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.
The United States
By most metrics, the United States is the frontrunner for regaining base access to Cam Ranh. Since normalizing diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995, bilateral economic and security ties have steadily grown in importance. In 2014 the United States relaxed an arms embargo in place since the 1980s, and there is strong support for lifting the ban on selling lethal weapons to Hanoi as well. Despite being bitter Cold War foes, most Vietnamese hold a positive view of the United States. On a strategic level, Vietnam remains suspicious of China’s long-term intentions and sees the United States as an important security partner.
Granting the United States access to Cam Ranh would be a major symbolic affirmation of a budding alliance between Washington and Hanoi, and would neutralize the military value of many of China’s installations in the South China Sea. On the other hand, it would also likely precipitate a serious deterioration in Sino-Vietnamese relations. At the very least, China could impose major economic punishment on Vietnamese businesses. Since the Vietnamese leadership likely believes that U.S.-Chinese relations are on an inexorable path towards greater competition, Vietnam would prefer to be courted by both Washington and Beijing rather than be forced to lean decisively towards the United States. Hanoi also has some residual doubts about the level of U.S. resolve in the South China Sea. Thus, the cost of inviting the United States back to Cam Ranh outweighs the current benefits.