June 3 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today met U.S. personnel at Cam Ranh Bay, becoming the top most American official to visit the former U.S. military base since the end of the Vietnam War.
“This is a historic trip,” Panetta told sailors aboard the USNS Richard E. Byrd, a U.S. merchant marine supply ship. “The fact that the ship is here and being serviced by Vietnamese contractors is a tremendous indication of how far we have come”
Cam Ranh Bay, a deep-water port located about 220 miles (354 kilometers) north of Ho Chi Minh city, hosted the U.S. naval and air base that was the main point of entry for equipment and supplies during the Vietnam War.
Panetta’s visit signals closer military ties between one-time foes who resumed diplomatic relations 17 years ago. The warming relationship with Vietnam, which shares a land border to the north with China, has received a boost since President Barack Obama announced a strategy to rebalance U.S. military forces toward the Asia-Pacific region.
“This is the place where lots of ships, troops and supplies” came through during the war and a “tremendous amount of blood was spilled on all sides,” Panetta said. “Access to U.S. naval ships to this facility is a key component” of the U.S. strategy for the Asia-Pacific region and “we see a tremendous opportunity” to take the relationship with Vietnam “to the next level,” Panetta said.
U.S. vessels including non-military medical and supply ships began calling at Vietnamese ports after relations were normalized in 1995. In November 2003, the missile frigate USS Vandegrift arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, the first U.S. Navy ship to dock in Vietnam since the end of the war.
Panetta travels to Hanoi tonight and will meet with his counterpart, Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh, to discuss implementing a defense memorandum of understanding the two countries signed last year, according to U.S. defense officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic talks.
The agreement made in September calls for regular top-level meetings as well as cooperation on maritime security, search and rescue, peacekeeping activities and humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
Panetta is on a three-country trip to Asia including Singapore, Vietnam and India to bolster military ties in a region that Obama has said is critical to U.S. interests.
The U.S. will increase its naval power in the Pacific, Panetta said yesterday at the Shangri-La Dialogue security talks held in Singapore.
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