America’s presence in Cam Ranh Bay should be more than occasional
Forty-five years ago, in April 1975, North Vietnamese forces overran Cam Ranh Bay, widely considered to be the finest deep-water shelter in all of Southeast Asia. Until 1972, Cam Ranh Bay had been the site of an American naval base, an Air Force base and an Army support facility. In 1980, however, it was the Soviet Pacific Fleet that began to operate from there.
The Soviet Union no longer exists, and Russian use of the base ended in 2002. American warships have been making port visits to Cam Ranh Bay since 2016, and support ships several years before then. Appropriately enough, one of the first two warships to visit bore the name of John McCain, commander of the United States Pacific Command and father of the late senator and prisoner of war.
It is time the United States went beyond the occasional port visit, however. The Navy, and perhaps the other services as well, should once again operate out of Cam Ranh Bay on a regular basis.
American policy has emphasized “places not bases,” because bases can be vulnerable fixed targets for an enemy attack. Bases have not gone out of fashion, however. Quite the contrary. Having removed itself from “East of Suez” in 1971, Britain now operates a base in Bahrain and, earlier this month, reached an agreement with Muscat to expand its Joint Logistics Support Base in Oman. France has operated a naval base at Abu Dhabi since 2009. In 2019, Turkey completed a military base in Qatar, the first time since the Ottoman period that Turkey has had a full-time presence in the Gulf. China operates a military support base in Djibouti, as does the United States. Indeed, America maintains numerous other bases in the Arabian Sea/Gulf region, among them the sprawling al Udeid air base in Qatar, the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, and the use of the United Arab Emirates’s Al Dhafra air base.
It is probably too much to expect America to restore its long-held basing privileges in Cam Ranh Bay. Vietnam currently is not prepared to afford the United States exclusive basing rights. It has no interest in any formal alliance relationship with the United States. On the other hand, it may well be feasible for Washington to pursue an arrangement with Vietnam similar to the Memorandum of Understanding that it first negotiated with Singapore in 1990, amended in 2005 and renewed for 36 years in 2019.
Singapore is not a treaty ally of the United States; it maintains cordial relations with China. Nevertheless, its series of agreements with Washington have enabled the United States not only to benefit from logistic support for transiting personnel, aircraft and ships. It also has enabled the Navy to be supported at Singapore’s Changi naval base and to deploy Littoral Combat ships and P-8 aircraft for exercises, refueling and maintenance.
The Singapore agreements do not formally provide for American basing but come as close to basing as possible. Vietnam could set in motion a process that would yield the same results. Vietnam already has provided minor repairs to five American sealift ships between 2010 and 2012. Now that Hanoi is constructing ship repair facilities to service foreign warships, it could increase the level of support it could provide visiting U.S. Navy ships.
Vietnam has every incentive to do so. It shares American unease over Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea. Indeed, Vietnam’s most recent war was not against the United States but against China, in 1979. Moreover, unlike Hanoi’s rapprochement with Washington, there is little love lost between the two communist countries.
Hanoi is not ready for a formal alliance with the U.S., and America does not need another base in Southeast Asia at the moment. Nevertheless, a regular rotational American presence in Cam Ranh Bay would constitute another signal to Beijing that Washington will not be simply a passive observer of China’s efforts to cow its smaller neighbors. Instead, it would underscore America’s readiness to stand by its friends and ensure that, however much Beijing expands its military capability, it nevertheless will find itself unable to realize its ambition to become the region’s hegemon.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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