The five Somali pirates captured during the Samho Jewelry rescue operation are to be airlifted to South Korea to face trial on charges of piracy. South Korea wanted to hand the pirates over to a neighboring country, such as Oman or Yemen, but no country was willing to take them. The pirates are reportedly illiterate, and South Korean forces on hand did not have a Somali language speaker, making communication difficult.
South Korea has also revealed some of the high technology used by forces boarding Samho Jewelry. The pirates’ communications were jammed, preventing them from communicating with their mother ship. South Korean military forces also found a ship similar to the Samho Jewelry, took extensive pictures, and sent them to the ROK destroyer where the rescue was being planned. Finally, each naval commando had a camera and microphone hookup that displayed what he was seeing and hearing, and the signals were streamed live to Seoul.
According to Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell, the U.S. is considering bolstering its forces in the Pacific — but not in the usual places. On January 26, Morrell said, “Over the long-term lay-down of our forces in the Pacific, we are looking at ways to even bolster that, not necessarily in Korea and Japan, but along the Pacific Rim, particularly in Southeast Asia.” He was not more specific.
What exactly did Morrell mean? Where might U.S. forces be based in Southeast Asia? One intriguing possibility is none other than Vietnam. Vietnam and China have been long-standing regional rivals, including a brief but violent 1979 invasion of Vietnam that cost China 20,000 dead. Vietnam has also recently seen virtually all of the waters off its coastline, the South China Sea, declared Chinese territory by China, putting Vietnam’s ability to harvest sea resources and even contact with sea lanes theoretically at risk. The United States and Vietnam have recently held several high-profile military talks, which included a visit by Vietnamese admirals to an American aircraft carrier during China’s PLAN 50th anniversary celebration, and last October’s visit by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Hanoi.
Vietnam has a great deal to offer the United States. Located on the southern border of China, it would fill a gap where the United States has little presence. The Soviet Union used Vietnam as a base for signals intelligence collection against China, and obviously the United States could do the same thing. Cam Ranh Bay, formerly a U.S. — then Soviet — naval anchorage, is one of the best natural harbors in all of Asia. While stationing American ships and planes at Cam Ranh Bay and other familiar installations may not yet be on the table, the idea that such a thing could happen must certainly not be far from the minds of China’s leadership.