CAM RANH BAY, VIETNAM – From the flight deck of the USNS Richard E. Byrd, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta could look out across Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay towards the South China Sea.
A day after laying out details of the Pentagon’s new focus on the Asia-Pacific region, Panetta pn Sunday used a visit to Vietnam to restate the United States’ intent to help allies in the region develop and enforce maritime rights in the sea, a waterway largely claimed by China. And he reflected on the significance of the harbor, which represents both a painful past for the American military, and a challenging but hopeful future.
“The new defense strategy that we have put in place for the United States represents a number of key elements that will be tested in the Asia-Pacific region,” Panetta told reporters gathered Sunday under a blazing sun on the deck of the cargo vessel. He said the U.S. would “work with our partners like Vietnam to be able to use harbors like this as we move our ships from our ports on the West Coast towards our stations here in the Pacific.”
Panetta never mentioned China as he spoke to crew members on the Byrd and later to reporters. But with the South China Sea as a backdrop, he made it clear that the U.S. will maintain a strong presence in the region and wants to help allies protect themselves and their maritime rights.
His visit here, however, is likely to irritate Chinese leaders who are unhappy with any U.S. buildup in the region and view it as a possible threat. Panetta, in remarks Saturday to a defense conference in Singapore, rejected such claims. But U.S. officials are clearly wary of China’s increased military buildup and expanding trade relations with other countries in the region.
“Access for United States naval ships into this facility is a key component of this relationship [with Vietnam] and we see a tremendous potential here for the future,” he said.
This is Panetta’s first visit to Vietnam, and his stop at the harbor made him the most senior U.S. official to go to Cam Ranh Bay since the Vietnam War ended in the 1970s.
Right now U.S. warships do not go into the harbor, but other Navy ships, like the Byrd do. The Byrd is a cargo ship operated by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command and it has a largely civilian crew. It is used to move military supplies to U.S. forces around the world. Navy warships go to other Vietnam ports, such as Danang.
While Panetta suggested the United States may want to send more ships to Cam Ranh Bay in the future, he and other defense officials did not detail what requests he may make in meetings with Vietnamese leaders.(more of the article)