Panetta became the first defense secretary since the Vietnam War to visit Cam Ranh Bay, a strategically located deep-water bay in the South China Sea that was an important naval and air facility for U.S. forces during the conflict.
Four decades later, U.S.-Vietnam defense cooperation has become increasingly important, with Washington needing partners as it pursues its “pivot” towards Asia and Hanoi, which are looking to the U.S. for support in the face of maritime disputes with China.
After the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces, Cam Ranh Bay was leased to the Soviet Union in 1979 and became an important Soviet base during the Cold War. The Russians left in 2002, and in 2010 Vietnam said it would allow foreign navies to use the repair and refueling facilities.
“Access for United States naval ships into this facility is a key component of this relationship, and we see a tremendous potential here for the future,” Panetta said Sunday during a visit to a Military Sealift Command supply ship docked in Cam Ranh Bay, the USNS Richard Byrd.
“We look forward to working together with the country of Vietnam to achieve our shared objectives and to take this relationship to the next level,” he said.
On Saturday, Panetta delivered an address to a major Southeast Asia security conference in Singapore, during which he gave a little more detail of what the strategic shift towards the Asia-Pacific would mean in practice.
“By 2020, the Navy will reposture its forces from today’s roughly 50/50 split between the Atlantic and Pacific to about a 60/40 split between those oceans – including six aircraft carriers, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines,” he told the International Institute For Strategic Studies-hosted event, known as the Shangri-la Dialogue.
Panetta said the leaner, more flexible strategy would include the berthing of U.S. littoral combat ships in Singapore and rotational deployments of U.S. Marines like the one now underway in Australia.
The developing relationship with Vietnam is part of that strategy.
“In a region as large as the Asia-Pacific region, agility is going to be extremely important in terms of our ability to be able to move quickly,” Panetta told reporters in Vietnam. “We are re-balancing our forces to the Asia-Pacific region so that in the future, 60 percent of our forces will be located in this region.
“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 from our ports on the West Coast, ports or stations here in the Pacific.”
Panetta said the U.S. was also looking to expand cooperation with Vietnam in search-and-rescue, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, peacekeeping, and in particular “on critical maritime issues, including the code of conduct, focusing on the South China Sea and also working to improve freedom of navigation in our oceans.”
Vietnam has long been embroiled in serious territorial disputes in the South China Sea with the fellow communist government in Beijing and, like other countries in the region with their own disputes with China has cautiously sought support from Washington.
The U.S. says it does not take sides in the various disputes but is concerned about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea for all nations.
“The U.S. position [on South China Sea disputes] is clear and consistent,” Panetta said in his Singapore address. “We call for restraint and diplomatic resolution; we oppose provocation, coercion or the use of force.”
‘No alternative but to engage’
China’s disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and – further to the north-east – Japan are over resource-rich waters or islands, mostly located where various countries’ 200 nautical mile-wide exclusive economic zones overlap.
China has not welcomed the U.S. stance in recent years, rejecting what it calls the “internationalization” of bilateral disputes in the South China Sea.
While most countries in the region send senior defense officials to the annual Shangri-la Dialogue – Panetta was accompanied by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey – China this year sent a junior delegation, a move widely interpreted as a signal of its displeasure.
Asked about China’s low-level representation during a question-and-answer segment in Singapore, Panetta said neither the U.N. nor China is naive about the bilateral relationship.
“We both understand the differences we have. We both understand the conflicts we have, but we also both understand that there really is no other alternative but for both of us to engage and to improve our communications and to improve our mil-to-mil relationships.”
Doing so would be in both countries’ interests, he said.
“So that’s what we’re intent on doing here with China is to build that kind of relationship recognizing that we’re going to have disputes, recognizing that we’re going to have conflicts, but also recognizing that it is in the interest of both China and the United States to resolve these issues in a peaceful way,” Panetta added. “That’s the only key to advancing their prosperity and to advancing our prosperity.”
An editorial in the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times on Monday said China’s best response to the U.S. pivot to Asia is not to overreact but to rely on “wisdom and stamina.”
“[S]howing toughness is the least desirable way to deal with the U.S. China should choose the approach that best facilitates its economic growth,” it said.
“Competition between China and the U.S. will not be decided by the number of warships.”
At the end of his address in Singapore, Panetta apparently sought to allay any concerns in the region that the Asia shift may be set back either by a change of administration later this year or by the Budget Control Act-mandated $487 billion in defense cuts over the next 10 years.
“The United States has long been deeply been involved in the Asia-Pacific,” he said. “Through times of war, times of peace, under Democratic and Republican leaders and administrations, through rancor and through comity in Washington, through surplus and through debt. We were there then, we are here now, and we will be here for the future.”
From Vietnam, Panetta will visit India, a country which he said during his Singapore address he believes “will play a decisive role in shaping the security and prosperity of the 21st century.”