Leon Panetta speaks to the crew of the USNS Richard E. Byrd docked at Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay on Sunday.

Story highlights

The Cam Ranh Bay military base was an important logistics hub for the U.S.

His visit marks the first trip there by an American defense secretary since the war ended

Panetta is on an Asia trip aimed at explaining the U.S. strategy

CNN  — 

Leon Panetta visited a former U.S. Navy base in Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam, on Sunday, marking the first trip to the base by an American defense secretary since the war ended.

The Cam Ranh Bay naval base was an important deep water port and logistics hub for the U.S., and is considered a “jewel” of deep-water ports.

Standing on the USNS Richard E. Byrd, a ship anchored at the base, Panetta thanked assembled civilian and military personnel for “your service, your sacrifice.”

“The Vietnam generation is my generation,” Panetta said, noting there was “a tremendous amount of blood spilled on both sides” during the war.

He called on those present to “heal the wounds of the past,” saying it makes the sacrifices of those who died worthwhile and will help build a better future.

Panetta, who headed to Hanoi after the base stop, is on a tour of Asia that includes Singapore and India. His trip aims to boost military ties in the region.

“We still face a lot of threats … still face a lot of challenges in today’s world, and a lot of it is in this part of the world,” Panetta said. In Singapore, he said, he outlined a new defense strategy.

As part of a “rebalancing” with Asia, the United States will enhance its military cooperation with China and boost its allies’ capabilities in the region, Panetta said Saturday.

The defense secretary detailed the new strategy to a gathering of Asia’s military leaders, saying the majority of U.S. warships would move to the region.

“By 2020, the Navy will reposture its forces from today’s roughly 50-50 split from the Pacific and Atlantic to a 60-40 split in those oceans,” Panetta said.

“We will also invest – invest in cyber, invest in space, invest in unmanned systems, invest in special forces operations,” he said. “We will invest in the newest technologies. And we will invest in new technology to mobilize quickly, if necessary,” Panetta said.

Along with enhanced military cooperation, Panetta emphasized diplomacy that includes “open and free commerce, and open access by all to their shared domains of sea and air” – a current point of friction in the South China Sea between China and regional nations.

The increased regional involvement by the United States has raised concerns about tensions with China.

“I reject that view entirely,” Panetta said, calling the U.S. shift “fully compatible with the development and growth of China. Indeed, increased U.S. involvement in this region will benefit China.”

Panetta said the United States will work to improve communication with China to build trust between the two nations.