time, was Japan’s foreign minister and played a pivotal role in bolstering these diplomatic ties.

Moreover, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has made evident the importance of securing and diversifying supply chains in the Asia-Pacific region, with the People’s Republic of China taking the lead. Therefore, Kishida and Minh Chin have cooperated in economic projects to diversify Japanese companies manufacturing lines located in Beijing, e.g., the Japanese company, Hoya Corporation, which produces hard-drive components, is expected to move to both Vietnam and Laos from China. Finally, through the consolidation of the security ties between Japan and VietNam both countries are assuming a greater role in regional security dynamics that is in the best interest of both powers. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: A strong alliance in the South China Sea (East Sea) that can counter China will be paramount to avoid further regional and global escalation.

Both Tokyo and Hanoi have had longstanding tensions with Beijing, e.g., in 2014, Beijing deployed an oil rig, in waters also claimed by Vietnam, exacerbating a long-standing territorial dispute over islands in the South China Sea. Most recently, Hanoi asked Beijing not to violate its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf with military drills held between the Hainan province and Vietnam from March 4 to March 15, 2022.

The ability of Minh Ching and Kishida to take countermeasures has been calculated by their important trade ties with China and sought to increase their bilateral trade. Japan is incentivizing its companies to pull out investments from China and Vietnam stands to benefit from this move. For instance, Hoya Corporation, which produces hard-drive components, is expected to move to both Vietnam and Laos from China. 

Trade between Vietnam and Japan has grown over time. In 2012, Japan was also the largest donor of official development aid to Vietnam, having committed nearly $2 billion. According to an online survey conducted by NNA Japan Co at the end of 2019, it specifically focuses on promising investment destinations in Asia for Japanese investors for the year 2020. Vietnam is on top of the list with over 40% of Japanese investors. After the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 and China’s role in the region has only bolstered Japan-VietNam relationship and has even deepened their military cooperation. 

The current status quo and the regional peace is very fragile, and China’s next steps and policies regarding the South China Sea on the same moment as the current invasion of Ukraine adds an extra layer of caution. Consequently, Tokyo and Hanoi’s approach can be key to counterbalance Beijing and its power in the region. As time passes and frictioned interests become more latent in the region, the cost of any miscalculation increases. Therefore, Kishida-Minh Chinh growing ties will be key to the balance of power and alliances in the region.