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U.S. Navy vessels paid a port call this week to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay — the first visit by American warships to the strategically important site since the two nations normalized relations 21 years ago

The submarine tender USS Frank Cable and guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain arrived in the port Sunday as part of annual training between the two navies known as Naval Engagement Activities, a spokesperson for the U.S. 7th Fleet told The Japan Times.

While other U.S. military sealift ships have visited in past, this was the first time American warships had made port calls at Cam Ranh Bay.

The visit comes after the two former enemies celebrated the 21st anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations in July.

The John S. McCain had earlier visited the port of Da Nang for a welcome ceremony and three days of professional exchanges and community service events ashore, the navy said. At sea, it participated in a search and rescue scenario and a communications exercise featuring the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea prior to transiting to Cam Ranh Bay.

But the 7th Fleet spokesman said Naval Engagement Activity is not the same as naval exercises.

“It’s training and engagement between the two navies,” the spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson, said.

The U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet conducts annual bilateral military drills known as CARAT exercises with several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The navy said the Naval Engagement Activity program has evolved from annual port visits to Da Nang by its ships to a multiday bilateral naval engagement both ashore and at sea.

“Each year the engagement becomes more complex, and last year marked the first time a littoral combat ship, USS Fort Worth, participated,” it said in a statement.

The visit also comes as Washington looks to Hanoi as a bulwark against Chinese assertiveness in the contested South China Sea, where Vietnam also has overlapping claims with Beijing.

Collin Koh Swee Lean, a maritime scholar at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said bolstered ties was expedient for both the U.S. and Vietnam.

“Hanoi for obvious reasons of keeping the U.S. engaged in this region as a counterweight to a rising and more assertive China, whereas the U.S. having seen Vietnam as a prospective partner to cultivate as part of its ‘rebalancing'” to Asia policy.

“Those ties are likely to grow as China continues to flex its muscles in the region,” he added.

Koh said if China flexes its muscles Washington will seek to push back in the South China Sea.

“In this context, we need to remember the unique geostrategic role of Vietnam; its long coastline directly provides access and thus facilitates force projection into the South China Sea, and Cam Ranh is significant in this regard.”

Koh said Cam Ranh Bay and other Vietnamese strategic ports are within striking distance to key Chinese military installations clustered around Hainan and the Paracel chain in the South China Sea.

“Geography therefore has determined the inevitably important role of Vietnam and hence anticipated growth of U.S.-Vietnam ties in this regard.”

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