US, China, Russia “Wrestle” Over Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay; US Navy Vessels Reach The Strategic Port To Gain Edge

Shortly after Russian warships arrived in Cuba and Venezuela, two US naval vessels arrived at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, a crucial waterway in the South China Sea that attracts both China and Russia.

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The US Navy announced in an official statement: “The US 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) and U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche arrived in Cam Ranh, Vietnam for a five-day joint Navy-Coast Guard routine port visit on July 8.” The presence of the USS Blue Ridge is noteworthy since it is the oldest operational ship in the US Navy.

Cam Ranh Bay was home to a strategic US military base during the Vietnam War, which was later run over by North Vietnam forces.

In its latest communique, the US Navy also noted that the USS Blue Ridge and the US Coast Guard Cutter Waesche leadership will meet with the Vietnam People’s Navy, Vietnam Coast Guard, and the people or leadership of Khanh Hoa province. Incidentally, Russia made a similar announcement during the visit of its warships to Venezuela.

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The US ships are expected to make their port call till July 12 at the base, which was once a naval and aviation base used by the US in the Vietnam War. Later, it was used by the Soviet Union and Russia until Hanoi banned foreign armed forces in 2002.

In 2016 and 2017, US ships visited Cam Ranh Bay, symbolizing the return of combat vessels to a bay that was an important logistical hub for the service several years ago during a bloody war. Additionally, the visit occurred following the complete removal of a US ban on trading lethal weapons with Vietnam, which was part of former US President Barack Obama’s “rebalance” toward Asia strategy.

The US has been trying to bolster ties with Vietnam to keep China at bay. Vietnam remains at odds with China over territorial issues in the South China Sea. China officially disclosed a new baseline outlining its territorial claims in the northern part of the Gulf of Tonkin, an area shared with Vietnam earlier this year.

Despite their territorial disputes, Vietnam has hosted Chinese leadership and warships for port calls. Vietnam has also welcomed ships from India, Japan, and Australia of the Quad grouping, a move that Beijing strongly condemned as anti-China.

The United States has taken advantage of the opportunity to enhance relations with Vietnam, supporting it as it challenges China for control of islands in the South China Sea. Cam Ranh, a former US military facility until 1972, has seen some of its land converted into upscale beach resorts.

Vietnamese PM Phạm Minh Chính and Russian President Vladimir Putin (via X)

Besides China and the United States, another military power has set its sights on Vietnam. Russia, an old Vietnamese ally, has been making concerted efforts to regain its standing in the region it once enjoyed. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, visited the country just two weeks ago despite escalation in Ukraine.

During the visit, 11 agreements were inked between Vietnam and Russia. According to the Kremlin, these included giving Zarubezhneft—a state-owned Russian oil and gas company with a history of joint ventures with Vietnam—an investment license for a hydrocarbon block off the southeast coast of Vietnam. Despite its ties with Russia, China does not approve of Moscow’s partnership with Hanoi, which experts believe has emboldened Vietnam to assert its claims in SCS against China.

The US continues to monitor all these developments. Following President Joe Biden’s September 2023 visit to improve relations with Vietnam, the US plans to send out more ships.

A year ago, the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier, stopped at Da Nang in central Vietnam. To strengthen relations, Washington has also given Hanoi three Coast Guard cutters.

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The Significance Of Cam Ramh Bay

In the Khánh HƲa Province of Vietnam, Cam Ranh Bay is a deep-water bay roughly 290 kilometers (180 miles) northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

In Southeast Asia, Cam Ranh is regarded as the best deepwater shelter. That is because the continental shelf at Cam Ranh Bay is narrowed, bringing deep water close to land.

Till 1972, Cam Ranh Bay had an American naval base, an Air Force base, and an Army support facility. However, it was later overrun by North Vietnamese forces, and the Soviet Pacific Fleet started using the location for operations in 1980. The final Russian use of the base ceased in 2002.

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Vietnam devised a “three no” policy: no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil, no military alliances, and no international cooperation.

Following the Russian withdrawal, negotiations were held between the US and Vietnam to allow foreign warships to use Cam Ranh Bay, similar to what had previously been done with the ports of Haiphong in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south.

Between 2011 and 2014, the Vietnamese government reopened Cam Ranh Bay, a former US and later Soviet military port, as the location of a new navy maintenance and logistics center for foreign warships by hiring Russian advisors and acquiring Russian technologies.

Located strategically at the crossroads of important maritime trade routes between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Cam Ranh Bay’s deepwater facilities can handle huge ships, including aircraft carriers.

This is essentially why Russia and the US hope to return to the bay. None of them have been successful yet, as Vietnam remains committed to its policies of not allowing permanent foreign armed presence.

Being the headquarters of the 4th Regional Command, the Vietnam Naval Air Force, and the location of the country’s lone submarine base, Cam Ranh continues to be a significant base for the Vietnam People’s Navy with no plans to open it to either the Russians or the Americans.