Vietnam’s Open Port Policy: A Strategy for Keeping China at Bay

By Jennifer Chen, Intern Scholar in the Southeast Asia Program, CSIS. This post was originally published on East Asia Forum.

Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay has opened up to foreign navy vessels after eight years of closure. Read in context, this decision is neither sudden nor unexpected. Why? Because the bay’s opening is part of Vietnam’s strategy to counteract Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

At the ASEAN Regional Forum in July 2010, Secretary Clinton offered to facilitate a multilateral dialogue between ASEAN and China to solve territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Geng Yangsheng, the Chinese Ministry of Defence spokesman, objected to her suggestion, arguing that bilateral negotiations between China and the individual ASEAN countries are the best — and only — way to approach the issue. And while the U.S. was excluded from ASEAN-China discussions regarding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, it was soon invited to rejoin the conversation with the opening of Cam Ranh Bay.

While Chinese observers may perceive the American participation in the South China Sea discussions as an attack on China, Southeast Asian nations are starting to see U.S. involvement as the solution to Chinese aggression.

Cam Ranh Bay, 290 kilometres northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, is one of the best deepwater shelters in Southeast Asia. At Cam Ranh, nations can repair ships and fuel aircraft carriers. They can also establish a geostrategic presence, as the bay is located near key shipping lanes in the South China Sea. In the past, the bay has long been prized by the great powers: the Russian fleet anchored at the bay prior to the Battle of Tsushima, the French used it as a naval base for their forces in Indochina, the Japanese used it to prepare for their invasion of Malaysia in 1942, and the Americans used it to conduct aerial surveillance of South Vietnam’s coastal waters.

But since the Soviet withdrawal in 2002, the Vietnamese government has not opened Cam Ranh Bay to foreign use. The opening of the bay is a timely reaction to regional developments. It follows the recent celebration of 15 years of Vietnamese-American diplomatic relations. It also comes amid Vietnamese concerns over increasing Chinese assertiveness on the high seas after the Chinese recently arrested, though later released, nine Vietnamese fishermen near the South China Sea.

On 28 January 2011, the Chinese and Vietnamese announced their intention to hold a new round of talks on territorial disputes in the sea. Vietnam, although a much smaller actor in comparison to China, knows that it retains a strong voice in this theatre, and, more importantly, knows how and when to project its voice. Nguyen Van Tho, the Vietnamese Ambassador to China, told Chinese reporters that he is “optimistic about this issue.” And while Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung now offers the bay to “all countries … when they need [Vietnam’s] services,” the decision is a strong indication of a Vietnamese and broader Southeast Asian desire to keep the United States close by.

Ultimately, China’s challenge to gaining sovereignty and claiming territorial integrity over the South China Sea is ASEAN, not the United States. Even if China were to successfully limit American involvement in regional issues, Southeast Asian nations will not yield to China’s influence when their interests are at stake. Southeast Asian nations will be quick to identify their interests, assert their claims and use their resources and relationships for their own benefit — bringing the U.S. back into the picture is evidence of such maneuvering at work.

U.S. Navy photo in the public domain.

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