Panetta visits former US base in Vietnam

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Sunday visited a former U.S. military base in Vietnam to promote American military ties in the region as the Pentagon re-focuses its attention on the Asia-Pacific region.

Panetta visited the former air and naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, the highest American official to visit the post since the end of the Vietnam War.

Panetta spoke with sailors aboard the USS Richard E. Byrd, a merchant marine ship.

"This is a historic trip," said Panetta, according to media reports. “The fact that the ship is here and being serviced by Vietnamese contractors is a tremendous indication of how far we have come.

“All of us recall a great deal of blood was spilled in this war on all sides, by Americans and by Vietnamese," said Panetta, according to The Wall Street Journal. "If out of all of that sacrifice we can build a strong partnership that looks to the future, then perhaps not only can we begin to heal the wounds of the past, we can build a better future for our people in the Asia-Pacific region."

Panetta pushed for increased U.S. access to the base, saying that “access to U.S. naval ships to this facility is a key component," of the rebalancing of U.S. forces in the region.

Panetta said Sunday that the administration saw "a tremendous opportunity" to strengthen military ties with Vietnam.

Panetta is on a three-country trip to Asia to strengthen military ties with allies.

On Saturday, Panetta spoke at a gathering with Asian defense chiefs in Singapore for the Shangri-La security talks and is scheduled to travel next to India.

The Obama administration has taken efforts to strengthen its position against China in the region and Panetta hopes to convince regional allies to back the new Pacific strategy. 

The Pentagon has plans in place to increase the number of American servicemembers in the region, with Marines already deployed to Darwin, Australia and the U.S. Navy moving littoral combat ships to Singapore. 

Sunday evening, Panetta will travel to Hanoi to meet Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh to discuss moving ahead on a defense memorandum between the two countries signed last year.