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Spratlys > News > English News > December 2000

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Vietnam: Cam Ranh Bay Manoeuvres

By Nayan Chanda/HANOI and HONOLULU - FEER - Issue cover-dated Dec. 28, 2000 - Jan. 4, 2001

Russia, the United States and China jockey for position with Vietnam as it decides the future of its naval and air base on the South China Sea

IN THE SPRING OF 1979, a Soviet navy fleet sailed into Cam Ranh Bay to establish what became Moscow's largest naval base and staging area outside the Soviet Union. With Moscow's lease since 1978 due to expire in 2004, the future of Cam Ranh Bay is now being debated. And its fate may reflect much more than just what happens to one of the finest deep-water shelters in Southeast Asia.

Hanoi has a crucial decision to make: to keep its best port and the adjoining air base as a military centre or to develop it as a commercial venture for foreign vessels, including even American warships. The choice will be a clear signal of whether communist-run Vietnam will stick to a largely state-dominated economy and a wary foreign policy closely allied to China, or shift to a more open-door economic policy and broader relations with the West.

Cam Ranh Bay first came to international prominence in 1905 when a Tsarist fleet stopped there on a seven-month voyage en route to defeat by Japan at the Battle of Tsushima. That battle ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, forcing Russia to abandon its Far East expansionism. Half a century later, the United States transformed Cam Ranh Bay into a major naval and air base for the Vietnam War. At the height of the conflict in 1969, Lyndon Johnson inspected it as the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam. In 1972 the Americans handed it over to their South Vietnamese allies. Three years later North Vietnamese forces captured it.

Conflict between Vietnam and its oldest enemy, China, plus Hanoi's need for big-power protection, allowed the Russians to return in 1978. They built an electronic listening post and based warships, long-range bombers and fighters at Cam Ranh Bay, turning it into Moscow's beachhead in Southeast Asia. The break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s however brought hard times. The Vietnamese have since taken over control of much of the port area as the zone used by the Russians has shrunk. Other than occasional calls by Russian navy vessels, only some 30 Russians maintain the signals intelligence station, periodically tracking ships in the South China Sea.

With renewed expressions of Russian, Chinese and American interest, Vietnamese officials say Cam Ranh Bay has been the subject of lengthy discussion in recent months. The lease is high on the agenda for Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Vietnam early in 2001, probably in March. The U.S. has shown interest in a ship visit and is expected to renew that proposal when Adm. Dennis Blair, commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, visits Vietnam in early January.


Analysts say that Putin is keen to retain Russia's hold on the bay despite his country's economic problems. Alexander Belkin, a senior executive at the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, a think-tank in Moscow, likens Russia's relationship with Cam Ranh Bay to travelling with a suitcase with a broken handle: "It's hard to carry but difficult to abandon."

Belkin, a former Soviet armed forces officer, foresees some future military value for the base but says maintenance costs are high. The intelligence station could be used for training but any information it gathers wouldn't be of much use, he says, because it will be years before the Russian navy returns in force to the region.

Putin however is eager to please the military, so he wants to keep Cam Ranh Bay. Vietnamese officials say that Moscow's desire to hang on to the base helps account for its willingness to resolve its debt dispute with Vietnam in September. The problem had bedevilled ties for almost a decade. As part of the agreement, a senior Vietnamese official says, Moscow wrote off up to 85% of the debt. Russia had initially claimed $11 billion based on Soviet-era valuations.

But continued Russian control of the base faces some opposition in Vietnam. A senior Vietnamese Foreign Ministry official says Moscow pays virtually nothing to use the port for merchant-ship repairs and that the large, deep and strategically situated harbour is an important asset that Vietnam as a poor country cannot afford to let sit idle. Yet it's unlikely that anyone else will be allowed to operate in Cam Ranh Bay before 2004, the official says. Vietnam's conservative old-guard leaders are particularly sentimental about past Russian support and don't want to offend its principal arms supplier.

The official notes that the Chinese have inquired about the state of Cam Ranh Bay and expressed interest in developing it. Carlyle Thayer of Honolulu's Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies says that some companies owned by the People's Liberation Army may like to get involved but don't have much chance of success.

Still, in a surprising development that reflects the extent of normalization between Beijing and Hanoi, a Chinese naval delegation paid a friendship visit to Vietnam's Military Regions Five and Seven in November. It was the first such Chinese trip to the particularly sensitive Region Seven, which includes Cam Ranh Bay and the disputed Spratly Islands. Neither were apparently on the Chinese itinerary.


To the interest of analysts, Vietnam's media reported the visit but no mention of it was made in China's state-controlled press. A Vietnamese official says that Hanoi may first ask Chinese ships to visit Cam Ranh Bay before extending an invitation to Washington. That intention, a former U.S. official says, may help explain China's public silence about the November mission--Beijing doesn't want to go ahead with its own ship visit to Cam Ranh Bay if it believes that Hanoi only wants it to pave the way for a U.S. port call. Having allowed the Chinese navy in, Vietnam could argue that it was only being even-handed. But "the Chinese are too smart to be played by the Vietnamese," says Kurt Campbell, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defence who has dealt with Vietnam since 1995.

On possible U.S. involvement in Cam Ranh Bay, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson says flatly: "We have no aspirations to use that facility." He adds it is more likely that Vietnam will use it for business rather than military purposes. In Honolulu, a senior official at the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Command says: "We are not pressing for a ship visit. There is no urgency."

But other knowledgeable Americans confirm that there is U.S. interest in their ships calling at the port. Senator John Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran and key player in improving U.S. relations with Vietnam, says: "Having access to Cam Ranh Bay is not critical but it's a convenience for us to be able to drop anchor on the way from Japan to the Middle East rather than go to Guam."He adds that the Vietnamese envisage opening Cam Ranh Bay to cruise ships, but access for U.S. navy vessels will be difficult in view of Hanoi's deep suspicion of American intentions. One example of such distrust: U.S. teams working to recover the remains of American servicemen in Vietnam are barred from using U.S. military communications. They have to rent satellite telephones from Hanoi.

The caution of Vietnam's top leaders isn't matched by some impatient younger officials, who see valuable real estate being wasted. Some planners believe it is foolish to leave the port and runway virtually unused while the country needs to boost tourism and exports. A Western diplomat says a senior official of Khanh Hoa province, which includes Cam Ranh Bay, complained to him that while the base airstrip was empty, large numbers of tourists couldn't reach the fabled white-sand beaches of nearby Nha Trang because the provincial airport can only handle small planes.

Kerry says the U.S. and Vietnam have quietly discussed the possibility of a U.S. port call but "the issue is China"--referring to Hanoi's anxiety about annoying Beijing. China invaded Vietnam in 1979 to teach it a lesson for its 1978 invasion of Cambodia. In addition, the conservative leaders of Hanoi want to avoid any entanglement with the United States. But at the same time they want the U.S. to be active in the region as a stabilizing power. Campbell, the former defence official, says that in quiet meetings in Hanoi, Vietnamese officials often impress on him how important it is that the U.S. stays engaged in the region.

A senior Vietnamese official says he is frustrated that Vietnam doesn't benefit more from Cam Ranh Bay because of fears about China's reaction. "The more afraid you are of the ghost, the less often you will go out of your home," he says. Some years ago the Americans told the Vietnamese that they were interested in developing Cam Ranh Bay as an economic zone. American companies made some cost estimates but the idea failed to take off, according to U.S. officials.

"What they primarily want is economic engagement and remodelling of the facility," says Campbell, adding that the Vietnamese believe one way to achieve this would be through a relationship with the deep-pocketed U.S. military. "At the same time they very much do not want to trigger the anxiety of our friends in Beijing," he notes. So Hanoi makes it clear that Cam Ranh Bay should be open not only to U.S. ships but also to visits by vessels from other countries, including China. "But China has been, at least to date, very careful about the subtle offer by our friends," Campbell adds.

In terms of public diplomacy, Campbell says, "the Vietnamese are absolutely clear that they want no part of big-power rivalry and they don't want to be seen as an American outpost. China has also made clear to Vietnam privately that it has to handle its relationship with the U.S. carefully."

Campbell points to a political shift in Vietnam that explains a slowing of relations with the U.S. since the two countries resumed diplomatic ties in 1995. "What you see is the coming to power of very conservative officials who are both careful about the path and pace of economic reform and cautious about engagement with the U.S. for a variety of reasons," he says.

President Bill Clinton met some of those officials in November on his visit to Vietnam which, according to Communist Party officials, ran smack into a long-standing rift within the party over the pace of reform and relations with China and the United States. According to a U.S. official familiar with Clinton's talks with Party Secretary-General Le Kha Phieu, the president said the U.S. sought Vietnam's friendship for its own sake and not to form an alliance against China. The Americans hoped this direct statement might help allay suspicions.

Whether or not Hanoi was reassured, the Communist Party of Vietnam is to decide on broad policy guidelines for the next five years at a pivotal congress scheduled for March. Its outcome may determine what next happens in the now quiet waters of Cam Ranh Bay.