Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cam Ranh Bay back in strategic limelight

Cam Ranh Bay back in strategic limelight

South China Morning Post 
August 16, 2008 Saturday 
Cam Ranh Bay back in strategic limelight 

Greg Torode 

Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam is one place that never seems to die. 

Built up as a vast air and sea base by the US military at the height of the Vietnam conflict, it became a glittering prize of the cold war when Hanoi allowed its Soviet Union patron to keep its biggest southern base there. 

Cam Ranh's deep harbour hosted submarines, ships and an electronic spying centre that swept the Pacific to watch Chinese and US forces. 

Russia withdrew the rusting remnants of its presence in 2002, two years before its lease expired, as Vietnam jacked up the rent to $200US million a year. Cam Ranh may have largely returned to its natural state of windswept beaches, salt pans and rice paddies but it has never been forgotten. 

Major militaries, including the US and India, have discretely but repeatedly dropped hints to the Vietnamese that they would like ship visits to the area, even though they appear to realise Hanoi is unlikely to grant a foreign power full base rights again. 

China is eyeing developments closely as Vietnam seeks to broaden and deepen its international military ties. The strategic value of Cam Ranh is difficult to overestimate. Considered the best natural harbour in East Asia, the bay sits beneath the resort of Nha Trang and just west of the disputed Spratly Islands that straddle the vital shipping lanes of the South China Sea. 

Recent developments suggest its importance certainly has not been lost on Moscow, which is actively seeking to rebuild its once mighty Pacific fleet out of Vladivostok. 

Russian defence analysts and retired generals have talked up the value of Cam Ranh in the Russian media, all reflective of a broader push to expand its military presence as it grows in wealth and confidence after leaner post-Soviet years. The commentaries appear linked to official Russian approaches to Cuba to reopen its controversial listening post at Lourdes - a sister facility to Cam Ranh Bay that closed at the same time. 

Alexey Muraviev, a Russian security expert based at Australia's Curtin University of Technology, said the flurry of articles appeared to be based on speculation and wishful thinking. 

"But I think they do reflect a widespread view that Russia should never have left Cam Ranh," he said. 

"Some kind of future return would certainly fit into Russia's broader strategic logic." 

Russian president turned prime minister Vladimir Putin apparently agrees. 

In April he expressed concern that the US had displayed little goodwill over Russia's closures of bases at Cam Ranh and Lourdes. "What did we get?" he said. "[US] bases in Romania, bases in Bulgaria, the missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland." 

Russian entrepreneurs, meanwhile, are also eyeing Cam Ranh's commercial potential as they move into the region, something Hanoi government planners are keen to exploit even while its military experts still debate future usage. 

Large Russian property developer Mirax Group this week won a licence to build a $200US million resort at Cam Ranh. The group is planning a 300-room five-star hotel and 100 villas, the Vietnam News Agency reported. 

It would be the first significant resort development in the area. 

Already, Hanoi has allowed internal commercial flights to use the massive airfields, built initially to handle giant US B-52 bombers. 

While it remains far from clear whether Moscow has yet made any formal overtures to Hanoi, the pair have a strong military relationship. Russia remains a key supplier to Vietnam's military and is building two state of the art guided missile frigates, with two more reportedly on order. 

But Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at Australian National University, has noted than any return on the Cam Ranh base may not come cheaply given the state of the remaining facilities.