Vietnam shift could see return of US ships

Nguyen Duc De knows at first hand how alliances can change. The former Vietnamese soldier was stationed on the disputed Spratly Islands in the 1980s, when tensions with China were high following their 1979 border war, and he used to take pot shots at the Chinese marines who approached his base, pretending to be fishermen.

When diplomatic relations between the Communist neighbours were restored in the 1990s, shooting was prohibited, he says, but, as China’s economic and military might has grown over the past decade, strains over contested islands in the South China Sea have been on the rise again.

“They’re so big and we’re so small, so what can we do?” asks 50-year-old Mr De, who works as a security guard at a memorial to Vietnamese and Russian soldiers who lost their lives in the Spratly Islands and at the nearby naval and air base at Cam Ranh Bay in south-central Vietnam.

The historic military facility, located within one of Asia’s best natural harbours, is at the centre of a strategic push from Vietnam to counter China’s growing assertiveness over disputed waters in the commercially important South China Sea.

Cam Ranh Bay became a potent cold war symbol, first as an American base during the war with Communist North Vietnam, and then as a Soviet base after 1979, hosting nuclear submarines and one of the most important spying stations outside Russia.

When the Russians finally pulled out in 2002, Hanoi vowed never to let any foreign power have control of the facility. But, last year, Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam’s prime minister, said he would let foreign naval ships use the base again to dock, resupply and undergo repairs on a commercial basis.

The move may generate some cash once the now crumbling facilities are refurbished, security analysts say. However, the main justification for opening up the bay is to balance China’s naval dominance in the South China Sea, which encompasses key global trade routes, valuable fisheries and is thought to sit atop vast oil and gas reserves.

“Who’s going to take up the offer to visit?” says Carl Thayer, an expert on security in the South China Sea at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. “Precisely those navies that China doesn’t want in the South China Sea, including the Americans, Australians, South Koreans and Indians.”

One senior Asian defence official argues that the US will be keenest to take advantage of the opportunity to use the base, which offers great protection from storms and is located close to key commercial shipping lanes and the disputed islands.

“The US has a Pacific fleet and it’s been more aggressive than many other countries in trying to build closer contacts with Vietnam to counter China’s rise,” he says.

The planned reopening of the base to foreign naval vessels is a sign of the shifting global strategic sands, with China’s inexorable rise causing concern among those such as Vietnam and the US, pushing these old enemies closer together.

Although Vietnam has developed deep economic and political ties with its larger northern neighbour since the 1990s, the relationship is coming under pressure because of China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, according to Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, who studies maritime security.

China, which recently built a large naval base on Hainan island, to the north of the disputed waters, increasingly has the capability to deploy coercive diplomacy in the South China Sea, says Mr Storey. Recent incidents where Chinese maritime surveillance vessels have tried to sabotage Vietnamese oil exploration ships show Beijing also has the political will to do so.

Hanoi has responded by seeking to internationalise the territorial dispute, calling on other claimants to some of the contested Paracel and Spratly Islands – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan – to hold joint talks and attempting to bring in the US as a mediator.

Despite macroeconomic difficulties, Vietnam has boosted its spending on military hardware, agreeing to buy a number of Sukhoi SU-30 jetfighters and six Kilo-class diesel submarines from Russia.

Once delivered in the next year or two, the submarines are expected to be based at Cam Ranh Bay, which analysts say Russia has agreed to refurbish as part of the $2bn contract to supply the craft. Echoing the patriotism of many Vietnamese, Mr De says he does not want to see any foreign forces in the bay.

But changing dynamics of global security mean that, in a twist of fate, American and Russian ships may soon be back at Cam Ranh Bay, this time working alongside each other and the Vietnamese to counterbalance an ever stronger China.

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