Russia’s possible return to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay is particularly important. Considered the finest deep-water shelter in Southeast Asia, Cam Ranh controls a vital sea lane in the South China Sea.
In 1979, the Soviet Union signed an agreement with Hanoi for a 25-year free lease of the base at Cam Ranh. The facility became the largest Soviet military base outside the Soviet Union. But Russia evacuated Cam Ranh — and the electronic surveillance facility in Cuba’s Lourdes — in the early 2000s when the lease expired. The bipolar superpower rivalry that defined the Soviet-era had ended and Moscow decided it did not need military facilities so far from its borders — especially considering that Vietnam was asking for several hundreds of millions of dollars in annual rent.
With Russia’s geopolitical resurgence and renewed tensions with the West, Moscow has begun to rethink its stance on overseas bases, including Cam Ranh. In 2013 and 2014, Moscow and Hanoi signed agreements that gave Russia’s visiting warships preferential access to Cam Ranh Bay. They also established a joint facility for the maintenance of Vietnam’s Russian-made submarines.
In 2014, with Vietnam’s apparent permission, Russian tanker aircraft started to operate out of Cam Ranh. Their mission was to refuel nuclear-capable strategic bombers that were conducting patrols deep in the Pacific — some of which were found circling the US territory of Guam. The Russian military is already present at Cam Ranh Bay, the question is whether or not Cam Ranh can be expanded into a full-fledged base similar to facilities operated by the United States in Japan and South Korea.
The most realistic answer is no. Vietnam was quick to reject the idea of a foreign military base on its soil. In recent years, Vietnam has been promoting Cam Ranh as a harbour open to warships from different countries. This is part of Hanoi’s hedging strategy — it seeks to balance China’s burgeoning influence by cultivating strategic links with major extra-regional powers. The United States is the most crucial outside player and is also the top export destination for Vietnamese merchandise. Hanoi cannot afford to antagonise Washington by agreeing to host a full-scale Russian military base.
But there are also serious doubts as to whether Moscow can afford to re-establish and sustain a global network of bases that come with hefty lease payments, maintenance needs and personnel costs. With the Russian economy still shrinking, funding overseas bases would be a very challenging task.
If the idea of restoring Soviet bases is largely unworkable, why did the Kremlin invoke such a plan at all? There are a few different explanations. One is that Moscow wants to provoke Washington by raising the spectre of Russian military presence at strategic points around the globe. It could also just be a diversionary manoeuvre to conceal the Kremlin’s real motivations. At any rate, Moscow does not make any secret of its primary strategy, which is aimed at shifting the power balance in Eurasia. This strategy is in ever closer alignment with China.
The Russian–Chinese ‘strategic partnership’ now looks more solid and efficient than some of Washington’s ‘treaty alliances’. The latest bilateral summit between Putin and Xi that took place in June 2016 in Beijing was remarkable because of the unusually high level of thinly disguised anti-American rhetoric.
China and Russia have also undertaken a series of joint political and military operations. In June 2016, Chinese and Russian warships sailed into the waters off the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, whose ownership is hotly disputed between Tokyo and Beijing. In September 2016, China and Russia held joint naval drills in the highly contested South China Sea. Putin also publicly expressed solidarity with China in rejecting The Hague’s tribunal verdict. In May 2016, Russian and Chinese militaries held their first joint exercises of anti-missile defence units and later agreed to hold anti-missile drills in 2017.
Russia is also showing increased readiness to sell China its most advanced weapons platforms, such as the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and the Su-35 fighter jets. As a sign of growing cooperation in the military technology space, Moscow and Beijing reached an agreement on the joint production of liquid-fuel rocket engines — where Russia has a lot of expertise — in exchange for the supply of Chinese avionics for the Russian aerospace industry.
If Russia and China continue to foster their strategic relationship, the next major step could well be a Russian military presence in China, reciprocated by Chinese deployments on Russian soil. In a few years we may be talking not about a base at Cam Ranh Bay, but rather about the prospect of a Russian naval facility on Hainan or a Chinese base on the Kuril Islands.
Artyom Lukin is Associate Professor at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok.