U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used a visit Sunday to Vietnam to make clear Washington's intent to aid allies in the Asia-Pacific region develop and enforce maritime rights in the South China Sea, which Beijing largely claims.
On a historic stop in Cam Ranh Bay, the strategic deep-water port that was a U.S. base during the Vietnam War, Panetta could gaze out from the flight deck of the USNS Richard E. Byrd toward the sea and reflect 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 under the 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 toward 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 left no doubt 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, 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 about the shift in U.S. military focus. But U.S. officials are 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.
Right now, U.S. warships do not go into the harbor, but other Navy ships, such as the Byrd, do. The Byrd is a cargo ship operated by the Navy's Military Sealift Command; 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 U.S. 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.
The new U.S. strategy for the Asia-Pacific region includes a broad plan to help countries learn to better defend themselves, and for that to happen "it is very important that we be able to protect key maritime rights for all nations in the South China Sea and elsewhere," Panetta said from the deck of the ship.