Facing relentless Chinese pressure in the contested waters of the South China Sea,Vietnam,according to reports from Moscow,is now willing to host Russian military at its base in Cam Ranh Bay.
The media reports came as the Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang met the Russian supremo Vladimir Putin at the end of the last week in Moscow. That Vietnam is seeking military support from partners,old and new,to balance its giant neighbour to the north is not news.
Last month,the US Defence Secretary,Leon Panetta visited a very welcoming Vietnam amidst reports that the two sides are intensifying military engagement. The Vietnamese have already agreed to service US non-combat naval ships at its facilities in Cam Ranh Bay.
Hanoi has also been eager to step up military cooperation with India. But the prospect of Russian Navy returning to Vietnam,however,is certainly news. After Vietnam ousted US military forces in Indo-China in 1975,the Soviet Navy quickly moved into take over Cam Ranh Bay,a major naval base for American forces during until the mid 1970s.
Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union,Russia maintained its military presence in Vietnam until Putin decided to pull back in 2001. Russia,however,has recently been signaling a determination to reestablish a global military presence.
Last week,the commander in chief of the Russian Navy,Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov told the state-run Novosti news agency that Moscow is in talks with Cuba,Seychelles and Vietnam to establish facilities for resupply and maintenance.
This is part of Moscow’s effort to promote the Russian navys ability to project military power and undertake military operations far beyond its shores. While Russias interest raising its maritime profile is not surprising,its reported negotiations for a naval facility in Vietnam come amidst the mounting Sino-Vietnamese tensions and Moscow’s deepening political bonds with Beijing.
Can Russia afford to displease China by tightening its military cooperation with Vietnam? Unsurprisingly Moscow was quick to deny the media reports. The Ministry of Defence in Moscow blamed misreporting of the Admiral Chirkovs remarks.
President Truong too down played the reports of Vietnam offering the Cam Ranh Bay to the Russian Navy. He told the Voice of Russia that the ship repair and maintenance facilities at Cam Ranh Bay will be available to all friendly navies and can be used to deepen military cooperation between Hanoi and Moscow.
Given the sensitive nature of the subject and the complex relationships that Russia and Vietnam have with China,both want to tread softly. But there is no denying the strong convergence of the maritime military interests of Moscow and Hanoi. Both sides would want to carefully calibrate their convergence without provoking a strong backlash from Beijing. But it is really up to Putin to decide whether Russia wants to play second fiddle to China in Asia or carve out an independent role for itself in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.