HANOI — On April 12, two Japanese destroyers sailed into Cam Ranh Bay in southern Vietnam. It was the first time a Japanese Self-Defense Force vessel had ever appeared in the bay, a strategically important point only about 550km from the contested Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea. For Vietnam, the visit posed something of a dilemma. On one hand, it served as a warning to China, which has been building a military base in the controversial waters. On the other, it had the potential to raise the ire of its massive neighbor, with which it has deep economic and political ties.
So Hanoi chose to play it down the middle. It ensured that when the two vessels — the Ariake and Setogiri — pulled into the bay, they were not accompanied by the Oyashio training submarine, which had accompanied the boats when they called at Subic Bay in the Philippines on April 3.
Vietnam was almost certainly keen to get a firsthand glimpse of the advanced technology the Japanese sub packs. Nevertheless, it chose not to let it in because “submarines are what China is most sensitive about, and Vietnam did not want to stir up Beijing,” a Japanese government official said. As a countermeasure against China, Vietnam has been boosting its fleet of submarines since last year, deploying six Russian-made Kilo-class subs at its base in Cam Ranh Bay. China, for its part, is believed to have more than 70 submarines.
A Japanese commander gives a press conference aboard a Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel in Cam Ranh Bay on April 12.
Initial plans called for having a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force commander give a press conference on land after docking in the bay. However, a last-minute change had the officer address the press aboard an MSDF vessel, apparently so that the conference was not technically held in Vietnam.
Despite the historic occasion, the highest-ranking official sent from the Vietnamese navy to welcome the vessels was of colonel class. That was probably part of Hanoi’s diplomatic chess game.
Cam Ranh Bay holds great strategic importance to Vietnam. It was leased to the Soviet Union — and then Russia — from 1979 to 2002, during which time the country operated a military port there. Vietnam considers the bay its most important line of defense in the South China Sea. Former President Truong Tan Sang once said the bay would never be used for joint military cooperation with any nation, and that has remained the case. But in the face of China’s expanding presence in the South China Sea, including the creation of artificial islands in the Spratlys and missile deployment in the Paracel chain, Vietnam is now being forced to rethink that policy.
The Cam Ranh International Port partially opened on March 8, paving the way for an MSDF visit. The port is shared by the military and the private sector and is ostensibly open to military vessels of any country. In late March, when Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan visited the country, Vietnam’s Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh said Chinese naval vessels are welcome in the bay.
Though the port may no longer have the air of military exclusivity it once had, Vietnam still decides who’s allowed in. That haziness regarding its operation may work in Vietnam’s favor: It wants to keep China’s surge in check but it does not want to be seen as tilting toward specific countries such as Japan or the U.S.
Moreover, the MSDF vessels were supposed to be the first to arrive at the new port. But in mid-March, a Singaporean naval vessel made a surprise call, changing its destination from the port of Da Nang. That “relegation” was seen as throwing China a bone.
Vietnam and China are bound closely together. China is Vietnam’s largest trade partner, accounting for about 20% of its trade value. They also jointly carry out training for high-ranking Communist Party officials. The neighbors have overcome armed conflicts, such as the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 and the Johnson South Reef skirmish of 1988.
But with China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea provoking a strong backlash from the international community, Vietnam can no longer sit on the fence. That likely means distancing itself further from China.
By contrast, Hanoi’s ties with Tokyo and Washington are strengthening. And if the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact takes effect, those bonds will only grow stronger. In October 2014, the U.S. partially lifted a ban on arms exports to Vietnam that had been in place for some 40 years — since the Vietnam War — to allow maritime weapons into the country. If the U.S. fully scraps the embargo, it would reduce Vietnam’s heavy reliance on Russian arms imports and potentially make the Southeast Asian country more dependent on the U.S. defense industry.
As Vietnam marks the 30th anniversary of the introduction of its Doi Moi economic liberalization policy this year, it will no doubt also be reconsidering its position in the international community.