• Kyodo

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Japan has signed a ¥36.6 billion ($345 million) loan agreement with Vietnam to provide the Southeast Asian country with six patrol boats to boost its maritime law enforcement capabilities, as Beijing steps up its claims in the South China Sea.

The deal comes as the United States has toughened its stance against China over what Washington says is Beijing’s “completely unlawful” maritime claims across most of the strategic waterway and its “bullying” of Vietnam and other claimant states in a bid to control offshore resources.

Japan has criticized China’s militarization of disputed areas, as well as expansion of its activities in the maritime and aerial domains, in the South China Sea, saying such acts represent unilateral attempts to change the regional status quo by coercion.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) inked the agreement with the Vietnamese government in Hanoi on July 28, according to the agency.

Japan has offered fishing vessels to Vietnam, but it will be the first time that Tokyo has provided Hanoi with patrol ships, according to a Foreign Ministry official.

The six vessels will be new and Japanese-made, the official said.

“The project will provide the Vietnam Coast Guard with financing to procure vessels, supporting an improvement in maritime rescue operations and maritime law enforcement,” JICA said in a statement. “It will also enhance freedom of navigation.”

While Chinese government vessels have reportedly fired warning shots at fishing boats from neighboring countries, Chinese ships have interrupted Vietnam’s oil and natural gas development within its exclusive economic zone.

The project will contribute to “the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the statement said, a veiled counter to Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, in which it has overlapping claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Issues surrounding the South China Sea have become a concern not only for Japan — which has major sea lanes in the area — but also for the international community, which sees them as directly related to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Countries concerned, including China, are urged to refrain from unilateral actions that heighten tension and act on the basis of the principle of the rule of law,” the Defense Ministry said in its annual white paper released last month.

Chinese actions in the South China Sea also have direct implications for Japan, especially as China has been stepping up attempts to undermine Tokyo’s administration of the Senkaku Islands, a group of East China Sea islets claimed by Beijing and Taiwan.

“China has relentlessly continued unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion in the sea area around the Senkaku Islands, leading to a grave matter of concern,” the white paper said.

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