Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in his first overseas summit since taking office last month, yesterday agreed with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to step up defense and security cooperation in the face of China’s expanding influence in the region.
In talks in Hanoi, Suga and Phuc set up a basic agreement allowing Japan to export defense equipment and technology to Vietnam.
Japan has been pursuing such agreements to bolster ties with Southeast Asian nations and sustain its own defense industry.
Suga said that his four-day trip to Vietnam and Indonesia would be key to pursuing the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision for multilateral economic and security cooperation, to counter China’s growing power and protect sea lanes in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
“Vietnam is crucial to achieving our vision of ‘the Free and Open Indo-Pacific,’ and our valuable partner,” Suga told a news conference after his meeting with Phuc. “Japan, as an Indo-Pacific nation, will continue to contribute to the peace and stability in this region.”
Suga said that Vietnam, at the center of the Indo-Pacific region, was the most suitable destination for his first trip abroad as Japanese leader.
Japan already has defense equipment transfer deals with the US, the UK and Malaysia, among other nations. Vietnam is its 12th partner.
In its first actual delivery, Japan in August exported a radar surveillance system to the Philippines.
Details of possible equipment sales were not mentioned, but Suga called the agreement “a major step” for bilateral defense cooperation, saying that he expects further developments.
Japan partially lifted its ban on military equipment and technology transfers in 2014 as part of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to bolster the nation’s defense capability.
Suga and Phuc signed other agreements to cooperate in a range of economic fields and on anti-terrorism measures.
The two sides also agreed to ease entry bans, and allow short-term business visits and reopen flights between Vietnam and Japan, both of which have managed to stabilize COVID-19 outbreaks.
Suga also promised to provide support for Vietnamese workers in Japan affected by the pandemic’s hit to the economy. Vietnamese account for more than half of the foreign workers in Japan.
Japan is one of Vietnam’s top trading partners with two-way trade of US$28.6 billion so far this year.
Japan is also Vietnam’s largest overseas aid donor, providing US$23 billion as of last year and accounting for more than one-quarter of Vietnam’s foreign loans.
The Japanese government has been trying to entice its companies to invest in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations to leaven the nation’s dependence on manufacturing and other businesses in China.
Vietnam in August agreed to buy six coast guard patrol boats from Japan for US$345 million to increase its maritime capacity.
That deal came amid China’s continuing development and militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Suga’s predecessor Abe also chose Vietnam to be the first nation he visited after taking office.
Suga is the first foreign head of a state to visit Vietnam since the nation closed its borders to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
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