Access to Pacific harbours key to US strategy: PanettaReuters . Cam Ranh Bay
US defence secretary Leon Panetta visited a deep-water Vietnamese port near the contested South China Sea on Sunday, calling access to such harbours critical as the US shifts 60 per cent of its warships to the Asia-Pacific by 2020.
Panetta flew to Cam Ranh Bay, one of Asia’s finest deep-water harbours located about 450 miles south of China, just a day after he spelled out details of a new US military strategy that calls for a shift in focus to the Pacific after a decade of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While US officials insisted the visit had nothing to do with China, Panetta’s appearance was likely to heighten concerns among some Chinese officials who see the shift as an attempt to fence in the country and frustrate Beijing’s territorial claims, especially in the South China Sea.
Chinese Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan noted the US decision to increase the number of warships in the Pacific during remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore on Sunday.
‘First, we should not treat this as a disaster,’ Ren said.
‘I believe that this is the United States’ response to its own national interests, its fiscal difficulties and global security developments,’ he said in comments reported by Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television.
Panetta, who toured a Navy supply ship undergoing repairs, was the most senior US official to visit Cam Ranh Bay since the Vietnam War, when it served as a key US logistic hub.
Currently, the port only does maintenance on US cargo vessels but not warships. No US warships have visited it since the war, but have called at other Vietnamese ports, US officials said.
Speaking from the deck of the USNS Richard E. Byrd, Panetta said his visit was symbolic of how far the two countries have come since they normalised relations 17 years ago and that partnerships with countries like Vietnam were critical to the new US military strategy.
‘We are rebalancing our forces to the Asia-Pacific ... so that in the future, 60 per cent of our forces will be located in this region,’ he said.
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