Defense Secretary Panetta Visits Vietnam

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is on a week-long trip to Asia, with stops in Singapore, Vietnam and India. As NPR's Larry Abramson tells host Rachel Martin, Panetta's trip highlights the Pentagon's new strategic focus on China and the Pacific.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Today, 50 years after America went to war in Vietnam, America's defense secretary is paying a friendly visit to that country. Leon Panetta's stop in Hanoi, the capital city of an old adversary, is a reminder about just how much has changed. The United States now sees Vietnam and other Asian nations as partners, cornerstones of a new expanded American role in the Pacific. NPR's Larry Abramson is traveling with Secretary Panetta. He joins us now from Hanoi. Hi, Larry.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Hi there, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, Secretary Panetta on this big trip through several Asian countries and he's underscoring the Obama administration's message that the U.S. is now shifting its attention to the Pacific. But what does that mean in practical terms, Larry?

ABRAMSON: It means that the U.S. is going to be sending more ships to the region. Panetta said that right now there's about a 50-50 split between the Atlantic and the Pacific in terms of ships. And by 2020, that's going to be a 60-40 split. Now, that sounds like a big shift but in fact some research that a colleague at the L.A. Times here has done said it may come down to just eight more ships. Remember, the Navy isn't growing because of budget constraints and it may be shrinking, actually, depending on what Congress authorizes. There are going to be more troops sent to this region. The U.S. is sending up to 2,500 Marines to Australia. There could be troops going to other cities. Singapore is going to get four ships. So, there are more resources coming but it's a very limited level. Really, what's going on here are more partnerships.

MARTIN: So, let's talk a little bit about one of those partnerships with Vietnam, where you are now. You went to a place that was a major U.S. base during the Vietnam War. Describe that visit.

ABRAMSON: Well, that was to Cameron Bay, which, as you would probably recall, was just a hub of activity for American supply ships and troops. It was really one of the major ports that the U.S. used to supply troops there. In the interim, it's become an international port that the Vietnamese are trying to use to service ships from many countries who are allowed to visit and the U.S. has started to use Cameron Bay to repair and do maintenance on ships. We got to see one of those ships, the U.S.N.S. Byrd. And Defense Secretary Panetta, who's the first defense secretary to visit Cameron Bay, talked to people on that ship and talked to them about what the expanded role of the U.S. military in the Asia-Pacific is going to mean.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: We're developing kind of a creative rotational presence in which we'll have the opportunity to come to places like this and visit and engage with our allies, with our friends.

ABRAMSON: So, the idea is those ships would visit Cameron Bay, visit places like Singapore without building this enormous bases that the U.S. has had trouble with in the past.

MARTIN: Still, you have talked about more American resources, more military assets in the Asia-Pacific. How does the Pentagon square that buildup with the pending defense cuts that it's facing?

ABRAMSON: As you've noted, the Defense Department is facing half a trillion dollars in cuts. They say that the shift to the Pacific is built into that budget, that it's already part of the plan. However, if Congress requires another half a trillion in cuts, which is in the plans right now, Panetta said that these plans for the Asia-Pacific will probably have to be scaled down or dropped.

MARTIN: And finally, Larry, where does China fit in to all of this? I mean, how does the U.S. go about building up all these partnerships in the region without China seeing this as some kind of threat?

ABRAMSON: China does see this as a threat and Panetta has been at pains in his speeches during this visit to say we are not here to challenge China. We're here to build up partnerships with many countries in the region, including China. But, of course, some countries, like Vietnam and the Philippines have territorial disputes with China. And they're glad to see the U.S. back in the region, another superpower that will stand up to China. But the U.S. does not want to send the message that it's trying to confront this growing superpower. It's saying we're here, we are a Pacific power, but we also want to work with you. But that's a very difficult message to craft, as you can imagine.

MARTIN: NPR's Larry Abramson, speaking to us from Vietnam where he's traveling with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Thanks so much, Larry.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

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