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Chinese navy ships make first port call at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay amid South China Sea dispute

Three Chinese navy ships will make their first port call at Vietnam’s strategic Cam Ranh Bay this weekend – just as the two countries are locked in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

An official in Khanh Hoa province, where the bay is located, said the four-day port call at Cam Ranh International Port would start on Saturday.

The visit by three ships carrying 750 sailors would include exchanges with the Vietnamese navy and meetings with provincial leaders, the official said.

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The international port, whose first phase with an investment of US$80 million was completed earlier this year, offers repairs, maintenance and logistics to foreign naval and commercial ships.

The port is separate from Vietnam’s military installations at the bay.

The visit comes weeks after two US navy ships paid a first visit to Cam Ranh Bay since the countries normalised relations 21 years ago.

Cam Ranh Bay served as a US air and naval base during the Vietnam War. It was taken over by the former Soviet Union in 1979 under a 25-year, rent-free agreement, and was returned to Hanoi in 2002.

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The visit of the Chinese ships comes as Hanoi and Beijing are in dispute over parts of the South China Sea.

Beijing claims almost all seas, which occupy one of the world’s busiest sea lanes and is potentially rich in natural resources.

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China’s recent building of artificial islands in the Spratly islands and military build-up in the area have alarmed countries in the region and the United States.

That has led Vietnam to seek closer ties with the United States to counter China’s growing assertiveness.