US and Russia Bicker over Cam Ranh Bay: Vietnam Secretly Pleased

Yesterday, officials at the U.S. State Department released a decree to Vietnam, demanding that it stop allowing Russia to use the Cam Ranh Bay area as a “refueling station” for its fleet of strategic bombers. The U.S. considers the Russian bombers circling U.S. military installations in Guam to be a credible form of provocation. Russia immediately issued its response, saying that the U.S. is committing an act of “unwarranted provocation” against Russia by having such demands, and that Vietnam would never take orders from the United States.

Throughout these acts of megaphone diplomacy between the United States and Russia, media outlets have begun adding their own interpretation of events. Some claim that in the strategic chess match between the U.S. and Russia, the Cam Ranh Bay is becoming Vietnam’s new hot spot. The escalating confrontation between the United States and Russia is resulting in military one-upmanship on both sides, and Hanoi is swinging the Cam Ranh Bay area in front of the two salivating powers like bait.

Launching from fields in the Middle East, Russian bombers go on to circle the Guam islands while relying on the Cam Ranh Bay area as a pit stop. Russia wants to present to the U.S. the image of a strong foreign presence in the Vietnam area. In its rhetoric, the United States is diametrically opposed to Russia’s activities, but its words also reveal its dissatisfaction toward Vietnam.

Both the U.S. and Russia have been beating their drums, but Hanoi’s officials have so far remained rather silent throughout these events. It appears as though they are in some kind of trouble, but they are actually quite pleased with the events that are unfolding. The thing they are most pleased about is that their Cam Ranh Bay area can be used as an effective bargaining piece between the great nations of Russia and the United States. Vietnam is acutely aware of the strategic value of the Cam Ranh Bay area. It has been referred to as the the No. 1 naval port in Asia. It controls the intersection of traffic between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and thus represents a zone of enormous tactical advantage. Vietnam has long known that the Cam Ranh Bay was traditionally used by both the Russian and U.S. military, and that both of these countries have political and military agendas for returning to the region. During the Vietnam War, the United States spent $300 million transforming the Cam Ranh Bay into a large scale naval and air force base. At the time, it was possible to simultaneously dock hundreds of aircraft carriers and other heavy class naval vessels in Cam Ranh Bay. In 1975, the Vietnam War ended and a dejected United States retreated home. In the years that followed, relations between the Soviet Union and Vietnam began to thaw and, in 1979, Vietnam leased the Cam Ranh Bay to both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. The lease was 25 years in length. In 2002, owing to economic difficulties and strategic cutbacks, Russia announced that it would conclude the lease agreement with Vietnam and withdrew its forces from the area.

In recent years, owing to the various needs of Russia and the U.S., the Cam Ranh Bay has become a contested topic. In 2012, when former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Vietnam, he made a special trip to the Cam Ranh Bay to investigate the former U.S. military base in the area. In July of the same year, Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang visited Russia, and this resulted in Russia setting up a naval repair facility in the Cam Ranh Bay area. Thereafter, in November of last year both countries also signed a treaty to simplify the passage of Russian warships into the Cam Ranh Bay.

Throughout this war of words between the U.S. and Russia over the Cam Ranh Bay, Hanoi is refusing to take an official position, and there is good reason for this. Vietnam wants to be a servant with two masters, having a finger in two pies by playing for the advantages that both Russia and the United States can offer it. This is a very good play by Hanoi.

Vietnam has enjoyed long-standing cordial relations with both the USSR and the Russian Federation. In terms of energy, security and military needs Vietnam relies on Russia a lot. Its entire military stock comes from Russia, and it was only a year ago that Vietnam imported three kilo-class submarines from Russia; there are even two more scheduled for delivery this year. In this kind of relationship, Hanoi cannot really say no to Moscow lightly, and so it goes without saying that Vietnam would permit Russian bombers to use the Cam Ranh Bay area for refueling.

What does a U.S. presence in Vietnam now mean? These two countries once fought in a calamitous war that ended with millions of lives being lost in Vietnam. However, in recent years, owing to the political and economic needs of both countries, relations have warmed rather quickly. Since the United States announced its “Asia pivot” strategy, the U.S. and Vietnam have increasingly engaged in all kinds of mutually beneficial undertakings. The United States is optimistic that Vietnam can become a helping hand in advancing their strategic plans, while Vietnam also hopes to get U.S. support in dealing with its issues in the South China Sea. Cam Ranh Bay has become the bond bringing the two sides together. If Hanoi lets the United States uses the Cam Rahn Bay area for its purposes, either overtly or covertly, it will be a decision that is definitely worthy of our attention. The general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam will visit the United States later this year. I expect the Cam Ranh Bay issue will most certainly be a topic he will discuss during his meeting with President Obama.

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