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Secretary Cohen's remarks aboard the USS Germantown in Singapore

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
September 17, 2000

(Aboard USS Germantown, Sembawang Pier, Singapore)

Moderator: We welcome you aboard the USS Germantown, which is here in Singapore doing a series of bilateral navy exercises in Southeast Asia. We are very pleased to welcome on board the U.S Ambassador to Singapore, Steven Green, and we are especially pleased to welcome our U.S. Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, who will make some opening remarks and will then open the floor for questions afterwards. This press conference will end by 3:25 or so. Mr. Cohen --

Secretary Cohen: Ambassador Green, distinguished guests. I wanted to hold my press conference aboard the USS Germantown because the presence of the U.S. ships here illustrates how well the U.S. and Singapore work together for security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Singapore hosts nearly 100 ship visits every year and is the headquarters for our naval logistics operations in the West Pacific. In addition, Singapore is building a new pier at Changi to accommodate U.S. aircraft carriers, and I expect the first carrier to visit early next year.

Singapore's support is a sign of the strength of our security relationship. This year, as you know, marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War and the 25th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam. Today, the Asia Pacific region is more secure, and stable, peaceful and prosperous than at any time in history. And one reason is the forward presence of nearly 100,000 American troops in the region and the strong bilateral, military, diplomatic and economic relations between the United States and the countries in the region.

The Germantown and four other U.S. ships are currently participating in what we call the Cooperation Afloat Readiness And Training, known as CARAT, with other navies in the region. Singapore is one of the six countries participating in the bilateral CARAT exercises this year. These exercises enable participating navies to train together, understand each other's operations and prepare to work together on disaster relief and also to provide humanitarian aid. During the current exercise, U.S. sailors and Marines have performed eye examinations and dental work in Indonesia, they've built schools in the Philippines and donated books and medicines to Thailand.

The United States is working with Singapore and other countries in the region to maintain stability and the rule of law. With Singapore and other partners, we are determined to continue our work for a stable and secure Asia. We want the Asia Pacific region to be known for its peace and prosperity, and not its problems.

Yesterday, as many of you know, I attended the 77th birthday celebration of Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He talked at some length about the stabilizing role that the United States plays in the region. And I think it is clear that more people today enjoy freedom and security as a result of the commitment of the United States to this region.

With that, let me entertain your questions.

Q: Secretary, Charlie Aldinger of Reuters. Can I ask what message, what direct message you are going to carry to the leaders of Indonesia tomorrow when you speak with them?

Cohen: As I have indicated during the past two days, the message I will carry is that we support President Wahid's effort and determination to manage the transition to democratic rule, to support that democratic rule in Indonesia. We support his effort to bring about change and reformation. We support his effort to bring about economic prosperity. We also support a united Indonesia. But we want to see the militias eliminated, we want to see the violence stop in East Timor, we want to see a commitment on the part of the Indonesian government to the safety and security of those refugees who are currently in West Timor, and compliance with the U.N. Security Council Resolutions. So, we are there to encourage President Wahid and his leadership to bring about those goals.

Q: Just one additional question. The Indonesian Defense Minister issued a statement yesterday. He said that the people of East Timor were fed up with UN rule and were ready to return to Indonesian rule. What answer do you give to that?

Cohen: Well, I have seen no evidence of that. I think that's something we can certainly discuss tomorrow, but what I think the people of East Timor want is security, stability and an opportunity for self-governance to which they are entitled and would expect that the leadership in Indonesia would help them achieve that. So I have no basis to comment on his assessment that the people in East Timor do not want the independence that they have voted for.

Q: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, I'm Asad Latif from the Straits Times here. Yesterday, at the launch of his memoirs, the senior minister did make a point that the results of the U.S. elections this year, and particularly what the new president would do in managing ties with China and Taiwan, would be critical in determining both your relations with the "western seaboard of the Pacific," as he called it, and of course the stability of East Asia itself. What are your comments on that view of his? And in fact he did say that it was his hope that East Asia would not have to choose between the United States and China. Do you think that is a fear that would come true some day?

Cohen: Well, as you know, I have enormous respect for the judgement of Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in terms of his analysis of political affairs, particularly in this region. And I have discussed this subject with him during the course of the many years that I have known him, and it is clear that how the United States manages its relationship with China will have major implications for the security, stability and prosperity of the entire Asia Pacific region.

I have spent time travelling to China, most recently in July, to meet with Jiang Zemin and other members of the Chinese leadership to discuss ways in which a peaceful resolution of the situation with Taiwan can be brought about. We are certainly dedicated to that proposition. We support the one China policy. We support the communiqu├ęs that have been signed, but we also support the Taiwan Relations Act, which means that China should not seek through the use of arms or force to bring about that reconciliation.

Hopefully, diplomacy will prevail and there can be a peaceful resolution of the situation -- of the tension -- between China and Taiwan, but I agree that much will depend on how we manage that relationship. And I think whoever is elected, we will see a determined effort to continue the policy of seeking a peaceful resolution of the situation, rather than one through conflict.

Q: My name is Oka from Asahi Shimbun. Did you talk with the Philippines and/or Singapore about the enhancement of cooperation in peacekeeping operations, and what is the benefit for U.S. to stay in such a cooperation? And second question, did you discuss about the realization of multilateral exercises, like Team Challenge, in this region?

Cohen: We did have discussion yesterday about ways in which we can continue to intensify our bilateral cooperation. The new pier is certainly going to make it even more available for our ships -- our aircraft carriers -- to visit. We will see, I think, in the coming year, even greater participation on the part of our militaries, in terms of exercises to promote the kind of peaceful stabilizing forces in the region, and so I would expect that to increase in the future.

With respect to the multilateral exercises, one thing that we have tried to promote is greater multilateral activity on the part of the nations in the region. We believe that the Asia-Pacific regional initiative that we have spoken of will be beneficial to all countries in the region. The greater the participation, the greater the exchanges, the greater the interoperability, then the chances for having successful humanitarian missions and peacekeeping missions will increase. That will not come from the expense -- I should this point this out -- the effort to have greater multilateral exercises does not mean there will be any diminution or reduction in the bilateral relationship that United States has with Singapore or with any participating nations in the region. What we think are strong bilateral relationships, obviously, we will continue, we will have to continue, but we also want to encourage as much multilateral activity as we can.

Q: Jim Mannion, AFP. Mr. Secretary, do you have any word on the fate of the American hostage in the Philippines or the other hostages since the attack and any update on what's going on there?

Cohen: Jim, I don't have any additional information in terms of whether the hostages are safe or have been harmed. There is something of a news blackout at this point. I am told that President Estrada is planning to make a statement sometime late this afternoon or early this evening. Then we will have more information at that time, but we have had no further information.

Q: Dean Visser from Associated Press. Iraq's recent rumbling in the past week has kind of resembled its rhetoric just before its previous invasion of Kuwait, and there were some warnings, I think, from Secretary Albright and indirectly from President Clinton. Is another invasion a possible contingency that you are looking at it now -- the U.S. is looking at? And how is the U.S. defense side prepared to handle this challenge, something that is a big concern right now? Is the U.S. prepared to go all the way again?

Cohen: Well, we have made it very clear to Saddam Hussein that he should not seek to pose a threat to his neighbors or to his own people as he has done in the past. We have forces in the Gulf. We have forces that are fully prepared to not only deter, but to defeat any effort on his part to repeat the kind of activity that took place back in the last decade. So, our forces stand ready. We are enforcing the no-fly zones in the north and the south. We are watching very carefully, and I think that he should understand that United States and our British friends are fully prepared to take whatever action is necessary to prevent him from trying to repeat his past actions.

We should also take this occasion to point out that he continues to be in violation of the Security Council resolutions. He continues to inflict pain and suffering upon his own people. He continues to ignore the international community. And, so, until such time as there is full compliance with the Security Council resolutions there should be no relief from the sanctions, and any one who suggested should be relief at this point, I think, undercuts the significance of the resolutions passed by the Security Council.

Q: Sorry, just to follow up, I was going to say -- in the past week, has there been any increase in readiness in that area -- in Iraq? Are you stepping up?

Cohen: We have been fully ready, and continue our readiness in the Gulf. There has been no need to intensify that. We have sufficient forces on station with pre-deployed forces. We can certainly handle Saddam, should be choose to take any kind of aggressive action. It would be a mistake on his part, if he should seek to repeat today what he did in the past.

Q: Jason Sherman with the Defense News. Mr. Secretary, on the issue of multilateral exercises and increased cooperation in the region. How would you characterize the response or the reception of your counterparts in the region to U.S. proposals for increased cooperation along these lines?

Cohen: I think that there is an openness to this concept. I think it is also a concern to make sure that this is not interpreted by China in any way trying to isolate China. In fact, we have invited China to participate in these activities. We think that we have learned from other areas of the world that the greater the cooperation, the greater the participation, the more effective humanitarian types of missions and peacekeeping missions can be. And that is precisely why we are recommending it for this area.

So I think the countries have two concerns: number one, will be result in any reduction in the nature of the bilateral relationship that have with the United States? The answer to that is a categorical "no." The next question would be, will this in any way be interpreted -- structured in a way to cause the Chinese to feel that this is designed to isolated them, and the answer there, again, is a categorical "no."

Q: How important is this issue, is this something you are discussing with all the defense ministers?

Cohen: Yes, I raised this, this is not the first time I have raised this. This is something that Admiral Blair also has discussed, and frankly, it makes good sense -- common sense -- to seek this kind of cooperation. I think that the more comfortable the countries become with the strength of our own relationships -- that bilateral relationship -- and they see the benefits of a peacekeeping role or a humanitarian rescue type of mission where there has been an environmental catastrophe or a similar kind of disaster. East Timor is another example of where there is a need for cooperation. You see the kind of activity there. So I think, over a period of time, there will be a greater participation on the part of the countries in the region.

Q: Asad. Mr. Secretary, if I could ask a follow-up question to what that gentleman has just asked. U.S. defense and other officials have spoken about "security communities" emerging in this part of the world. Do you see China at some point being confident enough in its relationships with this part of the world to want to be part of such a "security community," in which of course the United States will play a critical rule?

Cohen: Well, it would be presumptuous of me to make a determination as to if and when China will feel confident enough to want to participate with other nations. But let me say that the Chinese government has made it clear that they would like to have a better relationship with the United States on a military to military basis.

When I traveled to China in July, they certainly welcomed me. They made it clear that they would like to build that military to military relationships, to make it stronger. To the extent that we have a stronger and more positive military-to-military relationship with China, I think that also enhances the strength of the countries in the region with our bilateral relationships, and it makes it more comfortable for all parties concerned to start to look to ways in which there can be greater cooperation. So I think it is beneficial -- always beneficial -- when we have good relations with China on a military basis, and I think that will, ultimately, prove beneficial on a multilateral with China participating.

Q: Thank you.

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