Vietnam is central as U.S. shifts focus to Asia

A U.S. Navy vessel called in at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay naval base in August. The USNS Richard E. Byrd spent seven days undergoing repairs at the shipyards there. The visit added to strengthening ties between the two countries’ navies, after the U.S. and Vietnam also held joint noncombat-training exercises in July.

The scheduled repair stop came close on the heels of American statements that the busy shipping lanes of the South China Sea should be left free, a clear warning to China’s claims to sovereignty over the entire region, and a move which infuriated Beijing and its increasingly assertive naval forces.

The site as hugely attractive, a deep-water bay offering protection from the frequent typhoons that batter the region and which also provides a strategic base on the South China Sea. Vietnam’s leaders are refurbishing the tightly-guarded facility in a bid to encourage other countries’ vessels to regularly stop by for repairs or military exercises, effectively internationalizing shipping lanes nearby and counterbalancing China’s reach in the region.

The U.S. is also tapping into growing environmental concerns in the region, much of it prompted by China’s massive need for resources. In the rice-farming delta of the Mekong River, for instance, Americans are fanning out to help Vietnam cope with the potential environmental impact of China’s dam-building projects further upstream. Among them are geologists from the U.S. Geographical Survey who are helping map and counteract some of the damage caused by China’s thirst for hydroelectric power. The dams prevent nutrient-rich silt flowing down the delta, reducing land levels in the Mekong delta and allowing salt water to flow up the Mekong as far as 60 miles inland, destroying valuable farmland.

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U.S.-Vietnam ties have warmed
1975: The U.S. leaves as North Vietnamese troops take control of the whole country.
1994: The U.S. lifts a trade embargo with Vietnam.
1995: Vietnam and the U.S. restore full diplomatic relations.
2000: President Bill Clinton visits Vietnam.
2001: U.S. and Vietnam normalize trade relations.
2002: Russia hands back Cam Ranh Bay naval base to the Vietnamese.
2003: The first U.S. warship visits Vietnam since the end of the war.
2010: Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung offers the U.S. and other foreign navies use of the facilities at Cam Ranh Bay.

(Source: WSJ research)