Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is trying to send a message during a weeklong trip to the Asia-Pacific region: The U.S. is back.
Panetta continues Monday to Vietnam, where he's hoping to build stronger defense ties. The trip began Sunday with a historic return to a key crossroads of the Vietnam War: Cam Ranh Bay.
Panetta boarded a little ferry boat Sunday in the beautiful natural harbor north of Ho Chi Minh City. On board, he asked about his destination: the USNS Richard E. Byrd, a big supply ship docked on the other side of the bay.
The fact the Byrd is here at all, being repaired by Vietnamese workers, marks quite a turn from the days of the Vietnam War, when Americans called the shots here. When President Johnson visited in 1966, Cam Ranh was essentially a U.S. colony, used as a hub for the war effort.
But in 1972, the U.S. facility was handed to the South Vietnamese as the U.S. withdrew. After Saigon fell, the Soviets took over. Now, the Vietnamese government is turning Cam Ranh into an international port. Ships from India, Russia and elsewhere come here for repairs. But the U.S. is here for more than ship maintenance.
After Panetta boarded the Byrd, he told workers gathered here that Vietnam is part of a U.S. effort to return to the Asia-Pacific, but with a much lighter touch than last time.
"This is not a Cold War situation where the United States simply charges in, builds permanent bases and establishes a power base in this region," he said. "This is a different world. This is a world in which we have to engage with other countries."
Signs of that approach can be seen on the Byrd: There are only two Navy sailors onboard. The rest of the crew is made up of civilian workers, typical of the partnerships the Pentagon is setting up. Marines in Australia are visiting on a "rotational basis," not setting up permanent camp. In Singapore, four ships will berth, but sailors will live onboard.
As for Vietnam, Panetta says, deeper defense ties are only meant to help the country to stand up for itself.
"In particular, we want to work with Vietnam on critical maritime issues, including a code of conduct, focusing on the South China Sea," he says.
Vietnam is fighting over mineral and territorial rights in the South China Sea with its longtime enemy China. So the U.S. presence here is a not-so-subtle jab at the region's biggest player.
China is not happy about this. At an international conference over the weekend, one Chinese delegate said disputes in the Asia-Pacific should be resolved without U.S. interference. With its step-by-step return to Asia, the U.S. is looking for ways to send a message to China, without picking a fight.
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