Vietnam is set to receive new guests at its port this weekend as three Chinese navy ships are scheduled to make their first call at the newly-opened Cam Ranh Bay, the Vietnamese government said on Thursday (20 October). The announcement has come at a time when the two countries have locked horns in a dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The four-day port call is said to include the three Chinese ships carrying 750 sailors and is expected to dock on Saturday (22 October), an official from Vietnam's central province of Khanh Hoa, where the port is located said. Chinese military personnel will participate in activities with the Vietnamese navy and also meet with Hanoi's provincial leaders.

The Chinese navy's visit comes a month after a US vessel made its first port call to Cam Ranh in September almost 21 years after the countries normalised its ties.

The new international port is reported to be separate from Vietnam's military installations at the bay. The Cam Ranh was a strategic bay that was used by the US as its naval and air base during the Vietnam War. The bay was then taken over by the former Soviet Union under a rent-free agreement for 25 years. It was returned to Hanoi only in 2002.

The first phase of the port was completed earlier this year with an investment of $80m (£65.4m) and offers services ranging from repairing, maintenance and logistics to foreign naval and commercial ships, the Associated Press reported. Hanoi now has its own fleet of modern submarines too in the bay.

The port is also reported to have hosted naval ships from other countries including France, Singapore and Japan.

Hanoi's invitation to Beijing has come amid the ongoing territorial dispute that has seen the two countries opposing each other's claims in the hotly contested South China Sea waters. However, the current port call is reportedly in line with the Vietnam Communist Party's stated goal to balance its foreign policy to not favour any country specifically. But its ties with the US in recent times are reported to be the warmest yet.

"This is actually quite normal, showing that Vietnam is open to all countries and does not take any particular side," Reuters cited Ha Hoang Hop, a Vietnamese academic who has advised the government, as saying.

"Vietnam's diplomatic policy is to not engage with any military ally, or engage with any country, to oppose a third country," Hop said.

China's recent building of artificial islands in the Spratly islands and military expansion in the region has raised concerns among the international community, including the US. Along with Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and others in the Asia-Pacific region, Vietnam too contested Chinese dominance in the sea. Hanoi is reportedly seeking closer ties with Washington in a bid to counter China's assertiveness.

South China Sea tensions
A Chinese navy ship is seen docked after an exercise in this file photo Pring Samrang/Reuters