"One of the things that has happened through this comprehensive partnership is a dialogue between the U.S. and Vietnamese military that we hadn't seen in a very long time," Obama said Monday in a press conference in Hanoi. "And we already have U.S. vessels that have come here to port, we expect that there will be deepening cooperation between our militaries, often times around, 'How do we respond to humanitarian disasters in this region?'"
Obama said more port visits are likely in the future as the countries work together on humanitarian assistance missions, but the U.S. was going to tread lightly.
"There may be occasions in which that means more U.S. vessels might visit but I want to emphasize that we will do so only at the invitation and with the full cooperation of the Vietnamese government, fully respecting their sovereignty and their sensitivities," he said.
"We do port visits in Vietnam and I advocate for more. I believe that we will be able to do more this year," Harris said in a March hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Harris said he saw an opportunity to grow the relationship with Vietnam and that he thinks the Vietnamese people would be receptive.
"I believe that we should improve our relationship with Vietnam," Harris said. "I think it's a great strategic opportunity for us and I think the Vietnamese people would welcome the opportunity to work closer with us as their security partner of choice."
The Navy conducted four port visits in Vietnam in 2015, a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman said. The destroyer Fitzgerald and the littoral combat ship Fort Worth, along with the expeditionary fast transport ship Millinocket and the hospital ship Mercy, all made visits to Da Nang, Vietnam, last year Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight said in an email.
"I just finished a visit to Vietnam and they are very receptive," Adm. Scott Swift said in a May 6 interview, referring to a March trip. "As Adm. Harris said, we are looking forward to increasing that spectrum of engagement."
"We do not disclose specific information on upcoming port visits this far out," Knight said. "However, the U.S. Navy is planning on conducting the Naval Engagement Activity and Pacific Partnership visits to Vietnam again this year."
"Additionally, Admiral Swift traveled to Vietnam this year, we participated in the 6th annual Navy-to-Navy Talks, and they have been invited to observe the Rim of the Pacific exercise."
Cam Ranh Bay
But while US Naval planners have long lusted after the strategic port, said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and expert at the Center for a New American Security.
"Cam Ranh Bay is a crucial port in the region that strategic planners have missed since the day we left," said Jerry Hendrix a retired Navy captain and expert at the Center for a New American Security.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in 2012 that "access for United States naval ships into this facility is a key component," of U.S.-Vietnam relations.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus met with the Vietnamese chief of the General Staff in April 2015 to discuss partnership opportunities in Hanoi.
Photo Credit: MC2 Armando Gonzales/Navy
Obama said the move to lift the U.S. ban on arms sales was not aimed at China but was to finally normalize relations with Vietnam after one of the most divisive conflicts in U.S. history.
"The decision to lift the ban has nothing to do with China or any other considerations," Obama said. "It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of normalization with Vietnam."
"Now there is a genuine mutual concern with respect to maritime issues and I've made no secret of that," he said. "It is important for us to maintain the freedom of navigation and the governance of international norms and rules and law that have helped to create prosperity and promoted commerce and peace and security in this region."
"Being able to gradually ratchet up our pressure and our partnerships in the region is the optimal kind of proportionate response mechanism when China asserts itself," O'Hanlon said. "We don't need to fight, but we make it clear we aren't leaving. And the endgame will be a more militarized region in which, yes, China has more assets than before, but the United States does too, and even more to the point, the United States leads a coalition of like-minded states all of which are pushing back against Chinese territorial claims."
"The reality is the geography would indicate that a closer relationship would be appropriate. Especially with the actions of the Chinese in the South China Sea."
"Now you've got both sides of the South China Sea bracketed by increased U.S. military involvement on the ground in the region," Clark said.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.