Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Cam Ranh Bay: Past Imperfect, Future Conditional

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Cam Ranh Bay: Past Imperfect, Future Conditional

Article excerpt


This article reviews the likely future of Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam in the light of the announcement on 17 October 2001 that Russia will withdraw the last of its military forces in early 2002. Cam Ranh hosts a deep-water port astride the strategic sea lines of communication in the South China Sea. The article provides a historical overview of the development of Cam Ranh Bay during the Soviet period. After Russia's final withdrawal, three countries might seek access: China, the United States, and India. This article assesses the prospects of each country and concludes that India is most likely to be granted access privileges. However, this does not preclude Vietnam from granting access rights to other countries on a case-by-case basis.


On 12 June 2001, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry endeavoured to put an end to speculation concerning the future of Cam Ranh Bay naval base when it announced that once Russia's lease over the facility expired in 2004, Hanoi's policy was "not to sign an agreement with any country to use Cam Ranh Bay for military purposes". (1) Instead, the government would "exploit the potential and advantages of Cam Ranh Bay to serve its national socio-economic development objectives". (2) In other words, after 2004 Cam Ranh Bay would become a purely commercial facility. This announcement dealt a severe blow to the Russian Navy's strategic pretensions in East Asia. It also made nonsense of the much vaunted Russia-Vietnam "strategic partnership" announced by President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Hanoi in March 2001.

With the Russians themselves now saying that they will begin their withdrawal in January 2002, (3) well before the 2004 deadline, the question arises whether Vietnam will indeed allow the navies of other regional powers to use its facilities at Cam Ranh Bay once the Russians have left. There are three prime candidates: China, the United States, and India. Vietnam's ongoing territorial dispute with China over the Spratlys would rule out a Chinese military presence at the facility. Although the United States had expressed an interest in returning to Cam Ranh Bay in the past, and the Bush Administration's new Asia-focused defence policy would make U.S. military access there an attractive option, the weight of U.S.-Vietnam historical baggage and Hanoi's sensitive relationship with Beijing suggests that the Vietnamese may be reluctant to grant access at this moment in time. Instead, India may emerge as the country most likely to become a more frequent user of Cam Ranh Bay, as the geopolitical interests of New Delh i and Hanoi increasingly converge. This would not preclude Russian ships from still calling in, and Vietnam could also grant permission on a case-by-case basis for naval visits from countries whose warships have previously made port calls: Australia, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Malaysia.

Cam Ranh Bay: The French, Japanese, and U.S. Presence

Cam Ranh Bay is situated in the south-central Vietnamese province of Khanh Hoa, and lies 220 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It is regarded as one of the finest deep-water anchorages in Asia, and gives excellent access to the commercially and strategically important sea lines of communication (SLOCs) which cross the South China Sea. The important geographical position of the bay was immediately apparent to the French colonial authorities who constructed naval facilities and a fort there in the nineteenth century. However, it was not until the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War that Cam Ranh came to the attention of the wider world. On 14 April 1905, a fleet of forty Russian naval vessels under the command of Admiral Zinovi Rozhdestvenski sailed into the Bay for reprovisioning and coaling. (4) The fleet was on an epic and ultimately disastrous 18,000--mile voyage from the Baltic to reinforce Russian forces at Port Arthur in Manchuria. A few days after their arrival, the French, under pressure from the Japane se, asked the Russians to leave. …

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