Russian naval visit a message for Beijing
Just as the Chinese navy uses warships returning from anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean to fly the flag in Southeast Asian ports, the Russian Pacific Fleet returns to Vietnam early next month to highlight one of the region's most intriguing - and enduring - strategic relationships.
Three ships, including the anti-submarine destroyer Admiral Vinogradov, will visit the central Vietnamese port of Da Nang from May 7, according to the Russian news agency Interfax, on the way home to Russia's Pacific port, Vladivostok, after running anti-piracy convoys around the Horn of Africa.
It will be the latest in a string of events that make the Russian-Vietnamese relationship one of the most closely watched in an East Asia that is fast adjusting to China's rise.
While Hanoi considers its evolving relationship with Beijing its most important and complex, its military co-operation with Moscow shows its determination to hedge its regional and international bets amid continuing territorial disputes.
A key part of that strategy is the redevelopment of its sought-after naval facilities in the deep-water port of Cam Ranh Bay, long prized as the greatest natural harbour in East Asia and a site as historic as it is strategic.
As deputy Russian Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin met Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and other senior officials in Hanoi this week to map out a visit by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in July, representatives of the Russian company Zvezdochka finalised plans for setting up a ship repair facility in Cam Ranh as well as contracts to supply spare parts to warships.
Military analysts believe the contracts are linked to the US$2.2 billion deal struck in late 2009 for Vietnam to buy six state-of-the-art Kilo submarines from Russia - its biggest weapons purchase in modern times in what was widely seen as a deterrent against China in the disputed South China Sea. A US$200 million upgrade of Cam Ranh's port facilities was part of that deal - facilities that Vietnam will allow other foreign navies, including its former enemy the United States, to use at market rates.
Work is expected to start soon on the upgrade, with the first Kilo expected to be delivered in 2013. While Vietnam's secretive military is expected to keep certain key areas off limits, it will still welcome foreign navies into other parts of Cam Ranh.
'The visit comes at a time that is both interesting and significant,' said Professor Carl Thayer, a veteran Vietnam scholar at the Australian Defence Force Academy. 'We can see various elements of the Hanoi-Moscow relationship really starting to come together in a way that serves Vietnam's internationalist approach - and this will not be lost on Beijing.'
Thayer noted that while the cold war-era closeness of Hanoi's relationship with its fraternal communist patron may have ebbed, a familiarity and understanding remained. Vietnam had become one of Russia's most significant buyers of weaponry and was keen to forge ties with a range of major powers after decades in the international wilderness.
In the longer term, US ships are expected to be frequent visitors. Pentagon strategists have long eyed a return to Cam Ranh Bay, while a ship servicing agreement with Vietnam is also a possibility as Hanoi eyes closer engagement with Washington to balance Beijing.
Ian Storey, a scholar at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said the visit reflected a deep, mutually beneficial relationship between Hanoi and Moscow - one that also served Russia's interest in once again expanding its Asian footprint.
At the same time, he said, Vietnam would push things but avoid angering China, which has urged its neighbour against becoming a strategic pawn in any Washington push to contain Beijing.
The opening of Cam Ranh - announced by Prime Minister Dung late last year - was 'clearly a symptom of Vietnam's growing nervousness at Beijing's renewed assertiveness in the South China Sea and changes in Asia's military balance of power', Storey said.
To that end, Thayer has also noted a 'three-nos' policy by Vietnam - no foreign bases, no formal military alliances and no use of Vietnamese soil to attack another country. 'We can see by the way the Cam Ranh Bay situation appears to be developing that Vietnam is determined to stay within that line... Whatever Russia and the US may desire long-term, they will never have bases.'
History shows that both Washington and Moscow have a deep understanding of the strategic virtue of Cam Ranh, located between Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City. The glittering prize of the cold war, the bay was built up into a major air and sea base by US forces at the height of the Vietnam war during the 1960s, only to be leased to the then-Soviet Union as a key southern listening post and submarine base in the late 1970s as Hanoi's relations with Beijing degenerated. The Russians eventually left in 2002 after failing to agree terms with a rapidly modernising Vietnam.
The Japanese used the bay, surrounded by mountains and protected by peninsulas on either side of a narrow entrance, to launch their campaign on Southeast Asia at the onset of the second world war, having in turn learnt from Russia, which stationed its navy there ahead the Russo-Japanese war of 1905.
'A senior US naval officer said just a few years ago that sailors were always on the lookout for good ports when he was asked about Cam Ranh,' one Russian envoy said recently. 'That applies to us as well. The Russian Pacific Fleet is once again an important part of Russia's regional presence, and we have always understood the value of Cam Ranh.'