The USS Ronald Reagan just finished its six-day visit to Vietnam, a year after a planned visit was cancelled in mid-2022 for unknown reasons. Vietnamese media noted that the visit was intended to mark the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Vietnam-U.S. Comprehensive Partnership in July 2013. Vietnamese netizens were generally positive about the visit, hoping that the presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier would serve to deter Chinese bullying.
The context of the Ronald Reagan’s visit mattered as well. In May, China sent the survey ship Xiang Yang Hong into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, which Vietnam protested. The political objective of China’s assertive behaviors against Vietnam at sea is to show Hanoi that despite its partnerships with members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, it is still alone whenever China bullies it. Visits by a U.S. aircraft carrier would help reassure Hanoi of the U.S. commitment to regional stability and that Vietnam is not alone.
However, the big question remains. Can Vietnam’s naval bases be of strategic use in managing its relations with China? There is no doubt that Vietnam possesses some of the best naval bases in Asia and these bases, including Cam Ranh and Da Nang, are prime candidates for the U.S. “places not bases” strategy. And if Vietnam’s geography offers any clues, it is that its naval bases give the country quick and reliable access to the South China Sea, where other extra-regional actors can have more influence than on mainland Asia and thus lessen Vietnam’s geographical vulnerabilities vis-à-vis China. Cam Ranh in particular is often praised as Vietnam’s best weapon in its struggle against China and some scholars have even suggested that Cam Ranh would help Vietnam resolve its “tyranny of geography” and “power asymmetry” in its relations with China.
However, a purely military assessment of the utility of Vietnam’s naval bases does not tell the full story. Although Vietnam’s naval bases are of good quality and can provide essential shelter for ships patrolling the South China Sea, these naval bases cannot change the political dynamic of the Vietnam-China relationship, which is between a great power and a small power, even if Vietnam one day leases them to the United States or other powers. Vietnam shares a land and a sea border with China, which distinguishes it from other U.S. Asian security partners. China cannot coerce the Philippines or Japan on land, where China enjoys a natural advantage over the United States, because the Philippines and Japan are insular, and the U.S. enjoys some advantage at sea. Vietnam unfortunately does not have insularity vis-à-vis China. Vietnam leasing its naval bases to the United States can give it some advantage in its struggle against China at sea but the cost of Chinese punishing Vietnam on land is sure to outweigh any benefits. A quick look at how the last time Vietnam leased its naval bases to an extra-regional great power played out will answer why Hanoi is determined to keep its ports open to all major powers under its neutral foreign policy.
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Soviet Union was interested in having access to Vietnamese ports in the newly liberated South. Hanoi rebuffed Soviet interest for fear of antagonizing China. However, as soon as Vietnam perceived that its deference to China could not stop Beijing from assisting the Khmer Rouge in attacking Vietnam, Vietnam slowly became open to leasing its naval bases to the Soviet Union, as seen in the summer of 1977 when it hosted a Soviet delegation at Cam Ranh. Vietnam signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union in 1978 with a secret protocol granting the Soviets access to Cam Ranh until 2004, but Soviet naval forces operated out of Da Nang and Hai Phong as well.
After China invaded Vietnam in February 1979, Moscow made regular port calls at Cam Ranh, Da Nang, and Hai Phong. It also sent a contingent of 15 ships of the Soviet Pacific Fleet to the Vietnamese coast to intercept Chinese battlefield communications and share the intelligence with Vietnam before and during the Chinese invasion. Cam Ranh would soon become the Soviet Union’s largest overseas naval base and was a credible signal of the Soviet security commitment to Vietnam against China, as Soviet military supplies to Vietnam also went through these bases and its naval presence served as a counterweight to Chinese military pressure. Soviet extended deterrence for Vietnam was certainly not charity. Moscow acquired militarily prized assets to gather intelligence on ships passing through the South China Sea and to refuel and repair its ships traveling between Vladivostok and the Indian Ocean.
Despite the Soviet Union-Vietnam alliance treaty and Vietnam opening its naval bases to Moscow, what ultimately limited the Chinese invasion of Vietnam was the massive Soviet military presence along the Sino-Soviet border, which Chinese leaders deeply worried about and noted as one of the three obstacles to the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations in the 1980s. Still, even after China withdrew its troops from Vietnam in March 1979, it continued exerting huge military and political pressure on Vietnam under a “bleeding Vietnam white” strategy to force Hanoi to rethink its occupation of Cambodia and its alliance with the Soviet Union. In other words, the Soviet naval presence in Vietnam, while provided Hanoi with some military advantage, failed to deter China from exerting military pressure via the Vietnam-China land border. Even worse, the Soviet naval presence in Vietnam contributed to China’s general perception of the Soviet encirclement on its southern frontier and its decision to coerce Hanoi throughout the 1980s.
To be clear, Soviet bases in Vietnam alone were not dangerous to Chinese security; the 1978 alliance treaty and Soviet troop presence along the Sino-Soviet border were clearly more threatening. Had China been afraid of the Soviet naval bases in Vietnam, China would have added the Soviet naval presence in Vietnam to the list of three obstacles to normalization with the Soviet Union. Chinese coercion of Vietnam was successful, as Hanoi later had to normalize ties with China on Chinese terms and adopted a neutral foreign policy after the Soviet abandonment and later collapse.
Importantly, although Soviet naval presence at Vietnamese bases gave it the military capability to protect Vietnam from Chinese bullying at sea, it was up to the Soviet political will to use such a capability to honor its commitment. When China attacked Vietnam-held Johnson South Reef in 1988, the Soviet navy in Cam Ranh did not intervene on the Vietnamese side for fear of harming the normalization process with China. China understood the Soviet need for normalization, so it was leveraging the Sino-Soviet rapprochement to force the Soviet Union to wind down its military support for Vietnam and indirectly put pressure on Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia, another obstacle in the Sino-Soviet normalization process.
A purely military assessment of the utility of Vietnamese naval bases and Soviet naval presence without taking the political context into consideration would fail to explain why the Soviet Union did not help Vietnam in 1988 despite having the capability to do so.
What past experience has taught Vietnam was that a foreign naval presence in its ports would neither help it escape a comprehensive Chinese coercive campaign nor protect its sovereignty at sea. If the land power of the Soviet Union, with its massive military pressure along the Sino-Soviet border, in addition to a substantial naval presence at Cam Ranh, could not deter China from adopting a “bleeding Vietnam white” strategy, how can other maritime powers protect Vietnam just thanks to their naval presence in Vietnamese naval bases? The benefits of a foreign naval presence in Vietnamese naval bases cannot outweigh the cost of Chinese upset at Vietnam’s perceived violation of its defense policy of no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil. Vietnam is also worried about great powers making a deal behind its back, as was the case with the Sino-Soviet normalization process. For this reason, the best solution for Vietnam has been to open its naval bases to regular port calls from all foreign countries, even China.
From a broader perspective, denying any powers exclusive access to Cam Ranh or other naval bases reflects Vietnam’s foreign policy of diversification and multilateralization. A case in point is Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh’s trip to China during the USS Ronald Reagan’s visit. Chinh wanted to further develop the China-Vietnam Strategic Comprehensive Partnership and to demonstrate to China that Vietnam harbored no hostile intentions toward China. Vietnam’s balancing act again suggests the country’s lack of agency in international affairs, especially the inescapable Vietnam-China power asymmetry. Vietnam’s naval bases are militarily useful to the extent that the country makes the correct political decision, especially concerning its relations with China.