HANOI • Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday promised Vietnam six new patrol boats during a visit to the South-east Asian country locked in a dispute with China over the busy South China Sea.
Mr Abe's stop in Vietnam completes his tour through an arc of a region where Japan stakes a leadership claim in the face of China's growing dominance and uncertainty over what policy change Mr Donald Trump will bring as the new president of the United States.
"We will strongly support Vietnam enhancing its maritime law enforcement capability," Mr Abe said, while emphasising that the dispute over the South China Sea should be settled through talks and in accordance with international law.
China claims almost all the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$7.15 trillion) worth of seaborne trade passes every year. Vietnam and four other countries also have claims in the sea, believed to hold rich deposits of oil and gas.
Tokyo has no territorial claims there, but worries about Beijing's growing military reach into the sea lanes. Japan has a separate dispute with China over a cluster of tiny islets in the East China Sea.
Japan had said in September last year that it was ready to provide new patrol boats to Vietnam, after earlier supplying six old vessels.
Maritime security and trade have been key themes during Mr Abe's other stops - in Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia.
Given the readiness of the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte to move closer to the Chinese and further from its traditional US ally, Vietnam is one of fewer regional states showing potential readiness to confront China.
The Philippines' reluctance to provoke China was shown yesterday when it confirmed issuing a note verbale - a low-key diplomatic protest - to Beijing, after reports emerged last month that China had installed anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons on its seven man-made islands in the South China Sea.
Uncertainty over US policy in Asia was amplified last week by comments from Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson that China must stop building islands in the South China Sea, and that its access to those islands must not be allowed.
Despite their differences, Hanoi also maintains a strong diplomatic track with Beijing. China and Vietnam said at the weekend that they had agreed to manage their maritime differences and preserve peace and stability.
Both Japan and Vietnam have also been strong supporters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact which looks to have stalled in the face of Mr Trump's pledge to withdraw the US.
In Hanoi, Mr Abe stressed the importance of the TPP and other free trade agreements, but gave no further details. The delegation signed a number of business agreements, including on energy and textile projects, and a project to help with the impact of climate change. Japan is Vietnam's biggest foreign investor after South Korea.
The Philippines had filed its low-key diplomatic protest with China after a US think-thank reported that Beijing appears to have installed anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons on its man-made islands in the strategically vital South China Sea, the country's top diplomat said yesterday. Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said a note verbale was issued after the report came out last month. He told CNN Philippines that Manila had responded, but did so quietly.
- Additional reporting by Raul Dancel