The Reality of Vietnam, Our Reliable Friend

As the first destination for his foreign visit, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga chose Vietnam in October 2020.

By Kunio Umeda


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As the first destination for his foreign visit, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga chose Vietnam in October 2020. There were three reasons for this.

First, because Vietnam became the most trustworthy country in the East Asia region from the security perspective. Second, because Vietnam became the largest contributor in supplementing Japan’s population decline and labor shortage. The third reason is the investment appetite of Japanese companies eyeing the Vietnamese consumer market, and the country’s rising profile when the COVID pandemic is forcing companies to review their supply chain.

During my ambassadorship in Vietnam (November 2016-March 2020), mutual visits by many heads of state and ministers took place (in titles at the time), including Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress of Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (twice), Speaker of the House of Representatives Tadamori Oshima, President Tran Dai Quang and his wife (the last state guests for Their Majesties), and President Nguyen Xuan Phuc (four times).

In particular, the February 2017 visit was the first Vietnam travel for Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress (then), as well as the last foreign visit before they retired. During the visit, the imperial couple met with the families (one ex-wife and 15 children) of the Japanese holdouts who fought with the Vietnamese Army in the Anti-French Resistance War (1946-53, War of Independence). This was highly significant not only for honoring the families who suffered years of hardship but also for shedding light on the “buried history of the two countries.”

In Vietnam, the Japanese have established a positive image of being diligent, never lying, and sincere people. The Japanese and Vietnamese leaders have a very strong relationship of trust, and there is a close mutual affinity between the people. The two countries also share many strategic interests (freedom of navigation, rule of law, U.S. military presence, a free and open Indo-Pacific).

As a result of China’s attempts over the past decade to “divide the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)” through various manipulations, Cambodia has become China’s mouthpiece, and Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore wavered their policies towards China. Among the 10 ASEAN countries, only Vietnam has kept a tough stance toward China, thus Vietnam’s influence within ASEAN is growing, especially on the South China Sea issue, while trust from non-ASEAN countries is increasing.

In 2017, the late Chairman of the Vietnam Historical Society Phan Huy Lê told me, “Under the current international affairs, Japan is Vietnam’s most reliable partner and natural ally on the international, national, and individual levels.” Also, from Japan’s point of view, Vietnam is now the most reliable country in East Asia. Choosing Vietnam and Taiwan as top-priority partners for donating COVID vaccines in June and July this year shows Japan’s deep devotion towards these two partners.

Saves Japan Twice from National Crisis

Although little known, Vietnam has saved Japan from its national crisis twice in history.

The first time was during the Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century. After attacking Japan twice, in 1274 and 1281, the Mongols were planning a third attack.

But with intensifying Vietnamese resistance in the southern region, Kublai Khan switched the Japanese expedition to an attack on Vietnam in 1287. In 1288, the Vietnamese troops led by General Commander Tran Hung Dao gave a devastating blow to the Mongolian navy at the northern Bạch Đằng (an inlet near Haiphong), which ruled out the third invasion of Japan. Today, the Vietnamese people worship General Dao as the “god of national salvation.”

The second time was during the Russo-Japanese War in the early 20th century. Russia’s 40-ship Baltic Fleet made its last stop at Cam Ranh Bay in central Vietnam before the Battle of Tsushima (Battle of the Sea of Japan). The Vietnamese officials there allegedly tried to sabotage the fleet’s supply and also mixed mud in the fuel coal. This reduced the fleet’s mobility and contributed to Japan’s victory in the Battle of Tsushima.

Also, as I look back over the past 20 years, among the cases I dealt directly at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there were two in which I felt a deep gratitude towards Vietnam.

One is in 2005, when the G4 countries, Japan, Germany, India, and Brazil, drafted a G4 resolution for the UN Security Council reform on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. With Italy and Spain opposing Germany, Argentina and Mexico opposing Brazil, Pakistan opposing India, and China and Korea opposing Japan, the reform could not be attained.

China in particular, launched a global anti-Japan campaign, and even countries that had initially declared support for Japan became tight-lipped. Among the 10 ASEAN countries, only Vietnam and Singapore continued to express their support for Japan.

The other was in September 2010, when Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler that collided with Japan Coast Guard boats. China took countermeasures by detaining Japanese company employees, and banning rare earth exports to Japan.

When a Japan-Vietnam summit was held in Hanoi in late October the same year, Vietnam proposed to jointly develop rare earths within Vietnam. With a subsequent decline of rare earth prices, the project did not materialize. But all Japanese government officials were profoundly grateful for Vietnam’s proposal.

The following year of the summit, with a mind to reward Vietnam in return, Japan conducted a relevant survey, then ahead of any other G7 nations, granted Vietnam the “market economy status under the World Trade Organization (WTO).”

In late 2018, a Vietnamese friend of mine (specialist in China) said to me in Hanoi, “The rise and fall of China affects the fate of Vietnam. When China becomes weak, Vietnam enjoys a time of peace, but when China becomes powerful and expands, Vietnam faces disaster. We are now in an era of disaster. Additionally, China under the Xi Jinping rule is a totalitarian state, conducting assimilation measures and repression against ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur, and through domestic surveillance and media control. In the worst scenario, if China becomes the hegemonic power of the international order, it will undoubtedly be the beginning of misfortune for the entire human race.”

Such views of China by my friend derive from the history of over two millennia of battles with China for the survival of the nation.

For almost a thousand years until 939, Vietnam was under the rule of the Chinese empire that imposed Sinicization by promoting Chinese characters and Confucianism. During the last millennia, the Vietnamese repeated resistance and rebellions. After breaking free from Chinese rule, until the French colonization in 1887, the country maintained independence for approximately 950 years. Though experiencing over ten invasion attempts by China, the Vietnamese drove them away each time.

Even in the recent 50 years, Vietnam and China have fought three battles.

  1. In 1974, towards the end of the Vietnam War, after the U.S. troops withdrew, China took the southern half of the Paracel Islands (occupied by South Vietnam) by force.  
  2. In 1979, with Deng Xiaoping’s orders, about 80,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers suddenly invaded three locations along the land border. After about a month of fighting, they retreated. Vietnam’s main forces were in Cambodia and southern Vietnam to defeat the Khmer Rouge (established with China’s support), so the defense in northern Vietnam was under manned.
  3. In 1988 towards the end of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union’s naval presence gone from the South China Sea, China took the six atolls in the Spratly Islands by force. Since Vietnam still had troops stationed in Cambodia, it was at odds with the West and became the poorest country.

In 2014, China began a full-swing effort to build artificial islands (seven atolls) and turn them into military footholds, which placed the U.S. and neighboring countries on alert. The same year, when China began operating its oil rig vessel in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Vietnam tried to stop it offshore, but was swept aside. Later, violent anti-Chinese protests broke out on mainland Vietnam that lead to attacks on Chinese companies, and China withdrew the oil rig vessel.

Thus, the history of Vietnam is indeed a history of resistance against China, and almost all of Vietnam’s historic heroes are leaders who won battles against China. Throughout history, China is the destined threat to Vietnam, and not only the leaders but also the people have a strong sense of caution towards China. The leaders and the people of Vietnam share “the awareness that maintaining the country’s sovereignty and territory is top priority” and “the determination to protect the country.”

Meanwhile, currently for Vietnam, China is the largest trade partner, and of the foreign tourists to Vietnam (18 million) in 2019 before the COVID outbreak, one third were Chinese. On the economic side, China is important to Vietnam the same way it is to Japan, and at normal times, Vietnam works to strengthen friendly relations with China.

Yet despite joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative, Vietnam has almost no specific projects. And though it is not so explicit, the country has effectively excluded Huawei from its 5G (Fifth Generation Mobile Communication System) network.

The lessons we should learn from Vietnam’s history are:

  1. China loves vacuum of power
  2. China does not hesitate to use force on a weak counterpart with no backing
  3. It is essential to eliminate China’s acts of aggression through all means. A conciliatory posture will lead to further aggression.

Not China’s Little Brother

Because of the one-party rule by the Communist Party, many people view Vietnam as a little brother of China. The two countries have a similar framework of Communist one-party system, but very different content of governance. Vietnam is not an authoritarian country like China, neither does it wish to become one. Although there is no change of government through civilian elections, the country strives to reflect the people’s will in its policies, and we can say its method of governance is “People First.”

The current China, under the Xi Jinping dictatorship, is exalting nationalism with the “Chinese Dream” of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” shows external expansionism, and attempts to change the existing international order.

In addition, the National People’s Congress is derided as a rubber-stamp conference, the military is the Communist Party’s military, and the supreme commander is the Communist Party’s general secretary. The economy is also increasingly controlled by the Communist Party year after year (state capitalism). There are no freedoms of religion, speech, or the press, and it conducts assimilation policies and suppression of ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang.

In contrast, in Vietnam, under the collective leadership system, the National Assembly may vote down a government proposal sometimes. The military’s chief commander is the head of state (president), and their foreign policy is omnidirectional diplomacy with a focus on ASEAN. In economy, it signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP11) and the Free Trade Agreement with the EU and the U.K., and promotes privatization of state-owned companies.

Vietnam protects religion (especially Mahayana) and the language and culture of ethnic minorities. Information control on China’s propaganda operations (nine-dash line etc.) is very strict, but loose otherwise. Furthermore, it conducts the following measures, which are quite unthinkable in China.

  1. Since 2005, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) have collaborated to conduct administrative assessments of 58 provinces and 5 municipalities from the perspective of 12,000 domestic and foreign companies.
  2. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Vietnamese Fatherland Front (an arm of the Communist Party of Vietnam) have been conducting administrative assessments of 58 provinces and 5 municipalities from the perspective of about 14,000 residents nationwide since 2011.

By publishing the reports of these two surveys every year, Vietnam encourages local governments to improve their administrative services.

U.S. and Vietnam Moving Closer

Vietnam and the United States established diplomatic relations in 1995. It took 20 years since the end of the Vietnam War (1975), because Vietnam was at odds with the Western nations for not withdrawing its troops from Cambodia until the Cold War ended.

Since 2014, as China made a full-fledged approach in building artificial islands and turning them into military bases in the South China Sea, the U.S. began the Freedom of Navigation Operation in 2015, while also taking serious moves to strengthen relations with Vietnam, and a series of historically important events took place.

In 2015, Nguyen Phu Trong of the Communist Party of Vietnam made the first official visit to the U.S. as a general secretary since the end of the Vietnam War. In 2016, U.S. President Obama visited Vietnam and announced the full lifting of the arms embargo, and also agreed to cooperate in cleaning up areas contaminated with defoliants.

In 2017, after President Trump took office, he invited Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc first among the ASEAN leaders, and held a meeting in the White House.

In November of the same year, after attending the APEC Economic Leaders’ meeting in Da Nang, President Trump visited Hanoi as a state guest. At the summit meeting, the two leaders agreed on strengthening cooperation for security, while President Trump strongly urged Vietnam to reduce its trade surplus with the U.S. As a reference, Vietnam ranks third for the trade surplus with the U.S. in 2020 (approximately 63.4 billion USD, up 35% from previous year) after China and Mexico, while Japan ranked seventh.

U.S. aircraft carriers also began calling ports in Vietnam. In 2018, the USS Carl Vinson became the first U.S. carrier to call on Da Nang port since the Vietnam War. In 2020, when the USS Theodore Roosevelt called on Da Nang port, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet commander emphasized at the welcoming reception, “we regard Vietnam as the most trustworthy country in the region, and will continue our security cooperation.”

After President Biden took office in January 2021, the U.S. gave priority in strengthening relations with Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), G7, NATO, and the EU. The struggle for supremacy between the U.S. and China now bears the aspect of democracies versus China (despotism). In this context, some are concerned about the position of Vietnam under the Communist single-party rule. But the U.S. is well aware of Vietnam’s strategic importance and its difference from China.

In fact, after confirming to reinforce ties with its allies and the G7, the U.S. embarked on strengthening relations with ASEAN. In July, Secretary of Defense Austin visited Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and in late August, Vice President Harris also visited Singapore and Vietnam. It is clear that the U.S. places importance on Vietnam.

Improve Environment to Secure Foreign Nationals

As of October 2020, there are 1.72 million foreign workers in Japan. Those from Vietnam (440,000) outnumbered the Chinese (420,000) and became the largest working force for the first time. In Japan, the agriculture, construction, nursing care, and food service industries cannot operate without foreign workers—that is the harsh reality. Today, Vietnam is the major contributor in supporting Japan that faces the “new national crisis” of population decline and labor shortage.

On the other hand, for criminal arrests, technical trainee runaways, and illegal stays in the past five years, the Vietnamese also outnumbered the Chinese, with the highest number of cases among foreign nationals. The main reason for runaways and illegal stays is the heavy debt (7,000-8,000 USD) they incur before coming, and the human rights violations (verbal abuse, violence, unpaid wages) they receive in Japan.

For almost a decade, in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. Department of State has criticized that slave labor exists in Japan’s Technical Intern Training Program, and has demanded system improvement and tougher penalties.

The Japanese government is taking a belated move to address the situation, and audits of the Organization for Technical Intern Training (OTIT, established in 2017) and penalties for labor law violators are getting on track from last fiscal year. Also, to accompany the establishment of the Specified Skilled Worker system, the Immigration Services Agency played a major role in formulating the Comprehensive Measures for Acceptance of Foreign Nationals and Harmonious Coexistence.

The measures are revised annually, and mainly local governments are now implementing almost 200 projects, including Japanese language education. In October 2020, the government formulated the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, requiring companies to ensure there are no human rights violation in their supply chains. This March, the Vietnamese government also announced to reform the current practice of charging fees that considerably exceed the regular amount.

Besides the measures by the national and local governments, it is essential to raise the awareness of the involved parties, including management organizations and personnel of the companies accepting the trainees. The National Association for Global & Open Minded Community (NAGOMi, chairman: Tsutomu Takebe), which was established in October 2020, launched a campaign this June to reduce trainees’ debts by prohibiting kickbacks and excessive entertainment, and eliminate illegal acts such as violence and non-payment of wages.  

NAGOMi and the Liberal Democratic Party’s Study Group on the Coexistence with Foreign Nationals (moderator: member of the Diet Akihisa Nagashima) held six sessions, and the Group released a proposal on “system reform with consistency for technical training and specified skills” in June. The proposal also refers to strengthening measures for preventing runaways and human rights violations.

These projects are important in reducing human rights violations and runaways. However, Japan still does not have a clear policy on long-term residency of foreign workers while the situation in the real world is moving ahead. This raises concerns about securing talent in the future. It is about time Japan opened its doors by specifying the conditions for long-term residency, and commit to actively accepting talented foreign workers to maintain its national strength.

Kunio Umeda
Born in 1954. After serving as Ambassador to Brazil and Vietnam at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, retired in 2020. Current positions include Chief Senior Researcher at the Japan Economic Research Institute, Vice President of the National Association for Global & Open Minded Communities (NAGOMi), Advisor of Tokyo Gas, and a member of the International Committee of the Japan Football Association. He is the author of “Learning About Vietnam Reveals Japan’s Crisis” (from Shogakukan).


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