This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The Vietnamese coast guard Sunday received six patrol boats from the United States, in a move that indicates a renewed desire for cooperation between the former enemies.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi handed over the six Metal Shark patrol boats, estimated to be worth about $12 million, at Van Phong bay, Khanh Hoa province, situated in Vietnam’s Coast Guard Region III in the southeast of the country.
“[This transfer] is another milestone and evidence of the continued friendship between the U.S. and Vietnam,” said Colonel Nguyen Minh Khanh, the coast guard’s vice commander of the region, quoted in a statement by the embassy.
According to a U.S. Coast Guard officer quoted in the statement, of the Vietnamese coast guard’s four regions, Region III is “unequivocally Vietnam’s most strategic region and arguably, its most important.”
The region covers the hotly contested Spratly islands, claimed by six different countries, including China and Vietnam. The U.S. and Vietnam have been eager to cooperate on security as tensions with China over control of the South China Sea have been rising.
While the statement made no specific mention of the Spratlys, it alluded to the dispute, saying, “Delivering these patrol vessels represents deepening U.S.-Vietnam cooperation in the areas of maritime law enforcement, maritime search and rescue, and maritime humanitarian assistance operations within Vietnam’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.”
China has aggressively asserted its claims to the Spratlys and the rest of the South China Sea—which Vietnam refers to as the East Sea—based on its so-called “nine-dash” demarcation line that encompasses some 90 percent of the waters, including territory claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore.
Beijing has been fortifying the islands it claims in the vital waterway with weaponry, runways and deep water berths. China has also created artificial islands in the South China Sea by dredging massive amounts of sand and Chinese officials have promoted tourism to the islands.
In March 1988, a confrontation at Johnson South Reef, Collin Reef, and Lansdowne Reef in the contested Spratly Island chain resulted in heavily outgunned Vietnamese vessels being sunk, with 64 Vietnamese soldiers dead and 11 wounded.
China seized the Paracel Islands, which it still holds, in a skirmish with Vietnamese forces in 1974 that left 75 Vietnamese soldiers dead.
Prior to the transfer, the Vietnamese coast guard began training with the 45-foot patrol boats, which will be used to fight smuggling, trafficking, piracy, and illegal fishing.
“The Metal Shark boats have excellent water jets that are flexible and very easy to maneuver in Vietnamese waters-perfect for maritime law enforcement,” said Senior Captain Lam Van Nguyen, who took part in the training sessions.
According to AFP, a total of 18 ships have now been transferred from the U.S. to Vietnam, with six more ships to be transferred at a later date.