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Joint Press Conference with Secretary Cohen and Philippine Secretary Mercado

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
September 15, 2000

(Joint press conference with Philippine Secretary of National Defense Orlando Mercado, Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, Philippines)

Moderator: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is going to be a very tight, rather rigid 15-minute news conference because of the tight schedule of the secretary, Secretary Cohen. So, we start it by making the two personalities give their very brief remarks, starting with Secretary Mercado.

Secretary Mercado: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We welcome Secretary Cohen on his third visit to the Philippines. It's truly been a pleasant task to welcome you Secretary Cohen. The military relationship, the relationship of military institutions, has been progressing with the larger view of our security concerns.

We're thankful that since the visit of Secretary Cohen, when he first came to the Philippines, at his insistence and we concur with his idea that we should have a framework under which we understand our roles in this particular region. We have had exchanges of experts who have been discussing our direction for the military relationship between the Philippines and the United States. And this is after the ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement. We're very happy that things have been moving on and we are very happy to welcome him on his third visit. Mr. Secretary.

Secretary Cohen: Thank you very much, Secretary Mercado. As you pointed out this is my third visit to the Philippines as secretary of Defense and I think it is a strong signal of the ties that we have between our two sovereign nations. I particularly want to thank Secretary Mercado for hosting this brief but, I believe, important visit. The leadership provided by President Estrada and Secretary Mercado has made the year 2000 one of great progress in the security relationship between the Philippines and the United States as illustrated by President Estrada's visit to Washington most recently in July.

I had the great honor of hosting a meeting with President Estrada and Secretary Mercado at the Pentagon. Our countries made progress on environmental cooperation, the transfer of helicopters to help advance Filipino military modernization plans and the U.S. efforts to help improve Filipino World War II veterans' access to health care. And as Secretary Mercado has just indicated, since the passage of the visiting Forces Agreement last year, our forces have been able to exercise together as they are doing even today.

The successful Balikatan 2000 exercise last spring is going to be followed by other exercises and we intend to expand the exercise schedule and ship visits at a pace that is acceptable to both countries. Increased military cooperation between our countries is going to improve the bilateral security between the Philippines and the United States and contribute to regional stability. Our forces worked well together in East Timor, the first UN peacekeeping force there, performed very well under the Filipino leadership.

Right now, the Philippines is facing some difficult, internal challenges from terrorists and secessionists in the South. The United States strongly supports President Estrada's efforts and his government to secure the prompt and safe release of the American hostage who is currently being held as well as the other hostages. And we support the government's continuing discussions to achieve that goal.

We also support President Estrada's efforts to deal with the problems in Mindanao and his determination to work for a unified, prosperous and democratic Philippines. We intend to work with you and with other nations on mutual efforts to combat terrorism. We are improving our program over the -- in the future. We're considering new ways to help the Philippine military meet its needs. We have a joint defense assessment team that is conducting a comprehensive examination of the Filipino defense capabilities and needs and that team expects to finish its work next month. And the analysis will help both countries set priorities for using scarce resources effectively as possible. And one area of support of course that we are considering is provision of transport aircraft. The strength of our security relationship is based on common values, common commitment to work together for the stability of the Asia-Pacific region, both bilaterally and also through regional cooperation. It made great progress during the past two years. We placed a strong foundation for future cooperation that will be beneficial for both our countries.

Moderator: All right, I suppose you know the rituals: your name, your outfit and make them as brief as possible because I said we have a very tight schedule. First question from Doris Bigornia, ABS-CBN.

Q: Secretary Cohen, should the Philippine government decide to choose the military option in handling the hostage crisis in Jolo, will you support it?

Cohen: Well, as we have indicated, we hope that the situation can be handled diplomatically and peacefully and that the hostages can be safely returned. Any decision made by the Filipino government certainly is a matter for the government to decide and that's up to the government. We have encouraged President Estrada to continue to seek a diplomatic resolution but ultimately, only the Philippine government can make that decision.

Moderator: Mr. Charles Aldinger, Reuters.

Q: The Secretary has urged not to use force while continuing discussions to free the hostages. Have you given him any assurances that you will do that? And number two, the United States has offered to provide special training to Philippine forces in counter terrorism, and hostage rescue techniques, would you accept that offer?

Mercado: As far as we're concerned, we've had continuing training on the part of our armed forces and our police on such matters. This is not the first time. We've had training of our special forces on hostage situations. But as far as we see it, the decision to utilize or use such mechanism will be dependent on the president. The Cabinet Cluster has met on the matter. We have made our recommendations. The president has indicated that he feels the hostage takers should be given a little more time. There should not be any precipitated action. He believes that given a little more time, there might be a result from the negotiations in a very short while. That being the case, we have from the very beginning, continued to plan but held our forces in view of this particular request, and we will continue to do so unless given the go signal by the president. But at the moment President Estrada said let us not be precipitate in our action on this matter.

Q: Kathy Yan of CNN. Secretary Cohen, just a follow up on that. You are offering a long-term solution to the hostage taking crisis, and offering training in counter terrorism. But in the short-term, what action is the U.S. government going to take to try to secure the release of Schilling?

Cohen: I think, as Secretary Mercado just pointed out, we have an ongoing relationship with the Philippine military. As you know, we have special forces who are training here now. Contrary to some of the published reports that have appeared on the local press, this was not in response to the current hostage situation. It is part of our ongoing training program, and we anticipate that we will continue such training programs well into the future. And so, it is not necessarily a long-term approach. It is a comprehensive approach that we are taking with the training as beneficial to our troops as well as to those who are in the Philippines. So, it is a comprehensive approach that we are taking to the whole issue of counter terrorism. Terrorism is not unique to the Philippines. We have seen the scourge of terrorism spread to many, many countries. It has spread well beyond the borders of this region and it needs to be looked at on the part of many countries, and ways in which we can share technology, techniques and information capabilities in order to defeat the scourge of terrorism.

Q: James Mannion, Agence France Presse. Secretary Mercado, I wonder if you could tell us whether you've asked for help from the United States? Any assistance in terms of special capabilities the United States might have in dealing with this hostage situation? And Mr. Secretary, I was wondering if you offered any help in dealing with this situation?

Mercado: Well, we're not at liberty -- I am not at liberty to indicate to you what the specifics are, but there are discussions between our military establishments and military forces and their counterparts in the United States on this specific issue of the American hostage being held as of the moment. But it is enough for me to say in general terms that we have always had the cooperation of the United States on issues that are not defined by borders. The issue of terrorism is a global problem, and it has to be addressed in cooperation with other countries, and the United States will always play an important role in this matter. We have training that's ongoing. In fact, under the sponsorship of the American Embassy and the Department of National Defense, we just recently concluded training for negotiations, training for our forces to be able to cope with incidents where there are threats of weapons of mass destruction. All of these are ongoing problems. These are not borne out because of one citizen who has been held hostage. This is an unfortunate incident. But I think this cooperation will continue. It will continue even on instances where there are no kidnappings. But the focus of attention now is largely because of this incident. But we would rather see this relationship from a strategic point of view. That this is part of a continuing, a longer relationship and these courses are just part of building our capabilities. We believe that as far as this country is concerned, while we may not have the technological capability all the time, we are still capable of facing these threats as we have indicated and shown our people in the recent clashes between the Philippine Armed Forces and the MILF. With what we have, we have been able to cope and I think we will continue to do so.

Cohen: I can't either expand or improve upon those answers. Secretary Mercado has spoken for me.

Q: Could I just clarify, are you cooperating in this hostage situation right now. Is there a cooperation crisis?

Mercado: Well, we always have cooperation between our military establishments. I think terrorism is a common concern. How we are doing it is something that we cannot specifically discuss.

Q: Under the Mutual Defense Treaty, there is a clause which says that the US can step in and help the Philippines in case there is a threat against national security, or a threat against RP-US interests. And I think in this case, the case of the Abu Sayyaf is a threat to RP-US interests. Aren't you going to step in or aren't you going to elevate the level of the Abu Sayyaf to an international terrorist gang so that you know...?

Cohen: We will always maintain our support for the Mutual Defense Treaty that we have with the Philippines. The specific instance must be determined on a case by case basis, but I don't think that one should try to articulate what the circumstances would be at any given time. We will meet our obligations from the Mutual Defense Treaty.

Q: Secretary Cohen, I'm Thomas Fuller from the Herald Tribune. Does the case of Jeffrey Schilling, the fact that he walked into this camp, does that in any way mitigates the government's view -- the view that the government takes on this case?

Cohen: How he ended up in the hands of the group is really quite irrelevant. He's being held hostage. He is being held hostage against his will, and how he got there, really, is quite irrelevant. He should be released immediately and safely, and that's something that we certainly demand and hope will be achieved.

Moderator: We can accommodate one more question.

Q: Secretary Cohen, did you discuss with Secretary Mercado the (off-mike, unintelligible)?

Cohen: We did discuss the fact that we are going to have more exercises next year and the year thereafter. We expect to build upon these exercises each year, as I indicated in my opening statement, according to the pace that is acceptable to both countries. This defense assessment team intends to complete its analysis by next month, and then we will examine what the requirements are for the modernization of the Philippine military, what the current resources are, and how they can perhaps be expanded in the future. So, we intend to look very closely, work very closely with the Philippine government to achieve that end.

Mercado: Just to add to what Secretary Cohen has indicated, I believe that the more important issue here is that, as he had indicated in our conversation, is the assurance that the participation in a regional or multilateral activity like an exercise, does not in any way -- is not meant to diminish the bilateral obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty. It does not in any way -- it's not meant to marginalize an existing bilateral military relationship that is borne out of the Mutual Defense Treaty. And it is not also meant as a cooperative effort to (inaudible) that any particular nation for that matter. It is meant to enhance our capability in peacekeeping and meeting threats like natural calamities and disasters, and being able to cope with the modern-day problems that we face and require cooperation of the security and military institutions of various nations.

Perhaps we can allow one last, last question.

Q: (inaudible)

Mercado: Well, the military status of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, as you know, from the beginning, the moment the hostages were brought to Talipao in Sulu, we provided a cordon. And we prevented the entrance and the exit of any individual in that particular area that we cordoned. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the negotiations, it was felt that we were a complication, and we were asked by the negotiators to pull back. We pulled back. We may not have done it happily, we were grudgingly doing it, but we wanted to save the lives because the President has indicated that the most important consideration there was the safety and the lives of the hostages. We pulled back. We all know what happened.

The Armed Forces and the military establishment -- our troops -- are like an arrow drawn against the bow, and it has been stretched for sometime. We have seen our target. We know our range. But we have held that arrow in view of the policy articulated by this administration that we do everything short of the use of military force to save the lives of these hostages. Fortunately we have been able to get the hostages -- original Sipadan hostages -- except one, the Filipino whom I believe as of the moment is ambivalent as to whether he should exit or not. But we have bent backwards, and it is unfortunate that sometimes we do not even have as much as a thank you from other quarters. And there is even a European country -- Foreign Minister who has been criticizing us when -- after the release of their particular hostage; but when the hostage was still being held, the Ambassador of that country was calling us constantly and asking us not to use force for fear that their national will be hurt or harmed.

So, as of the moment, the president has already made a statement. While that option, that military option, has been there from the very beginning, he has said, don't be precipitate in your action, hold that arrow, because it is possible that we'll be able to obtain some results in a very short while from negotiations. And we believe that is the correct position. There's a clamor, I know, for us to send our troops, but the president has so decided that it should not be so. Not yet, anyway.

Moderator: As we said earlier, Secretary Cohen has a very tight schedule so I guess we can call it an afternoon. Thank you.