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Secretary Cohen Press Conference at Bangkok, Thailand

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
October 01, 1999

Secretary Cohen: Good morning, I have just come from a very productive visit with Prime Minister Chuan. We reviewed the strong strategic partnership between Thailand and the United States. A partnership based on common values, a shared commitment to peace and stability. Soon our militaries are going to be working together to help restore order in East Timor, and I would like to point out that Thailand's response to Indonesia's request to participate in INTERFET demonstrates your commitment to regional stability and to your ASEAN neighbor. And because of Thailand's demonstrated interests in working to resolve disputes and maintain security, it's appropriate that Thailand is playing a leading role in East Timor by supplying some fifteen hundred troops and INTERFET's Deputy Commander. The United States commitment to Thailand and to Southeast Asia is strong and enduring in both good times and bad. We have learned from experience that your prosperity contributes to our prosperity, and that is why President Clinton announced a $1.7 billion assistance package to Thailand last year. The Thai people have shown great discipline and resilience in conquering economic problems. We've also learned that your security contributes to our security. And that is why the United States and Thailand and our militaries conduct more than 20 training exercises a year. And now the United State and Thailand are working together to design exercises to train peacekeepers. This is another example of how the bonds between our militaries contribute to stability and security of Southeast Asia. With that I'd like to invite your questions.

Q: Has Thailand requested financial help or logistical help in transporting their troops to East Timor and is the United States prepared to provide such help and how much?

Secretary Cohen: Yes, the United States is prepared to help and will provide assistance in both transportation of troops and equipment, and I indicated that to the Prime Minister this morning, and we hope that can take place beginning very early next week, as soon as next week, because we think that the sooner the peacekeeping troops can in fact arrive in East Timor the better off all concerned will be, by virtue of contributing to the stabilizing of East Timor's country as such.

Q: What would it entail, more specifically, and how much would that cost?

Secretary Cohen: Well that's going to depend upon the needs of the Thai military. What we will do is make an evaluation of what will be required. They will make a request in terms of what kind of transportation requirements they will need. We will evaluate it; we will provide it. I can't give you a dollar figure on that, but whatever is requested we will certainly try to be very helpful.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what exactly do you see as the next phase and what's happening in East Timor as far the U.S. is concerned, and how fast will U.S. troops actually be in place in East Timor?

Secretary Cohen: What we have indicated is that the United States is playing a very key and supportive role in the peacekeeping mission. When I was in Australia a couple of days ago, I indicated to the Australian Defense Minister, John Moore, that we would actually enhance our support activities. We are providing intelligence support, command and control and communications support. We are providing transportation and logistical as well as sustainment support. In addition to the roughly 260 people that have been contributed to these activities, we are also moving the USS BELLEAU WOOD, an amphibious platform, that will allow the four CH53 helicopters to lift heavy equipment to East Timor. So we have been expanding our support activities. What we hope to see is peace and stability restored to East Timor as quickly as possible, and the comments in Jakarta yesterday, that we expect and hope that the Indonesian government will contribute to stabilizing East Timor, and the sooner that can be done the better for all concerned. And we would hope that UNIMET's Phase III can be implemented, certainly within the next five or six months, and by March of next year at the very latest.

Q: Good morning, sir. What help do you think the United States will be able to give to Japan with their nuclear difficulties right now? And, have they made a formal request, and if so for what and how soon do you think the Pentagon will be able to render that assistance?

Secretary Cohen: There has been no formal request made as of this time. There have been informal discussions that have taken place in the last 24 hours, to be sure. Later this afternoon I will be in contact with my counterpart, the Minister of Defense, in Japan to offer whatever assistance we can. Principally, the Department of State and Department of Energy certainly will be coordinating their activities. The expertise that we have, our laboratories that we can make available to Japan, and much will depend upon their response. So far the dialogue has been quite informal. We would expect Japan to make this decision fairly soon as to whether they need this assistance, and we are certainly prepared to make it available.

Q: Mr. Secretary, did you offer the Thais financial assistance beyond the logistical help in moving the troops, to defray the cost in maintaining troops in East Timor?

Secretary Cohen: What I did offer was, in fact, the ability to help transport the troops and equipment. There are certainly financial costs associated with that, and that's something that we are prepared to assist with. The Prime Minister indicated that he was very pleased to hear this, and indicated that I would be welcome to make this announcement here this morning. It will be helpful to the Thai military, and of course the Thai military is assuming a major role, and a very positive one, in helping to stabilize and bring peace to East Timor, so we are contributing, I can't give you a dollar figure right now, but it will be significant.

Q: Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said international community, including the United States, has not done enough, is not taking enough measure, to protect, to save Burma's situation, to become like that of East Timor. So, what do you have to say to that?

Secretary Cohen: Well, the United States has indicated that we have been supportive of her efforts to bring about change in Burma. We are not certainly in a position to start to, to try to dictate to Burma itself. The ASEAN countries have tried to engage Burma, or Myanmar. Much remains to be done to achieve that goal. But we are not advocating any action beyond that. This is something that the people in Burma must choose for themselves, and they must take into account what the international community's reaction is to any repressive activities that they engage in.

Q: Some countries have expressed concern that the peacekeeping mission in East Timor runs counter to ASEAN's principles of non-intervention. How would you address that concern, and is the region moving into a new direction in this sense?

Secretary Cohen: First, I would point out that the Indonesian Government called for the referendum in East Timor, and the Indonesian Government invited the U.N. peacekeeping forces in. Absent that invitation that would certainly have presented something of a challenge in terms of the historic position taken by the ASEAN members. But, as I've indicated on several occasions, when the kind of instability and terror that we saw take place in East Timor goes un-addressed, then that has a potential for having very wide-spread consequences. So I think it's incumbent upon those countries in the region, and that happens to be the ASEAN countries, to take a reasonable response to try to bring peace and stability in that situation. A failure to take that kind of action can only have consequences beyond East Timor itself. I have tried to point out, with respect to Indonesia itself, by way of example, that the international community is watching and looking very closely with great scrutiny in terms of what role Indonesia will play. And I believe it will be beneficial to Indonesia to play a constructive, positive role in bringing about peace and stability to East Timor, now that the referendum has taken place. Each country of ASEAN will have to determine for itself what contribution it will make to the peacekeeping mission, in terms of peacekeeping troops and also in terms of financial contributions. It is my own belief that all ASEAN countries have an interest in seeing stability brought to East Timor. All ASEAN countries have an interest in helping Indonesia in its transition to a full democracy. As I stated yesterday, we want to see an Indonesia that is stable, that is united, that is prosperous and democratic. All ASEAN countries, I believe, have an interest in helping Indonesia to achieve that status.

Q: We are seeing scenes on television this morning of the extraordinary military might of Beijing, scenes that perhaps will make some Asian countries, particularly Taiwan, nervous. In the light of the day, today, and the scenes we're seeing on television, how does American see its security role in the region on the cusp of the twenty-first century, vis-à-vis particularly China.

Secretary Cohen: The United States has a very important role to play throughout the Asia-Pacific region. We have approximately, or roughly, a hundred thousand troops that are committed to Asia-Pacific. We intend to maintain that commitment for the indefinite future. I have traveled to China in the past on quite a few occasions, and I have made the point directly to the Chinese leadership and to many of their military officials that the United States' role in Asia-Pacific, and our visible presence, has had a beneficial impact upon the entire region, and that China itself has been a major beneficiary of our presence. By virtue of the fact that the United States does maintain this presence, then that has contributed to peace and stability throughout the region. Were we not to be actively engaged in the region, there would be a void created. Someone would move to quickly fill that void, and there might be a great deal of competition as to who that would be. That would only lead to greater instability and have an impact upon the development of prosperity and the production of prosperity in the region. And so, we think that our presence has been beneficial to everyone concerned, including China. I think the Chinese understand that, that without the U.S. presence there would be concern about China's role, about instability, and with that instability that would have an impact upon China's ability to also achieve its four modernization goals. So for that reason, the United States intends to continue to be an agent for promoting peace and stability and freedom throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Q: Mr. Secretary, on the same question, but concerning Vietnam, there's been twice a delay of your trip to Vietnam due to the Vietnamese concern over China. When would be your first trip to Vietnam?

Secretary Cohen: Well, I hope it will be soon. We have had to reschedule the visit on at least two occasions now, and I believe it's because the Vietnamese government feels they have to take this step-by-step. Secretary Albright certainly has made a visit. I would hope that in the coming year that I also could conduct a visit. I visited as a member of the United States Senate several years ago, and would like very much to visit Vietnam as Secretary of Defense. But I think that has to wait for the timing and the accommodation of the Vietnamese.

Q: What will happen if the militia in East Timor actually decides to become aggressive, and all-out violence actually breaks out. What will the U.S. worst-case scenario be?

Secretary Cohen: Well, we're hoping there will not be a worst-case scenario, and that's one of the reasons I have advocated that those countries who have indicated they are going to contribute to the peacekeeping force, do so as quickly as possible. It's very important to establish early on in any peacekeeping mission a robust presence. And the more robust that presence can be, the greater the likelihood there will be no challenge to the peacekeeping forces. It's one of the reasons I indicated to Indonesia yesterday, to the government officials, that it would be very helpful for them to engage in a positive way in the promotion of stability and peace in East Timor, to disarm the militia gangs and thugs in West Timor, and prevent any cross-border counter-insurgency types of activities or attacks upon the peacekeeping forces. To the extent that there is that lack of cooperation, or there's any kind open or covert support of those activities, that will have an impact well beyond East Timor. I believe that the Indonesian officials I spoke with understand that fully, and do not want to see that happen. So the sooner the forces can get there, the better. And that's why it's very important that the Thai forces will be leaving very soon. I think that will send a very strong and positive message. My hope is that more of a contribution can be made on the part of the ASEAN countries to show that there is an ASEAN, a significant ASEAN presence. As it is, Thailand will have the second largest presence in the peacekeeping mission, and I would hope that other ASEAN countries would feel obliged to make significant contributions.

Q: Matthew Pennington from A.P. Would the U.S. support cross-border action by Australian peacekeepers if provoked by militia in West Timor?

Secretary Cohen: What we have indicated, we are providing support for all of the peacekeepers as such. There has been some indication that if there were any attacks coming from West Timor, that certainly the peacekeepers would be allowed to defend themselves. One of the most important aspects of peacekeeping is to make sure there is adequate force protection. You cannot and should not send peacekeepers into an environment where they are vulnerable to violent attack. That's one of the reasons why I believe that the peacekeepers have shown that they will be aggressive in responding to any sort of violent attacks upon their troops. I believe that is the correct reaction on their part. We will be certainly supportive in all of the categories I have mentioned before, and will continue to do so.

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