Editor’s note: Dr. Truong-Minh Vu, director of the Center for International Studies (SCIS) at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, explains how a deeper relation between Vietnam and Japan will benefit the two countries in this piece written exclusively for Tuoi Tre News.
The pattern of Vietnamese-Japanese relations reflects the sweeping convergence of national interests from the two countries.
Vietnam sees Japan as a reliable source of funds, technology, innovation, and security. Japan is Vietnam’s fourth-largest trade partner with the total bilateral trade volume topping $28 billion in 2014, next to China, the U.S., and South Korea. Japan is currently Vietnam’s third-largest export market behind China and the U.S. On top of that, Japan was the first nation to officially designate Vietnam as a market-based economy in 2011. Japan’s ODA funds and investment have played a crucial part in Vietnam’s sustained economic growth. Until January 2015, Japan had been the second biggest investor in Vietnam with a total registered capital of around $37 billion, behind South Korea, but Japan is leading in terms of implemented investments. With respect to preferential loans, Japan has been Vietnam’s largest ODA donor nation, having committed up to $2 billion in 2012.
Japan looks at Vietnam via the lens of economic and political opportunities. Vietnam is a big market of 90 million people with an enlarging middle class for Japanese goods and products, as well as a friendly place for Japanese investments with relatively cheap labor costs and skilled workers. In addition, Vietnam is an important state member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the most experienced nation in the region standing up to China. More importantly, the broader significance of the Vietnamese-Japanese partnership lies in how it fits into a bigger network of informal alliances on China’s peripheries. After 1945, the Asian regional order has been characterized as a “hub and spoke” order, a U.S.-led system of bilateral security relations with its Asian allies. Nevertheless, since 2009 there has been the gradual development of this hegemonic order into “networked alliance,” an interconnected, quasi-multilateral security network. The security network includes bilateral military ties among the U.S.’s traditional allies (Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines), between these allies and other Southeast Asian countries.
The international security environment witnessed a newly launched “Japan-Australia-India Trilateral Dialogue” in June. This multilateral framework was initiated by Japan and then strongly embraced by then-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot. Washington also stated that the formation of a new Australia-India-Japan trilateral grouping in Asia is inevitable. The June meeting among three top Indian, Australian, and Japanese diplomats demonstrated the increasing convergence of geopolitical interests against China’s growing dominance. One of the concrete examples from the initiative is Japan will join the October Malabar exercise, which is an annual joint naval drill between India and the United States in the Indian Ocean. Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews acknowledged on September 3, 2015 that Australia will be partaking in the drill. Japan’s naval involvement in the joint maritime exercise is indicative of a new era of coordinated military cooperation, motivated by China’s assertive behavior not only in the East Vietnam Sea but also in the Indian Ocean.
Networked alliance creates an incentive structure for further collectivization of regional security provided by the U.S. under the old “hub and spoke” system. No “rebalancing” effort, no national strategy on the East Vietnam Sea – if there is to be one – can dispense with an Asian linchpin. On the East Vietnam Sea, the U.S. must engage its Asian partners on their own terms, and accompany the overall shift of political resources and attention towards conflict management and barriers to escalation that the shifting balance of naval power has generated. This evolution grants universally agreed principles of international law, such as UNCLOS, and specific capabilities (in maritime security, biodiversity conservation, hydrological surveys, etc.) an unprecedented importance. The Japanese contributions – actual and potential – are therefore far from negligible. As a matter of fact, rising tensions in the area are making the positions of Tokyo and Washington more complementary than ever.
The symbolism of growing Vietnamese-Japanese cooperation is both notionally relevant and normatively instructive. The main reason is that a new regional order does not just emerge through creating “connectivity partnerships” between great powers and its neighbors. Imaginaries play an important role in forming “a regional order” since it creates a shared understanding, expectation and knowledge between country members. The competition to become a “spiritual leader” in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMS) is evident. The exploitation of the Mekong River requires concern about the interests of the countries in the region, environmental impacts and influences on those species and people living in and along the river, ensuring a balance between economic development, social security and environmental issues. Besides imaginaries of how “sovereignty” and technologies ought to get reconciled, the vision of a “prosperous and peaceful Mekong region” presents a central controversial point.
China has utilized its projects in hydropower development as a tool for pursuing its long-standing vision of “common prosperity” for the whole region. However, in terms of building hydropower plants on the Mekong River and its environmental impacts, one can observe a normative divergence between China and the GMS countries. It is manifest in the struggle between an “inclusive development” idea, considering many aspects of human being needs including trans-boundary water resource management, infectious diseases, and vulnerability to climate change, and “extractive growth,” focusing on fostering economic dynamics with the involvement of the GMS countries in order to create a regional economy with hydropower at its center.
How the “identity” of the Mekong region, the interests of external actors and the use of hydropower are interrelated was again obvious when Japan held the first Mekong-Japan Summit in November 2009 with the attendance of the prime ministers of the four lower riparian countries. Although the agenda touched upon many issues – including Japan’s strong support for the construction of power lines near the Mekong River and Delta in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – the cooperation in water resource management and addressing climate change was the most highlighted. Four years later, the fourth Mekong-Japan Summit in 2013 defined three new pillars in the cooperation of “Strategic Partnership Aimed at a Common Prosperous Future” between Mekong countries and Japan during 2013-15. The agenda stressed the enhancing connections within the Mekong region and between Mekong countries and outside nations based on developing intra-national transport corridors, including a joint information and telecommunication infrastructure and modernized customs. Moreover, the summit also aimed to enhance cooperation in environmental issues, human security, climate change, and the management of water resources in the Mekong region. The implicit focus was clearly on making Japan much more integrated in the region than before.
Deep advancements in the Vietnam-Japan relations will not help Vietnam gain dramatic leverage against China but increasingly converging Vietnam-Japan interests in the context of ongoing Japan’s “proactive pacifism” could puzzle China’s calculations.