The carrier Carl Vinson pulled into the Vietnamese port of Da Nang on Monday morning for a scheduled five-day stop, the first port visit there by a U.S. carrier in more than four decades.
Accompanied by the cruiser Lake Champlain and destroyer Wayne E. Meyer, the Vinson’s arrival comes amid growing tensions in the region as China continues its construction and militarization of man-made islands in the contested South China Sea.
China’s persistent expansion into the Spratly archipelago has agitated adjacent nations, to include Vietnam, and challenged international law. It’s an assertiveness that the U.S. Navy has attempted to put in check through routine freedom of navigation operations.
A Navy officer aboard a mammoth U.S. aircraft carrier brimming with F18 fighter jets said Saturday that American forces would continue to patrol the South China Sea wherever “international law allows us” when asked if China’s newly built islands could restrain them in the disputed waters.
“International law allows us to operate here, allows us to fly here, allows us to train here, allows us to sail here, and that’s what we’re doing and we’re going to continue to do that,” Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins, spokesman for the carrier Vinson, said last month.
While the Vinson’s Vietnam visit may add more tension to the already-strained U.S.-China relationship, it has yet to draw the full ire of Beijing, according to the South China Morning Post.
“China...knows that Vietnam is unlikely to side with the U.S. militarily to challenge China.” said Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
The threat of Beijing’s wrath did surface, however, following the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act and discussion of U.S. warships conducting port visits in Taiwan, prompting one Chinese official to threaten the self-ruled, democratic U.S. ally that China claims as part of its own territory.
“The day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung [Taiwan’s main deep-water port] is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force,” said Chinese official Li Kexin.
In the meantime, the nearly 6,000 sailors from the Vinson Strike Group will be engaging in community service projects in Da Nang and participating in sports competitions during the port call. Navy musicians from the U.S. 7th Fleet Band will also be hosting free concerts for Vietnam’s public, a Navy release said.
“Our nations’ relationship has reached new heights in the past few years,” said U.S. Pacific Fleet Adm. Scott Swift. “I am confident that engagements like this will further expand the comprehensive partnership between the United States and Vietnam.”
“We have gone from former enemies to close partners,” said U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink.
Although the Vinson is the first U.S. carrier to visit the country since the war, Vietnam hosted other U.S. Navy ships in 2016, when the destroyer John S. McCain and submarine tender Frank Cable visited Cam Ranh Bay.