- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2016

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) - Three Chinese navy ships will make their first port call this weekend at the Vietnam’s strategic Cam Ranh Bay, coming as the 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 starting Saturday by the three ships carrying 750 sailors will include exchanges with the Vietnamese navy and meetings with provincial leaders.

The international port, whose first phase with an investment of $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 U.S. Navy ships paid a first visit to Cam Ranh since the countries normalized relations 21 years ago.

Cam Ranh Bay served as a U.S. 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.

The visit comes as Hanoi and Beijing are in dispute over parts of the South China Sea. China claims almost all seas, which occupy one of the world’s busiest sea lanes and is potentially rich in natural resources. China’s recent building of artificial islands in the Spratly islands and military buildup 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.

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