Here's another story that has failed to get much play in Western media for one reason or another. Being a Southeast Asia scholar, however, I believe that I should point out its implications. I probably needn't explain the importance of Cam Ranh Bay in the Asia-Pacific (above is a picture of it in its Soviet-era prime). This Vietnamese port has been a gateway to Indochina in particular and Southeast Asia in general for centuries. Very recently, the Vietnamese government declared that it would reopen Cam Ranh Bay for business to undertake ship repairs and other services to passing vessels--both commercial and military [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]. The timing, of course, is suspicious since it coincides with Vietnam's contretemps with China over the South China Sea that it's been more vocal about this year as the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). See my previous scribblings on the curious efforts of the US to re-involve itself in Southeast Asia via the South China Sea issue [1, 2]
To make a long story short: the ostensibly "commercial" motives in opening Cam Ranh Bay for business since it fell into disuse when the Russians left in 2002 need to be considered in light of emerging security concerns about a more assertive China. Among ASEAN members, Vietnam has the most strained relations with China--especially over Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia and China striking back when the Khmer Rouge was still a PRC client.
For kicks, let's try a different Q&A format. The answers are mine:
1. What is Vietnam’s plan to reconstruct Cam Ranh Bay? Does Vietnam indeed have an economic stake in reopening this port?
The Vietnamese leadership has not established a definite plan yet. Instead, they are signalling their intention to create a maritime service centre at Cam Ranh Bay to provide repair and maintenance services to both commercial and naval vessels. Also, they want to create shopping opportunities onshore catering to crews of passing ships. Cam Ranh Bay is a fine deepwater port, and so Vietnam has naturally considered its use for commercial purposes. A notable regional example of a former US naval installation being converted for commercial purposes is the Subic Bay Freeport in the Philippines. Plans to reconstruct Cam Ranh Bay may lead it in this direction.
2. Why is Vietnam's motive in reviving Cam Ranh Bay?
Overall, there are two likely reasons. The first is the one mentioned above of it being an excellent deepwater port with revenue-generating possibilities given its prime location near commercial sea lanes traversing the South China Sea. The second relates to Vietnam’s interest in limiting perceived Chinese aggression over contending claims to islands in the South China Sea. If Cam Ranh Bay becomes established as a regular port of call for vessels of different naval powers--including China--then Vietnam may feel more secure. For instance, having American or Russian vessels regularly use these facilities can remind China that Vietnam has increasingly good relations with other powers. Vietnam itself has limited naval capabilities compared to China’s.
3. It seems there is a great opportunity for Russia to come back to Vietnam. It is said Vietnam will hire Russian consultants and buy Russian technology for the new repair facilities in Cam Ranh Bay. What is Russian interest in this region now?
The Russians left Cam Ranh Bay in 2002 prior to completing the 25-year lease Vietnam had given Russia in 1979. Vietnam tried to raise the rent charged to the Russians and this action hastened the Russian withdrawal. Now in better financial condition than in 2002 due to the elevated energy prices, Russia is said to express interest in using Cam Ranh Bay as a staging area for combating maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa as opposed to any geopolitical interest. However, the Vietnamese indicate that they will not tolerate use of the port for military purposes. The Russian Pacific Fleet has not seen major upgrades in recent years, suggesting that re-establishing a visible regional presence is not a key Russian objective at the current time.
4. How has the Vietnam/Russia relationship fared in the recent years? What will Vietnam get from its cooperation with Russia?
Russia left Cam Ranh Bay in 2002. Prior to their departure, however, the Soviet Union was an important benefactor of the Vietnamese. It was with Soviet support that Vietnam was able to maintain its presence after the invasion of Cambodia from 1979 to 1989. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that it could no longer afford to keep funding Vietnam. Additional pressure was applied when the Chinese made Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia a precondition for normalizing PRC relations with the Soviet Union.
Today, the Vietnamese and the Russians maintain cordial relations. Stated plans to refurbish Cam Ranh Bay for commercial purposes will be primarily economic in nature such as providing jobs to the Vietnamese.
5. This time around, Vietnam does not say it will rent the bay to any individual country. Do you think it is a ploy towards multilateral diplomacy and to make sure Vietnam can get benefits from several powers include the US and Russia?
Vietnam would create a serious political problem for itself and ASEAN if it were to lease Cam Ranh Bay to a foreign power. Like all ASEAN members, Vietnam is a signatory to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) that emphasizes principles of non-interference. Additionally, all ten ASEAN members have signed the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANWFZ) treaty that came into effect in 1997. Among other things, SEANWFZ bans stationing of nuclear devices in member states. Still, as I mentioned as a response to the second question, Vietnam may be more comfortable welcoming the presence of other power’s vessels to counteract China’s increasingly sophisticated naval capabilities.
6. Cam Ranh Bay has been a very attractive place for major powers for a long time. What makes it so important in politic and military strategy? How do you evaluate Vietnam's role in Southeast Asia against the backdrop of current regional and global geopolitics?
Cam Ranh Bay’s features as a deepwater bay with a 14-meter deep harbour make it very attractive since it can easily accommodate large vessels. Its strategic position at the heart of sea lanes in the South China Sea also make it very attractive. Accordingly, many foreign powers—the French, the Japanese, the Americans, and the Russians—have used it as a key staging area to facilitate their interests in Indochina and Southeast Asia more generally.
Vietnam’s role in Southeast Asia—particularly ASEAN—has been growing since joining the organization in 1995. As the current rotating chair of ASEAN (which changes annually), Vietnam has been very active in bringing up its interests this year. With regard to China, these include territorial disputes in the South China Sea as well as Chinese construction of dams upstream on the Mekong River that poses difficulties for countries lying downstream like Vietnam.