A Russian TU-95 bomber flies through airspace northwest of Okinoshima island, Fukuoka prefecture in the southern island of Kyushu, in this picture taken by Japan Air Self-Defence Force and released August 22, 2013. Photo credit: Reuters
Hanoi has sought to assuage Washington’s concerns about Russia refueling military planes at a former American base in Vietnam at a time when the two former foes are seeing a rapid thaw in bilateral relations.
“We have independent policies on foreign relations,” Pham Quang Vinh, the new Vietnam ambassador to the US, told the audience at an interaction Tuesday at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We will not let our relations with any country [be harmed] by a third party," Vinh said.
“We open our facilities to all countries for services and logistics. It is not presumed to be harmful to any other country.”
On March 11 newswire Reuters reported that the US had asked Vietnam to stop letting Russia use the strategic Cam Ranh Bay to refuel nuclear-capable bombers. General Vincent Brooks, commander of the US Army in the Pacific, was quoted as saying that the planes had conducted "provocative" flights, including around the US Pacific Ocean territory of Guam, home to a major American air base.
At the interaction, Ted Osius, the new US ambassador to Vietnam, said, “We think the Russians put the Vietnamese in an awkward position by using their arrangement and then engaging in some provocative acts.”
Cam Ranh Bay, a natural deep-water harbor, is now the base for three submarines bought by the Vietnamese Navy from Russia, with two more expected by early next year.
Just as China began flexing its muscles in the East Sea
(the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea), in 2011 the Obama administration announced America’s vaguely assertive plans for a so-called “pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific region.
When China towed an infamous giant oil rig into Vietnamese waters last May, the US was a vocal critic of China’s claims, salivating over the prospect of greater access to Cam Ranh Bay as part of its "pivot".
July 12 will mark the day the US lifted its two-decade embargo on Vietnam in 1995. Under banners and programs pledging “20 more successful years,” politicians and observers from both sides are looking forward to broadening and deepening the bilateral “friendship, trust and collaboration” as Vinh wrote recently in an op-ed for The Diplomat, an online magazine that covers Asia-Pacific issues.
It is in this context that the US “concern” about the Russian role in the Cam Ray Bay should not come as a surprise to Vietnam, analysts say.
“Other Asian countries like Malaysia and the Philippines have tried to benefit from enhanced military relations with the US only to find themselves drawn deeper into the web of regional and global rivalry and geopolitics,” Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert, told Thanh Nien News.
“There is no free lunch. More in the way of military and strategic assistance are likely to be ‘requested’ of Vietnam as its ties with the US and US-China and US-Russia ‘competition’ deepen.”
Russia bristled at the US demand.
"It is strange to hear such statements from representatives of the state whose armed forces are permanently stationed in a number of Asia-Pacific countries and which continues to increase its level of military activity in the region," Reuters quoted a statement by the Russian defense ministry as saying March 13.
Konstantin Vnukov, Russia’s ambassador to Vietnam, also told Tass news agency the same day that Vietnam and Russia were independent sovereign states that "do not need any instructions or recommendations from anyone, and we do not intend to listen to requirements."
In 2013, at the Shangri-La Dialogue -- an annual high-profile regional security forum in Singapore -- Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung called for unity among Southeast Asian countries as China asserts its claims to the energy-rich East Sea.
Beijing routinely outlines its territorial claims by referring to maps featuring a nine-dashed line that encloses about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer East Sea. Chinese maps featuring the line have been emphatically rejected by international cartographers. Moreover, the maps fly in the face of competing claims by four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
At the 2013 dialogue, stressing the need for "strategic trust", Dung said ASEAN must stay united and strong, without any of its 10 members "forced to take sides with one country or the other for the benefit of their own relationships with big powers."
But given the status quo, Sam Bateman, a maritime security researcher at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told Thanh Nien News: “There is a marked lack of strategic trust in the region at present between the major powers leaving countries like Vietnam, which are trying to balance their relations between the different camps, to be caught up in the web of strategic distrust.
“As the saying goes, they are caught between a rock and a hard place," he said.
“All in all, it is a great pity that this major power competition has intruded into the politics of the South China Sea.”