By Carl Thayer
Alan Dupont’s op-ed in The Australian “Hello Again America, It’s Just Like you Never Left,” on November 14 contains several glaring errors that undermine his premise the “US Stars and Stripes could once again flutter from US naval ships in anchor at their former Asian bases.”
First, the United States has not yet conducted naval exercises with Vietnam as Dupont claims. They have conducted “naval activities” which explicitly do not involve the exchange of combat skills. Second, the purported “naval exercises” that Dupont says took place in the Gulf of Tonkin in fact involved joint naval patrols by China and Vietnam. The US‐Vietnam naval exchange activities were held in the port of Da Nang in central Vietnam. Third, the first formal “defence” arrangement that Dupont mentions was in fact an agreement solely related to collaboration in military medicine. This is a far cry from basing U.S. naval ships in Vietnamese ports.
Speaking of which, fourth, Dupont mentions the “possibility” that Cam Ranh Bay may be opened to the US 7th Fleet. In fact the USNS Richard E. Byrd spent seven days there undergoing minor repairs in August. Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung announced in October last year, “In the centre of the Cam Ranh port complex Vietnam will stand ready to provide services to the naval ships from all countries…” Dung meant repair facilities not basing.
In sum, Vietnam is playing a far more sophisticated game of balancing its relations with the major powers than aligning with the United States against China.
Dr. Carl A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. A version of this letter to the editor appears in The Australian.