Panetta followed up his appearance at a security summit in Singapore with a Sunday side trip to Cam Ranh Bay, a major U.S. supply base during the Vietnam War.
Panetta became the most-senior U.S. defense official to visit the strategic deep-water harbor since the war ended, Stars and Stripes said. He told the crew of the USNS Richard E. Byrd their visit held as much symbolism as his.
"This ship is America," Panetta told the sailors. "I think it's an important symbol of how the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam has improved."
"We have a complicated relationship, but we're not bound by that history," Panetta said, adding Washington sought Vietnam's cooperation in working out maritime rights issues in the South China Sea.
Defense officials said the United States would also like to see Cam Ranh Bay developed into a major shipping hub for the entire region, Stars and Stripes said.
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