In next-door Vietnam, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta this month became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the naval and air base at Cam Ranh Bay since the end of the war. Citing the “tremendous potential here,” Panetta enthused about the prospect of U.S. ships again becoming a common sight at the deep-water port.
The Pentagon is also seeking greater accommodations in the Philippines, including at the Subic Bay naval base and the former Clark Air Base, once the largest U.S. military installations in Asia as well as key repair and supply hubs during the Vietnam War.
The U.S. military either abandoned or was evicted from its Southeast Asian bases decades ago. Amid concerns about China’s growing military power and its claims to disputed territories, however, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines have cautiously put out the welcome mat for the Americans again.
In response, Pentagon leaders have flocked to the region to speed up negotiations and fortify relations. The rapprochements so far have focused on limited steps, such as port visits and joint exercises, but the administration hopes they will lead to a more extensive and persistent U.S. military presence.
“Symbolically, those places are really attached to a very recent history,” said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations. “Part of moving forward with a lot of these nations is making amends with those symbols.”
U.S. officials said they have no desire to re-occupy any of the massive Southeast Asian bases from last century. Nor do they have the money to create new ones. So they’re looking for permission to operate from the old installations as guests, mostly on a temporary basis.
“I don’t carry around a backpack with American flags and run around the world planting them,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters after returning from a visit this month to Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. “We want to be out there partnered with nations and have a rotational presence that would allow us to build up common capabilities for common interests.”
The U.S. armed forces have been allowed, to varying degrees, to visit or conduct training exercises at its old bases for several years. But talks about expanding access have taken on a new urgency since January, when President Obama announced that the United States was making a strategic “pivot” to Asia after a decade in which it was preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The administration has denied that its resurgent interest is designed to contain China, which has alarmed many neighbors by making expansive territorial claims in the resource-rich South China and East China seas. U.S. officials said their primary goal in Asia is to maintain stability by ensuring freedom of navigation and free trade with the world’s fastest-growing economies, including China.
But analysts said the U.S. strategic pivot and fresh basing arrangements are necessary to reassure allies that Washington will maintain its Asian security commitments and remain an effective counterweight to China, despite looming defense cutbacks at home.
“This is a long game and a long-term trend,” said Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank with close ties to the administration. “They’re doing the best they can with what they have, and what they have is considerable. The problem is whether it is sustainable, and that’s what everybody in the region is asking.”
After years of paying little attention to Thailand, which was rattled by a coup in 2006, senior Pentagon leaders have rediscovered Bangkok. Dempsey’s visit was the first by a chairman of the Joint Chiefs in more than a decade.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is scheduled to make a trip next month. And Thailand has extended a formal invitation to Panetta, who also met with the Thai minister of defense at a conference in Singapore this month.
The two countries are discussing whether to run a joint military hub for responding to the devastating cyclones, tsunamis and other natural disasters that frequently strike the region. The center would be located at the Royal Thai Navy Air Field at U-Tapao, about 90 miles south of Bangkok.
The U.S. military is well-acquainted with U-Tapao (OOH-ta-pow), where it built the two-mile-long runway — one of the longest in Asia — in the 1960s. The Pentagon relied on the airfield as a major staging and refueling base during the Vietnam War, but withdrew its forces from the country in 1976 at the direction of the Thai government.
In the 1980s, the United States and Thailand resumed gradual military cooperation. The Thai government has allowed the U.S. Air Force to use U-Tapao as a stopover for troop transit flights to the Middle East. The base is also the center for the annual Cobra Gold military exercises, which started out as a U.S.-Thai training program but now involves more than 20 countries.
U.S. officials have been vague in public about how many troops they might send to U-Tapao or what missions they might perform if the disaster-relief center comes to fruition.
The lack of information has bred suspicion in the Thai media and among opposition lawmakers, who have held up a separate project that would allow NASA to operate climate-change surveillance flights from U-Tapao this fall. Chinese officials have also expressed skepticism about an expanded U.S. military presence.
Catharin Dalpino, a former State Department official and Southeast Asia expert, said any new U.S.-Thai military accords were likely to be “modest.” She noted that Thailand has a history of working closely with both superpowers and would be unlikely to sign any agreements that would alienate either Washington or Beijing.
“The Thais have a long relationship with China and a positive relationship with China, but they do not see this as contradictory with maintaining a treaty alliance with the United States and a strong economic relationship with the United States,” she said.
Some U.S. military officials said they also would like to upgrade naval access to Thai ports. The U.S. Navy is preparing to base four of its newest warships — known as Littoral Combat Ships — in Singapore and would like to rotate them periodically to Thailand and other southeast Asian countries.
The Navy is also pursuing options to conduct joint airborne surveillance missions from Thailand, the Philippines and Australia, officials said. Pentagon leaders said one of their highest strategic priorities is to improve their surveillance of shipping traffic and military movements throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, home to some of the busiest trade routes in the world.
In 2014, for instance, the Navy is scheduled to begin deploying new P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft to the Pacific, replacing the Cold War-era P-3C Orion surveillance planes.
The Navy is preparing to deploy new high-altitude surveillance drones to the Asia-Pacific region around the same time. Under current plans, the drones will be based on Guam, but U.S. officials are also searching for Asian partners willing to host the aircraft.