This Vietnamese Base Will Decide the South China Sea’s Fate

by Yevgen Sautin / May 8, 2016 /

Tensions are running higher in the South China Sea as it becomes increasingly evident that China’s land reclamation and military buildup represents a concerted policy by Beijing to carve out a large exclusive economic and strategic domain for itself. The situation could further deteriorate if Beijing decides that with the United States absorbed by a presidential race for the ages, the time is right to further consolidate its hold on the disputed territories. No matter what China’s next steps are, it is important for U.S. policymakers to have an accurate understanding of what Southeast Asian states are willing and not willing to do in solving their territorial disputes with China. This is particularly true in the case of Vietnam.

Vietnam is the most capable and determined Southeast Asian state to challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese Navy fought several bloody skirmishes with the PLA over the Spratly Islands, and has been coordinating with other neighboring navies to carry out joint operations near the disputed reefs and shoals. Although China has been more provocative as of late, Vietnam also has a history of carrying out bold moves to stake claims in disputed waters. Lastly, Vietnam’s leaders are less likely to give in to Chinese pressure to abandon multilateral efforts to solve the dispute in favor of one-on-one talks that Beijing could readily dominate.

Vietnam is also home to the Cam Ranh Bay naval base, which is considered one of the best deep-water ports in all of Southeast Asia. The port’s strategic value is further enhanced by an adjacent airport suitable for landing heavy transport planes and strategic bombers. If a major naval power gained permanent access to the base, it would be difficult for any other country to exercise sole control over the South China Sea, even if that country held most of the disputed islands in question.

Cam Ranh’s History

Cam Ranh was used by the French and Japanese navies during their respective periods of colonial rule and occupation. The modern base was built by the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. As the war intensified, the base steadily grew in importance. Cam Ranh served as a major logistics hub, a tactical fighter base and the primary location for treating injured U.S. soldiers. Cam Ranh was handed over to the South Vietnamese in 1973 as part of a general U.S. drawdown. Two years later, the base fell to the advancing North Vietnamese army.

Much to the disappointment of the Soviet Union, Vietnam initially declined to lease the base to the Soviet Navy at the end of the Vietnam War. It would take the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, and the massive Soviet military airlift to aid the Vietnamese army, for Hanoi to agree to a twenty-five-year lease of Cam Ranh’s facilities to the USSR. The Soviets moved quickly to expand the base, making it the largest Soviet foreign installation outside of eastern Europe. In addition to being a naval hub, Cam Ranh was used for signals intelligence against both the United States and China.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had little need for Cam Ranh and the base was allowed to fall into a major state of disrepair by the time Russia left it in 2002. Since then, the Vietnamese government modernized the port and has allowed multiple navies to call on Cam Ranh— setting the stage for intense speculation about its future. Read more…




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