Japan’s Approach to Vietnam: A Way Forward for the U.S.?

Japan’s relationship with Vietnam presents a model for how the U.S. can engage Vietnam and build a robust security-centric relationship
By Thomas Santos

Asia’s leaders want to know what Joe Biden’s election means for U.S. foreign policy and how the U.S. will come to terms with a rising China. President Trump’s unique style of diplomacy led to increasing tensions between the U.S. and China while decreasing the U.S.’s involvement in multilateral initiatives, such as the TPP. Biden has already signaled that the U.S. will reassert its presence on the global stage, but the question is how effective the U.S. will be at reestablishing itself and making new partnerships after the Trump era and with China’s growing influence. The U.S. needs to expand its partnerships, particularly in Southeast Asia, and the U.S. can look to Japan for inspiration in this effort. Japan’s relationship with Vietnam presents a model for how the U.S. can engage Vietnam and build a robust security-centric relationship while avoiding direct competition with China. A new approach to cooperation with Vietnam presents an opportunity for the U.S. to start the next administration on the right foot.

While the U.S. has worked through the military side of security as it seeks to counter China’s increasing naval presence in the South China Sea, Vietnam’s policy of the “3 Nos” forbids military alliances, alignment with one nation against another, and foreign military bases in Vietnam. This policy restricts the military relationship that the U.S. can build. However, Japan presents how the U.S. could build a security-focused relationship without the traditional military component, emulating Japan in maritime and economic security policies instead. In both areas, Japan has made solid progress and strengthened its relationship with Vietnam, contributing to the overall stability of the region while helping to indirectly counterbalance China. Moreover, Japan has demonstrated that an active security relationship can be created despite Vietnam’s “3 Nos” and Japan’s pacifist constitution.

First, in maritime security, Japan has created a solid foundation by focusing on coast guard capacity-building. Equipment transfers and training between each nation’s coast guards have helped to expand Vietnam’s capacity, which contributes to the stability of the region. While Japan has donated patrol vessels in the past, more recently Japan and Vietnam signed an agreement for Japan to deliver six new coast guard vessels. Japan continues to provide training opportunities for Vietnamese Coast Guard personnel through the Mobile Cooperation Teams and programs like the Maritime Safety and Security Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and the Japan Coast Guard Academy. Not only does this training make the Vietnamese Coast Guard more effective, it also allows Japan to promote its normative ideas of rule of law and professionalism. The capacity building efforts by Japan have strengthened the relationship between each nations’ coast guards, allowing for joint antipiracy efforts and other law enforcement efforts in the region. The U.S. has done similar equipment transfers and training with Vietnam in the past, but lacks the consistent engagement that Japan has with Vietnam. Increasing cooperation on maritime security can help the U.S. form a stronger security relationship with Vietnam and contribute to greater coordination between maritime security forces.

Second, in economic security, Japan has taken steps to improve supply chain security and reduce over reliance on China. Japan has encouraged companies to leave China for Japan or Southeast Asian countries by subsidizing their moves. This program has seen moderate success, with 86 companies leaving China in the first round. Of those, 15 companies relocated to Vietnam out of a total of 30 that moved to Southeast Asia. The program provides benefits to both Japan and Vietnam, with Japan reducing its reliance on China and diversifying its supply chains, which protects Japanese companies against supply shocks or economic coercion by China. Vietnam benefits from the investment and economic growth. While the scope of this program is limited, it does get the ball rolling in terms of deeper economic engagement and presents Vietnam as an alternative for companies that intend to offshore but are hesitant about China. Moreover, as U.S. investments and companies in the region grow, the U.S. can better compete against China for economic influence in the region.

The new administration needs to build ties with Asian partners in order to counter China’s rise and restore U.S. influence. Japan’s relationship with Vietnam presents a good model. By capacity building in nations like Vietnam, the U.S. can counter Chinese assertiveness and bolster its partners, contributing to Asia’s stability and prosperity.

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