Although tourism and trade between Japan and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam have expanded rapidly in recent years, when compared with other ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, Vietnam has maintained a fairly low profile in the Japanese media. But suddenly the country is being admiringly portrayed by some as a kindred spirit, and by a few as a military role model to be emulated.
The reason for this is simple: Japan and Vietnam are both engaged in acrimonious territorial disputes with China — in Japan’s case the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese), administered as part of Okinawa Prefecture; and in Vietnam’s case, two groups of islands and shoals in the South China Sea, the Paracel and Spratley islands (Xisha and Nansha in Chinese). The latter, which encompasses just 4 sq. km of land, are spread over 425,000 sq. km of ocean, and are also claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
In January 1974, forces of the former Republic of Vietnam were defeated in a naval clash with China over the disputed Paracels.
Last month, rioting by Vietnamese outraged over China’s setting up an oil rig between the Paracels and coast of Vietnam resulted in considerable damage to Chinese and Taiwanese-owned factories, including at least two deaths. (Some sources put the number of deaths as high as 21.) China was obliged to send ships to evacuate its nationals.
Mindful that Chinese protesters had meted out similar treatment to Japanese businesses and joint ventures in China in 2010 and 2012 over the Senkaku dispute, the sense of schadenfreude in news coverage of the riots in Vietnam was palpable.
Meanwhile, politicians and military analysts in Japan are closely watching the situation for indications of China’s willingness to back its territorial claims with military force.
In his weekly column in Asahi Geino (June 5), Toshio Tamogami, a former Air Self Defense commander forced into early retirement for voicing politically incorrect views, describes the situation as taigan no kaji de arimasen (it’s not someone else’s problem), since “the same thing might also break out over the Senkakus.”
Vietnam, notes Tamogami, is a country that doesn’t let larger nations push it around.
“While it has no naval power or air power to speak of, Vietnam is a country with resolve, and which wages war based on the strategy that ‘To deny victory (to an enemy) is to avoid defeat’” — a strategy that’s proved to be anathema for larger nations such as France, the United States and China. For Japan, Tamogami suggests, there are lessons to be learned from Vietnam’s example.
Weekly Playboy (June 16) examines Vietnam’s potential to contend with China in a naval conflict, while also underscoring the potential implications for Japan.
Referring to the incident on Jan. 30, 2013, in which a Chinese naval frigate allegedly locked its weapons-guiding radar onto a Japanese destroyer — an accusation that China’s Defense Ministry brushed off as “groundless” — military affairs journalist Mitsuhiro Sera believes a Vietnamese ship would have reacted by attacking pre-emptively, since “Such an act is akin to a declaration of war,” as Sera puts it.
“The people of Vietnam and the Vietnam People’s Army have esprit de corps, perhaps you could call it ‘will power,’” observes Toru Kitsu, editor of the publication “Ships of the World,” who adds that its military benefits from the know-how of combat-tested soldiers and leaders who survived the protracted war with the United States.
Vietnamese take pride in their ability to fight with tenacity, even when at a disadvantage against well supplied adversaries. Still, its navy of 16,000 men and 139 ships is dwarfed by China’s 217,000 men and 891 ships.
Sera points out that the Paracels are a good hunting ground for the Kilo-class submarines Vietnam has purchased from Russia, two of which are already in service, with four more en route.
Both Sera and Kitsu are in agreement that Vietnam is a nation whose military strength is centered on its land forces. But it can lay claim to one advantage that China lacks: Each year several exchange students from Vietnam study at the National Defense Academy of Japan in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
“Japan is the only country in Asia that understands naval tactics,” opines Sera, adding, “we can’t disregard the fact that a number of Vietnamese have studied here.”
During two decades of conflict between 1954 and 1975, the article sums up, the U.S. was hard pressed by Vietnamese guerrillas fighting from concealed positions in the jungles. The Americans utilized napalm bombings and chemicals to defoliate large swaths of territory. But China ought to heed the fact that there’s no way to take the water out of the ocean.
“Vietnam has fought against incursions by China,” Nguyen Van Tanh, a member of the Japan-Vietnam Cultural Association, tells Takarajima (July). “In 1988, more than 60 Vietnamese were killed in military clashes. This fact had been suppressed by the Vietnamese government, but was made public last year, a move seen as underscoring Vietnam’s strong intention to oppose China in concert with the U.S.”
Takarajima also cites an unnamed source in the Japan-Vietnam Parliamentarians’ Friendship League, who tells the magazine, “Even if Japan is not in a position to provide tangible military assistance to Vietnam, it can offer other forms of support, such as through economic aid, which is seen as important.
“Vietnam should not be abandoned,” the source exhorted.