Russia in Vietnam pullout
HANOI, Vietnam -- Russia says it will withdraw from one of Asia's finest deepwater anchorages, the strategic naval base of Cam Ranh Bay in southern Vietnam, by July.
After talking with Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in Hanoi on Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said both sides would sign a deal on the withdrawal soon, but it would totally pull out of the base in July.
United States and China have had their eyes on the base after the Russian pullout, but Vietnam has said it will not be leased to any other country. However, it has said that it could offer its use for rescue missions and some services, including ship repairs.
Moscow began leasing the base rent-free from its staunch communist ally at the height of the Cold War in 1979 and by 1984 it was its biggest base outside the Warsaw Pact, hosting as many as two dozen Soviet ships a day and squadrons of warplanes.
Moscow valued Cam Ranh in the southern province of Khanh Hoa as a long-held strategic dream -- a warm-water base for the Pacific. It also offered strategic access to the sea lanes of the South China Sea.
But as superpower tensions eased and budget pressures mounted it was forced to scale back and its presence in recent years has been limited to a signals intelligence facility.
While it is unclear how Russia's standing in Asia would be affected by the withdrawal, Kasyanov said that the technology being used at Cam Ranh was now obsolete.
Moscow's lease does not expire until 2004, but faced with a much reduced defense budget and a rental bill if it wanted to extend the lease, it opted for an early pullout.
There appears to have been some disagreement on the pullout, with Vietnam's defense minister saying this month the Russians would be gone by May. Hanoi said last week talks were ongoing.
Vietnam's prime minister has lauded the pullout, saying it would "contribute to maintaining global peace and security."
"We should condemn a country that brings troops to invade another country, but we welcome the Russian pullout of its troops," he said.
Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was quoted by Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency as saying on Tuesday that "material and financial aspects" had a decisive role in the decision to wind up the base.
"There is simply no point in keeping a large number of military servicemen there just for the sake of it, but not all depends on us in this respect," he said.
He said Russia would need to send two ships to complete the withdrawal of equipment and personnel.
First used by the colonial French, it was taken over by the Japanese in World War Two then upgraded by the United States during the Vietnam War.
TASS quoted a Russian defense official as saying that Hanoi had suggested Russian warships could use the base in future for repairs, refuelling or replenishment, if they gave advance notice.
The official said Russian combat jets would also be able to make occasional use of the Cam Ranh airfields, TASS said.
The United States has suggested an open port arrangement once the Russians leave, which would allow warships of all nations to call. But analysts say the prospect of U.S. ships visiting the base would not please Vietnam's giant northern neighbour China.
Vietnam's flag carrier, Vietnam Airlines, has said it would like to develop the base for civil aviation to help serve the tourism industry as it was convenient for the tourist city of Nha Trang, which has only a small airport.
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