Vietnam‘s Cam Ranh Bay has played a central role in major regional conflicts of the past century and the US defence secretary’s visit last week put it centre stage again as the battle for influence in the South China Sea hots up.
Vietnam’s priorities for the opening up of Cam Ranh Bay are intriguing. As well as the United States navy – whose ships are already being serviced in the strategic port on the South China Sea – other navies would be welcome too, such as those of India and Russia, Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh told Hong Kong’s Sunday Morning Post recently.
It was only when he was pushed about whether the PLA’s ships would also be welcome at Cam Ranh that Vinh said: “Oh, yes, and China, too.” It was especially surprising, given that, in the same interview, Vinh talked up the importance of what he said were improving Sino-Vietnamese military ties. Speaking on the eve of last week’s historic visit to Cam Ranh by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, he seemed keen to head off any anger from Beijing about the trip.
Chinese officials’ expressions of concern about Panetta’s trip to Asia last week, and Washington’s plans to boost the already considerable US naval presence in the Asia-Pacific, were relatively mild.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said China hoped the United States would respect China’s regional interests and warned that the Pentagon’s ambitions were “out of keeping with the times”.
A People’s Daily editorial went further, saying the US was creating schisms. “While establishing a new security array across the Asia-Pacific, it has invariably made China its target,” the editorial read.
Cam Ranh Bay was not mentioned specifically, but speaking privately, Chinese envoys and scholars make clear they are well aware of its strategic history – and its potential importance.
The harbour to the south of Nha Trang has played a key role in just about every major regional conflict in the past century or so – and has, at times, been used to target China directly.
Fortified by the French during its colonial rule of Indochina, Cam Ranh’s deep and sheltered harbour was exploited as a regional staging point by the Russians in their 1905 war against Japan and then by the Japanese in the second world war as they swept through Southeast Asia.
Then it was the turn of the Americans to make use of the bay during the Vietnam war, and after that the Soviet Union.
The Soviet period is particularly telling in so far as China is concerned. Moscow inherited expansive US-built runways and wharves when Hanoi finally granted it access in early 1979 – within weeks of China’s brief but bloody invasion across Vietnam’s northern border.
Thousands of Russian technicians and engineers arrived over the next few years. The Soviets added submarine facilities and a state-of-the-art electronic listening post, off limits to even the Vietnamese.
While the US was the obvious target, given the forces then based at Subic Bay in the Philippines, so was China.
As a 2001 study from Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies notes: “The [signals intelligence] station allowed the Soviets to track ships in the South China Sea, monitor Chinese naval activity out of Hainan Island , and intercept transmissions from US bases in the Philippines.”
The significance of Cam Ranh to the cold war was clear. As author Nayan Chanda writes in Brother Enemy, his seminal work on Indochina after the fall of Saigon: “Cam Ranh Bay had developed into Moscow’s largest naval base and staging area outside the Soviet Union and a key outpost for greater Soviet power projection in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.”
For Washington, it was one of the century’s great ironies. Just over a decade earlier, Pentagon logisticians had turned Cam Ranh into one of the biggest American military bases anywhere to serve its defence of the then-South Vietnam against the Chinese-backed communist forces of North Vietnam. Its runways could land two B-52 bombers simultaneously; its wharves served as the key entry point for the vast amounts of men, materiel and supplies Washington pumped into the country.
It was at Cam Ranh that the famously earthy president Lyndon Johnson told his troops: “Nail that coon skin to the wall.”
By early 1979, however, it was all in the hands of the Russians again – the glittering prize of the cold war. South Vietnam had fallen three years before, but a victorious Hanoi had tilted towards Moscow and was eyeing a different enemy – China. The domino theory was turned on its head.
In an ISEAS paper, scholars Ian Storey and Carl Thayer write that unified Vietnam – ever wary of foreign bases on its soil – had been resisting Soviet overtures about Cam Ranh ever since the end of the war in 1975. But after fraternal relations with Beijing soured over the following three years, Moscow was secretly granted the access it coveted.
As Soviet power – and ambitions – withered, so did Cam Ranh. By the mid-1980s reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was slashing budgets and was keener on getting closer to both China and the US than exploiting Cam Ranh. He alarmed Hanoi by suggesting to the Americans he would pull out of Cam Ranh if Washington pulled out of Subic Bay.
Vietnam was further alarmed when its fraternal ally did little to help as PLA naval ships swept into the Spratly Islands and seized six of the islands – even though the listening post at Cam Ranh could track all the Chinese movements.
The budgetary knife was wielded again by Vladimir Putin in 2002, as he withdrew the last few hundred technicians and pulled the plug on the listening post’s rusting antennae.Greg Torode
South China Morning Post