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Trip Message: Hawaii, Singapore, Vietnam, India, and Afghanistan

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, The Pentagon, Washington D.C., Thursday, June 14, 2012

I have recently returned from a nine day trip to the Asia-Pacific region. The trip took us westward around the world, from Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii; to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore; to Cam Ranh Bay and Hanoi in Vietnam; to Delhi in India; to Kabul in Afghanistan; and back over Europe to the United States. The purpose of the trip was to visit with our troops in Afghanistan, and explain to our allies and partners our new defense strategy and its emphasis on our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.

My first destination was Pacific Command (PACOM) Headquarters in Hawaii, a natural first stop on this trip across Asia. There, I met with Commander Admiral Locklear and addressed leaders and staff who oversee military operations across PACOM’s vast Area of Responsibility. It’s clear that PACOM will play a key role in guiding our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.

From Hawaii we continued on to Singapore and the Shangri-La Dialogue, a forum that brings together leaders from around the world to discuss security issues in the Asia-Pacific. My goal at Shangri-La was to define what the United States military’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region – a key element of our new defense strategy – will mean in practical terms. My speech outlined our rebalance that is based on enduring principles, building partnerships, maintaining a constant presence and ensuring our ability to project power – including details on our intention to shift 60 percent of naval assets to the Pacific and investments in new platforms and technologies.

I also emphasized our efforts to build better military-to-military ties with China, our commitment to a rules based order in the region, and the need to settle the region’s territorial disputes peacefully, and without intimidation. Later, I held bilateral and trilateral meetings with key partners and allies from the region including Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. Admiral Locklear and Chairman Dempsey joined me for many of these meetings. Our renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific is being very well received by our many friends and allies there who look forward to opportunities for more joint training, exercises, port calls and other engagements with U.S. forces.

The next stop was Cam Ranh Bay and Hanoi in Vietnam. This was an amazing experience. I was the first Secretary of Defense to visit Cam Ranh Bay since the end of the war. As a Vietnam era veteran and part of the Vietnam generation, this was an especially moving occasion for me. At Cam Ranh Bay, I visited the cargo ship USNS Robert E. Byrd and spoke to the crew, thanking them for their service to our nation. That ship – docked in a Vietnamese port and serviced and repaired by local contractors – is a tremendous indication of how far our nations have come in our relationship in such a short time. Looking out at that serene bay, which reminded me of San Francisco bay, it was hard to imagine there was a time some 40 years ago when it was filled with grey hulls offloading supplies to American troops fighting in that long, bloody war.

My goal in Vietnam was to take stock of our partnership and make strides to strengthen it on the military-to-military level. I also thanked Vietnam for its longstanding assistance in our efforts to identify and locate the remains of our fallen service members and those missing in action in Vietnam. Our commitment to the accounting mission embodies principles that are critical to our personnel serving today – that we stand by our pledge that we leave no one behind.

One of the most moving moments of my visit to Vietnam came in an historic exchange of war artifacts with that country’s Minister of Defense, General Thanh. I returned a diary from a fallen Vietnamese Communist soldier found in March 1966 by a young U.S. Marine. In turn, General Thanh returned letters from a fallen American soldier, Sergeant Flaherty, who was killed while fighting with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in March 1969. Exchanges like this help us to remember, and help us pay tribute to all those who have fought and died for our countries.

The next leg of the trip took us to India, a very important strategic partner of the United States. I was honored to place a wreath at India Gate in New Delhi, in honor of fallen Indian military members. In meetings with Indian officials, we all noted the rapid transformation in the U.S.-India defense relationship. Our military-to-military engagement has increased steadily over the past ten years and now includes a robust slew of dialogues, exercises, defense trade, and personnel exchanges. We also discussed the transition in Afghanistan, and the common challenges both our countries face in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

The final destination on this trip was a brief but important stopover in Afghanistan, my fourth visit there since becoming Secretary of Defense, to meet with General Allen, Ambassador Crocker, and Afghan Minister of Defense Wardak. This was another opportunity for me to hear first-hand the progress we are making on the ground there as we take the fight to the enemy. Thanks to the hard fighting of coalition troops, we have weakened the Taliban and they have been unable to regain lost ground. This success has enabled us to proceed steadily with transition to Afghan security lead in districts and provinces across the country.

I also had the opportunity to address our troops from ISAF’s Joint Command located at Kabul International Airport. On behalf of a grateful nation, I thanked our brave men and women there for their service and sacrifice, and for their dedication to the mission in Afghanistan. I also thanked their families for their support and for the many hardships they endure during long deployments and the absence of loved ones. These are all true heroes providing for the security of all Americans and helping to provide a better future for the Afghan people.

During my visit to Asia, it was important to bring closure to some of the past chapters of America’s military involvement in the region. Vietnam’s decision to open three previously restricted areas to our Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was an important step in the healing process. Along those same lines, the Indian government’s support for resuming remains recovery of U.S. personnel lost during World War II seeks to deal with a long term wound that can finally be addressed.

As I flew home after this lengthy trip around the world, it was clear that the nations I visited have tremendous respect for our great military – I hear it again and again in my meetings with foreign leaders. That’s why it is such a source of pride for me to have the opportunity to serve as your Secretary of Defense. It is an enormous honor to lead this Department and to work with all of you every day who do so much to protect our country. Because of you we will help give our children a better life and a safer and more secure world.

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