As Panetta Visits Vietnam, China Warily Eyes U.S. Plans For Shift to Asia

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (R) participates in an arrival ceremony with Vietnam Minister of Defense Phung Quang Thanh (L) at the Ministry of Defense on June 4, 2012 Hanoi, Vietman

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta filled in some details of the U.S. military‘s strategic ‘pivot’ to Asia, telling the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday that the U.S. Navy will shift so that by 2020 the majority of its forces will be in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Navy’s presence is roughly balanced between the Pacific and the Atlantic, though aircraft carriers now lean toward the Pacific. Five of its 11 aircraft carriers are based in on the west coast of the U.S., with a sixth station in Yokohama, Japan. The other five based in Norfolk, VA. By the end of the decade Panetta says 60% of U.S. Navy forces, including submarines, destroyers and cruisers, will be based in the Pacific.

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Panetta cautioned that such a move was not aimed at China. “Some view the increased emphasis by the United States on the Asia-Pacific region as some kind of challenge to China,” he said. “I reject that view entirely.  Our effort to renew and intensify our involvement in Asia is fully compatible — fully compatible — with the development and growth of China.  Indeed, increased U.S. involvement in this region will benefit China as it advances our shared security and prosperity for the future.” However, few believe that the U.S. shift hasn’t been made with China in mind, least of all people in China, which last year launched its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet model. An editorial in the Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid run by China’s Communist Party, said that, “Although (Panetta’s) denial is very likely not 100% false, no one in the world believes it is true.”

Those doubts were furthered by the next leg of Panetta’s trip, Vietnam, where he visited Cam Ranh Bay, a major U.S. port and air base during the Vietnam War. Over the past two years Vietnam has opened the facility to some U.S. Navy ships, and though no combat vessels have visited, several supply ships including the USNS Richard E. Byrd, which Panetta toured Sunday, have used Cam Ranh for repairs. Speaking from the deck of the USNS Byrd, Panetta said that facilities like Cam Ranh were critical to the U.S. goal of building a navy that was agile, flexible and quick to deploy when needed. “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,” he said.

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Vietnam fought a brief, bloody border war with China in 1979, with tens of thousands killed in four weeks. Shortly after that war’s conclusion, Vietnam invited the Soviet Union to set up a base a Cam Ranh, part of an effort to balanced against its rival to the north. China, which has seen tensions with Vietnam escalate in the past year over rival claims to the South China Sea, fears that the U.S. will be increasingly used as a counterweight to its regional clout. The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, warned that the U.S. harbored ill intentions toward Vietnam. “The U.S. keeps saying it wants to enhance relations with Vietnam, but almost every year the Americans use the big sticks of democracy, human rights and trade protection to find fault with Vietnam,” the paper said. China, of course, is unlikely to challenge its neighbor over such ideological issues, but it’s China’s territorial challenges that have Vietnam more worried.

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