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Vietnam seen as a potential role model for Japan

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

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.

  • Ben Gazi

    The Chinese are going to grab anything and everything they can while Obama is still in office and may give back a little if a strong American president is elected in the next round . 2016

  • Anne Clark

    The feeling is mutual. An April, 2014 survey by Ho Chi Minh City based newspaper found Japan as the most admired nation by 66% of their readers. Often, people find inspirational stories of how Japan overcame natural resources deficiency, war related destruction, disasters throned geography… to build #2 economy and world class technology, Vietnamese students in Japan, are bring home not only class room lessons but cultural qualities such as work ethics, social responsibilities and balanced approach to old and new… Shared similar and imminent Chinese provocations, both governments look for overall synergy and permanent solutions. The following priorities, however match national core competencies address and short-term/urgent needs for both nations:
    . Several folds increases in academic and jobs training opportunities for Vietnamese at all levels, including mutually beneficial low cost labor transfer programs. Vietnam can use labor remittances to pay for Japanese education/training while gaining much needed skills.
    . Japan to focus Vietnam investments and trades to replace most of US$50 billions Chinese imports (undoubtedly, part of Chinese economic retaliation) within already core competencies of infrastructure constructions, machines/machine components/ electronics…A much needed boost to Japan economy and safe relocation of China based factories while Vietnam benefits from higher quality Japanese imports, world class facilities and machines. New investment opportunities are ships building, cars assemblies, clean agriculture processes, sea foods manufacturing and university level education.
    . Intensify people-to-people cultural exchanges, peer-to-peer assistance in bureaucracies simplification, laws enforcement improvement, good business practices and anti-corruption… City-to-city sister programs, agency-to-agency partnerships, adapt a company, clean contracts or penalties… are decentralized to accelerate up implementations and lighten the both government’s workloads and educate accountability.
    . Vietnam will likely be the 1st Chinese target for war or war-like aggression with either limited air, lands/all-out waters or limited naval assault and missiles launch. The Vietnamese deterrence is favorable world opinion with unpredictable intervention mechanism or slowly strengthening navy but permanent lopsidedness to China . Asides from the 6 Kilo-Class subs and 1/2 dozen mid-size Sigma/Gepard frigates mentioned in the article, Vietnamese Navy is fashioned after its once famous asymmetric warfare tactics of hit-and-run with just 4+ dozens shallow water, high speed and missiles equipped ships. Its strategy is to take advantage of rocks, reefs and shallow middle of South China Sea where Paracel and Spratly are located, to protect outposts, ambush heavier Chinese ships or commercial vessels. Japan can help Vietnam to either license similar model(s) with updated electronics, radar systems or significant increases of current domestic output of 1/2 dozen or both. If a prolonged conflict is anticipated, Vietnam also need to beef up inventories of land based missiles and fighter jets especially when economic blockade of Chinese economy becomes a priority.
    These are steps that will facilitate massive Japanese exit from China while securing the US$ 50 billions Vietnamese market, replacing the Chinese without competition: a 1-2 punch for Japan’s economy. They also ensure continued growth of Vietnamese economy, correct Vietnamese overall system defects and immediately, strengthen Vietnam’s defensive capability. The synergy is there awaiting for Vietnam to elevate its confidence in Japan to be strategic trust at the highest level and for Japan to recognize Vietnam’s unique geopolitical situation worthy of as much Japanese devotion as all other neighbors combined.