CAM RANH BAY, Vietnam – Forty-five years ago, American cargo ships filled this vast harbor, unloading supplies day after day for U.S. troops fighting the Viet Cong.
Today the bay’s azure waters are largely empty, except for local fishing boats. The once-bustling American air base, formerly home to fighter squadrons and a combat hospital, is abandoned, a reminder of the U.S. military’s exit from most of Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War.
But the Pentagon is seeking a return engagement.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta became the first Pentagon chief to visit Cam Ranh Bay’s deep-water port since the war. He recalled “the great deal of blood that was spilled in this war on all sides – by Americans and by Vietnamese.”
He also made clear that the U.S. Navy is hoping that difficult history will not stand in the way of its return to the sheltered anchorage off the strategically important South China Sea.
“Access for United States naval ships into this facility is a key component” of the American relationship with Vietnam, “and we see the tremendous potential here,” Panetta told reporters, standing on the stern of a Navy supply ship anchored near the bay entrance.
The vessel is one of only a handful of U.S. ships that the Vietnamese have allowed back to Cam Ranh Bay since diplomatic ties were re-established in 1995. It is unarmed and sails with a largely civilian crew, a requirement imposed by the Vietnamese government, which has prohibited military ships from docking since 2002 when the Russians closed the base they maintained there.
U.S. warships have called regularly at other Vietnamese ports since the guided missile frigate Vandergrift made a port call in Ho Chi Minh City in November 2003.
Hoping to counter China’s growing military might, Pentagon planners are seeking closer ties to countries on China’s periphery and access to ports and other facilities to beef up the American presence in potential trouble spots.
“It will be particularly important to use harbors like this as we move out ships from our ports on the West Coast toward our stations here in the Pacific,” Panetta said.
Cam Ranh Bay is ideally located off the South China Sea. But a Vietnamese military officer accompanying Panetta said opening it up to U.S. warships was not possible because the port was a “restricted military area.” The officer refused to give his name.
Panetta said that being allowed to use ports such as Cam Ranh Bay is important to the new U.S. strategy.
As a fallback, the Pentagon is considering asking the Philippines to reopen Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Airfield, two Cold War-era facilities also close to the South China Sea.