It all began with apparently innocuous activity reported in both the Russian and Vietnamese press citing the Russian Defense Ministry on January 4. According to the reports, Russian Air Force Il-78 Midas tanker planes were granted access last year to Vietnam’s aerodrome facilities in Cam Ranh Bay, located in the southern Vietnamese province of Khanh Hoa. The Il-78s enabled the refueling of Russian Tu-95 “Bear” strategic bombers, which coincided with intensified Russian military flights in the Asia-Pacific, including “Bear” sorties that circled the major U.S. military redoubt in Guam.
These flights, claimed to be a show of strength and for intelligence-gathering purposes, were deemed “provocative” in the eyes of Washington. A request was made to Hanoi “to ensure that Russia is not able to use its access to Cam Ranh Bay to conduct activities that could raise tensions in the region,” according to the U.S. State Department. Moscow rejected Washington’s concerns and defended its military ties with Vietnam.
Some commentaries in the media had associated this Cam Ranh Bay issue with troubles brewing in U.S.-Vietnam relations. But this is not really the case.
Of course, it would have appeared strange for Hanoi to have failed to anticipate that such activities would not go unnoticed by Washington. Because Vietnam does not operate Illyushin-type military planes, those planes in Cam Ranh Bay with their distinct red star markings and the standard livery of the Russian Air Force would have been hard to miss.
But there has been a recent upsurge in bilateral relations between Vietnam and the U.S., in no small part driven by resurgent tensions with Beijing over the South China Sea disputes. Washington partially lifted its decades-long arms embargo on Vietnam, with talk within the establishment that there it might be completely lifted in the future. The U.S. also agreed to supply patrol boats as part of a broader plan to aid Hanoi in maritime security capacity-building. Vietnam was also reportedly keen on purchasing second-hand P-3 Orion long-range maritime patrol aircraft.
Certainly, bilateral relations are far from perfect, given residual issues of contention, for example, persistent disquiet in Washington over Vietnam’s human rights record. Nevertheless, relations have been moving in a generally positive direction.
Hanoi does not view itself as having deviated from a long-avowed post-Cold War foreign policy that stresses certain key tenets, such as independence, no-alliances, and non-alignment.
This approach emphasizes both collaboration and struggle against domination and exclusion politics (vua hop tac, vua dau tranh). It is also premised on adapting to the post-Cold War geopolitical changes and to aid in its Renovation (doi moi) process. This means not just making new friends, but preserving traditional friendships as well. Longstanding ties with Russia count in the latter category.
Since 1991, Hanoi has been consistent with this principle of vua hop tac, vua dau tranh. This tendency stems from the fact that Vietnamese nationalists attack attempts to “sell” the country to foreign forces, and are sensitive to accusations that Vietnam is a client state of any particular Great Power. To this end, Hanoi has assiduously resisted external attempts to dictate its policymaking.
For instance, in the 1990s, then Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thanh insisted: “Cam Ranh Bay is a Vietnamese base, and has nothing to do with the Soviets,” and that other actors, including the United States, could access this base if they were willing to normalize relations with Vietnam. Nguyen’s words were meant to be a response to Moscow’s attempt to turn the bay into its military foothold in Southeast Asia.
Broader, Deeper Engagement
News about the Russian Il-78s is nothing new, although media reports tend to link it to the ongoing Ukraine crisis. But the tanker planes’ presence can be seen as part of a broader arrangement under which Moscow enjoys access to Vietnam’s military facilities in Cam Ranh Bay including arguably the most crucial of all, the naval base.
But Moscow is no stranger to that. Under a 25-year agreement signed in 1979, the Soviet Navy Pacific Fleet stationed its 922nd Logistics Center and maintained a warship flotilla in Cam Ranh Bay. Since having withdrawn its last forces from the garrison in May 2002, for almost a decade Russia’s military presence receded from the Asia-Pacific, especially as Moscow became more focused on Europe.
Now, Russia is keen to revive its access to Cam Ranh Bay, with its prized deep-water anchorages and most strategically of all, direct access into the South China Sea. The fact that it was at different times under the control of both Cold War superpowers, first the United States and then the Soviet Union, attests to Cam Ranh’s enduring geostrategic importance. The bay is certainly an ideal stopover point for Russian warships sailing to and from the Russian Far East and Gulf of Aden. It would be analogous to the Syrian port in Tartus, to which the Russian Navy Mediterranean task force has had regular access.
In fact, Russia’s interest in reviving access to the Cam Ranh Bay precedes the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. The events in Crimea and subsequent tensions in Europe merely catalyzed Russia’s “eastward” glance into the Asia-Pacific and gave greater salience to the bay. Earlier deals with Vietnam, for example the sale of Kilo-class submarines in 2009, had a role to play. During the numerous high-level defense interactions that took place in 2012-2013, Russia and Vietnam agreed on the broad modalities regarding Cam Ranh Bay. In exchange for granting Russian warships greater access, Vietnam would receive Moscow’s assistance in developing the infrastructure in the bay, including those for Hanoi’s Kilo fleet and more significantly perhaps, a major servicing center for foreign civilian and military vessels. Subsequent bilateral agreements did not deviate from this arrangement.
In 2013-2014, as the Ukraine crisis brewed, some within the Russian establishment – including prominent lawmakers – spoke of the reopening of Russia’s naval base in Cam Ranh Bay as part of Moscow’s grand plans to enhance its global military footprint. The Russian press even reported about the possibility of opening a Russian Navy sustainment center in the bay. However, the issue of restoring a Russian base in Cam Ranh Bay was not raised by either side.
It would at any rate have been impossible to do so, given Hanoi’s avowed post-Cold War foreign policy. Apparently keen to squash any speculation about Cam Ranh Bay being reinstated as a foreign military base, Vietnamese officials repeatedly emphasized that all countries are welcome to assist in developing the bay’s infrastructure. They also reiterated that Cam Ranh Bay is not intended to be a military port, but an international ship servicing and repair hub that is open to all foreign civilian and military users.
Less than two months before the Il-78 report, on November 25 during a visit to Russia by Nguyen Phu Trong, secretary general of the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party, an inter-governmental agreement was inked that allows simplified access procedures for Russian warships visiting Vietnam’s Cam Ranh naval base. Under this agreement, Russian vessels approaching the port need only notify the latter authorities for entry. Permission for entry would be granted automatically.
A ‘China-Russia Axis’ in the Asia-Pacific?
Tracing back these developments, it is evident that Cam Ranh Bay features prominently within Moscow’s new global military strategy. Russia’s interest in returning to the bay preceded the Ukraine crisis, which merely gave greater impetus to Moscow’s push for access. Without that crisis, Russia’s actions would not have generated quite the same concerns.
But with Russia’s growing military assertiveness in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, ostensibly targeting the U.S. and its allies, there are reasons to worry. Moreover, Russian tanker flights staged out of Cam Ranh Bay can be interpreted as a violation of Vietnam’s principle of not giving other countries permission to maintain military bases or to use its soil to carry out military activities against other countries. Because Hanoi has yet to offer any clear explanation about this, Washington must be left wondering whether Vietnam has been consistent with its policy and whether it favors Russia over other partners, including the U.S., with whom ties have strengthened in recent times.
Washington is keen to secure greater access to Cam Ranh Bay as part of its strategic rebalance to Asia, given the simmering tensions over maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. It is plausible that Washington might perceive Beijing as the beneficiary if the Cam Ranh Bay becomes a catalyst that jeopardizes U.S.-Vietnam relations and compels the U.S. to pivot away from the region. When one looks back at not just recent moves but also past developments in Sino-Russian relations, a rather interesting picture emerges.
Both China and Russia have common interests in a multi-polar world order, as exemplified in the several joint declarations they have signed since the 1990s. This strategic convergence was lent greater salience following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S., and the subsequent American military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Sino-Russian vision of a multi-polar world order is obliquely referring to the perceived U.S. global hegemony.
Escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine provide an ideal pretext for broader and deeper Sino-Russian collaboration. The $400 billion gas deal signed in May 2014 demonstrates China’s willingness to assist Moscow at a challenging time, just as the West is trying to isolate Russia over Ukraine. In the meantime, Russia has encouraged China to play a significant role in developing the Russian Far East. Despite nagging concerns over China’s infringements of its military-technological intellectual property rights, Moscow has pushed to enhance defense-industrial cooperation with Beijing, including offering up some of its latest armaments.
Russia’s growing presence in the Asia Pacific, including the “Bear” flights off Guam, seems designed to send Washington two related messages. First, Washington should not meddle in Russia’s interests in Europe, particularly eastern Ukraine and the former Commonwealth of Independent States. Second, if the Americans continue with their actions, including intensified NATO military activities in Europe, Russia can respond by using the Asia-Pacific as a backdoor to exercise its own form of gunboat diplomacy.
Although there are no official agreement between Moscow and Beijing on Russia’s potential role in the South China Sea crisis, it may still serve the interests of both countries to target American interests in this sensitive area. The Chinese do not yet have the requisite force projection capabilities to venture this far out into the Western Pacific, and the People’s Liberation Army has only just begun preparations to develop this. Russian “Bear” flights circling Guam may well have been welcomed by Beijing, at a time of intensified U.S. military activities, including P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol flights in the South China Sea, close to China’s strategic naval base in Hainan.
The Cam Ranh Bay saga merely exposes the complexity that Great Power rivalries bring to this volatile region. Vietnam may be in a tricky spot. Certainly, those in Washington who believe that Russia’s military use of Cam Ranh Bay constitutes a security challenge will continue to press Hanoi to cease this access. But Washington’s threat that it will not fully lift the arms embargo on Vietnam, for instance, has dubious utility and would not happen for three reasons.
First, even if Washington decides to maintain the partial arms embargo, Vietnam has alternatives. In recent years, Vietnam has been strengthening defense links with Israel and other European countries keen to sell it weapons. And Hanoi has since acquired some of their offerings. Second, more so than in the past, Washington as a whole increasingly values its relationship with Hanoi. Hence, the controversy of Russia’s tanker flights from Cam Ranh Bay, Washington has been at pains to emphasize, does not put a strain on U.S.-Vietnam relations. Finally, Hanoi can still count on the support of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which it is a member, in case of political and economic reprisals by Washington.
Vietnam certainly needs the U.S. to serve as a counterweight to a rising China. Yet at the same time, the reality is that the U.S. is not Vietnam’s only option. Today, Hanoi enjoys a firmer footing in its diplomatic, economic and security relationships with counterparts worldwide. It has at its disposal a wider range of strategic options to safeguard and promote its national interests.
Business as Usual?
For a smallish country that finds itself caught up in Great Power politics, a well-conceived, principled foreign policy approach will help Vietnam look after its national interests. The foreign policy principle of vua hop tac, vua dau tranh is a pragmatic approach that instructs Hanoi not to put all its eggs into one basket. The diversification of relationships, power instruments and strategies is a requisite. A principled foreign policy stance means that not only must Vietnam not favor one external power favored over another, but there is no opportunity for any of these actors to dictate its direction. From Hanoi’s perspective, Washington is in no position to prevent Vietnam from offering Russia access to Vietnamese military facilities. This is because Russia is not the only user: The U.S. military and other external actors – particularly the Indian Navy which has been a regular visitor to Vietnam’s bases – benefit from this inclusive arrangement too.
In the long run, exercising exclusivity and partiality towards foreign access to its military bases will risk setting a dangerous precedent for Vietnam. It is already in a tenuous position amidst the ongoing Great Power rivalries and simmering tensions in the South China Sea. Moreover, back-pedaling from or doing anything antithetical to its post-Cold War foreign policy would deal a blow to Vietnam’s standing within ASEAN. This is especially true given that the regional bloc subscribes to a set of norms known as the “ASEAN Way,” one of which has been the principle of non-interference. Washington could find itself doing more harm than good if it tries to enter this minefield.
If it wants to remain being seen as an independent actor on the world stage, Vietnam will have to adhere faithfully to its post-Cold War foreign policy principles. It will be in the interest of Hanoi to re-emphasize to the international community that Cam Ranh Bay is open to diverse external users, civilian and military. U.S. grumbling notwithstanding, for Vietnam the Cam Ranh Bay situation is just business as usual.
Nhina Le is a Research Associate at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution in the United States. Koh Swee Lean Collin is an Associate Research Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.