What to expect from Suga’s first Vietnam visit

By Viet Anh   October 14, 2020 | 04:58 pm PT
What to expect from Suga’s first Vietnam visit
Yoshihide Suga, then Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, waves after a debate organized by the Liberal Democratic Party, Youth Bureau and Women's Bureau at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, September 9, 2020. Photo by Philip Fong via Reuters.
Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga might discuss cooperation regarding Covid-19, ASEAN, and the South China Sea during his upcoming visit to Vietnam this month, according to experts.

Suga, 71, became prime minister in September after winning a parliamentary vote, taking over from Shinzo Abe, who resigned over health issues along with his cabinet.

Suga also confirmed on Tuesday he would conduct his first foreign trip since taking office to Vietnam and Indonesia. The trip would commence from October 18 to October 21, Vietnam News Agency reported.

Suga’s decision to visit Vietnam, and then Indonesia, was "carefully calculated," said Nguyen Quoc Cuong, former Vietnamese ambassador to Japan for the 2015-2018 period. He could achieve two goals doing so: discussing future cooperation with Vietnam amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and highlighting Tokyo’s appreciation for ASEAN’s role in Japan’s foreign policy, Cuong added.

Bilateral boost

In his upcoming visit to Vietnam, Suga might discuss the direction of cooperation between the two countries as the region and the world deal with Covid-19 and prepare for a post-pandemic era.

The Japanese government is deploying policies to diversify its production and supply sources, with Southeast Asia in general and Vietnam in particular being destinations Japanese businesses are looking at, said Cuong.

In July, Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro) announced a list of 30 Japanese businesses, out of over 100 companies signing up for supply chain diversification projects, which would receive aid to move its production from China to Southeast Asian countries. Out of these 30 businesses, 15 decided to move to Vietnam.

Nguyen Phu Binh, Vietnamese ambassador to Japan for the 2008-2011 period, said Vietnam and Japan are facing challenges due to Covid-19 and "disrupted international relations." As a nation that relies heavily on foreign markets, both for materials and products, Japan faces challenges as the global supply chain, mainly from China, is hampered due to Covid-19. Tokyo also has to consider its options as competition between the U.S. and China is on the rise, Binh added.

Vietnam, while hit by Covid-19 like many other countries, has managed to put it under control and might be able to turn it into an opportunity to expand foreign relations with other countries.

"Japan might choose Vietnam as the first destination to shift investments from China, as they share a close geographical proximity and cultural similarities," said Binh.

Additionally, the investment shift into Vietnam might also help Japanese businesses avoid tough U.S. policies on products with Chinese origins. Japan wishes to express its neutral, objective role, without choosing sides when it comes to competition between major powers, according to Binh.

Yoshikazu Kato, adjunct associate professor at Asia Global Institute, predicted Vietnam and Japan would enhance cooperation regarding Covid-19, both on knowledge and practical experience. Suga and Vietnam’s leadership would openly debate how to deal with the pandemic, including possible treatment methods and vaccines. The two countries would highlight the importance of information transparency and ways to recover the trans-border economy in the near future, Kato added.

Vietnam-Japan relations would only deepen in the new era, according to Binh. Their bilateral relations would be stable, with mutual and complementary interests and without conflict, he added.

Michael Thomas Cucek, assistant professor at Japan’s Temple University and an expert on Asia, said Vietnam and Japan would share strategic interests and support each other economically. Japan’s industrial sector is also attracting Vietnam’s young labor force.

ASEAN relations

Through his visit, Suga might also want to highlight Tokyo’s appreciation for ASEAN’s role in his administration’s foreign policy, according to Cuong. He would continue to support ASEAN’s central role, while suggesting initiatives to enhance relations between ASEAN and Japan, and relations between ASEAN member states, he said.

Suga might also want to discuss preparations for the ASEAN Summit this November. Japan and other countries might discuss several regional and global issues during the summit, including situations in the South China Sea.

"Vietnam would be an ideal location for the new Japanese Prime Minister to affirm his policies with the region, as Vietnam is the current ASEAN chair and a member of the United Nations Security Council," said Cuong.

Kato meanwhile said the most important goal for Suga’s visit is to enhance strategic relations with Southeast Asia within the framework of the Indo-Pacific vision. Tokyo regards the vision incomplete without the participation of Southeast Asian countries. The Vietnamese and Japanese leadership might also discuss geopolitical issues regarding the South China Sea, Kato said, adding that Suga might seek agreement from Vietnam on how to implement the Indo-Pacific strategy.

The Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy drawn up by Japan was announced in 2016. According to the strategy, Tokyo determines the key to stability and prosperity of the international community is the combination of two continents: Asia and Africa, and of two oceans: the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Japan highly values the popularization of fundamental principles like freedom of navigation and respect to the rule of law, as well as deepening relations with the U.S., India, Australia, ASEAN, Europe, and the Middle East.

Go Ito, professor of international relations at Japan’s Meiji University, said Suga visits Vietnam as an ASEAN chair while ASEAN has been playing an increasingly important role in recent years. Vietnam is also regarded as one of the leading countries in ensuring maritime security, a topic Japan deems central in its policies, he said.

High hopes

Cuong hopes Suga and the Vietnamese leadership would deliver concrete agreements regarding Covid-19 responses and preparatory steps for a post-pandemic era at the meeting. Specifically, the two countries could discuss the resumption of commerce and travel for citizens and businesses.

Binh meanwhile hopes the two countries would discuss elevating Japan from its second position to Vietnam’s top investor. Bilateral trade turnover between the two countries also has several advantages to increase as Japan remains Vietnam’s fourth largest commercial partner, he said. Both Vietnam and Japan have opportunities to enhance bilateral and multilateral commercial cooperation on the basis of the Vietnam-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (VJEPA) and ASEAN-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership (AJCEP) signed in 2008, along with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), signed in 2018.

As the tourism sector remains sluggish amid Covid-19, Vietnam and Japan could boost agricultural cooperation, according to Binh. Specifically, the two countries need to build standards for agricultural products, so that Vietnamese product quality could be consistent enough for Japan’s market, which has around 100 million people.

Cuong also hopes Japan would strongly support Vietnam organizing its final events as 2020 ASEAN chair. The two countries could also agree on cooperation regarding regional and global issues, including the South China Sea.

"The Japanese Prime Minister’s visit is a chance for leaders of both countries to break the ice and foster trust. It is an important basis for both sides to deploy policies that further enhance bilateral relations," Cuong said.

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