Nothing better illustrates the Vietnamese desire to be a major player in the region than the country’s recent purchase of six state-of-the-art Kilo-class submarines from Russia. A Western defense expert in Hanoi tells me that the sale makes no logical sense: “There is going to be real sticker shock for the Vietnamese when they find out just how much it costs merely to maintain these subs.” More important, the expert says, the Vietnamese will have to train crews to use them—a generational undertaking. “To counter Chinese subs,” the expert says, “they would have been better off concentrating on anti-submarine warfare and littoral defense.” Clearly, the Vietnamese bought these submarines as prestige items, to say We’re serious.

The multibillion-dollar deal with Russia for the submarines includes a $200 million refurbishment of Cam Ranh Bay—one of the finest deep-water anchorages in Southeast Asia, astride the South China Sea maritime routes, and a major base of operations for the U.S. military during the American War. The Vietnamese have stated that their aim is to make Cam Ranh Bay available to foreign navies. Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, writes that an unspoken Vietnamese desire is that the Cam Ranh Bay overhaul will “strengthen defence ties with America and facilitate the US military presence in South-east Asia as a counter to China’s rising power.” Cam Ranh Bay plays perfectly into the Pentagon’s “places not bases” strategy, whereby American ships and planes can regularly visit foreign military outposts for repairs and resupply without the need for formal, politically sensitive basing arrangements.

A de facto American-Vietnamese strategic partnership, in effect, was announced in July 2010 at an ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. has a “national interest” in the South China Sea, that the U.S. is ready to participate in multilateral efforts to resolve territorial disputes there, and that maritime claims should be based on land features: that is, on the reach of continental shelves, a concept violated by China’s historic line. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called Clinton’s remarks “virtually an attack on China.” American officials shrugged off Yang’s comments. Since then, the Obama administration has announced plans to rotate 2,500 marines in and out of northern Australia, declared that Pentagon budget cuts will under no circumstances come at the expense of U.S. forces in the Pacific, and announced the intention—events permitting—to “pivot” away from the Middle East and toward the Pacific. The United States sees the world as Vietnam does: threatened by growing Chinese power. The difference is that whereas the United States has many geopolitical interests, Vietnam has only one: to counter China.