Washington: The ghosts of the Vietnam War have finally faded at the strategic port of Cam Ranh Bay. More than 40 years ago, US forces left this massive base where Marines landed, B-52s loaded up for bombing raids, and wounded US soldiers were treated.
Now, some Vietnamese say they are yearning for the US military to return.
“On Facebook, there was a question recently: What do you want from President Obama’s visit?” said Vo Van Tao, 63, who fought as a young North Vietnamese infantry soldier against the United States. “Some people said they wanted democracy. I said I wanted the Americans to come back to Cam Ranh Bay. A lot of people agreed with me.”
President Barack Obama is scheduled to arrive Sunday in Vietnam, the third visit by a US president since the war ended. The big question he is expected to answer is whether Washington will lift a partial arms embargo and allow Vietnam to buy lethal weapons from the United States. The Communist government has long asked for the ban to be revoked, and US access to Cam Ranh Bay could be part of the payoff.
For the White House, the decision on lifting the embargo has come down to a debate over trying to improve Vietnam’s poor human rights record versus enabling Vietnam to better defend itself against an increasing threat from China in the South China Sea.
Washington has for years made lifting the ban contingent on Vietnam’s improving human rights for its people, and has prodded Vietnam to allow more freedom of speech and to release political prisoners. But as tensions with China have escalated in the South China Sea, the sentiment in the Obama administration has shifted toward lifting the ban, American officials familiar with the discussions said.
Vietnam’s government, pressed by an ever more powerful China, knows it cannot stand up to Beijing alone and is cautiously moving toward increased ties with the United States.
Despite their shared communist ideology, Vietnam and China fought over islands in the South China Sea in the 1970s and ’80s. Two years ago, China sent an oil rig into disputed waters close to the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both countries, leading to clashes at sea and anti-Chinese riots in Vietnamese cities.
More recently, China has built artificial islands with military runways in the South China Sea just 300 miles from the Vietnamese coast.
Vietnam’s needs dovetail with those of the United States, which has been encouraging maritime states in Southeast Asia to better defend themselves, an effort partly aimed at keeping the United States from being dragged into a direct naval conflict with China.
The prospect of access to Cam Ranh Bay, where the Vietnamese have built a new international port, provides another enticement for lifting the ban.
A US presence there would allow US forces to use the port on the western edge of the South China Sea, complementing US facilities in the Philippines on the sea’s eastern edge.
“If the United States can get regular access to Cam Ranh Bay, it would be very advantageous to maintaining the balance of power with China,” said Alexander L. Vuving, a Vietnam specialist at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. “If something happens in the South China Sea, it takes a while for the US to get there. China can get there more quickly.”
The Vietnamese, who shun alliances and forbid foreign bases, have made clear they would not entertain exclusive use of the facilities by the United States but would allow it to share the base with others. Singaporean and Japanese vessels this year were the first to use the facility.
US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured Hanoi during a recent visit to Vietnam that Washington was not seeking a base here.
Lifting the embargo would go a long way toward shoring up Washington’s
credibility among conservatives in the Vietnamese military who fear the Obama administration sees improved relations as a way to bring multiparty democracy to Vietnam, experts said.
“To get over the resistance of the Vietnamese military, the US has to show its good intentions by lifting the arms embargo,” Vuving said. Doing so would “open the door” to closer military cooperation, he said, and access to Cam Ranh Bay would most likely follow.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a Senate hearing last month that he favored lifting the embargo.
But the human rights side of the equation remains problematic for a country Human Rights Watch describes as one of the world’s most repressive.
Last week, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Tom Malinowski, met with human rights leaders and government officials in Hanoi for a final human rights assessment before the Obama visit. The State Department said he urged Hanoi to “release political prisoners without condition” and make other human rights improvements.
Vietnam still has more than 100 political prisoners, activists here say, including bloggers and lawyers whose only crime was to criticize the government.
A US official who was briefed on the visit said there had been positive signals from the Vietnamese. Blinken had praised the government in a speech last month for “some progress” on human rights, notably allowing independent trade unions for the first time.
Surprisingly, a leading dissident has come out in favor of lifting the arms embargo, telling Malinowski the issue should not be linked to the release of political prisoners.
“If Obama lifts the embargo totally that would be great for Vietnam and Vietnam-US relations,” said Nguyen Quang A, the founder of the Civil Society Forum in Hanoi. “The Communists say the US needs to respect our legitimacy and don’t make trouble. That’s the negative from our point of view. But the positive is it starts a new era with the United States.”
Lifting the embargo is not expected to produce a windfall for US defense suppliers.
Since Washington partly lifted the embargo in 2014, allowing the purchase of nonlethal equipment for maritime defense, Vietnam has not acquired any US equipment, not even coastal radar systems for its coast guard, said Carl Thayer, a defense analyst in Canberra, Australia, who specializes in Vietnam. This was largely for lack of money, he said.
It would also be costly for Vietnam to switch from heavy equipment made in Russia, long Vietnam’s main arms supplier, to US-made equipment.
But Vietnam wants to diversify from its reliance on Russian arms. It is using India to train its crews on Russian-built submarines, and is looking to Israel for some weapons.
Last week, Vietnamese officials met with US military suppliers, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, at a symposium in Hanoi to discuss the needs of the Vietnamese military.
Christopher Sfedu, who attended the meeting and is director of international expansion for EDI-USA, a Philadelphia-based supplier of communications equipment, said communications software appeared to be near the top of the military’s wish list.
The Russians still have privileged rights at Cam Ranh Bay, using the base for tanker aircraft that refuel reconnaissance flights over Guam.
Protected on its southern and eastern flanks by hills looming up from the South China Sea, Cam Ranh Bay juts inland for 20 miles, the largest sheltered harbor in Southeast Asia, and its most strategic because of its deep water.
For Tao, a local resident, the return of the Americans cannot happen fast enough.
The Vietnamese people are very angry at the Chinese airstrips in the Spratlys,” he said, referring to the disputed islands in the South China Sea. “We figured out it will take them only one hour to come and bomb Saigon.”