The General-Secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, is visiting Japan this week – with security and defence concerns high on the agenda.
Vietnam and Japan are the two Asian countries that feel most threatened by the growing power of a more assertive China, and both are looking for ways to strengthen their security ties.
A senior Communist Party official said that despite the differences in their political systems the two countries had always had great respect and confidence in each other.
Mr Trong’s visit sends a signal to China that Vietnam will continue to seek friends in Asia, and beyond, to balance growing pressure from Beijing in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
He’s expected to seek additional help from the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to bolster Vietnam’s maritime capabilities.
Vietnam has already taken delivery of the first of six patrol vessels from Japan which were pledged in an agreement last year.
Japan’s robust response to China’s aggressive claims on Japanese administered islands in the East China Sea has been watched closely in Hanoi.
Analysts believe that Tokyo’s powerful naval capabilities, and its strengthened military alliance with Washington, encouraged Beijing to back off after a prolonged period of confrontation.
Vietnam has been extremely active diplomatically since China stepped up its claims on disputed territories in the South China Sea, seeking to strengthen ties from Washington and Europe to the Asia Pacific region.
China’s deployment of a giant drilling rig in disputed waters off the central Vietnamese coast last year, and its recent island building activities in the Spratly Islands, have proved shocking to the leadership in Hanoi.
Mr Trong visited Beijing this year in an effort to ease tensions between the communist neighbours.
But his visits to Washington in July, and now to Tokyo, signal the Vietnam Communist Party’s determination to seek more balance in its foreign relations, and lessen its dependence on China.
Japan, with its modern navy and close alliance with the United States, remains the linchpin of any attempt to resist Chinese power in the Western Pacific.
Mr Abe is also expected to offer further economic aid to Vietnam. Japan is already Vietnam’s largest aid donor and second largest investor, after South Korea.
Japanese officials were quoted as saying that assistance could come from a massive $110 billion fund set up for infrastructure investment in Asia.
Mr Trong said, before his departure, that Japan and Vietnam were looking to cooperate in a wide range of fields.
“We need to raise the effectiveness of cooperation in education and training, science and technology, culture, tourism, labour and people-to-people exchange, environmental protection disaster preparedness, climate change response, as well as in defence and security,” he said.
His visit to Japan comes just days after a visit to Vietnam by a senior military official from India – another Asian military power that’s wary of China’s intentions.
Air Chief Marshall Arup Raha held talks with senior Vietnamese officials and discussed enhanced military cooperation.
The two sides have until now focused on maritime security so the visit of the Air Force chief is seen as a sign that defence ties are expanding.