Three Chinese naval warships arrived in the Vietnamese port of Cam Ranh Bay on Saturday, just weeks after the first visit to the strategic site by U.S. vessels since the former wartime foes normalized relations 21 years ago,

The five-day visit to Cam Ranh — the first by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy — comes amid heightened tensions in the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing and Hanoi have rival claims.

The stopover in Vietnam is the last stop on the Chinese flotilla’s way home after completing escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Prior to the stop at Cam Ranh Bay, the vessels made port calls in Myanmar, Malaysia and Cambodia, Xinhua quoted senior Col. Wang Hongli as saying.

“This visit will enhance mutual understanding and promote friendship, thus contributing to bilateral relationship at the government and military levels,” Wang said.

In a statement, the Vietnamese Defense Ministry said the port call was part of annual exchanges aimed at bolstering military ties between the two Asian rivals.

The visit comes on the heels of a U.S. Navy “freedom of navigation exercise” near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea.

Hanoi also claims the Paracels, which were seized by Beijing from South Vietnamese forces in a bloody battle in 1974.

On Wednesday, the Defense Ministry in Hanoi said it supports U.S. “intervention” in the Asia-Pacific if it helps maintain peace and stability — a timely endorsement of the U.S. presence in the region as clouds gather over Washington’s faltering “pivot.”

In May, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a landmark decision to end a decades-old ban on the sale of weapons to Vietnam.

Saturday’s port call could be seen as a way for Hanoi to balance its growing ties with Washington.

The visit to Cam Ranh Bay by the Chinese vessels comes after it was opened as an international port in March.

Earlier this month, the submarine tender USS Frank Cable and guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain visited the port as part of annual training exercise between the two navies.

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

In April, two Maritime Self-Defense Force warships also docked at the key deep-water port. It was the first time Japanese vessels had called there.

Following the Vietnam War, Cam Ranh Bay was home to a major Soviet naval base. It has been controlled by the Vietnamese Navy since the Russians withdrew in 2002, but until recently foreign warships rarely visited.

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