Growing Maritime Security Concerns in Southeast Asia: A Greater Need for Further Regional Cooperation

June 19, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: JapanVietnamUnited States

Growing Maritime Security Concerns in Southeast Asia: A Greater Need for Further Regional Cooperation

The United States, Japan and Vietnam stand a lot to gain from expanding their strategic partnerships to battle regional maritime challenges.

The U.S.-Vietnam Defense MOU referenced above incorporates five key areas, which include: maritime security cooperation and initiatives; high-level defense dialogues; search and rescue programs and initiatives; humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief initiatives; and UN peacekeeping operation initiatives. Overall, there has been a dramatic improvement in all five areas of defense cooperation. For example, in the Search and Rescue Programs and Initiatives, the United States and Vietnam collaborated on the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370. Also, in the realm of UN peacekeeping initiatives, the United States helped Vietnam construct a $3.1 million training facility and provide training equipment for engineers and a level-two medical hospital.


As part of the 20th anniversary of normalization of U.S.-Vietnamese relations, Secretary Carter signed the Joint Vision Statement with his Vietnamese counterpart, Gen. Phung Quang Thanh. The most crucial component of the statement is the possibility of co-production of weapons and defense supplies, which would help Hanoi become more independent in satisfying its defense needs. Secretary Carter also committed to provide Vietnam with $18 million to buy two U.S. Metal Shark Defiant patrol boats, further helping Vietnam to improve its coast-guard capacity.

The catalysts for U.S.-Vietnamese defense cooperation can be described as follows:

- Defense cooperation is an integral component of the entire relationship between the United States and Vietnam, and it has proceeded on par with the improvement in the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship under the framework of comprehensive partnership both sides agreed to in July 2013.

-The United States and Vietnam have shared views and interests in a number of key bilateral, regional, and global issues. Bilaterally, the United States supports a strong, independent, and prosperous Vietnam and also respects Hanoi’s territorial integrity, while playing an active role in the Asia-Pacific. At the regional level, the United States wishes Vietnam to play an important role in strengthening and consolidating a united, strong, and prosperous ASEAN. At the global level, the United States and Vietnam closely cooperate on issues such as peacekeeping, antiterrorism, climate change, and nonproliferation.

- The United States is one of the strongest supporters of Vietnam’s position on the South China Sea question, demanding no use of force and urging the parties concerned to manage disputes in a peaceful manner and in accordance with international law, as well as in line with ASEAN’s norms and rules of behavior.

Vietnamese-Japanese Maritime and Defense Cooperation

In March 2015, Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe signed the Extensive Strategic Partnership Agreement, which elevated their eight-year-old strategic partnership. It is important to note that during a meeting with Mr. Truong Tan Sang, Mr. Abe stated that Japan was willing to assist Vietnam in enhancing Hanoi’s capacity in maritime law enforcement. Earlier, during a visit to Hanoi on August 1, 2014, Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida announced that Tokyo would provide Hanoi with six vessels to boost its capacity for maritime security.

At the same time, Japan’s Diet was also considering giving Vietnam Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) in the form of new patrol boats for its maritime enforcement agencies. Also, during a recent meeting with Vietnamese vice president Nguyen Thi Doan at the sidelines of the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan, Foreign Minister Kishida stated that Japan wanted to work with Vietnam to tackle maritime-security challenges, along with other important issues.

There are several possible explanations for Japan’s interest in improving maritime-security cooperation with Vietnam:

- Vietnam and Japan have no disputes when it comes to economic, security, or human-rights issues. Furthermore, Hanoi considers Tokyo one of its most trusted strategic partners. As a leading foreign investor, ODA donor, important source of foreign direct investment (FDI), and lucrative market for Vietnamese exports, Japan is seen as a pivotal partner in helping Vietnam with economic development, future prosperity, and its overall national defense.

- Japan also has territorial disputes with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands—seeing the connected nature between the maritime security of the East and South China Seas. Japan is a littoral state heavily dependent on the safety of SLOCs in East Asia; its economy and security would be impacted dramatically if tensions were to rise. Therefore, Japan sees a need to enhance cooperation with littoral states in East Asia to safeguard freedom of navigation and maritime security in the South China Sea. Vietnam’s maritime-security cooperation with Japan should be viewed in the much wider context of Japan’s recognition of ASEAN’s role in the region and Japan’s growing maritime-security cooperation with ASEAN, and also as an integral part of the overall Vietnamese-Japanese relationship.


While a path for trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan, and Vietnam is not clearly paved in the short term, the current level of bilateral consultation and cooperation among these nations should continue, particularly between Vietnam and the United States and between Vietnam and Japan. Such bilateral cooperation could very well play an active role in growing a strong trilateral relationship over the medium-to-long term.

However, it should be noted that the U.S.-Japan alliance plays a key role not only in the maintenance of maritime security in the entire region, but also in the trilateral relationship. Indeed, Vietnam and countries in the region expect the following contributions from the U.S.-Japan alliance:

- The alliance must be strong enough to deter and repel security threats to the United States, Japan, and important regional public goods. Furthermore, the alliance must be able to ensure maritime security and maritime safety for the entire region and be viable enough to prevent any nation that threatens the use of force or uses force from altering the territorial status quo in the region;

- The U.S.-Japan alliance should contribute to regional peace and stability, consolidate the central role played by ASEAN in the region, as well as promote prosperity in Vietnam and the entire region—a condition necessary for the promotion of peace and stability in the region over the long term;

- The U.S.-Japan alliance should make it known to countries in the region, especially China, that the use of force or threats of the use of force to back up territorial claims will simply be ineffective, and costs will be imposed on those who would destabilize the region by so doing;

- The alliance should help strengthen existing security institutions in the region and build regional structures strong and inclusive enough to neutralize or thwart security challenges to the region, whether they are traditional or nontraditional;

- There should be an expansion of the U.S.-Japan security alliance to incorporate a third party in policy discussions and coordination, information sharing, and so on; some prime examples of such cooperation are the U.S.-Japan-Australia Dialogue and the U.S.-Japan-India Dialogue. In the future, the United States and Japan should consider the creation of a dialogue mechanism, such as one that involves the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and even China, with the U.S.-Japan alliance serving as the core;

- Finally, the alliance should proactively engage Beijing so as to ensure friendly relations with China and encourage China to act more responsibly and use peaceful means to resolve territorial disputes with its neighboring countries, in hopes of getting Beijing to actively contribute to peace, stability, and cooperation in the region and the rest of the world.

Hoang Anh Tuan serves as the director-general, Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. Nguyen Vu Tung serves as vice president of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and director general of the Institute of East Sea Studies, at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. This article reflects their own opinions and does not necessarily represent the views of the institutions that they are affiliated with.

This article is part of the report, “Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges,” which can be read in its entirety, here. The Center for a National Interest would like to thank the Center for Global Progress for its important support of this initiative, and would also like to thank the Research Institute for Peace and Security and the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam for participating in the project.

Image: Wikimedia/U.S. Navy photo by Information Systems Technician 1st Class Benjamin Wooldridge



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[3] Matthew Lee, “Kerry Returns to Vietnam, Now as Top Diplomat,” Associated Press, December 14, 2013, accessed June 6, 2015,