Vietnam walks a thin line as American, Chinese warships make landmark port calls

By Dien Luong   October 20, 2016 | 10:38 pm PT
Vietnam walks a thin line as American, Chinese warships make landmark port calls
The USS John S. McCain at Tien Sa Port in Da Nang, visiting as part of the seventh annual Naval Engagement Activity between the US Navy and the Vietnam People's Navy.Photo by AFP/U.S. Embassy in Hanoi
‘Vietnam does not have to be a tightrope walker.’

On October 2 two American warships docked at Vietnam’s strategic naval base at Cam Ranh Bay for the first time since the war. This weekend, three Chinese warships will make a similarly unprecedented visit to the same crucial port.

Last Monday, Vietnam’s Vice Minister of National Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh reassured Cara Abercrombie, the visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, that Hanoi would support Washington’s “engagement” in the Asia-Pacific as long as it brought peace, stability and prosperity.

The statement came several days before Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte filled Beijing's Great Hall of the People with applause and laughter by announcing his "separation from the United States."

Leaning gamely on the podium, the 71-year old controversial president described the separation as both military and economic. "I have separated from them so I will be dependant on you for all time," he told the Chinese audience.

The slapstick hyperbole made light of the choices small Southeast Asian states must make. As the two major powers vie for dominance through ally states, Vietnam has pursued a delicate path between them.

“There is nothing surprising in this move,” Ngo Vinh Long, a Vietnamese professor of history at the University of Maine said in reference to the upcoming visit of Chinese warships.

“Vietnam has said many times that it would open Cam Ranh Bay to all visitors. War ships from the U.S. visited the Bay recently and so this time Chinese warships’ turn,” Long told VnExpress International. “In fact I think the coming and going of warships from different countries would enhance security in the area since they would get to know each other and would therefore, hopefully, help avoid unwanted or accidental confrontations in the open sea.”

To several other analysts, Vietnam will be the tightrope walker in the middle with China and the U.S. holding each end.

“Hanoi knows that China is watching them like a hawk,” said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert at the National War College in Washington. “I think that the Americans know that even if we dance with the Vietnamese they are watching China’s reactions over our shoulders.”

Vietnam has said recently that it would not allow other countries to set up military bases in Cam Ranh, in what appeared to be a response to Russia's attempt to reopen its Soviet-era base there.

"Vietnam's consistent policy is not to engage a military ally or engage with any country to oppose a third country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh told a news briefing in mid-October. "We will also not allow any other countries to set up a military base in Vietnam."

Cam Ranh Bay, around 354 kilometers (220 miles) north of Ho Chi Minh City, is considered the strategic deep water harbor at the center of Vietnam's military modernization and home to its fleet of modern Russian-built submarines.

Designed by the French during their colonial rule, Cam Ranh served as a regional staging point for the Russians in their 1905 war against Japan. The Japanese occupied the port during the Second World War and the U.S-backed Saigon regime exploited the bay during the Vietnam War.

Following the reunification of the country in 1975, Vietnam allowed Russian naval forces to maintain a permanent presence in the bay until 2002.

In 2011, the U.S. and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding calling for an annual port visit, but excluded Cam Ranh. In 2012, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Cam Ranh Bay, the first high-ranking American official to do so since the end of the Vietnam War.

Hanoi later turned the bay into an international port, open to all on a commercial basis. Singaporean, French and Japanese warships have made port calls in Cam Ranh since the start of the year.

Shortly after China began flexing its muscles in the South China Sea (which Vietnam calls the East Sea), in 2011 President Barack Obama announced America’s vaguely assertive plans for a strategic “pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific region.

After China towed a giant oil rig into Vietnamese waters May 2014, the U.S. has sought to remain a vocal critic of China’s claims. Beijing has dismissed Washington's statements as efforts to contain its rise.

At the end of the day, "China will always be an important factor to Vietnam, partly because of geographical, political, economic and ideological proximity,” said Long, the Vietnamese analyst.

“Vietnam does not have to be a tightrope walker, although it has to be adept in its relations with other countries," he said. "This is what diplomacy is all about and big countries like China and U.S. have had to do the same.

"Admittedly some might have tried to be intimidating either because of inferiority or superiority complex. But in general, the misuse of power usually results in the loss of power."

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