Argument

Washington’s Honeymoon in Cam Ranh Bay

Chinese bellicosity in the disputed waters of the South China Sea has brought the United States back to a strategic port and created enough misery to unite the former foes.

US President Barack Obama (R) walks past Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (L) after a press conference at the International Convention Center in Hanoi on May 23, 2016.
Obama visits Vietnam for the first time making him the third US President to visit the South East Asian country since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.  / AFP / pool / LUONG THAI LINH / POOL        (Photo credit should read LUONG THAI LINH / POOL/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) walks past Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (L) after a press conference at the International Convention Center in Hanoi on May 23, 2016. Obama visits Vietnam for the first time making him the third US President to visit the South East Asian country since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. / AFP / pool / LUONG THAI LINH / POOL (Photo credit should read LUONG THAI LINH / POOL/AFP/Getty Images)

“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” the jester Trinculo proclaims in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Shipwrecked on a mysterious island and beset by foul weather, Trinculo takes shelter underneath the beastly Caliban’s cloak “till the dregs of the storm be past.” The castaway does so even though Caliban stinks like a fish — and may even be part fish: “A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish; he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell.” All in all, a repellent companion with whom to weather a storm.

As in great literature, so in great-power politics. Transpose the lesson of Caliban’s cloak to world politics — protagonists who recoil from one another in normal times can set aside glaring differences to quell a common threat. Think about democratic United States and Great Britain making common cause with totalitarian Soviet Union to vanquish the Axis powers during World War II. But such fellowships are flimsy — seldom do they outlast the storm. Trinculo casts off Caliban’s cloak as soon as the tempest subsides. The Grand Alliance barely outlived World War II.

Asian politics has seen few stranger bedfellows than Vietnam and the United States. To borrow from Trinculo again, Chinese bellicosity in disputed waters in the South China Sea has created enough misery to unite the former foes in defense of Vietnam’s offshore waters and skies. On May 23, while on a visit to Vietnam meant to tighten economic and defense ties, U.S. President Barack Obama lifted a longstanding embargo on arms exports to Vietnam. Done in the hope of exacting concessions on trade and human rights, the details of the deal remain unannounced. While Obama denied that the decision had anything to do with China, few believe he can disregard the China factor in U.S.-Vietnam relations. Whether Hanoi and Washington can buck Shakespearean logic — fashioning a partnership that endures after they ride out the storm currently raging — remains to be seen.

Most intriguing for any U.S. mariner, though, is the news that Hanoi might reopen the splendid deepwater harbor at Cam Ranh Bay to U.S. Navy warships as part of the quid pro quo for revoking the arms ban. If so (and bear with me here), the Vietnamese leadership, playing the part of Trinculo, will have invited the United States, cast as Caliban, to spread out his cloak — helping keep out the monsoon that is China. Strange bedfellows indeed.

Depending on the agreement’s terms, that could let the U.S. Navy mount a regular presence in the western reaches of the South China Sea. Doing so is a must if the United States wants to uphold freedom of navigation in the 1.4 million-square-mile sea. China has challenged the customary and treaty law of the sea — which both maintain that no one owns the sea — by claiming “indisputable sovereignty” across a massive swath of Southeast Asian waters and skies, including expanses allocated to Vietnam by the law of the sea. Washington replies to Beijing’s challenge by flouting it.

Sending U.S. ships through contested waters and planes through the sky overhead — preferably in unison with allies and friends — constitutes a statement that the international community does not accept Beijing’s effort to poach its neighbors’ offshore waters and airspace or to otherwise exceed its prerogatives under the law of the sea. That’s a statement seafaring states must make, over and over, to preserve hard-won nautical freedoms. There’s an unwritten use-it-or-lose-it principle in international law: Treaties are little more than bits of parchment. They can lose force over time if governments ignore them in part or in whole. If stakeholders in the legal order neglect to challenge an unlawful claim, that claim has a way of calcifying into international practice over time.

It’s imperative, consequently, that underwater surveys, surveillance flights, flight operations, and the other hosts of operations guaranteed by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea continue throughout Southeast Asia’s high seas and offshore exclusive economic zones. Use it or lose it! To sustain that regular offshore presence required, though, navy and coast guard vessels need nearby logistical support. Ships cannot remain at sea for long without refueling, rearming, or restocking their storerooms.

Enter Cam Ranh Bay. Cam Ranh has been an important naval outpost since France colonized Indochina in the late 19th century. And it has featured in events of world historical importance. For instance, Russian Adm. Zinovy Rozhestvensky brought his ill-starred Baltic Fleet into the bay in 1905. There, it took on coal and stores before continuing north to meet a grim fate at the hands of Japanese Adm. Heihachiro Togo’s fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Strait (111 years ago this May 27).

Nor was Cam Ranh Bay’s role in history a one-off thing. Imperial Japan captured the seaport during its 1941 to 1942 onslaught on the “Southern Resource Area” — aka Southeast Asia — and its strategic position made an ideal staging base for assaulting Malaysia and Singapore. Starting in the mid-1960s, the U.S. Navy and Army developed seaport infrastructure in the bay to help wage the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union expanded the port after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, while Russian engineers have renovated it in recent years. The infrastructure to host U.S. and other foreign ships is now in place. All that’s missing is a decision from Hanoi to readmit the U.S. Navy to its erstwhile operational hub.

One hopes Hanoi and Washington both hold their noses at the fishy smell and conclude an arrangement providing such access. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, perhaps history’s foremost exponent of sea power, explains why places like Cam Ranh Bay are so crucial. For Mahan, the strategic value of any seaport hinges on three attributes: its geographic position; its strength, meaning its natural defenses or capacity to be fortified against attack; and its resources, meaning the port’s capacity to provide for its own needs and those of visiting fleets.

Apply Mahan’s yardstick to Cam Ranh Bay. The harbor is abundant in all three attributes. It adjoins the eastern approaches to the Strait of Malacca, granting ships based at the bay influence over shipping through this vital nautical thoroughfare. It’s closer to the disputed Paracel Islands than China’s nearest naval hub, the base at the city of Sanya on Hainan Island to the north. And besides outflanking China, Cam Ranh supplies ready access to deep water: The seafloor drops off precipitously outside the harbor — letting submarines submerge, and vanish, soon after leaving port. Small wonder that over the last eight years, Hanoi has invested in a flotilla of Russian-built diesel-electric subs to counter China.

And how strong is the seaport? No military base, including Cam Ranh, is exempt from missile attack in this age of long-range precision weaponry. But Cam Ranh is better off than many potential targets. The harbor’s sprawling size and shape would allow navies based there the luxury of dispersing assets to piers and anchorages all around the periphery. That would help confound Chinese rocketeers’ efforts to target U.S. and Vietnamese vessels. And old-fashioned “hardening” measures — toughly constructed buildings and infrastructure on the port guarded by antiship and antiair missiles — would lend the seaport resiliency. Such improvements should be part of any U.S.-Vietnam accord on naval access.

And lastly, the harbor is lavishly endowed with natural resources. Cam Ranh Bay is located not just adjacent to important waterways, but also sits in the verdant southern part of Vietnam, not far from the important metropolis Ho Chi Minh City. Foodstuffs to feed the port and the fleet are in ready supply. Nor should fuel pose major problems: Vietnam’s crude oil reserves are second only to China’s in the region. If Hanoi consents to a long-term U.S. Navy presence, meanwhile, stockpiling supplies and spare parts at Cam Ranh should cause little trouble: The U.S. Navy has based ships in foreign ports such as Yokosuka, in Japan, Bahrain, and Naples for many decades. It could replicate similar arrangements in coastal Vietnam.

Some things to watch for as Obama’s excellent adventure unfolds: First, the big question of whether or not Vietnam’s communist leadership will decide to readmit the U.S. Navy. Second, on what terms? Will Hanoi accept only a “rotational presence,” whereby ships tarry at Cam Ranh for lengthy intervals but then return home? Or is the leadership amenable to more generous terms, such as permanently establishing a home port for a squadron of ships? Third, how large a presence will Hanoi allow? How many hulls will it permit to dock there, and what types of hulls?

A flotilla featuring major combat vessels like destroyers or cruisers — ships festooned with sensors and armaments of all types — is quite a different policy implement for Washington than a squadron of lightly armed littoral combat ships. It would also make quite a different statement vis-à-vis Beijing about U.S. and Vietnamese capability and resolve.

And, lastly, what will Hanoi let the U.S. ships do once stationed at Cam Ranh Bay? Welcoming a former enemy back into Vietnamese territory is no small move, even four decades after the Vietnam War. Will the two navies mount joint patrols of disputed expanses? Will their coast guards form joint units to police Vietnamese waters? Or will Hanoi permit U.S. commanders a free hand to do Washington’s bidding?

One imagines, since Trinculo is sheltering beneath Caliban’s cloak for expediency’s sake, Vietnamese leaders will take a restrictive view toward U.S. maritime exploits. That will let Hanoi doff the protective cloak when (and if) the storm passes. It will grant the U.S. Navy access to Cam Ranh Bay while reserving the right to withhold that access for any reason — or no reason at all. And for two erstwhile enemies making common causes, that’s fitting.

Photo credit: LUONG THAI LINH /Pool/AFP/Getty Images

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.

 

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