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Assessment: Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay Caught in U.S.-Russia Cross Fire By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0063/ 2015

The United States has just asked Vietnam to curtail Russia’s use of the airfield at Cam Ranh Bay to refuel Russian nuclear-capable bombers currently flying in the region.We attach a Reuters news story and ask for your urgent assessment of this development.

ANSWER: Vietnam’s dependence on Russia as the main source of military platforms, equipment and armaments, has now put Vietnam in a potentially difficult spot. Russia has pressed for special access to Cam Ranh Bay ever since it began delivering enhanced Kilo-class submarines to Vietnam. Initially Russia wanted a stop over for its navy after completion of anti-piracy duties in the Gulf of Aden. It now appears that Russia was given permission to land refueling aircraft at Cam Ranh Bay. These aircraft later serviced Russian Bear bombers that flew near the U.S. base on Guam. Russia’s actions are part of a new global assertiveness agains the United States and its NATO allies over differences involving Crimea and the Ukraine. Russia’s actions provoked the United States to ask Vietnam to curtain such flights as they contributed to tensions in the region. In the past Vietnam has supported a U.S. military presence in the region as long as it contributed to regional peace, security and development. Now the shoe is now on Vietnam’s other foot. Will Vietnam impose the same standards on Russian military aircraft operating out of Cam Ranh Bay? Russia would certainly be displeased if Vietnam denied future permission for refueling tankers to land at Cam Ranh Bay. This displeasure might spill over and negatively impact on defence cooperation. Although both Russia and Vietnam gain mutually beneficial benefits from arms sales, Vietnam needs Russia more than Russia needs Vietnam. U.S. displeasure comes at an awkward moment for Hanoi as it prepares for the visit by party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong to Washington. The current contretemps could sour Trong’s visit and set back U.S. approval for the sale of lethal weapons “on a case by case basis”and lead to a downturn in defence cooperation.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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