By Phuong Nguyen
The revelation on March 11 that Washington expressed concern to Hanoi about Russia’s use of Cam Ranh Bay to assist its bomber flights in the Asia Pacific has again prompted a debate on the role of the port in quickly-warming U.S.-Vietnam defense ties. It became clear that Washington feels uncomfortable about the role Russia still occupies in Vietnam, an increasingly important U.S. partner in Southeast Asia, when Commander of the U.S. Army Pacific General Vincent Brooks confirmed that Russian planes circling Guam recently were refueled by tankers at Cam Ranh Bay.
Realistically, it makes the most sense for the United States to focus on forging its own well-established security ties with Vietnam rather than taking on Russia’s position in Vietnam at this time.
Cam Ranh Bay is a deep-water harbor in central Vietnam alongside the South China Sea and home to a massive U.S. base during the Vietnam War. Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta said during his visit to the port in 2012 that, “access for United States naval ships into this facility is a key component,” of U.S.-Vietnam relations.
Following Russia’s departure from Cam Ranh Bay in 2002, Hanoi announced that the military section of the base would not be opened for foreign use again. The then-Soviet Union had leased Cam Ranh Bay after Hanoi’s war with the United States ended in 1975, and turned it into the largest Soviet naval base abroad.
Yet since 2010, U.S. officials have watched as Russia has been accorded increasingly special treatment at Cam Ranh Bay. Russia is in the process of building a submarine fleet for Vietnam’s fast-expanding navy, with Russian experts reportedly stationed at the base to help train the Vietnamese submarine crew. Russian personnel and ships have been upgrading the naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay and building a new submarine facility there.
In November 2014, the two countries signed an agreement that would facilitate the docking of Russian warships at Cam Ranh Bay. According to the agreement, Russian ships would simply need to give prior notice to Vietnamese authorities before calling on Cam Ranh Bay, while other foreign navies, including that of United States, would be limited to only one annual ship visit to Vietnamese ports.
The United States dispatches naval ships to the port of Danang, north of Cam Ranh Bay, annually for joint exchanges with the Vietnamese navy, Talks on increased U.S. port calls or limited U.S. access to Cam Ranh Bay, which holds a central role in Vietnam’s South China Sea strategy, have not gone forward because Vietnam says it lacks the capacity to take on greater naval engagement with the United States or handle large numbers of foreign ships visiting its ports.
This has led some U.S. officials to lament that Russia seems to get carte blanche at a facility as crucial as Cam Ranh Bay even though the United States has recently become Vietnam’s most important security partner, a trend that will likely carry forward in coming decades. Coupled with the fact that Russia’s air force activities have increased in the Asia-Pacific region amid U.S.-Russia tension over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, U.S. anxiety over Russian use of Cam Ranh Bay seems justified.
However, U.S. pressure on this issue puts Vietnam in a bind, and has the potential to stall or reverse the significant progress that has been made in normalizing ties between the two militaries.
From Hanoi’s perspective, Russia remains Vietnam’s largest arms supplier and its largest source of military technological transfer thanks to ties dating back to the Cold War. The United States, meanwhile, only partially lifted its arms embargo on Vietnam last year. From the perspective of many Vietnamese officials who fought against the United States during the war, Moscow helped train generations of Vietnamese leaders and supported Hanoi during its decades of international isolation.
Because of this, Vietnamese officials will not dislodge Russia even as they embrace partnerships with the West and liberal free-trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Hanoi has been publicly silent since Washington privately expressed its concerns about Russian use of Cam Ranh and as the story went public a few days later.
Although the United States and Vietnam have held extensive defense talks since 2008, the two sides have yet to develop a self-sustaining level of mutual trust. The perception among some Vietnamese elites that Hanoi is but a pawn in the U.S. rebalance to Asia and Washington’s great power calculus is real.
Few things are more vital to Vietnam than an independent foreign policy. Given Vietnam’s complex history, its leaders do not want their country to be caught between major powers again. Anything that resembles U.S. interference in Vietnam’s dealings with Russia could unnecessarily aggravate this fear.
While the United States should leave Russia and Vietnam to sort out their bilateral defense cooperation, Vietnam should take actions to grant the U.S. Navy more frequent port visits, including at Cam Ranh Bay. It makes little strategic sense to deny the United States access to Cam Ranh, as a greater U.S. naval presence on the western flank of the South China Sea is in the interest of both countries.
Equally important, Vietnam should clarify soon what military hardware it plans to acquire from the United States. Now that the U.S. ban on lethal arms sale has been relaxed, establishing a defense procurement relationship is the next logical step in trust building between the two militaries.
Given the laudable progress the two countries have made in recent years, this episode over Russian use of Cam Ranh Bay should not be allowed to morph into a wider misunderstanding. To continue moving U.S.-Vietnam relations forward requires U.S. respect for Vietnam’s history and a realistic understanding of where bilateral relations currently stand.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.