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Vietnam’s open port policy: strategy for keeping China at bay

Reading Time: 3 mins

In Brief

Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay has opened up to foreign navy vessels after eight years of closure. Read in context, this decision is neither sudden nor unexpected. Why? Because the bay’s opening is part of Vietnam’s strategy to counteract Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

At the ASEAN Regional Forum in July 2010, Secretary Clinton offered to facilitate a multilateral dialogue between ASEAN and China to solve territorial disputes in the South China Sea.


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Geng Yangsheng, the Chinese Ministry of Defence spokesman, objected to her suggestion, arguing that bilateral negotiations between China and the individual ASEAN countries are the best — and only — way to approach the issue. And while the US was excluded from ASEAN-China discussions regarding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, it was soon invited to rejoin the conversation with the opening of Cam Ranh Bay.

While Chinese observers may perceive the American participation in the South China Sea discussions as an attack on China, Southeast Asian nations are starting to see US involvement as the solution to Chinese aggression.

Cam Ranh Bay, 290 kilometres northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, is one of the best deepwater shelters in Southeast Asia. At Cam Ranh, nations can repair ships and fuel aircraft carriers. They can also establish a geostrategic presence, as the bay is located near key shipping lanes in the South China Sea. In the past, the bay has long been prized by the great powers: the Russian fleet anchored at the bay prior to the Battle of Tsushima, the French used it as a naval base for their forces in Indochina, the Japanese used it to prepare for their invasion of Malaysia in 1942, and the Americans used it to conduct aerial surveillance of South Vietnam’s coastal waters.

But since the Soviet withdrawal in 2002, the Vietnamese government has not opened Cam Ranh Bay to foreign use. The opening of the bay is a timely reaction to regional developments. It follows the recent celebration of 15 years of Vietnamese-American diplomatic relations. It also comes amid Vietnamese concerns over increasing Chinese assertiveness on the high seas after the Chinese recently arrested, though later released, nine Vietnamese fishermen near the South China Sea.

On 28 January 2011, the Chinese and Vietnamese announced their intention to hold a new round of talks on territorial disputes in the sea. Vietnam, although a much smaller actor in comparison to China, knows that it retains a strong voice in this theatre, and, more importantly, knows how and when to project its voice. Nguyen Van Tho, the Vietnamese Ambassador to China, told Chinese reporters that he is ‘optimistic about this issue.’

And while Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung now offers the bay to ‘all countries … when they need [Vietnam’s] services,’ the decision is a strong indication of a Vietnamese and broader Southeast Asian desire to keep the United States close by.

Ultimately, China’s challenge to gaining sovereignty and claiming territorial integrity over the South China Sea is ASEAN, not the United States. Even if China were to successfully limit American involvement in regional issues, Southeast Asian nations will not yield to China’s influence when their interests are at stake. Southeast Asian nations will be quick to identify their interests, assert their claims and use their resources and relationships for their own benefit — bringing the US back into the picture is evidence of such maneuvering at work.

Jennifer Chen is an intern at the Southeast Asia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC.

2 responses to “Vietnam’s open port policy: strategy for keeping China at bay”

  1. Vietnam’s strategy may or may not necessarily work.
    Russia is in the picture as an important player in the background, though so far many people have not mentioned it.
    Further, as the relative strategic strengths between the US and China shift, both will rethink their own strategies, or will have to do so.
    In such a big theatre with the US, China and Russia in play, any very short term strategies may not be consistent with longer term interests.
    Although history has not always shown to be rational or planned in any rational manner, sometimes history has some inevitability.
    There are many issues and areas in which bilateral dealings have to be done.

  2. edited:

    Vietnam’s announcement that it would open Cam Ranh Bay to all navies of the world was to me unexpected. Cam Ranh Bay has fallen into disrepair since the Russians departed. I doubt it has the capacity to repair ships (that is being done furtner north at Van Phong bay by Huyndai and Vinashin, or refuel aircraft carriers. A lot has to be done to improve the infrastructure. The announcement to open Cam Ranh Bay did not result in the US being invited to rejoin discussions on a code of conduct or any other discussion on the South China Sea. Assistant Secretary of State Kurl Campbell has acknowledeged in his words. to be frank, no one wants the US to facilitate discussions. Concern by some ASEAN members of offending China kept references to the South China Sea out of the joint communique following last year’s 2nd ASEAN-US leaders summit. Yes – Vietnam and the US celebrated 15 years of diplomatic relations (Vietnam and China have just celebrated 60 years). The much vaunted visit of the USS John McCain to Da Nang led to “naval activities” (not exercises) while the McCain was berthed (firefighting and exchange of receipes!). A Chinese vessel also docked around that time. This report is myopic – Vietnam wants the US and other navies to call in. As I noted in a recent interview, who will come? Precisely those navies that China does not want in the South China Sea.

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