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The United States is back in the Asia-Pacific. That's the message from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who's spending a week touring the region. Today, Panetta continues his visit to a country where the U.S. military stirs powerful memories: Vietnam. Panetta is hoping to build stronger defense ties. And as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the secretary began with a historic return to a key crossroads of the Vietnam War.


LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: On Sunday, Secretary Panetta boarded a little ferry boat in Cam Ranh Bay, a beautiful natural harbor north of Ho Chi Minh City. On board he asked about his destination, the USNS Byrd, a big supply ship docked on the other side of the bay.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Now, tell me a little about the ship. What's your ship...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Well, the ship is designed to carry supplies, stores, reefer cargo.

ABRAMSON: The fact that the Byrd is here at all, being repaired by Vietnamese workers, marks quite a turn from the days of the war when the Americans called the shots here.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And from Manila he made a quick visit to the war zone itself.

ABRAMSON: When President Johnson visited in 1966, Cam Ranh was essentially a U.S. colony, used as a hub for the war effort.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The visit was a pleasant surprise for the troops at Cam Ranh Bay, who took the salute of their commander-in-chief.

ABRAMSON: But in 1972, the U.S. facility here was handed to the South Vietnamese as the U.S. withdrew. After Saigon fell, the Soviets took over. Now the Vietnamese government is turning Cam Ranh into an international port. Ships from India, Russia and elsewhere come here for repairs. But the U.S. is here for more than ship maintenance.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Secretary of Defense arriving.

ABRAMSON: After Secretary Panetta boarded the Byrd, he told workers gathered here that Vietnam is part of a U.S. effort to return to the Asia Pacific but with a much lighter touch than last time.

PANETTA: This is not a cold war situation where the United States simply charges in, builds permanent bases, and tries to establish a power base in this region. This is a different world. This is a world in which we have to engage with other countries.

ABRAMSON: You can see signs of that approach on the Byrd. There are only two Navy sailors on board. The rest of the crew is made up of civilian workers. That's typical of the partnerships the Pentagon is setting up. Marines in Australia are there on a rotational basis, not setting up permanent camp. In Singapore, four ships will berth, but sailors will live on board. As for Vietnam, Panetta says deeper defense ties are only meant to help this country stand up for itself.

PANETTA: In particular we want to work with Vietnam on critical maritime issues, including a code of conduct, focusing on the South China Sea.

ABRAMSON: Vietnam is fighting over mineral and territorial rights in the South China Sea with its longtime enemy, China. So the American presence here is a not-so-subtle jab at the region's biggest player. China is not happy about this. At an international conference over the weekend, one Chinese delegate said disputes in the Asia Pacific should be resolved without U.S. intervention. With its step-by-step return to Asia, the U.S. is looking for a way to send a message to China without picking a fight.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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