(Media availability en route to Manila, Philippines. Also participating: Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) Kenneth H. Bacon.)
Secretary Cohen: I'll just be brief on this. This is roughly my tenth visit to Asian countries in the past three and a half years, and when I first took office I made it clear that I was going to work hard to solidify the relationships that we have throughout the Pacific region. This is a continuation of that policy.
As you know, just this week, Secretary of State Albright and I attended the two-plus-two meeting in New York and talked about the progress we're making with the defense guidelines with Japan, which remains the anchor of stability throughout the Asia-Pacific region, establishing the bilateral working mechanism. So, great progress has been made in that regard.
On this trip, you know the itinerary. We'll be heading first to the Philippines where we support President Estrada's efforts to promote a unified democratic country. We support his opposition to the groups that are holding hostages, including an American. Through negotiations, we are going to continue to work with him and to help him produce a positive outcome in that regard. We have a Visiting Forces Agreement which the Philippine Senate ratified last year and, again, signals the importance the Philippine government, the people, place upon their relationship with the United States.
In Singapore, we look forward to the completion of the Changi naval base where they have a new pier that will accommodate our aircraft carriers. They currently have a Marine ARG [amphibious ready group] visiting, again showing the nature of the relationship and how significant it's become.
In Thailand, we'll talk about ways we can continue to enhance our relationship with them, but they have recently participated in a Cobra Gold, hosting a Cobra Gold exercise. And it had a peacekeeping component involved, and, of course, peacekeeping is important as it pertains to East Timor, in which they've had a leading role.
In Korea, we will take up our SCM [security consultative meeting] in Korea, but there, again, we are encouraged by the North-South dialogue that's taking place. We hope that will continue to evolve in a very fruitful fashion. Overall, our relationships with the Asia-Pacific countries, especially throughout the ASEAN region, are very strong, and hopefully, we'll solidify that relationship on this trip as well.
Q: Will you emphasize, or are you emphasizing now again, that the United States has no intention of paying ransom for hostages, the American hostage? And is the United States willing, if the Philippines decides, to go after the Muslim rebels, to help them militarily, even directly or perhaps by providing helicopters to make them more mobile? Are you willing to help if the Philippines decides to do that?
Cohen: We believe that the best course of action in dealing with the hostage situation is negotiations. We do not support paying ransom and in any way submitting to extortion. We think in the long term that the Philippine military needs to form the kind of special units that would be able to conduct military operations. Under the right circumstances, we are prepared to work with them in that regard. But we don't support paying ransom, and we support the continuation of negotiations as opposed to taking military action.
Q: Again, but the United States would not work directly in fighting against the rebels, but how might you support the Philippine military in doing that?
Cohen: As I indicated, we think that the long term solution, or the longer term solution, would be to have appropriate training in counter terrorism types of activities which we are prepared to move forward with them on.
And I think I left out Indonesia. We will be travelling to Indonesia, and that's going to be an important visit as well to remind the president and, especially, the military that they need to take strong action to curb the militias in West Timor, that the situation that has been unfolding in recent days and months is not acceptable, and that the international community is looking with a very critical eye on whether or not President Wahid is going to take the kind of action necessary to have accountability on the part of the TNI [Armed Forces of Indonesia] for abuses in East Timor but also to intensify the effort to curb the violence being inflicted on UN workers in East Timor.
Q: But have the Philippines requested assistance in training in counter terrorism and counter insurgency?
Cohen: I'll discuss that with them there. They've not specifically requested that at this point. But it's a program that I think would be important to them, and it's one I'll take up with them there.
Q: How about other exercises, Mr. Secretary? Are you going to have any other exercises with maybe larger scale battalion and larger exercises with the Philippine military?
Cohen: I don't have the schedule now, but we are conducting more and more exercises with the Philippines so I would anticipate that there will be larger ones in the future.
Bacon: They had a major exercise in the spring called Balikatan and we're planning another one for 2001.
Q: I'd like to get a little more precision about the kind of training that you'll be offering the Philippines. Do you envision sort of more intensive help in helping the Philippines to develop some sort of counter insurgency strategy against these rebel groups in the south, or are you talking about training units that are specialized in doing things like intervening in hostage taking situations?
Cohen: The latter, having specialized units that can deal with hostage rescue types of missions with highly trained groups of dedicated troops and such.
Q: Is there any thought being given to a broader involvement in helping the Philippines deal with these insurgencies in the south?
Cohen: I think that the Philippine government understands what they need to do in this regard. We will be cooperating, but that's something the Philippine government will have to really focus on itself.
Q: Thank you, sir.