Home' Ships and Shipping : January 2011 Contents The rapid, and unprecedented, growth of Chinese naval power
and influence in Asia has, so far, gone virtually unchecked.
Now, though, there are signs that a de facto "alliance" of
resistant nations is emerging, united in their concern that
Beijing may be moving towards achieving a stranglehold on
the continent's sea trade routes, and offshore resources.
America has recently adopted a tough line against the use of
force to back up regional maritime claims. Japan is nowadays
showing China that it means business over the disputed Dioayu
(Senkaku) islands. Hanoi, for its part, continues to build up its
presence in the South China Sea, to the accompaniment of an
intensive propaganda campaign, promoting Vietnam's claims to
the Spratly Islands, sovereignty over which is also claimed by
China, along with four other nations.
The Vietnamese, seeking to encourage an international naval
presence in and around their territorial waters, now frequently
welcome official visits to their nation by foreign warships. Hanoi
has also established formal defence co-operation agreements with a
range of foreign powers, including Australia, Brazil, France, and the
UK. These agreements are mainly focused, for the time being at
least, upon training and humanitarian aspects of naval operations.
India's navy, meanwhile, is assiduously building operational ties
with Southeast Asia's maritime forces, as well as entering into a
formal military support and training agreement with Vietnam and
enhancing military links with Burma -- a strategically important
country which is a long-time ally of China.
Although traditionally wary of Chinese ambitions, Russia
has continued to reap advantage from the situation by selling
large quantities of military equipment to both India and China
as well as to Vietnam. Now, however, it appears that Moscow,
which has for many years enjoyed cordial relations with Hanoi,
has decided to greatly enhance its support of the Vietnamese.
This move is a strong indication that it values Vietnam, one of
Asia's most militarily efficient powers, as a long-term buffer
In Hanoi in late October, 2010, Vietnamese President Nguyen
Minh Triet, and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev,
signed a US$2.1 billion agreement to expand collaboration in a
number of business areas, including defence technology. The
agreement, which was the culmination of an official visit to
Vietnam by Medvedev, included plans to jointly develop, for
both Vietnamese, and foreign use, the naval and civilian, ports
at Cam Ranh Bay, a project which is expected to take about
three years to complete.
The plans for Cam Ranh Bay will help to internationalise the
increasingly sensitive strategic issue of freedom of navigation in
the South China Sea. The project will also complement
Moscow's well-established radical upgrade programme for the
Socialist Republic of Vietnam Navy (SRVN), which is intended to
act as a brake on Chinese dominance of the sea. Russia has
already supplied the SRVN with Tarantul and Molniya missile
corvettes, as well as Svetlyak offshore patrol vessels, and
advanced Bastion shore-based, anti-shipping missiles. Gepard
frigates, additional Svetlyaks, and Kilo diesel electric submarines
are on order from Russia.
The Russians themselves can be expected to reap much
advantage from access to an upgraded Cam Ranh Bay. The base is
well positioned to help sustain the Russian fleet's politically
important anti-piracy deployments to the seaways off Somalia.
Usually consisting of task groups made up of Udaloy destroyers,
and support ships, this commitment is currently supported from
the relatively distant Russian Far East port of Vladivostok.
Furthermore, the base will not only offer ready access to the South
China Sea, but will also help to sustain a credible regional presence
by the resurgent Russian Navy in other important theatres, such as
the Straits of Malacca, the Singapore Straits, the Northern Indian
Ocean and the East China Sea.
Cam Ranh Bay, situated some 220 miles northeast of Ho Chi
Minh City (Saigon), offers extensive sea frontage, a water depth of
about 14 metres, a defensible hinterland, and adjacent aviation
support facilities. It has previously been utilised by foreign navies,
The bay was used as a home port for ships of France's Indochina
fleet from the latter part of the 19th century, with the French
modernising the base in the 1930s. The Imperial Japanese Navy
then made use of it from 1942 until Tokyo's surrender.
During the Vietnam War, Washington undertook massive
development of Cam Ranh Bay, turning it into a hub for
operations by a range of US Navy vessels deployed on air support,
shore bombardment, amphibious, blockade and special forces
missions in support of the land campaign. American fighters,
bombers, and long-range maritime patrol (LRMP) aircraft,
furthermore, operated from the bay's air base.
Following the American withdrawal from Vietnam, and the
subsequent defeat, in 1975, of the Republic of South Vietnam by
the forces of communist North Vietnam, Soviet Russia was quick to
establish military connections with the new regime in Hanoi. The
Soviet Navy established a big base at Cam Ranh Bay in 1979 and
used the facility both to help protect Hanoi's offshore interests and
to extend Russia's regional naval reach.
The base supported operations by Soviet frigates, destroyers,
nuclear submarines, and amphibious warfare vessels, as well as by
aviation assets in the form of fighters, strategic bombers and LRMP
aircraft. Moscow also established an electronic signal intelligence
(SIGINT) station near the base. (Russian naval operations from Can
Ranh Bay, incidentally, actually date back to the early 20th
century, when warships of the Imperial Russian Navy briefly used
the French base during the Russo-Japanese War).
The Soviets later progressively withdrew from Cam Ranh, as the
Cold War petered out, and the Vietnamese started demanding high
rental payments. The last Russian-manned facility, namely the
SIGINT station, shut down in 2002.
According to Vietnamese Defence Minister General Phung
Quang Thanh, Cam Ranh Bay will, in future, offer shelter and
repair facilities to warships and merchant vessels of many foreign
nations, while the SRVN will conduct operations from a dedicated
section of the base.
An artist's recreation of the Soviet fleet in Cam Ranh Bay
SHIPS AND SHIPPING January 2011 11
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