"I want to thank him for his offer to open up three new areas."
Hanoi (ANTARA News/AFP) - Vietnam will open up three new areas to American teams hunting for missing war-time soldiers, its defence chief announced on Monday during landmark talks with his US counterpart Leon Panetta.

The pledge came on the second day of a highly symbolic visit by the Pentagon chief that reflects Washington`s efforts to deepen ties with Vietnam as it seeks to counter China`s growing power in the region.

Panetta and Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh also exchanged artefacts -- a Vietnamese soldier`s diary and a collection of personal letters written by a US soldier -- taken by service members during the Vietnam War.

Panetta thanked the Vietnamese side "for their longstanding assistance in efforts to identify and locate the remains of our fallen service members and those missing in action in Vietnam".

He told a news conference: "In particular, I want to thank him for his offer to open up three new areas for remains recovery." The locations of the areas were not immediately known.

For more than two decades, Hanoi and Washington have cooperated on the recovery of American servicemen listed as missing from the war, which ended in 1975 with Vietnam`s reunification.

With witnesses ageing and acidic soil eating into the buried remains, investigators are racing to find the bodies of those still classed as missing.

On Sunday, Panetta became the first Pentagon chief to visit southern Cam Ranh Bay since the end of the Vietnam War.

He said the port, used as a major American base during the Vietnam War, could play a pivotal role in the American military`s shift towards the Asia-Pacific.

Panetta, who announced new plans Saturday to shift the majority of the US naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020, said he saw "tremendous potential" for US naval ship access at Cam Ranh.

Panetta, who is on a nine-day regional tour, was also set to discuss with Vietnam how to implement a memorandum on defence cooperation signed last year.

The Pentagon`s plan to send more ships to the Pacific reflects US concern over China`s rising economic and military might. But Panetta has insisted the strategy is not a challenge to Beijing.

On Sunday, Panetta said the US wanted to work with Vietnam on "maritime issues," in the South China Sea.

China claims all of the South China Sea, which is believed to encompass huge oil and gas reserves. One-third of global seaborne trade passes through the region.

Hanoi and Beijing have rival claims to the Spratly Islands and a long-standing dispute over the Paracel island group.

Recently, China`s more aggressive approach has prompted Vietnam to forge closer defence cooperation with its former foe the United States, analysts say.

Editor: Priyambodo RH
Copyright © ANTARA 2012