SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: Thank you very much. Good afternoon.
This is an historic day for the United States of America. I’m the first United States secretary of defense to visit Cam Ranh Bay since the war.
For me personally, this is a very moving moment because on last Monday, I stood before the Vietnam Memorial to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Today, I stand on a U.S. ship here in Cam Ranh Bay to recognize the 17th anniversary of the normalization of relationships between United States and Vietnam. And I’m here to take stock of the partnership that we are developing with Vietnam. As a Pacific power, and as I said yesterday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, it’s only natural that we look for future opportunities, for partnership with Southeast Asia nations such as Vietnam.
We’ve come a long way, particularly with regards to our defense relationship. We have a complicated relationship, but we’re not bound by that history. We want to explore ways to expand that relationship, building on the comprehensive memorandum of understanding that was signed by our two nations last year, and that will extend our practical cooperation.
We’re looking to expand our cooperation in a number of areas in high level exchanges, in the maritime area, in search and rescue, in humanitarian aid and disaster relief, and in peacekeeping operations.
In particular, we want to work with Vietnam on critical maritime issues, including the code of conduct, focusing on the South China Sea and also working to improve freedom of navigation in our oceans.
Access for United States naval ships into this facility is a key component of this relationship, and we see a tremendous potential here for the future. We look forward to working together with the country of Vietnam to achieve our shared objectives and to take this relationship to the next level.
I want to mention, in particular, that we appreciate Vietnam’s longstanding assistance on identifying and locating the remains of our fallen service members and those missing in action in Vietnam. This sacred mission will continue until all of our troops have been accounted for. We stand by our pledge that we leave no one behind.
As I stand here as someone who served in uniform during the Vietnam era, I think all of us recall that a great deal of blood was spilled in this war on all sides, by Americans and by Vietnamese.
A lot of questions have been raised on all sides as to why this war was fought. But if out of all of that sacrifice, we can build a strong partnership between both of our countries that looks to the future, then perhaps not only can we begin to heal the wounds of the past, but we can build a better future for our people in the Asia-Pacific region.
MODERATOR: Lita Baldor of the Associated Press.
LITA BALDOR: Mr. Secretary you mentioned earlier that the new strategy of the Pentagon to shift focus to the Pacific would be tested in this region. Can you expand on that a little bit and expand on what the strategic importance is of this particular port and how important it is to the U.S. pivot considering ongoing disputes in the South China Sea?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, it’s --
TRANSLATOR: No, we translate -- (inaudible).
SEC. PANETTA: Oh, okay. The new defense strategy that we have put in place for the United States represents a number of key elements that will be tested in the Asia-Pacific region.
One of those principles in our strategy is the ability to be agile, to be quickly deployable, to be flexible, and to be on the cutting edge of technology. And in a region as large as the Asia-Pacific region, agility is going to be extremely important in terms of our ability to be able to move quickly.
And another principle obviously is the one that I spoke to in the Shangri-la Dialogue, which is that we are rebalancing our forces to the Asia-Pacific region so that in the future, 60 percent of our forces will be located in this region.
For that reason, it will be particularly important to be able to work with partners like Vietnam, to be able to use harbors like this as we move our ships from our ports on the West Coast, ports or stations here in the Pacific.
In addition, we are stressing our effort to try to develop partnerships with countries in this region to develop their capabilities so that they can better defend and secure themselves. And for that to happen, it is very important that we be able to protect key maritime rights for all nations in the South China Sea and elsewhere. That’s why we think it’s very important to work on -- with the ASEAN nations on a code of conduct that all nations in this region -- all nations in this region -- can abide by.
And the last point is that to do this we need to obviously build a stronger defense relationship with countries like Vietnam and elsewhere so that we can help provide them the training assistance and whatever they need to try to improve their capabilities to be part of the family of nations in this great region that can advance security and prosperity for all.
Q: So, Mr. Secretary, why you choose Cam Rahn to visit at the first stop of your visit to Vietnam and what do you think about the potential for U.S.-Vietnam military and defense cooperation, why in Cam Ranh?
SEC. PANETTA: I feel -- I feel very confident that we can work effectively to improve our relationships. We already have. The fact is that this ship is being worked on by Vietnam contractors. They’re providing the maintenance. They’re doing the repair work on this ship and doing a very effective job. So we already are working together to improve our defense relationship.
The reason I came here to Cam Ranh Bay is because, as I said, this is the first time that a secretary of defense has come back to Cam Ranh Bay since the war years. And I think it’s an important symbol of how the relationship between the United States and Vietnam has improved.
Besides that, I’m the son of Italian immigrants who was born in a sea coast town in California called Monterey. And I have to tell you, it’s always comfortable for me to come back to the ocean, and this is a beautiful place to be able to see the ocean and all of the great things that Vietnam is doing with this great bay.
Okay, thank you all very much.