HANOI--Vietnam, locked like Japan in a territorial row with China, is showing keen interest in acquiring new patrol boats modeled after Japan Coast Guard cutters to safeguard its fishing grounds and the fishermen who operate in those waters.
Vietnam expects to become eligible in October to acquire such vessels under Tokyo's aid programs.
The development is welcomed not only by Japanese shipbuilders, but also the Abe administration which has pitched the idea of using his country's coast guard cutters to contain China's growing maritime presence in regional waters.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, agreed in July to provide the Philippines with 10 new coast guard patrol ships as part of Japan's official development assistance.
Aside from Vietnam, seven other mostly Southeast Asian countries are eager to work closely with the Japan Coast Guard and learn from its advanced equipment and technology.
Those countries are primarily concerned about the prospect of clashes with neighbors over sovereignty disputes, intrusions into their territorial waters by foreign fishing fleets and attacks by pirates.
Japanese shipbuilders are pinning their hopes on foreign orders for patrol boats to recover business opportunities lost in the global downturn following the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008.
Tensions are rising between Hanoi and Beijing over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
In January, the General Department of Fishery with Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development formed a fishery surveillance force with an eye on protecting Vietnamese fishing boats operating there.
Vietnam, however, has few vessels capable of monitoring and chasing intruders.
It dispatched a fact-finding team to Japan in July to learn how to enhance its patrol activities.
According to sources close to the Japanese and Vietnamese governments, Japan may also provide patrol boats to the Vietnam Marine Police.
When the Japan Coast Guard Academy's training vessel Kojima made a port call at Da Nang in central Vietnam in late July, Vietnamese Marine Police officials called for closer cooperation between their respective entities during the welcoming ceremony.
The Vietnamese officials showered praise on their Japanese counterparts for the expertise they had shown in the field of maritime security.
The Vietnam Marine Police, part of the navy under the current setup, will be transformed into the Vietnam Coast Guard in October.
The move is apparently intended to make Hanoi eligible to acquire new patrol vessels and other equipment from Japan within the framework of Japanese aid programs. Japan's ODA is available for only nonmilitary purposes.
Other countries in Southeast Asia, as well as Africa, are also turning to Japan to gather expertise and learn from its training programs.
The Japan Coast Guard has devised programs that are aimed at chasing off pirates in the Strait of Malacca, a vital route for Japanese oil tankers.
Japan provided the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia with equipment and programs to train personnel needed in rescue operations in the event of attacks by pirates or accidents.
In 2007, Japan offered Indonesia three patrol vessels, each newly built and measuring 27 meters, under a bilateral agreement that they would be used exclusively against pirates in the Strait of Malacca, terrorists, smugglers and other criminal elements at sea.
Japan and other countries in Southeast Asia began to coordinate their efforts after China started to assert its maritime presence in the region.
Last year, Chinese surveillance vessels and Philippine patrol boats squared off against each other over a territorial feud concerning the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.
Vietnamese fishermen have also repeatedly complained about damage to their vessels from Chinese boats in waters around the Paracel Islands. In March, a Chinese vessel opened fire on a Vietnamese fishing boat.
Providing Vietnam with coast guard cutters is an "issue of great interest" to Abe, said a source in the Japanese government.
Japan also reached an agreement in March with Sri Lanka to deepen collaboration in maritime security, mirroring Tokyo's growing concern about China's heightened presence in South Asia.
China has offered assistance to projects to build ports in Bangladesh and Pakistan, a move that is widely seen as aimed at containing regional rival India.
Moves by Japan to beef up coast guard capabilities of friendly nations are not limited to Asia, however.
In May, it started working with Djibouti to provide the country in East Africa with strengthened maritime security. This followed the dispatch of Japanese Self-Defense Forces and Coast Guard officers to Djibouti in an effort to clamp down on pirates off Somalia.
Demand for well-equipped and well-trained coast guard officers has surged in many parts of the world in recent years.
How to prepare for potential assaults by terrorists and pirates constitute two of the most pressing issues for coastal nations, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a government-affiliated aid agency.
At the same time, many emerging economies are scrambling to exploit marine resources in their local waters. This has created a need for swift patrol boats that can protect rich fishing grounds.
Japan is currently in closed-door talks with the Philippines to supply it with new 100-meter-long patrol vessels.
The idea is the envy of the Philippine Navy, whose main force comprises a fleet of 110-meter class vessels previously used by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Japanese shipbuilding industry hails the mounting foreign interest in acquiring models similar to Japan Coast Guard vessels. Shipbuilders have struggled to land contracts after the global economic downturn in 2008. A stronger yen had long put Japanese shipbuilders at disadvantage against rivals in China and South Korea.
In many countries, upgrading coast guard vessels is typically a lot cheaper than refitting navy vessels.
In the case of Japan, the annual budget assigned to the its coast guard is roughly equal to a single Aegis-equipped destroyer held by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.
That is partly why developing countries, with limited funds, are eager to enhance equipment for their coast guards, rather than their naval forces.
Increasing demand for the Japan Coast Guard's assistance, however, comes at a delicate time for Tokyo, which has a bitter sovereignty dispute with Beijing over the Senkaku Islands.
The Japan Coast Guard does not have a sufficient budget or staff to fully respond to new requests for help and cooperation overseas because it is busy patrolling waters around the Senkakus in the East China Sea.
When it joined efforts to crack down on pirates operating off Somalia, it called on other African countries seeking Japan's assistance to cooperate with it in saving money and manpower. Being based in Djibouti to undertake training programs elsewhere in Africa reflected this thinking.
The Japan Coast Guard sent staff members to Djibouti early this month to instruct authorities there how to take perpetrators into custody and other key procedures.
Kenya and Tanzania have sounded out Japan for possible assistance in maritime security.
Members of the maritime police in Kenya also attended the session in Djibouti.
(This article was written by Manabu Sasaki, correspondent in Hanoi, and Yoshihiro Makino, correspondent.)
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