The dawn of Vietnam-Japan diplomatic relations

Published: 21/03/2010 05:00



Thirty-five years ago, Vo Van Sung and Yoshihiro Nakayama signed a document to establish diplomatic relations between Vietnam and Japan. On the occasion of the 35th anniversary of Vietnam-Japan diplomatic ties, VietNamNet would like to introduce the ambassador’s memoirs.

The signing ceremony to establish Vietnam-Japan diplomatic relations at the Democratic Republic of Vietnam Embassy in Paris on September 21, 1973. The two delegation leaders, Ambassador Vo Van Sung (right) and Ambassador Yoshihiro Nakayama, are shaking hands.

In Japan and other countries, many movements were launched to call for peace for Vietnam. Representatives of the governments of Japan and other countries used Paris as the place to contact representatives of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to establish diplomatic relations. Depending on each country’s situation, some promoted this process openly, for example Switzerland in 1971, while some did it secretly, like Japan.

At that time, I was a member of the negotiation mission led by Mr. Le Duc Tho and the Chief Representative of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s government in France. In late 1971, Miyake, Head of the Asia Agency under the Japanese Foreign Ministry, flew from Tokyo to Paris to meet with Nguyen Tuan Lieu, the counselor of the General Representative Agency of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s government in France, and suggested contact between Tokyo and Hanoi. Beginning in early 1973, the Japanese Ambassador to France, Yoshihiro Nakayama, and I met many times to discuss in detail the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

On September 21, 1973, the two sides met at the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s Embassy in Paris to officially sign a document to establish bilateral diplomatic ties.

Japan delivered statements to explain its policy of support for the US in the war in Vietnam. After criticising that policy, I told Ambassador Nakayama: “Japan surely sympathises with Vietnam’s cause of national liberation and independence because Japan also has a history of respectful independence and protecting its sovereignty. Moreover, with achievements gained in the Meiji Ishin Revolution, Japan has become the only developed country in Asia.”

Ambassador Nakayama responded: “Japan’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Vietnam is facing many difficulties. I’m a diplomat who represents the Japanese government and my duty is communicating my country’s points of view. Though I may have to resign from my post, I will say that I completely agree with your perspective.”

Overcoming challenges in early years of renovation

Ambassador Vo Van Sung (sitting, left) visited former Prime Minister Tanaka and his wife. In the second row are PM Tanaka’s daughter and her husband. The daughter became the Foreign Minister in the cabinet of former PM Junichiro Koizumi. Over 35 years ago, former PM Tanaka decided to establish diplomatic relations with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Looking back on the past 35 years, I’m very happy and moved by what I have witnessed in Vietnam-Japan relations, especially from 1988 to 1992, a relatively important period in the relationship between the two countries.

I would like to especially mention persons on both sides who have devoted their visions and hearts to carrying the Vietnam-Japan relations through the difficult period till Japan resumed its ODA grant to Vietnam in 1991 and to the afterward development period.

The first person is former Party Secretary General, Nguyen Van Linh, who I call Muoi Cuc. In 1998, I was one of a few last ambassadors to Japan whose credentials were sent to the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, who reigned in Japan for the longest time and died in 1988. Japanese called their Emperor Mikado so the death of Mikado Hirohito after 60 years on the throne was a very important event. The Japanese government invited all countries with relationships with Japan to send representatives to the funeral.

I was appointed Vietnam’s representative to the funeral. I immediately called Vietnam proposing to send a representative of higher level to the funeral. There were different ideas about this so I directly called Muoi Cuc, suggesting that Vietnam should send at least its Vice President to attend the funeral. Muoi Cuc agreed and assigned Vice Chairman of the State Council Le Quang Dao to the funeral. When Emperor Akihito came to throne, Vietnam also sent its Vice Chairman of the State Council Nguyen Huu Tho to attend the coronation. Japan highly appreciated Vietnam’s moves.

After the two above facts, many Japanese senior officials, such as former Prime Ministers and leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party, who my predecessors found difficult to meet, warmly received me. Thanks to that, I got acquainted with Michio Watanabe, an important leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, who was forecast to hold the post of Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister later.

It is a little known fact that Michio Watanabe and I shared the same idea of making Vietnam and Japan the leading partners of each other. We discussed a meeting between Michio Watanabe and Phan Van Khai and then I arranged a meeting for him and Nguyen Van Linh.

The memorable meeting

The memorable meeting on September 6, 1989, which started the process to resume Japan’s ODA for Vietnam. From the left: Chairman of the State Planning Council Phan Van Khai, Japanese Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe and Ambassador Vo Van Sung.

Phan Van Khai, who was the Chairman of the National Planning Committee at that time, went to Japan to see Michio Watanabe in September 1989. Khai, Watanabe and I sat together to discuss bilateral cooperation and we reached a unanimous agreement. After this meeting, Michio Watanabe told me that if Vietnamese senior officials agreed with Khai’s viewpoints that were presented at the above meeting, the “three of us” would be able to do what we want. Since then, he has called me a “sworn brother’’.

In 1990, Michio Watanabe was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and then Foreign Minister. He told me that an important mission that he actively promoted was resuming ODA for Vietnam as of 1991. He came to Vietnam to see Nguyen Van Linh and other senior officials to realise that mission.

In 1992, I was critically ill so I resigned because I thought that the relationship between Vietnam and Japan were about to strongly develop so a sick ambassador was unfit. Before officially informing the Japanese government about my leaving, I proposed a meeting with Watanabe to privately ask him about his plan to resume cooperation with Vietnam.

A week later, Michio Watanabe met me and said: “This is something that no foreign ambassador has asked me about and no Deputy Prime Minister of Japan has told a foreign ambassador. But I would like to tell my “sworn brother” that we have together planted the tree, and as it is bearing fruit you have to go home, so I “privately” tell you and ask you to please tell it to Mr. Nguyen Van Linh and Phan Van Khai Khai and request them to not diffuse it till this plan is implemented.”

I promised to keep th esecret of this plan till it was done but I asked him to allow me to tell it to Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach. He agreed and disclosed that as of the 1992 fiscal year, Japan would resume its ODA grant to Vietnam, with around $500 million in the first year and the grant would increase annually to reach $1 billion in the tenth year.

Looking back on the past 15 years, we can see that Japan has maintained and increased ODA to Vietnam as Michio Wantanabe revealed. In September 1995, when he was about to assume the Prime Minister post, Watanabe died of sickness. I have kept my promise to him and didn’t popularise this “private story”.

Since the visit to Japan in late 2006, Nguyen Tan Dung, the current Prime Minister, and the former Japanese Prime Minister Abe have brought the Vietnam-Japan relations to a strategic partnership.

I fully agree with the policy and determination of our leader in developing multilateral international relations, including the strategic partnership with Japan. Experiencing 35 years of official diplomatic relations, together with several centuries of exchange between the two countries, since the 16th century, passing historical upheavals, the two nations gradually have come to understand each other and I believe that understanding will expand more and more.

Vo Van Sung (former Vietnamese Ambassador to Japan)

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