Pentagon Chief Visits Former US Base in Vietnam
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited a major base used by US forces in the Vietnam War Sunday, as Washington seeks to deepen ties with its former enemy to counter a more assertive posture from China.
Panetta is the most high-ranking US official to visit Cam Ranh Bay since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
“For me personally, this is a very emotional moment,” he said, speaking to reporters and the mostly-civilian crew on the deck of the USNS Richard E. Byrd, an American naval cargo ship currently at the port.
“Last Monday, I stood before the Vietnam memorial to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam war,” he said, referring to Memorial Day in the US.
He said that “a great deal of blood was spilled in this war on all sides,” but that he hoped that “out of all of that sacrifice, we can build a strong partnership between both of our countries that looks to the future.”
The two countries signed a memorandum on defense cooperation last year and Panetta will meet with high ranking Vietnamese officials, including the defense minister, to discuss how to carry out the agreement during his two-day visit.
“We’ve come a long way, particularly with regards to our defense relationship,” he said in the blazing sunshine on deck, adding that now he wanted “to take this relationship to the next level.”
Cam Ranh Bay airfield was one of three main hubs used by US forces in the war. The Vietnamese subsequently leased the area to the Soviet Union, which used it extensively during the Cold War, but the Russians left the base in 2002.
Vietnam decided to open the port on a commercial basis to foreign naval ships to resupply and undergo repair work.
The Cam Ranh Bay base lies in of one of the region’s best natural harbors and the United States sees it an ideal spot to bolster an American naval presence in the strategically vital South China Sea.
“Access for US naval ships into this facility is a key component of this relationship and we see a tremendous potential here,” Panetta said, citing new plans to shift the majority of the US naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020.
“It will be particularly important to be able to work with partners like Vietnam, to be able to use harbors like this, as we move our ships from our ports on the West Coast, (and) our stations here in the Pacific,” he said.
The plan, announced Saturday during a speech at a security summit in Singapore, reflects US concern over China’s rising economic and military might, although Panetta insisted the strategy was not a challenge to Beijing.
China claims all of the South China Sea, which is believed to encompass huge oil and gas reserves. One-third of global seaborne trade passes through the region.
Panetta, who is on a nine-day regional tour, also said the US wants to work with Vietnam on key maritime issues, including on a code of conduct focused on the South China Sea, and on improving “freedom of navigation in our oceans.”
Hanoi and Beijing, which have rival claims to the Spratly Islands and a long-standing dispute over the Paracel island group, have frequent diplomatic spats over fishing rights and oil exploration in the area.
Analysts say more aggressive approach from China in the South China Sea has prompted Vietnam to forge closer defense cooperation with its former foe the United States.