Thanh and Panetta
Thanh and PanettaReuters

Cam Ranh Bay was an important US naval installation during the Vietnam War. Now a US ship has returned to the bay for naval repairs.  The Defense Minister of Vietnam Phung Quang Thanh has welcomed other US ships to avail themselves of the port facilities. This was part of a symbolic visit by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Vietnam.

The two former enemies now have a mutual interest in a strong Vietnam to help balance China. Panetta remarked that if there were only weak countries in Southeast Asia, this would invite instability and therefore the US had an interest in a strong Vietnam in the same way it had an interest in a strong Philippines, another country that is clashing with China over mutually exclusive territorial claims.

Although both Panetta and General Thanh dutifully protested that the strengthening of ties between the two countries was not directed at China and that bilateral relations with China were actually improving, these boiler plate sentences fool no one. Vietnam has historically lived in China's shadow, and the fact that both countries  have Communist regimes (that aside from one party rule those not mean all that much today) has not erased this enmity that in 1979 erupted into a brief war. During the Vietnam War Vietnam counted on the Soviet Union for assistance against China as the two then Communist giants were at loggerheads. Russia used Vietnam to balance China in the same way that the United States is currently planning the relationship.

Currently Vladimir Putin has made the alliance with China the cornerstone of his policy. Both countries are suspicious of Western attempts to promote democracy and both have banded together to prevent humanitarian intervention against the Assad regime in Syria. Additionally China is a major market for Russian energy products while Russia sees in China a possible guide for its economic modernization.

This leaves Vietnam with no serious counterweight aside from the United States. Panetta hopes that bilateral ties would continue to develop including in the fields of defense and security cooperation. General Thanh expressed his hope that the United States will soon lift its embargo on weapons sales to Vietnam although Vietnam's weapons procurement would be performed on a competitive basis.

While Defense Secretary Panetta would like more democracy in Vietnam he pledged to build ties on the basis of mutual respect for Vietnam's independence, self-reliance, and sovereignty.