Sunday, June 24, 2012

Washington wants its own "String of Pearls" back: Part II

Yesterday's Washington Post covers the recent effort by the Pentagon to establishing new military basing agreements in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand, in line with the U.S.'s recent push to remilitarize the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.  Most interesting is the fact that all of the bases the Pentagon wishes to utilize were at one time bastions of American Cold War Power, which over the past 30 years the U.S. had been kicked out of.

Part II: Vietnam
Although it may be hard for the casual observer to believe, Communist Vietnam is slowly turning into an ally of the U.S. military.  While Hanoi has been "open" to the U.S. (economically, tourism) for nearly two decades now, it is only in the past few years that the Pentagon has been pushing for an increased military relationship, including basing rights.  Most recently, after attending the Shagri-La military conference in Singapore, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Cam Ranh Bay, home to a massive Naval facility and deep-water port constructed by the U.S.  during the Vietnam War.  After the war, the Soviet Navy's Pacific Fleet had docked at Cam Ranh until Hanoi stopped all military use of the port ten years ago.  Panetta's visit, the latest high-level trip (and the first for a U.S. defense secretary to the strategic port since the end of the war) signifies that the Pentagon is hoping to ramp up U.S.-Vietnamese military cooperation, and once again have Naval access to Cam Ranh Bay.

Vietnam's reembrace of the Pentagon can be traced back to 2003, when Hanoi began allowing once a year naval visits from the U.S.  By 2006, Navy Admiral William Fallon and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were visiting Vietnam, and the bilateral military relationship had expanded to include training of Vietnamese officers through the IMET program, as well as counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism joint military exercises.  In December 2009, Hanoi's Defense Minister, General Phung Quang Thanh, became just the second Vietnamese Defense minister to visit Washington since the end of the war.  This was shortly  followed in March 2010 by an unnannounced 16 day docking by a U.S. Naval Supply Ship at Cam Ranh's Van Phong port.  Panetta, now, is hoping that this relationship can be upgraded to allow permanent U.S. access to the strategic port.

There is, however, great trepidation on Hanoi's part to this new alliance with the U.S..  As the historian Gabriel Kolko (whose Anatomy of a War is one of the best scholarly accounts of the Vietnam War) recently wrote in an article for Counterpunch:
So much can go wrong with the Administration’s ambitious not-so-new, strategy. Not the least are divisions that exist within the Vietnamese military leadership, and perhaps the political leadership also, about making any kind of alliance—even informally—with the country that rained so much death and destruction on it for almost two decades; memories in Vietnam–among the people as well as political and military leaders–are an enemy of making some sort of arrangement with the Americans.

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