CAM RANH BAY, Vietnam — The U.S. Defense Department hopes to gain greater access for Navy ships into a key port here as the Pentagon looks to broaden its military partnership with Vietnam.
U.S. naval ship access into Cam Ranh Bay “is a key component of this relationship and we see a tremendous potential here for the future,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during a June 3 visit to the dry cargo ship Richard Byrd, which is making a port call here.
Panetta is the highest-ranking U.S. government official to visit Cam Ranh Bay since the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson visited Cam Ranh Bay in 1966.
Many considered Cam Ranh Bay “the jewel of deep, warm-water ports in Southeast Asia,” a defense official said. Protected by mountains, the bay served as a hub for U.S. military operations during the Vietnam War.
Now, Vietnam is trying to develop the bay into a prosperous international commercial port.
The Navy has been sending ships to Vietnam for port visits since 2003, the defense official said. Since then, more than 20 vessels have made visits to the country.
Access to Vietnamese ports is just one component of an expanding military relationship between Washington and Hanoi.
“We’ve come a long way, particularly with regards to our defense relationship,” Panetta said. “We had a complicated relationship, but we’re not bound by that history.”
Last year, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding, and the United States is looking to “expand that relationship” in a number of key areas, Panetta said.
The pact focuses on high-level exchanges, maritime activities, search and rescue, peacekeeping operations and humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
“[W]e want to work with Vietnam on critical maritime issues, including code of conduct, focusing on the South China Sea and also working to improve freedom of navigation in our oceans,” Panetta said.
A senior defense official called Panetta’s visit to the country “significant” and said Vietnam has “expressed a desire to engage more with the United States.”
“This visit is an effort to take additional steps in that direction to solidify what has become an important relationship for the U.S.,” the official said.
Panetta announced June 2 that the Navy would position 60 percent of its ships in the Pacific over the next decade as part of a new military strategy that calls for greater emphasis on the region. The vessels are now split evenly between the Atlantic and Pacific.
“For that reason, 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 out from our ports on the West Coast toward our stations here in the Pacific,” he said.
The Pentagon is looking to build capabilities of partner nations in the Asia-Pacific region.
“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.
The U.S. and Vietnam “normalized” relations 17 years ago.
“The visit is to take stock of where we’ve come, consolidate gains and look for new opportunities,” a second senior defense official said June 2.
Panetta has meetings scheduled with top Vietnamese officials in Hanoi on June 3 and also plans to visit a U.S. detachment that identifies the remains of Vietnam War casualties.
“This sacred mission will continue until all of our troops are accounted for,” Panetta said. “We stand by our pledge that we leave no one behind.”
Panetta served in the Army during the Vietnam War, but never saw combat in the region. His visit is the first time he has traveled to the country.