TOKYO -- Japan plans to sign an agreement allowing it to export defense equipment and technology to Vietnam, part of its push to bolster the defense capabilities of Indo-Pacific nations to counter Chinese maritime advances.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Tuesday that he will make his first foreign trip in his new job next week, visiting Vietnam and Indonesia. He is expected to sign the Vietnam deal as part of this.
Security cooperation is expected to emerge as a key topic in Suga's meetings with the countries' leaders. Vietnam in particular faces competing claims with China in the South China Sea, where Beijing continues to build up islands and its military presence. A China Coast Guard vessel also collided with a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the waters this April.
The South China Sea, a key sea lane that connects Asia and the Middle East, has a direct impact on Japan's national security. Japan aims to strengthen its cooperation in Vietnam to encourage restraint by the Chinese side in the waters.
Japan lifted its ban on weapons exports in 2014 under the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology, which state that it may not transfer arms to a party to a conflict, that any transfers must contribute to Japan's security, and that Japan must give advance consent before the recipient transfers the arms to a third party.
In practice, this means that Japan essentially will not export defense equipment to countries unless they acknowledge these principles in an official agreement. Japan has signed such agreements with nine countries so far, including the U.S., the U.K., Philippines and Malaysia.
The specifics of Japan's exports will depend on what Vietnam wants. Japan has been promoting its P-1 patrol plane and C-2 transport plane abroad, and also signed a deal with the Philippines in August to export a warning and control radar system developed by Mitsubishi Electric.
Many domestic companies are involved in the production of such equipment as patrol planes. But some have begun exiting the defense business, which demands much time and money to develop products. Japan's Ministry of Defense hopes to shore up the industry by boosting exports and joint arms development with other countries.
Since lifting the ban in 2014, Japan's only export deal for a finished product has been its radar contract with the Philippines. The Japanese government is also in negotiations with Indonesia and Thailand to sign an agreement regarding defense equipment transfers, hoping to tap Southeast Asian demand.
Roughly 80% of Vietnam's arms purchases in the last decade came from Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Still, the country has been cooperating more closely on security issues with Japan and the U.S. in response to China, and Tokyo hopes to persuade Hanoi to branch out.
Japan is also working to boost economic security ties with Southeast Asia as a whole, which it sees as key in its push for a "free and open Indo-Pacific." While some countries in the region are alarmed by Chinese actions in the South China Sea, others have grown closer to the superpower after receiving economic assistance from it.
Japan stations two defense attaches at each of its embassies in the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia to gather information and build rapport with local actors. Its Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted four joint drills with the Philippine Navy in 2019. The Japanese government plans to hold a second defense and foreign ministers' meeting with Indonesia and has signed a memorandum of understanding with Thailand for greater exchanges between their defense authorities.
Arms exports are a way to further deepen communications with foreign defense authorities. Japan has donated five TC-90 aircraft used to train pilots, as well multipurpose helicopter parts, to the Philippines. It has also given patrol boats from the Japan Coast Guard to Malaysia.