U.S. President Barack Obama announced Monday the lifting of a decades-old ban on the sale of weapons to Vietnam — a move that could have positive effects for Tokyo’s already growing security ties with Hanoi.
The agreement to lift the arms embargo, which will see an upgrade in U.S. capacity-building from constabulary to defense aid, will send a “strong signal to China” and will be welcomed by Tokyo, said Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
“For Tokyo, this is good news when there is still political sensitivity remaining for deeper defense cooperation between Japan and Vietnam due to different political systems,” Kotani said, adding that Japan should follow suit before long.
Obama, traveling to Hanoi on the first leg of a historic Asia visit that will take him to Japan for the Group of Seven summit and then to the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima, told a news conference in the Vietnamese capital that while the embargo would be lifted, work still remained on human rights issues, media reports said.
Japan, however, has rarely — if ever — criticized Hanoi over its rights record, analysts say. After establishing diplomatic relations in 1975, Tokyo has also consistently ranked as the communist-ruled Southeast Asian nation’s biggest aid donor as well as a top investor.
But Hanoi’s dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea may have been the greatest impetus behind its growing ties with Tokyo. Dubbed the “Great Wall of Sand,” China’s massive island-building program in the South China Sea — and its alleged militarization of the contested waters — has stoked concern in the region.
Vietnam, one of six claimants to the waters, has seen its maritime security links bolstered by increased interest from Japan, which has its own dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Japan, while not a claimant in the South China Sea row, has contributed patrol vessels to Vietnam while also upgrading defense ties and exchanges to help boost Hanoi’s capabilities at sea.
Vietnam, for its part, has urged Japan to play a more active role in promoting the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.
Earlier this month, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said he expects Japan to make “effective” efforts to advance regional cooperation in a bid to ensure freedom of navigation in and above the contested waters, Kyodo News reported.
And in April two Maritime Self-Defense Force warships made a historic port call to Vietnam’s strategic Cam Ranh Bay port, the country’s naval crown jewel.
The visit by the guided-missile destroyers Ariake and Setogiri was the first of its kind.