Japanese emperor in Vietnam

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are greeted by Vietnamese leaders. Photo courtesy AFP

The visit by the Japanese emperor to Vietnam gives a timely boost for the leadership in Hanoi, at a time when its much vaunted multilateral diplomacy has suffered a series of hard knocks.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are to soothe any lingering memories of Japan’s wartime aggression during their three day visit. Their presence in Vietnam underlines the growing depth and maturity of economic and strategic links between the two countries.

“The state visit to Vietnam by the Japanese emperor and empress is an event of symbolic significance, a historic milestone in the friendship and cooperation between the two countries,” said a statement released by the Vietnamese government.

Vietnam has worked hard to cultivate Japan, and India, China’s most powerful Asian rivals, as it tries to counter- balance the growing might of Beijing.

Japan, as Vietnam’s biggest aid donor and second largest investor, has become even more important for Vietnam in recent months.

The demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the election of the erratic but seemingly pro-China Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and the profound uncertainties associated with the Trump administration, have driven a coach and horses through Vietnam’s intricate defence and economic strategies.

Japanese patrol boats

Japan, which has been locked in a tense maritime confrontation with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea, sees much to gain from strengthening defence cooperation with Vietnam in the South China Sea.

Japanese naval vessels docked at Cam Ranh Bay last year, and the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, signed a deal for the delivery of more patrol boats during his visit to Hanoi in January.

Both Japan and Vietnam have been hit by President Trump’s scrapping of the TPP, but are seeking other ways to boost trade and investment.

The Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, said last month that Vietnam wanted Japan to become the largest investor in the country.

Japanese firms are already involved in some 3,000 projects worth more than US$40 billion.

Japan’s occupation of Vietnam, following Hitler’s defeat of France in 1940, left a legacy of some bitterness between the two countries, not helped by Japan’s position as an anchor of US power during the American war.

Emperor Akihito is meeting the families of some Japanese soldiers left behind after 1945 as a final gesture of reconciliation, but unlike in China, there is little lingering resentment about the past.

Vietnam and Japan see much to gain from ever deeper cooperation in the face of a rising China.

The leaders in Hanoi, despite all setbacks, will continue to plug away at their multilateral diplomacy, seeking to ease tensions and build trust with Beijing as best they can, but, at the same time, signalling for all to see that they can also be best friends with China’s most formidable adversaries.