Japan's Foreign Policy Toward Vietnam 1978-1992/Chapter 5

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Chapter 5: Conclusions[edit]

This thesis has charted Japan's relationship with Vietnam from the time of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978 to the reinstatement of economic assistance in 1992. I have framed bilateral relations between Tokyo and Hanoi in the context of discussions about Japan's dealings with regional powers which affected that relationship. In addition, this thesis examined domestic political factors within Japan in the hopes of demonstrating the differences in the policies and goals of the various bureaucracies and political parties, and the private sector. Private sector ties between Japanese corporations and Vietnam were included to illustrate how business progressed despite the strained economic developmental relations between the two countries. Thus, private trade did not exert significant influence or pressure to reinstate economic aid. I hope that Japan's policies toward Vietnam have been sufficiently described to allow extrapolation of conclusions concerning the relative positions of Japan and Vietnam, the style of Japan's foreign policy, and Japan's position relative to Southeast Asia and the superpowers. I also hope that this description allows insight into bureaucratic politics and the business and government relationship within Tokyo.

This thesis reveals that: (1) Japan maintained a relatively close relationship to Vietnam when compared to ASEAN's, China's, and the United States' policies toward Vietnam; (2) Japan's position relative to Hanoi grew in strength, parallel with Vietnam's need for assistance; (3) the end of the Cold War magnified Tokyo's regional leadership position in filling the vacuum left by the end of the East-West confrontation as priorities among regional powers shifted from military security or political ideology to economic development; (4) Tokyo's diplomatic style dictated a search for the middle ground between two polar positions- - and was therefore somewhat reactionary; (5) Japan's Foreign Ministry continued to see the U.S.-Japan relationship as the top priority until 1992; and (6) the Foreign Ministry carried veto power over private-sector dealings with Vietnam but was not all-pervasive.

Relatively close bilateral relations[edit]

Despite the injury to Hanoi's position in the international community, an injury that stemmed from the Cambodia incursion, Tokyo maintained a relatively healthy relationship with Vietnam when compared to other East Asian powers' stances on Hanoi. Cultural exchanges and diplomatic functions between the two countries continued, as did commercial trading. Official censure for Vietnam's rogue behavior came in the form of suspending economic assistance, which Tokyo had considered as the lead element of its policy toward the developing fourth-world country prior to December 1978. While such action temporarily removed the strongest interaction between Tokyo and Hanoi, Japanese diplomats repeatedly reminded their Vietnamese counterparts that the suspension of aid did not connote an irreversible or fatal threat to bilateral relations nor a reduction of ties.

When Japan announced suspension of economic assistance because of Vietnam's behavior in Indochina, the reasons were carefully worded to present Tokyo's actions as a response to pressure from ASEAN, the security arrangements with the United States, and the fragile relations with China. In other words, Japan attempted to explain its suspension not in terms of punishment but in terms of having its hand forced by duties and obligations to other regional powers. While the Indochina problem continued through the 1980s, Japan's open- hand carrot approach earned Tokyo the superior position in bilateral relations: lower bureaucratic Japanese officials met in Hanoi on "unofficial" visits while Vietnamese officials visiting Tokyo never received audience with upper-level bureaucrats.

When a solution in Cambodia drew nearer with the troop withdrawal in September 1989, Tokyo began to use the advantages gained from keeping open relations with Vietnam. Concurrent with the troop withdrawal came the end of the Cold War and an increase in Japan's regional leadership role. As a stronger leader, Tokyo used the carrot of resuming economic assistance in order to demand Vietnam's active participation in a comprehensive settlement in Cambodia, whereas prior to 1989 the withdrawal of troops was the primary condition for resumption of aid-- merely abandoning Kampuchea would no longer suffice. Along with this pressure came renewed promises of huge amounts of developmental assistance. Japan began to treat Vietnam as part of the solution toward peace in Indochina and not as part of the problem. Tokyo could appear sincere in this policy because it had not taken the rhetorically polar stance against Hanoi (like ASEAN's condemnations or the U.S.'s full embargo).

From the time of the decision to stop assistance in 1979 through the stalemate years in the 1980s up to the restoration of aid in 1992, Japan maintained full diplomatic relations with Vietnam and took every opportunity to highlight out the working relationship that existed between the two countries. In fact, Japanese officials almost always framed their statements concerning Vietnam in terms of Tokyo's closeness with Hanoi relative to the closeness other regional powers (namely ASEAN and China).

Bilateral trade relations suffered some reduction when economic assistance was suspended in early 1979, but by 1985, trade levels in both directions began to grow significantly. Japanese exports of basic manufactures to Vietnam saw double-digit growth from 1985 onward, while imports of Vietnamese oil grew at a rate comparable to Vietnam's oil production capability. The troop withdrawal in 1989 foreshadowed a resumption of full economic assistance programs and general acceptance by the West, and so Japanese firms moved early and strongly to secure trade offices and off shore production facilities within Vietnam.

Japan's increased regional role[edit]

Tokyo's policies must be viewed in both the context of Japan's position in the region as well as the Japanese government's overall policies for Southeast Asia before we can draw any conclusions about the true nature and development of this relationship during the period 1978-1992. As stated in chapter 2, Cold-War alignments changed dramatically in the closing months of 1978, just prior to Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia. The United States announced normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China, Japan concluded a Peace and Friendship Treaty with China, and the Vietnamese followed suit with a Treaty of Cooperation with the Soviet Union. Clearly, Tokyo had shifted away from the omni directional policies it had been refining since the mid-1960s. Japan now played more of a regional role, acting more in conjunction with China and ASEAN (following the Fukuda announcement in August 1977) than with Vietnam or the Soviets when facing the dilemmas in Indochina.

With time came greater economic strength for Japan, and thus greater power behind Tokyo's aid policies to East Asia and Southeast Asia. Subsequently, Japan's regional leadership grew, and Tokyo took the position of both advocate for Southeast Asia to the industrialized West and lead representative of the West's interests in Southeast Asia. This increased regional role served to magnify the promise of Japan's aid to Vietnam if a comprehensive peace could be reached, because Tokyo began to promise unprecedented levels of economic assistance to the entire Indochina Peninsula.

The Japan-Vietnam relationship provides evidence of Tokyo's diplomatic style: Japan's foreign policy seems to search for the middle ground between two polar countries that have polar-opposite positions. This style may have developed from the omni directional policies of the 1960s and 1970s, where Japan sought a mostly neutral position in the East- West conflict. I have described Japanese efforts to place Tokyo in between several adversarial relationships in the region: ASEAN and Vietnam, China and Vietnam, China and ASEAN, and the US and Vietnam. Though this middle ground style does not hold true for all cases (North Korea or the Soviet Union), it certainly helps explain Japan's approach to its relationship with Vietnam within the international context.

Tokyo's search for the middle ground[edit]

Tokyo's diplomatic style sought for a middle ground between two polar positions in several incidences, mostly those involving Vietnam and some other regional player. In January 1979, Japan explained its actions against Vietnam in terms of having to accommodate ASEAN's anxiety. Conversely, Foreign Minister Sonoda made it clear that Japan saw itself between ASEAN and Vietnam. Later, when Japanese industries began to move into Vietnam and ASEAN officials complained about economically rewarding Hanoi, Japanese officials repeated Japan's and ASEAN's mutual condemnation of Vietnam's incursion into Cambodia, but at the same time explained that Japanese corporations were free to trade with Vietnam-- an explanation again positioning Japan between ASEAN and Vietnam.

When China launched its punishment war against Vietnam in 1979, Japanese officials attempted to stay detached, calling for an end to hostilities on all sides. But when Vietnam came begging for Tokyo to act as a mediator, the same Japanese officials saw a chance to position Japan in the middle, between Beijing and Hanoi, a move that both facilitated Japan's relationship with Vietnam as well as showed ASEAN that Tokyo was not subject to Beijing's bully tactics. China seemed satisfied with Japan's call for an end to hostilities "throughout Indochina"-- a statement that essentially linked the Sino-Vietnam border war and Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia.

Later, as Vietnam withdrew its troops in 1989 and a solution to the Cambodian issue seemed imminent, Tokyo because the go-between for Hanoi and Washington over the POW/MIA issue. The leverage gained from this position allowed Japan to openly signal Vietnam about the reinstatement of economic assistance. Tokyo deferred to the U.S. position in Indochina through the American presidential election in 1992. However, the speed of Tokyo's announcement following the election gives evidence of a prearranged agreement between Japan and the United States, with the former agreeing to delay action until after the election because of U.S. domestic political concerns.

Taken together, Tokyo's reaction to regional positions illustrates a consistent pattern in which Japan sought to place itself between Vietnam and others. Japan could vie for such a position in security-oriented conflicts (the Sino-Vietnam war of 1979) because of its nonmilitary status. Complementarily, Tokyo could choose its ground between hegemons as priorities shifted to economic development (ASEAN versus Vietnam), given Japan's huge aid outlays and its promises for greater levels of assistance if both sides cooperated. In the case of the United States-Vietnam relationship, Japan gained leverage with both sides as a result of both its nonmilitary status and the power of promised aid. Since Japan did not participate directly in the U.S.-Vietnam War, it could act in good faith in the POW/MIA issue for both Hanoi and Washington. Also, because of Tokyo's promise for restoring economic assistance, Vietnam began to cooperate with Washington in 1991-1992 by granting new access to wartime records.

Primacy of the U.S.-Japan relationship[edit]

As the United States withdrew as a major factor in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s, Japan, China, Vietnam, and the USSR moved to fill the vacuum. Subsequently, Tokyo concluded the Peace and Friendship Treaty with Beijing within weeks of President Carter's announcement of U.S.-China ties. (The United States placed China in charge of containing Soviet expansionism.) Almost simultaneously, Hanoi announced a mutual cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union. Thus, the region was in danger of becoming polarized between Tokyo-Beijing and Hanoi-Moscow. To quell such fears, Japan sought a middle ground between China and Vietnam (see above) and continued to include the United States as a cooperating power, if not as a balancing force.

Consequently, Washington continued to dominate Japan's foreign policy toward Southeast Asia. When Honda Motor Corporation attempted to set up a manufacturing plant within Vietnam in 1978, the United States Senate passed resolutions condemning Japan's leniency toward Hanoi. Japan's Foreign Ministry immediately publicly censured Honda, and Honda withdrew its plans within days. The IMF felt American influence strongly when the organization considered reinstating Vietnam's eligibility for loans in 1990 and 1991. The United States vetoed plans to relieve Hanoi's debts and persuaded Tokyo to veto the proposed action as well. International Monetary Fund officials laid the blame squarely on the POW/MIA issue, and some within Japan felt regret at Tokyo's deference to Washington, but Japan could not ignore the importance of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

By early 1992, Vietnam had begun to work toward a compromise in the Cambodian situation. Having withdrawn its troops nearly two and a half years earlier, Hanoi aligned itself to the conditions set out by Tokyo for reinstating economic assistance. However, Washington continued to pressure Hanoi for greater access to POW records, and Tokyo's position in the middle now meant a responsibility to help solve the issue on both sides. Consequently, Tokyo officials were asked to speak on behalf of the Americans by the vice president and the State Department officials assigned to the POW/MIA issue; Tokyo also sent letters threatening to further suspend aid if no progress came from Hanoi.

The strongest evidence of Japan placing the relationship with the United States in prime position is the delay until the 1992 United State presidential election to restore assistance to Vietnam. Japan had hinted at loan amounts and timetables had been foreshadowed since January 1992, and officials had been making open remarks about restoring aid to Vietnam since that summer. However, out of deference to the United States and the U.S.-Japan relationship, Tokyo delayed its announcement until the week following the election. President Bush avoided the Vietnam issue during the last hectic weeks of th election because Tokyo remained low-key on its moves toward restoring economic assistance.

Foreign Ministry influence over the bureaucracies and the private sector[edit]

Throughout the period under study, the Foreign Ministry had primarily handled policy toward Vietnam. When Foreign Minister Trinh visited Tokyo in December 1978 and secured nearly $64 million in aid for Vietnam, the Ministry of Finance earmarked the funds for the next fiscal year. However, when Vietnamese troops crossed the border, the Foreign Ministry suspended the aid money-- a suspension that would last nearly fourteen years. Thus, the Foreign Ministry supplanted the Ministry of Finance's jurisdiction over ODA and economic assistance.

The Foreign Ministry's veto power extended to the private sector as well. When ASEAN officials complained about Japanese trading houses doing business with Hanoi, the Foreign Ministry explained Japan's suspension of official aid but did not enforce an economic embargo against Vietnam. However, the ministry simultaneously asked companies to be sympathetic to the international situation, a pattern repeated with the 1987 Honda Motor Corporation case raised by the United States Congress.

As Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia and Vietnam's exports of raw materials boosted trade relations, one would expect MITI and the private sector to begin driving the relationship between Tokyo and Hanoi. However, bureaucratic junkets to Hanoi continued to fall under Foreign Ministry control. Even as late as 1992, groups including MITI, the Ministry of Finance, and parliamentarians were led by the Foreign Ministry. Affairs with Vietnam were driven at the international level, which made the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the lead domestic player at the bureaucratic level. Domestically, trade with Vietnam grew at a level concurrent with Vietnam's production capacity but was not affected by the suspension of official aid. Therefore, the private sector and MITI were subtracted as major factors in changing Tokyo's policy toward Vietnam.

Further research[edit]

The goal of this thesis was to provide a description of Japan's policy toward Vietnam from 1978 to 1992. One purpose of this work is to follow up on Masaya Shiraishi's Japanese Relations with Vietnam 1951-1987, focusing more on the period of Vietnam's incursion into Cambodia. Shiraishi only devoted twenty or so pages to this period. Shiraishi's work left many questions unanswered about how Tokyo would eventually resolve the Cambodian issue with Vietnam, since the issue had yet to be settled as of 1987. Inada's chapter "Japanese aid to Vietnam: Stick or Carrot," written in 1989, could only postulate about solutions to restoring Japan's economic assistance to Hanoi, as aid wasn't restored until 1992. Evaluations of the political changes brought about with the end of the Cold War, along with estimations of the evolving economies of Southeast Asia, must depend on new models that give greater weight to economic power. Japan's middle ground position, as evidenced by Tokyo's policies toward Vietnam from 1978 to 1992, carries new connotations for international relations when viewed in a post-Cold-War context.

Another purpose of this research has been to provide information about the Vietnam relationship as a case for extrapolation into a study of Japan's foreign policy style. The conclusions about Tokyo's search for a middle ground and its dependency on the United States led to the need for further research into Japan's dealings with other conflicting powers and into Tokyo's search for a stronger regional role while maintaining its close relationship with Washington. It is hoped that this work will provide material for other research into Japan's relationships with third-world countries in the region from the angle of the Tokyo- Washington cooperation and conflict in developing trade and security relationships.

One more possible avenue for further research is Japan's approach to the emerging communist bloc or former communist countries such as Mongolia, Eastern Europe, and Cambodia. What commonalities exist? Is Japan's policy driven mainly by economic potential or security concerns? This information about Japan's policy toward Vietnam could spawn such research as well.

Today, Japan enjoys robust trade and significant economic development cooperation with Vietnam. This relationship is both the result of Hanoi's reforms toward a market economy and Tokyo's careful courting of Vietnam throughout the pariah period from 1978 to 1992. Because of Japan's navigation between regional hegemons ranged against Vietnam, Japan stood in prime position to offer massive amounts of developmental assistance and therefore win huge infrastructure contracts for Japanese firms when Hanoi embarked on a vigorous modernization plan in the last several years. When the United States finally lifted its economic embargo in 1994, the release came largely because of domestic U.S. industry pressure, driven by concerns about losing ground in Vietnam to the fast-moving Japanese.

Japan's policy toward Vietnam continues to evolve. It is hoped that this thesis has expanded the knowledge base for further research on international relations within the East Asian region. Clearly, the Japan-Vietnam relationship carries ramifications for US-Japan relations, Sino-Japanese relations, and development within ASEAN and Indochina.


Thesis | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 |