CAM RANH BAY, Vietnam — Forty-five years ago, American cargo ships filled this vast harbor, unloading supplies day after day for U.S. troops fighting the Viet Cong.
Today, the bay’s azure waters are largely empty, except for local fishing boats. The once-bustling U.S. airbase here, formerly home to fighter squadrons and a combat hospital, is abandoned, a reminder of the U.S. military’s exit from most of Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War.
But the Pentagon is plotting a return.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta flew in to Cam Ranh Bay, the first Pentagon chief to come to this deep-water port 200 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City since the war. He recalled “the great deal of blood that was spilled in this war on all sides — by Americans and by Vietnamese.”
He also made clear that the U.S. is hoping that hard history will not stand in the way of a U.S. return to the sheltered anchorage off the strategically-important South China Sea.
“Access for United States naval ships into this facility is a key component” of the U.S. relationship with Vietnam, “and we see the tremendous potential here,” Panetta told reporters, standing on the stern of a gray-hulled U.S. Navy supply ship anchored near the bay entrance, undergoing maintenance.
The vessel is one of only a handful of U.S. ships that the Vietnamese have allowed back to Cam Ranh Bay since diplomatic ties were reestablished in 1995. But it is unarmed and sails with a largely civilian crew, a requirement imposed by the Vietnamese government that has prohibited military ships from docking since 2002, when Russia closed the base it had there after the U.S. departure.
U.S. warships have called regularly at other Vietnamese ports since the guided missile frigate Vandergrift made a port call in Hanoi in November 2003.
The Obama administration is reasserting the U.S. role as a Pacific power after a decade of war elsewhere. Seeking to counter China’s growing military might, Pentagon planners are seeking closer ties to countries on China’s periphery and access to ports and other facilities to beef up the U.S. presence in potential trouble spots.
“It will be particularly important to use harbors like this as we move out ships from our ports on the West Coast toward our stations here in the Pacific,” Panetta said.
Cam Ranh Bay is ideally located, right off the South China Sea. But a Vietnamese military officer accompanying Panetta on his visit said opening it up to U.S. warships was not possible because the port was a “restricted military area.” The officer refused to give his name.
Read More: LA Times