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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Monday agreed to cooperate on regional issues including the South China Sea, where China’s growing assertiveness in disputed waters has drawn concern from neighbors.

Speaking to reporters after summit talks with Phuc in Hanoi, Suga called Vietnam a “cornerstone” of efforts to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific and vowed Japan’s continued contribution to “peace and prosperity in the region.”

Suga, who is on his first overseas trip since taking office, said the countries had agreed in principle on a military pact that would enable Japan to export defense equipment and technology to Vietnam, including patrol planes and radar.

Such equipment would help improve the surveillance capabilities of Vietnam, which is one of the claimants in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China is building up a military presence on artificial islands.

Suga and Phuc agreed to resume regular flights between their countries at an early date, and to implement a “business track” that would allow executives and skilled workers to travel without a 14-day quarantine period provided they follow certain COVID-19 precautions.

The leaders also affirmed cooperation over North Korea, with Suga saying Phuc voiced support for Japan’s efforts to secure the return of citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

Phuc said he is ready to support Japanese investment in Vietnam including by accommodating real estate and human resource needs.

Japan is looking to diversify its supply chain to mitigate risks brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic, including its reliance on Chinese imports for face masks.

The government is handing out subsidies to firms that move production to Southeast Asia, which is both geographically well-placed and can provide relatively cheap labor.

Of the 30 firms chosen so far to receive the subsidies, ranging from manufacturers of medical gowns and disinfectant wipes to car engine parts, half are planning to set up in Vietnam.

Suga, who became prime minister in mid-September after his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, stepped down for health reasons, was also slated later in the day to make a policy speech at the Vietnam Japan University, which opened in 2016 with funding from both countries.

After meeting with other Vietnamese political leaders, including National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, Suga will fly to Jakarta on Tuesday for a meeting with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his wife, Mariko (left), pose for photos with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his wife, Tran Thi Nguyet Thu, at the Government Office in Hanoi on Monday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his wife, Mariko (left), pose for photos with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his wife, Tran Thi Nguyet Thu, at the Government Office in Hanoi on Monday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

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