Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay Opens for Warship Support
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Cam Ranh Bay, a Cold War strategic chess piece, is now open for business for foreign navies interested in using the deepwater port on Vietnam’s southeastern coast facing the South China Sea.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made the announcement at the conclusion of the East Asia Summit in Hanoi on Oct. 30.
“In the center of the Cam Ranh port complex, Vietnam will stand ready to provide services to the naval ships from all countries, including submarines, when they need our services,” Dung said.
The announcement is seen by many as an effort to hobble China’s attempts to claim the South China Sea. If the U.S. and other foreign navies gain access to Cam Rahn Bay, it would have strategic ramifications that will clearly upset China.
The decision is part of a “logical, carefully plotted extension of Vietnam’s policy of multilateral political and military global engagement with its neighbors and its large powerful friends, such as the United States and India,” said Frederick Brown, a Vietnam specialist at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
This will be an effective way to improve Vietnam’s strategic position vis-à-vis China, “without rubbing China’s nose the wrong way,” he said.
Carlyle Thayer, an ASEAN specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy, agreed.
“In sum, the offer of Cam Ranh Bay to foreign navies is a master stroke of Vietnam’s omni-directional foreign policy. It will attract precisely those navies that can be expected to keep China’s naval ambitions in check,” Thayer said.
When the U.S. lost Cam Ranh Bay at the end of the Vietnam War, many U.S. political pundits expected the rise of Russian naval dominance in the South China Sea as Moscow invested millions of dollars into upgrading and expanding the facility. However, as political problems increased in Moscow in the 1990s, Russian strategists began rethinking naval basing issues and vacated in 2002.
“Many of the facilities at Cam Ranh Bay deteriorated after Russia withdrew,” Thayer said.
Now, the Vietnamese see an opportunity to improve the facilities by charging fees to foreign navies to use the port.
“Vietnam can recoup its investment on upgrading,” he said. “If Vietnam seriously develops this facility, Cam Ranh Bay could become one of the best service ports in the region.”
Assistance From Russia
Part of the upgrading will come from Russia’s agreement to sell six Kilo-class submarines to Vietnam. The deal includes a provision that Russia set up a base to berth, maintain and repair the submarines, Thayer said.
The decision to open the port as a repair hub for other navies will strengthen regional security, a U.S. defense official said.
“The U.S. Navy had used other Vietnamese ports for voyage ship repairs; adding this to the list of available ports will be a positive development,” he said.
Those who see it as a potential basing opportunity for the U.S. Navy could be disappointed.
“We have to look at the practicalities of the proposal,” said Sam Bateman, a naval security adviser at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
“If it’s just a refueling/storing stop, then it doesn’t mean anything more than what’s already available commercially from other ports in the region,” he said. “If it means a maintenance base or some sort of forwardoperating base, then this would mean the visiting navy would have some physical presence ashore at Cam Ranh Bay — even just a small personnel detachment.”
Southeast Asian navies do not really need the port, and the Australian and U.S. navies already use Singapore, he said. The one country that might find the port useful is India, but an Indian naval deployment to the area would be an “obvious provocation” for China.