Access to Pacific harbors key to U.S. strategy: Panetta
By David Alexander
CAM RANH BAY, Vietnam (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited a deep-water Vietnamese port near the contested South China Sea on Sunday, calling access to such harbors critical as the U.S. shifts 60 percent of its warships to the Asia-Pacific by 2020.
Panetta flew to Cam Ranh Bay, one of Asia's finest deep-water harbors located about 450 miles south of China, just a day after he spelled out details of a new U.S. military strategy that calls for a shift in focus to the Pacific after a decade of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While U.S. officials insisted the visit had nothing to do with China, Panetta's appearance was likely to heighten concerns among some Chinese officials who see the shift as an attempt to fence in the country and frustrate Beijing's territorial claims, especially in the South China Sea.
Chinese Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan noted the U.S. decision to increase the number of warships in the Pacific during remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore on Sunday.
"First, we should not treat this as a disaster," Ren said.
"I believe that this is the United States' response to its own national interests, its fiscal difficulties and global security developments," he said in comments reported by Hong Kong's Phoenix Television.
Panetta, who toured a Navy supply ship undergoing repairs, was the most senior U.S. official to visit Cam Ranh Bay since the Vietnam War, when it served as a key U.S. logistic hub.
Currently, the port only does maintenance on U.S. cargo vessels but not warships. No U.S. warships have visited it since the war, but have called at other Vietnamese ports, U.S. officials said. Continued...