Russia seeks closer naval ties with Vietnam

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The strategic Cam Ranh Bay in the East Sea is the focus of cooperation

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (2nd, L) and his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh after talks at the Ministry of Defense in Hanoi on March 5 

Russia is looking to step up naval cooperation with Vietnam in the latter's strategic Cam Ranh Bay in the East Sea though Vietnam is downplaying it, calling the cooperation "normal."

Asked whether recent bilateral talks on naval cooperation convey a message about the sovereignty dispute in the East Sea, Minister of Defense Phung Quang Thanh said: "It is a normal issue. Other countries [also] want to cooperate with the Vietnamese Navy."

He was speaking at a press conference Tuesday following a visit by his Russian counterpart General Sergei Shoigu on March 4-5.

Cam Ranh Port in central Vietnam was used by the US military during the Vietnam War which ended in 1975.

After the war, Vietnam and the then Soviet Union signed an agreement in 1979 that allowed the latter to use Cam Ranh as a base until Russia withdrew its forces in 2002.

Cam Ranh Bay is about 13 kilometers from the open sea with waters 18-30 meters deep. The estuary is three kilometers wide and 20 meters deep, making it capable of receiving ships of more than 100,000 DWT.

It is strategically located near key shipping lanes in the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea, and is close to the strategically important and oil-rich Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelagoes.

At the press conference, Shoigu underlined the importance of Russia's naval cooperation with Vietnam and promised to support Vietnam with personnel training and technology transfer once Russia delivers naval vessels.

Last August Russia's Admiralteiskie Verfi shipyard completed the first of six Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines ordered by Vietnam.

Shoigu told Thanh at the meeting that Vietnam should approve construction of a five-star resort for Russian soldiers near Cam Ranh Airport. A fifth of the foreign-invested resort's capacity will be earmarked for Vietnamese soldiers.

The Vietnamese Navy-owned Tan Cang Company would build a commercial repair facility at Cam Ranh Bay, Thanh said.

Vietsovpetro, a joint venture between Russia's Zarubezhneft Company and PetroVietnam, would take a stake in the project that is expected to take two or three years, he said.

The facility would come up in the bay and serve commercial purposes, he said.

Cam Ranh would have three ports one for the Vietnamese Navy, the repair facility serving ships from all countries, and the civilian Ba Ngoi Port he said.

"As you know, Japan, France, the US, and the former Soviet Union had bases here," he said at the press conference.

"Thus the Russians know well about the strategic position of Cam Ranh Bay.

"It's a deep water port located near international shipping lines, and is a good place to have technical services."

Vietnam would simplify procedures for Russian ships using the services, he promised.

Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert with the University of New South Wales in Australia, said bilateral discussions to step up naval cooperation were in line with what was agreed in the past few years.

"In 2010 Vietnam asked Russia to assist in upgrading the naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay mainly in order to service the Kilo submarines when they are delivered.

"Top Vietnamese officials noted that Russia would be accorded special treatment because of its status as a strategic partner.

"In July 2012 the bilateral relationship was raised to a comprehensive strategic partnership in part due to closer defense cooperation through increase military sales."

There was no possibility that the Russians would be permitted to set up a base at Cam Ranh Bay, he said.

"Russian naval personnel and support ships will be permitted to upgrade the naval facilities at Cam Ranh. The Vietnamese government has declared that the commercial repair facilities at Cam Ranh are open to all countries.

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"It is my assessment that Russia is not seeking a permanent naval presence at Cam Ranh Bay to exert influence in the South China Sea. Nor is Russia seeking to contain China. Vietnam is unlikely to change it long-standing policy of "˜three no's [foreign military base]'," he said.

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