YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The United States flag once flew over 25,000 acres of airfield and port facilities at Cam Ranh Bay, one of the military’s largest bases at the height of the Vietnam War.
Although it is doubtful that the valuable South China Sea port would be shared by U.S. forces, a hearty welcome from Vietnam to visiting U.S. warships and aircraft is growing increasingly likely.
When China moved a $1 billion oil rig in May into waters claimed by Vietnam, the ensuing sea standoff accelerated a warming U.S.-Vietnam military relationship like few other events could have, defense analysts and diplomats told Stars and Stripes following a regional security summit this month.
China’s claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea, largely based on what it calls historical discoveries, threatens Vietnamese claims to resource-rich waters and islands near their continental shelf. Although the U.S. takes no position on territorial sovereignty, Vietnam’s interests — along with those of several other nations bordering the South China Sea — align with U.S. principles of freedom of navigation and international law.
The United States also wants to protect what is, according to a 2012 U.S. estimates, $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade transiting along South China Sea shipping lanes.
“There have been remarkable strides already made in last few years, and it’s been very rapid since 2010 in terms of U.S.-Vietnam military relationships,” said Christian Le Mière, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Continued assertiveness by China in the South China Sea will only further convince the Vietnamese that they should be expanding their international alliances, and that includes the United States.”
The U.S. Navy has been making port visits to Da Nang in recent years, engaging in activities that started with sports and ship tours with Vietnamese sailors, and developed into a joint search-and-rescue exercise last year. Greater U.S. Navy access to Cam Ranh Bay, further south near Nha Trang, would represent a bigger step in the military-to-military relationship.
The deep water port is about seven miles from open sea and is capable of accommodating aircraft carriers, and its facilities recently underwent millions of dollars in upgrades. Its airport is used by both Vietnamese military forces and by commercial carriers.
U.S. Military Sealift Command ships have visited for repairs — the first came along with former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 2012 — but no active U.S. Navy ship has visited the port since the Vietnam War.
On May 31, with senior Chinese military officials in attendance at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore, Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Phùng Quang Thanh touted Cam Ranh Bay to all comers, commercial and military.
“Vietnam sees that it is a waste if [Cam Ranh Bay] is not put into use, so we are considering our own investments, management and construction of the port to provide services to ships from all countries,” Thanh said.
However, analysts agree that Vietnam will take a cautious approach to engagement with the U.S., balancing the relationship with other large powers. Russia remains Vietnam’s most important defense supplier. The Russians are building six Kilo-class submarines for the Vietnamese, and they’ll have a regular presence at Cam Ranh Bay as well.
Most analysts don’t see the Russian presence as a sticking point. But U.S. rotational basing at Cam Ranh Bay, similar to the agreement struck earlier this year granting U.S. access to Philippine-run bases, is out of the question for now.
Instead, the U.S. and Vietnam can send an effective message to China though regular port visits, refueling stops and other measures, said Carlyle Thayer, a professor emeritus at University of New South Wales in Australia and Southeast Asia analyst who was in Hanoi when the China confrontation began.
Vietnam paved the way for such engagement on May 20 in a little-noted, but potentially important decision to join the Proliferation Security Initiative, Thayer said.
PSI was created by the U.S and Poland in 2003 as an international effort to interdict vessels carrying weapons of mass destruction, and it has since garnered signatories from more than 100 countries.
Vietnam joined with China in strenuously arguing that PSI violated international law, until Hanoi changed its mind last month.
“It’s a bait on the hook to request the United States to assist in standing up their ability to conduct maritime reconnaissance and surveillance, and link to shore-based radars and other technical equipment,” Thayer said.
The additional U.S. presence could force China to act less aggressively in the area, while at the same time allowing Vietnam to show that it took no provocative action against China.
Although China and Vietnam have each accused each other of ramming ships and stoking tensions, it is clear that Vietnam can’t afford to be the aggressor against the much larger Chinese fleet.
Vietnam’s functional coast guard is 40-odd vessels and most of them are relatively small, at 400 tons or less. China’s coast guard includes dozens of ships more than twice that size, and that’s assuming China sticks to a pledge of not using its navy — though Vietnam says China has already sent warships to the oil rig confrontation.
“[Vietnam’s fleet] is like a junior varsity team playing football against NFL pros,” Thayer said. “Guess who’s going to be pushed down the field?”