Assessing the New Japan-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership
From military equipment to supply chains, upgraded partnership suggests future areas of priority amid Vietnam's alignment diversification and Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy.
The new upgrade in Japan-Vietnam relations highlights the comprehensive set of priorities both sides intend to advance in the coming years as Hanoi advances its alignment diversification and Tokyo boosts ties with ASEAN countries within its Indo-Pacific strategy.
WonkCount: 1,369 words (7 minutes reading time)
ASEAN Wonk is a reader-supported publication. To receive full posts and support our work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Assessing the New Japan-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership: Current Realities and Future Prospects
Japan has traditionally ranked as among Vietnam’s key contemporary partnerships, even if the nomenclature characterizing the relationship might not always reflect that. As noted previously on ASEAN Wonk, Vietnam has a typology of partnerships which include comprehensive partnerships, strategic partnerships and comprehensive strategic partnerships (CSPs), with the last one being the highest tier. Vietnam-Japan relations were upgraded quite early on to the level of a strategic partnership back in 2009, and then, following a series of strategic and defense-related moves, were elevated to a unique label of an “extensive strategic partnership” back in 2014. While that label acknowledged substantive inroads in relations, it did not technically put Japan nomenclature-wise at the highest tier of Vietnam’s partnerships with a CSP1. At that time, the CSP label had applied to just China, India and Russia.
The case for closer ties has grown even stronger for both sides in recent years. For the Communist Party of Vietnam, Japan has been among its more stable relationships amid a challenging international environment that has seen rising Chinese assertiveness; greater U.S. unpredictability particularly during the presidency of Donald Trump; Russia’s war in Ukraine; the COVID-19 pandemic; intra-ASEAN challenges including Myanmar; and a more contested environment for freer trade. As this has occurred, we have seen Vietnam accelerate its diversification of partnerships and adjust its partnership hierarchy. For example, within the past year alone, Vietnam has agreed new CSPs with South Korea and the United States and proposed others including with Australia, Indonesia and Singapore. For Tokyo, Vietnam has been a priority partner as it seeks to strengthen its relationships in Southeast Asia as part of its broader Indo-Pacific vision initially set out by the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and now being advanced by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida2.
Select Recent Vietnam Partnership Tier Upgrades
Seen from this perspective, the elevation of Japan-Vietnam ties to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) this week constitutes a significant development in relations. Both sides had signaled that an upgrade was coming for months, and had tied it to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in 2023 which had undergone months of planning3. The CSP was finally announced on November 27 during a meeting between Kishida and Vietnam’s President Vo Van Thuong4. This was part of Thuong’s visit to Japan from November 27-30 which was mentioned previously on ASEAN Wonk.
Policy-wise, the new CSP holds significance for both the bilateral relationship as well as the foreign policy vision of each side. In terms of the relationship, the shift from an “extensive strategic partnership” to a CSP does formally make clear that Japan is in the same top partnership tier along with China, India, South Korea, Russia and the United States. That said, despite the conflation of this with the U.S.-Vietnam CSP reached in September in some accounts, Vietnamese officials privately acknowledge that the Japan-Vietnam CSP was not only less of a jump within Vietnam’s partnership hierarchy — in Washington’s case, it was a dramatic so-called “double upgrade” from the lowest to highest level — but also less difficult of a balancing act given the particular challenges with Washington on aspects such as U.S.-China competition and lingering historical suspicions from parts of the Communist Party of Vietnam5. For Vietnam, this upgrade also signals its continuing effort to strengthen and diversify its alignments beyond U.S.-China competition, which optics-wise have been dominated by the focus on the September U.S.-Vietnam CSP double upgrade. For Japan, it builds momentum for its Southeast Asia engagement ahead of a summit next month commemorating the 50th anniversary of Japan-ASEAN relations. This comes after earlier inroads covered here on ASEAN Wonk, including the deployment of official security assistance in the Philippines which Kishida announced earlier this month.
The new CSP also provides a sense of where the two sides aim to take the relationship in the coming years. This includes not just general priorities, but also areas of focus and future follow-up items in the trajectory of the CSP (see table below for a list of key aspects and future commitments to watch)6.