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Vietnam - Japan Relations

Most Japanese are very well disposed to Vietnam for historical and cultural reasons, and the Vietnamese have warmly welcomed Japanese trade, aid and assistance. Vietnam is attempting to strike a balance between and among the United States, the EU, China and Japan with its high-level visit diplomacy. Particularly striking about Japan-Vietnam relationship is the extent to which Vietnam is willing to support Japan's diplomatic initiatives around the world, from UN Security Council reform to other, more minor projects. Perhaps no other country is as willing as Vietnam is to speak up for and support Japan.

Unlike China, which is Vietnam's biggest trading partner but whose assertive behaviour in the South China Sea regularly sparks street protests in Vietnam, Japanese influence in Vietnam is seen as benign. While some two million people died from famine during the Japanese occupation of Vietnam from 1940 to 1945, there's almost no historical baggage in Vietnam's relationship with Japan.

The Pacific War

The French had extended their control over Indochina gradually. First occupied in 1859, Cochin became a French colony in 1867 and remained the only French territory in Indochina. Protectorates were established over the other territories during the 1880s and 1890s. French colonists sought their fortunes in Indochina from the start. By 1940 there were some 40,000 Europeans in the region. As the defeated mandarin generation died out, new groups emerged to support the cause of national independence, often guided by Chinese and Japanese exponents of Asian modernization and resistance to the West.

The Japanese occupation of Vietnam contributed greatly to Vietnamese nationalism and desire for independence. But Vietnam did not experience the harsh Japanese occuption that created enduring animosity in other parts of their conqueered realms. By the summer of 1940, Japan controlled vast areas of northern and eastern China, and the Kuomintang government at Chungking was virtually cut off from the sea. The Japanese estimated that over 40 percent of Chiang's supplies came through the port of Haiphong and via the Yunnan railroad. On 10 May 1940 the Germans launched their offensive against the Low Countries and France, and on 17 June the new French Prime Minister, Philippe Petain, asked for an armistice.

On 19 June 1940 the Japanese Government demanded that France close the Yunnan railroad. Although the French Governor-General yielded, he sought time to prepare resistance to further demands. Early in August the Japanese demanded that Vichy grant it full transit rights as well as economic concessions in Indochina. On 29 August a Franco-Japanese accord was signed in Tokyo. Further maneuvering failed to ward off a military agreement, and on 23 September Japanese troops crossed the frontier from their zone in China into Tonkin. French resistance collapsed in two days. The United States refused requests from Vichy to buy armaments for use to defend Indochina against Japanese encroachment.

French Indochina, while occupied by the Japanese, remained under the administration of Vichy France was itself under strong German influence. Thus, few Japanese troops were needed to control Vietnam and the Japanese were freed to pursue other territorial goals. Even in late 1944 a modest 40,000 Japanese soldiers were stationed throughout all of Indochina. French administrators, police, and businessmen were in effect charged with running Vietnam as an efficient supply and logistical base for the Emperor's army. Vietnam was a source of agricultural products, especially rice and rubber, that were vital to the Japanese war economy.

In May 1941, some communists gathered in the hills across the Chinese frontier in Tonkin. There the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh (Viet Nam Independence League), known as the Viet Minh, a coalition of Vietnamese nationalists under communist leadership was formed. Although organized shortly after the Soviet-Japanese neutrality pact, the Viet Minh were, nevertheless, committed to guerrilla war against the Japanese. The Japanese occupation of Vietnam limited French authority to such an extent that the Communist Viet Minh was able to expand and to exert control over large portions of the country.

The first two years of Japan's hegemony over Vietnam were relatively uneventfid and the burden of Japanese rule comparatively mild, especially when compared to the situation in the Philippines. Official estimates of the number of victims vary, however, in is generally accepted that between one and two million Vietnamese died as a result of the 1944-45 famine. Most Vietnamese blamed the French.

On 09 March 1945 Japanese action ended the awkward situation of mutual suspicion and apparent cooperation. They seized power in Indochina and interned those French officials and forces that could not escape. The Japanese declared that Vietnam was now independent under the rule of the Emperor Bao Dai, who in turn adhered to the coalition of Japanese puppet states in the Far East, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The atomic attack on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 set off wide speculation that the Japanese were finished. For the Viet Minh this was the signal for a general uprising. On 25 August 1945 Bao Dai abdicated at Hue. These were heady days; Vietnamese who lived through the time never forgot it. On 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The French quickly reasserted the control they had ceded to the Japanese, and the First Indochina War (1946–54) was soon underway.

Post-Cold War Developments

Japanese ties with Vietnam started after the Cold War when investors took advantage of the country’s low wages. After a slow recovery from the Vietnam War, the Southeast Asian country saw gross domestic product rise year after year from the 1990s on. That was built on the back of low-cost labor and factory-driven exports, as well as companies’ increasing tie-ins to foreign investment.

Japanese automakers and other investors launched 3,320 projects in Vietnam worth a combined registered capital of $42.5 billion as of 2016. Partly to support its industry and partly to offset Chinese economic influence in Southeast Asia, Japan now funds infrastructure projects in Vietnam. A Japanese loan built the airport terminal in Hanoi, and Japanese aid funded the subway system being constructed in Ho Chi Minh City. Japanese official development aid to Vietnam had totaled 2.8 trillion yen ($25.5 billion) by 2016.

Japan is helping Vietnam build a defense against the larger, more militarily powerful China as Vietnam says Beijing’s forces are occupying more than their legal share of the South China Sea. Japan began to step up support of its own interests around Asia. In 2017, an alliance including Japan, the United States, India and Australia began calling for China to leave the sea open for international use and increasing relations in Southeast Asia.

An agreement between the two countries opened the way for more Japanese ports of call in Vietnam, as well as technical cooperation on defense equipment for Vietnamese maritime surveillance. Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya and his Vietnamese counterpart, Ngo Xuan Lich, met 03 May 2019 to “advance cooperation” on maritime security. In October 2018, the ministers met in Tokyo to discuss issues surrounding the South China Sea. They signed a “defense cooperation and exchange” memorandum that prescribed regular vice ministerial-level talks.

Japan has been jousting with China over sovereignty in parts of the East China Sea, including a chain of uninhabited islets coveted by fishing fleets. It’s unclear how much Japan will donate to Vietnam directly. Japan’s public generally doesn’t support a more “assertive strategic” role for their government, though a lot of people feel a “good vibe” toward Vietnam compared to China. Japanese laws also limit arms sales to other countries. Japan could set up military exchanges, hold strategic dialogue and offer naval defense equipment.

There is an arc of anxiety stretching from New Delhi to Canberra and Jakarta and Hanoi and Tokyo. Vietnam is looking to Japan as a hedge as China militarizes the South China Sea, puts more pressure on Vietnam in their areas of dispute and presses Hanoi to abandon oil exploration activities, including on Vietnam’s continental shelf.

Beijing claims about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, stretching from the island of Borneo north to Hong Kong. China and Vietnam clashed there in 1974 and in 1988. Five years ago, the two sides rammed each other’s boats over the positioning of a Chinese oil rig in waters that Vietnam claims. The incident touched off deadly anti-China rioting in Vietnam. The two countries dispute undersea gas-exploration tracts as well as the Paracel Islands, which China now controls. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan also claim sea tracts that China calls its own. Those governments value the waterway for its fisheries and undersea fuel reserves. China raised alarms around Southeast Asia after 2010 by building up tiny islets for defense installations.

The Japanese want to support the Vietnamese claims, but they don’t want to do it militarily. What they’d rather do is build capacity, build interoperability and build a coalition of states that will stand by and try to enforce maritime law in the South China Sea. Japan’s military performance in Southeast Asia wasn’t proactive after the Great Pacific War.

Japan used the 2004 launch of its new Country Assistance Program to raise concerns about a variety of issues related to Vietnam's economic and political reform process, at least in principle including human rights. The new program was also touted as a model because of the increased involvement of the GVN in the planning process. Despite Japanese claims, Embassy suspects Japan will continue its emphasis on large infrastructure projects. The new CAP may signal a greater emphasis placed on promoting wider penetration of the IT sector by Japanese firms, especially since the CAP highlights Japan's willingness to fund the maintenance and management of high-speed communications networks as well as developing the human resources necessary to maintain digital communications systems.

Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet's 25-29 November 2007 state visit to Japan was aimed at developing the two countries' "strategic partnership," with a strong focus on assisting infrastructure development, improving Vietnam's investment environment, raising bilateral trade and expanding political and diplomatic cooperation. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda described Japan-Vietnam relations as the best they have ever been, but nonetheless called for relations to improve even further by becoming "strategic partners".

In November 2008, four Japanese executives of Pacific Consultants International (PCI) pleaded guilty to paying $820,000 in bribes to Huynh Ngoc Sy, Vice Director of Department of Transport of Ho Chi Minh City and Director of the East/West Highway Project Management Unit in charge of constructing the trunk road. He allegedly received the bribes in exchange for helping PCI win consulting contracts on the highway project.

The PCI corruption scandal, involving bribes of $820,000 paid by Japanese consultants to Vietnamese official Huynh Ngoc Si, led to suspension of new aid programs to Vietnam by Japan, its largest donor. Japan announced the resumption of its suspended assistance to Vietnam when Vietnamese Minister of Planning and Investment Vo Hong Phuc met Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone in Tokyo on 23 February 2009. The resumption of assistance was based on three conditions: the establishment of a joint Japan-Vietnam Commission, the repayment of the full PCI loan by the end of the year, and meaningful progress in the investigation of the Vietnamese suspects in the case. Perhaps most meaningfully, Vietnam is to have a new whistleblower protection law in place by 2010. Abioshi said the recent visit to Vietnam by Crown Prince Naruhito would be reciprocated by visits to Japan by CPV General Secretary Nong Duc Manh in April and Prime Minister Dung in May.

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Page last modified: 23-09-2019 18:45:13 ZULU