Why Japanese PM chose Vietnam as the first destination
Vietnam is the top destination for Japanese investment and among the Southeast Asian markets that Tokyo wants Japanese companies to invest in.
Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his Japanese counterpart Suga Yoshihide.
Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and his wife just concluded an official visit to Vietnam from October 18 to 20. According to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang, this was the second time in a row that a new Japanese Prime Minister chose Vietnam for his first visit after taking office.
In 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo also chose Vietnam as the first place on his trip right after taking office. According to the spokesperson, Mr. Suga's choice was a clear testament to the good, strong and substantive development in many areas of the deep strategic partnership between the two countries.
In the context of US-China tensions, this trip was also the Japanese Government’s effort to strengthen relations with ASEAN countries to ensure stability and peace in the region.
Why did Mr. Suga not visit America or Europe?
With concerns over economic slowdown along with the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent tension in the region’s security environment recently, some said that Mr. Suga could follow the way of many earlier leaders of Japan: Using the first iconic overseas trip to the US to re-emphasize the importance of a strong military alliance across the Pacific, which dated back to 1945.
However, the United States is in the midst of an election war and the process will drag on until next month, so it would be unwise if Mr. Suga chose the US. Japan would be concerned about being drawn into American internal politics and Mr. Suga was likely to be questioned in public.
Mr. Suga was on the phone with President Trump, as well as a number of other world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron. But the Japanese government refused to let Mr. Suga go on an early tour to Europe, partly due to pandemic concerns.
Vietnam and Indonesia: "uncomplicated destinations"
As Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga used to focus largely on domestic affairs under the time of his predecessor, Abe Shinzo. Therefore, some people believed that Mr. Suga did not have much experience in international relations, so Vietnam and Indonesia are "uncomplicated" destinations for his first overseas trip as Prime Minister.
Go Ito, professor of international relations at Meiji University in Tokyo, said Mr. Suga would use the trip to step out of Abe's shadow. "Prime Minister Suga is lacking many colors in his policies, so this will be an opportunity to show these countries and others how he is," he said. "Mr. Abe is very open in approach to foreign affairs but is also very cautious in his policies. So Suga can show that he is on a different path and wants to make a big contribution to Southeast Asia."
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Tokyo facility, said: "These are two countries where Japan wants to share its support with a vision of an open and free Indo-Pacific."
Prime Minister Suga's visit to Vietnam and Indonesia showed that Tokyo would continue to pursue a free and open Indo-Pacific policy based on the Japan-US alliance. The trip also emphasizes externally that Suga's administration would continue the foreign policy under former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.
Previously, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo also chose Vietnam and Indonesia as destinations for his first overseas trip after returning to power in December 2012. These are all major countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Japan has been providing significant aid to Indonesia. Last year, it was the third largest foreign investor in Indonesia with $ 4.3 billion, after China and Singapore.
Vietnam is also the leading destination for Japanese investment and is among the Southeast Asian markets that Tokyo wants more of its companies to invest in, as part of the government's effort to diversify the production chain. In 2014 to 2018, Japan was the largest donor to Vietnam with about $280 million for infrastructure development projects, human resource management, and governance and environment practices.
This July, Japan also announced an agreement worth $348 million to build six new patrol ships for the Vietnam Coast Guard with the aim of ensuring maritime security and safety.
In his inauguration speech on September 16, Prime Minister Suga said he would continue to implement foreign policies based on the axis of allied relations with the US, in which an important tool is the Indo-Pacific strategy that Japan and the US have come up with. To realize this strategy, cooperation with ASEAN - the region located on the sea route connecting the Middle East with East Asia - is indispensable.
In June 2019, ASEAN also launched a diplomatic strategy called "ASEAN's outlook on the Indo-Pacific", affirming that ASEAN has a central and strategic role in this region. The leading country in this strategy is Indonesia.
Meanwhile, Vietnam is currently the Chair of ASEAN and has certain influence on the East Asia Summit (EAS), scheduled to be held in November.
Professor Yuichiro Hosoya of Keio University said that in the context of tense US-China relations, Prime Minister Suga's choice of Vietnam and Indonesia is intended to create a balance in Tokyo's foreign relations.
In addition, one goal that Tokyo aims to be economic benefits. During this visit, Prime Minister Suga mentioned the resumption of travel activities between Japan and the two countries. Choosing the countries that controlled the Covid-19 epidemic well to resume travel would have the effect of helping Japan's economy recover.
Vietnam is considered to be a very good controlling country of Covid-19. Meanwhile, Indonesia still has a high number of infected people, but is the most populous country in ASEAN and has the greatest economic potential. Professor Kunihiro Yoshida of the Policy Research Institute said that in the past Japan mainly penetrated the auto market in ASEAN but now wants to expand into retail and infrastructure sectors.
In the process of negotiating and signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with the goal of completion this year, the role of Vietnam and Indonesia is also very significant. Vietnam is the host country of the RCEP Summit in November, while Indonesia is the coordinator of the negotiations to sign the RCEP.
Vietnam is an important partner of Japan and plays a key role in realising the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, said Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.