HANOI -- Vietnam is David to China's Goliath when it comes to strategic competition. China's economy is 54 times larger and its navy is 10 times bigger.
But as far as territorial disputes in the South China Sea are concerned, Vietnam has an ace up its sleeve: Cam Ranh Bay. To make the most of its leverage, Hanoi is apparently letting Russia use the natural harbor on its central coast.
Cam Ranh Bay is one of the most strategically important bays in Asia. The U.S. used it as its center for naval operations during the Vietnam War.
Now, the U.S. Navy wants to return on friendly terms. It is locked in a strategic rivalry with Russia over the use of the bay. Vietnam could tremendously alter the balance of power in Asia-Pacific waters simply by granting one or the other preferential access.
On March 11, Reuters reported the U.S. government had asked Vietnam to stop letting Russia use the military base at Cam Ranh Bay. U.S. officials complained that Russian bombers circling Guam, home to an American air base, were being refueled by Russian tanker aircraft flying out of the bay, the report said.
The harbor is about 600km west of the Paracel Islands and some 800km northwest of the Spratly Islands.
Ships stationed at Cam Ranh Bay can easily enter the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca. History shows its value, with naval and air bases: In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Russia's Baltic Fleet called there, and Imperial Japan used the facility during World War II.
After the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union and then Russia leased the base from 1979 to 2002. After the end of the Cold War, the bay lost some of its strategic importance. But China's growing assertiveness aimed at establishing its presence in contested waters has changed matters.
Vietnam says it does not want anyone to have preferential rights to the bay. Vietnam has turned down repeated requests from the U.S. seeking to use its facilities. Vietnam's apparent move to give Russia access is seen as an effort to strengthen ties with Moscow, on which it has relied militarily since the Vietnam War.
As of March, the Vietnamese navy had purchased three Russian-built Kilo-class submarines, deploying them in Cam Ranh Bay, with three more expected by 2016. Regular port calls by Russian warships would make it easier for the Vietnam to get Russian advice about submarine operations and strategy.
"Vietnam is likely to have secured a Russian pledge to update its arms and weapons systems in return for allowing Russia to use Cam Ranh Bay," said a foreign diplomat in Hanoi.
The Vietnamese government has been silent about Russia's use of the bay. This is because Vietnam wants to strengthen relations with the U.S. even more than those with Russia.
Hello, Uncle Sam
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations. Vietnam's supreme leader Nguyen Phu Trong is to become the first secretary-general of the Communist Party to visit Washington, possibly as early as June.
The U.S. is Vietnam's second-largest trading partner after China, accounting for 11.7% of its total trade value.
The U.S. has partially lifted its arms embargo on Vietnam, which lasted for about 40 years. So far, the restrictions have been eased only on items related to maritime defense. Vietnam appears to be interested in buying anti-submarine aircraft and high-speed coast-guard patrol boats.
About 95% of Vietnam's arms come from Russia, and most of them are old. Vietnamese officials are well aware that American arms come with better after-sales service and training. They may be looking to gradually replace their Russian gear with American.
Japan is keenly watching these developments. In late April, Reuters reported Japan's Defense Ministry has begun considering joint patrols in the South China Sea with the U.S. Japan has a fleet of 70 P-3C surveillance planes, which gives it a strong reconnaissance capability. Should it be allowed to use Cam Ranh Bay, "Japan would be able to routinely monitor the entire South China Sea," said a diplomat in Hanoi.
On May 13, two Maritime Self-Defense Force P-3Cs flew to Danang, north of Cam Ranh Bay, in a military exchange. This was the second visit by Japanese P-3Cs. Whether the timing was deliberate or by chance, Vietnam is sending a message to its neighbors. The region's power games are growing more complex.