Thirty-seven years after the Vietnam War ended in a communist victory, the top U.S. defense official returned to the old hub of American military activity seeking greater naval access to the port that greeted most of the more than 2.5 million Americans who served in Vietnam.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta became the highest-ranking American official to visit Cam Ranh Bay since the Vietnam War, after arriving yesterday at the former American and South Vietnamese air base there in his U.S. Air Force 747 jet.
The visit, a week after Americans commemorated their 58,282 countrymen and women who died in the war, reflected the U.S.’s expanding relationship with a former enemy and efforts by the Obama administration to counter the rise of China as a competitor for influence in Asia.
“This is a historic trip,” Panetta told the sailors on the USNS Richard E. Byrd, a U.S. merchant-marine supply ship undergoing repairs at the Cam Ranh Bay port. “The fact that the ship is here and being serviced by Vietnamese contractors is a tremendous indication of how far we have come.”
While the fear of a communist takeover of South Vietnam propelled the U.S. into war five decades ago, the emergence of China prompted the Obama administration to rewrite military strategy with the goal of increasing the American presence in the Asia-Pacific region and working with countries that express anxiety about the prospect of Chinese dominance.
Stationing more U.S. forces in the region requires working with partners such as Vietnam and being “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 told reporters on the Byrd’s deck.
So far, Vietnam lets only non-combat ships, such as the Byrd, dock at Cam Ranh Bay, a U.S. defense official said. Supply ships operated by the U.S. Military Sealift Command and manned by merchant marines call at the port for repairs and maintenance, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive Vietnamese restrictions.
Cam Ranh Bay, located about 220 miles (354 kilometers) north of Ho Chi Minh City, has been of strategic significance to the world’s powers for more than 100 years.
The more elderly among the Vietnamese in conical straw hats who waved at Panetta’s motorcade yesterday had seen the Americans pass this way before, followed by the Russians. Their ancestors had watched the French and Japanese come and, eventually, go.
Built by France
Built by the French in the 19th century and later occupied by Japan during World War II, Cam Ranh Bay was offered to the U.S. by its ally South Vietnam in 1965. The U.S. upgraded the air and naval facilities for use in the war. It was handed back to South Vietnam in 1972 as part of the so-called Vietnamization effort and captured by the communist forces in 1975.
About four years later, the Soviet Union was granted access to Cam Ranh Bay. It upgraded the war-torn facilities, adding runways, dry docks, shelters for submarines, weapons-storage facilities and signals intelligence stations, according to a history of the port by Ian Storey and Carlyle Thayer, “Cam Ranh Bay: Past imperfect, Future Conditional,” published in 2001 by the journal Contemporary Southeast Asia.
While the Soviet presence at Cam Ranh Bay declined at the end of the Cold War, Russia held on to the port until 2002, Storey and Thayer wrote. Since then Vietnam has opened Cam Ranh Bay to international commerce.
The significance of visiting Cam Ranh Bay less than a week after the U.S. marked Memorial Day was invoked by Panetta.
“Last Monday I stood before the Vietnam Memorial” in Washington, “to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War,” Panetta said. “Today I stand on a U.S. ship at Cam Ranh Bay to recognize the 17th anniversary of harmonization of relationship between U.S. and Vietnam.”
In addition to the deaths of 58,282 U.S. troops in the Vietnam War, 1,666 Americans are still missing.
Panetta and Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh reached an agreement today in Hanoi that Vietnam will open three previously restricted sites to the U.S. for excavation in the search for American troops missing in action. Vietnam still restricts eight sites, U.S. Pacific Command Casualty Resolution Specialist Ron Ward said in a briefing with reporters.
At Cam Ranh Bay, Panetta said the U.S. and Vietnam aren’t slaves to their history even though a “tremendous amount of blood was spilled on all sides” during the war.
Vietnam and the U.S. resumed diplomatic relations in 1995, and since then U.S. ships have called on several Vietnamese ports. 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.
Committed to Region
“It’s significant to have a secretary of defense of the United States visit Cam Ranh Bay,” said former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran and one of the founders of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, which Panetta addressed in Singapore on June 2.
“It reinforces the belief that America is committed to that region and to our relationships with the nations in the region, including those that once were our enemy,” Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, said yesterday in a phone interview.
Vietnam and China have clashed over which country has rights to the Paracels and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Inviting Panetta to visit Cam Ranh Bay is a signal to China that Vietnam has U.S. backing, Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said in an e-mail.
Message to China
Panetta’s visit is “aimed at sending a strategic message to Beijing that Chinese assertiveness will be resisted,” even though the U.S. and Vietnam may deny it, Thayer said.
The U.S. defense secretary’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay wasn’t publicly announced until the evening before his arrival, and Vietnam’s deputy defense minister, General Nguyen Chi Vinh, played down the significance of the stop beforehand.
Vietnam “did not share” the idea that it was attempting to create a deterrent to China’s military rise, Vinh told the South China Morning Post, in an interview published June 2.
“To have peace, stability and security in the region, it is very important for us to have good relations with China so that we can enjoy mutual benefit,” the newspaper quoted Vinh as saying.
Expanding on Relation
Panetta was less reluctant to portray U.S.-Vietnam relations as gaining momentum. He told reporters on the USNS Byrd that he had come to Vietnam to make progress on a memorandum of understanding signed by the two countries in September and “expand on that relationship.”
“We look forward to working together with the country of Vietnam and take this relationship to the next level,” Panetta said. The U.S. would help Vietnam establish rules of conduct in the South China Sea and deal with “critical maritime issues,” he said.
Tranh, the defense minister, told Panetta at their meeting in Hanoi today that Vietnam has plans to develop Cam Ranh Bay, including expanding ship-repair services.
Panetta said he was impressed with the work being done on the USNS Byrd and looks forward to doing “more of that” in the future.