Cam Ranh Bay is the Prize, Are Lethal Weapons the Cost?

Cam Ranh Bay harbor in Vietnam, as seen in 1969
Defense Secretary Panetta visiting the Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam

Just one day after his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stood on the flight deck of USNS Richard E, Byrd (T-AKE-4), a US maritime cargo ship, and gazed out over the wide expanse of Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay becoming the most senior US government representative to visit Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam Conflict in 1975.

Panetta, continuing his eight-day tour through the Pacific, arrived in Vietnam for discussions with Vietnamese leaders to explain the United States’ plans to reinforce America’s presence in the region and to expand its cooperative military and diplomatic relationships with Vietnam. The Secretary hopes to reassure the Vietnamese that the United States is firmly committed to ensuring that freedom of navigation through the region’s waterways is guaranteed and that maritime rights are protected.

The Obama administration’s plan to realign American military resources to refocus attention on the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions includes efforts to assist nations in both regions develop enhanced military capabilities to ensure these nations have a realistic means of defending themselves. From the deck of the USNS Byrd, Secretary Panetta addressing this need for improved defensive abilities said that “it is very important that we be able to protect key maritime rights for all nations in the South China Sea and elsewhere.”

Although Mr. Panetta never mentioned China by name in his comments, it is very likely that Chinese leaders will view his Vietnam visit with considerable irritation. China’s growing military strength and aggressive posturing have increased concerns in both the US and Vietnam that China represents a critical threat to maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea and other Pacific areas. In light of this, Vietnam is warming up to the idea of a stronger US presence in the region to offset Chinese intentions.

While relations between Vietnam and the US have experienced an unexpected positive turn in the past two years, there still remain some very sensitive matters that are likely to slow development of cooperative friendship between the two former enemies. Vietnamese leaders, according to anonymous sources, welcome renewed US attention on developments in the Pacific, but also harbor a persistent fear that the United States may attempt to interfere in Vietnamese domestic affairs or may try to shape Vietnam’s foreign relations in a manner that may not always coincide with Vietnamese policies. Vietnamese leaders are also compelled to consider the possibility that improving relations with the United States too quickly might precipitate an undesirable response from China.

The US and Vietnam agreed to normalize diplomatic relations 17 years ago and last year the two nations signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) pledging cooperation in non-lethal defense matters including humanitarian operations, search and rescue, and maritime security. Now, the United States wishes to expand this dialogue as the need for facilities suited to host an increased US military presence becomes increasingly more important.

The US is not looking to establish permanent bases to support additional forces, preferring to develop facilities that can service units rotating through the region thus reducing vulnerabilities associated with permanent, fixed positions. A rotational strategy also serves to reduce local opposition to the presence of sizeable US forces.

Currently, US warships have no authority to enter Cam Ranh Bay while other US ships do take advantage of the bay’s facilities. The USNS Byrd, being one of the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command ships crewed by a mostly civilian team, has been approved to enter Cam Ranh Bay and the port at DaNang. Since 2003, more than 20 US naval vessels have visited Vietnamese ports, none of them warships.

Throughout the Vietnam Conflict Cam Ranh Bay served the US as a premiere deep-water port, claimed by many to be “the jewel of deep, warm-water ports in Southeast Asia.” Although not mentioning specifics, Secretary Panetta made it clear in his comments that the United States desired to open the bay to increased use by US warships.

Secretary Panetta said that the US hoped to “work with our partners like Vietnam to be able to use harbors like this as we move our ships from our ports on the West Coast towards our stations here in the Pacific.” He went on to say that allowing US warships to enter Cam Ranh Bay “is a key component of this relationship (with Vietnam) and we see a tremendous potential here for the future.”

With Vietnam working to develop Cam Ranh Bay into a profitable international commercial port, the US hopes to convince Vietnamese leaders that giving the United States military access would help to boost the profitability of the bay. In time, the US would like to gain enough trust to encourage Vietnam to host US troops and warships rotating through the region. With rotational deployments now forming the central theme guiding the US pivot to the Pacific, access to Vietnamese port facilities would be a very welcome contribution to the success of a renewed American presence in the region.

During a joint press conference with Secretary Panetta on 4 June, Vietnam’s Defense Minister General Phuong Quang Thanh called on the United States to revoke its ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam. Minister Thanh said that lifting the ban “would also help to fully mobilize the relationship between the two countries.”
Secretary Panetta stated that his reason for visiting Vietnam “is to do whatever we can to strengthen the defense relationship between the United States and Vietnam.”

Minister Thanh said that once the lethal weapon’s ban was removed, Vietnam would like to buy American items that could be used to repair and refurbish weapons Vietnam has collected from the Vietnam Conflict. He went on to say that Vietnam may then be interested in buying “certain kinds of weapons for the process of modernization of our military.” Thanh said any decision to buy additional weapons would be contingent on Vietnam’s specific needs and financial constraints.

Secretary Panetta said that the United States welcomed the opportunity to provide Vietnam with additional assistance, but he did qualify his statement by saying that such assistance would depend on advances in Vietnam’s efforts to guarantee human rights and other ongoing reforms.

Both Thanh and Panetta pledged to continue their efforts to strengthen the existing US-Vietnamese relationship as they strive to develop an even stronger partnership that would benefit both nations.