MERCADO: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We'd like to welcome on behalf of the Department of National Defense and the Philippine Government, Secretary William Cohen, for his second visit with the Estrada administration.
It is an honor to have you Secretary Cohen here and we welcome you. We have had a very fruitful discussion during lunchtime, quite a range of bilateral and global issues that were discussed. And I'd like to give you the opportunity to make your statement, Mr. Secretary.
COHEN: Thank you, Secretary Mercado. Let me thank you very much for hosting this visit, which comes at an important time and a promising time in the relationship between the Philippines and the United States.
Since the ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement earlier this year, our militaries have begun to work together.
U.S. ships are visiting the Philippines and our countries are currently planning a major combined force exercise early next year.
As we plan and conduct exercises that are in our mutual interests, we will develop a stronger security partnership between our sovereign nations. And our militaries will learn to work together more effectively, building upon a very long history of friendship.
President Estrada and Secretary Mercado both have worked very hard to win ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement, and they deserve much credit for the improved relationship between our militaries.
As our forces work together, the United States is prepared to assist Filipino military involvement efforts. And initially, as the Secretary has just indicated, we have established an inter-agency working group to address the issues in Washington, D.C. and also here in the Philippines.
Secretary Mercado and I have agreed to initiate an exchange of defense experts to facilitate, coordinate, and assist in meeting the equipment requirements of the AFP. Our planners are prepared to work with you to get a clearer picture of your requirements.
Our countries share a commitment to peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region and that is why we are both participating in INTERFET.
My understanding is that you have some 240 of your troops already forward deployed in East Timor or Darwin to engage in humanitarian operations and that more are on the way. The United States is prepared to help in the transportation of your forces.
Our alliance is strong, and I look forward to this relationship becoming even stronger. Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.
MERCADO: Thank you, Secretary Cohen. We're now open to questions. Yes. Jun Bautista.
Q: I suppose you gentlemen know the rules - one question, one follow up, the usual. Please identify yourself.
COHEN: Actually, we don't allow any follow-ups from this gentleman. (Laughter)
Q: Mr. Secretary, Charlie Aldinger of Reuters. I might ask you of a start on a different subject, if I may, to comment on the successful anti-missile test over the Pacific today by the United States. How do you feel about that and what does it mean?
COHEN: Well, we have been conducting research and development and now we're in the testing phase of a national missile defense system potentially. As you know, President Clinton has indicated that he will make a decision next year -- June, July time frame -- as to whether we will actually move forward to deploy a national missile defense system. In the meantime, I and other members of the administration have been meeting with our Russian counterparts as well as NATO allies to lay out what we believe would be an architecture which would allow for the deployment of a limited system to protect against a limited type of attack. But this test certainly is a positive development for us. It is a testament to the kind of technology that we are capable of developing, and I think it's an important milestone in this effort to conduct the research/development in testing such a system.
Q: Jim Manion, AFP. Secretary Mercado, I wonder if you could give us an idea of what you think will be the Philippines' defense requirements that the United States could provide in terms of excess military equipment or otherwise.
MERCADO: We are not in a position to make any statements as regards to specifics. In fact, I agree with Secretary Cohen that we must approach this particular activity in a methodical -- something more methodical. I never thought a former announcer would buckle on this. (Laughter) We believe that a system should be in place. And that is the reason why we agree that an inter-agency working group and an exchange of defense experts will rationalize whatever possible assistance would be given to us. This is to be taken in the context not only of our defense requirements but also on the role that the Armed Forces of the Philippines plays in performing its humanitarian task of assisting its neighbors and fulfilling its international obligations under the United Nations.
Q: Bill Gertz, Washington Times. Secretary Mercado, how concerned are you about the Chinese developments in the Spratly Islands? Are you seeing any signs that these are being expanded?
MERCADO: We are looking forward to a conference coming in November that will tackle the issue of a code of conduct of all claimant countries. This informal gathering will include the People's Republic of China. We are hoping that as this is concluded, we will have something that we can abide to and this particular code of conduct hopefully will be able to provide us the framework under which we operate in this area.
As of the moment, things have quieted down a bit in the Kalayaan Island group or the Spratly Island group and we have done our share of avoiding accidents or whatever potential problem that may ensue as a consequence of misunderstandings while patrolling in the area.
Q: And Secretary Cohen, could you comment also on the Spratlys dispute?
COHEN: Well, first let me commend Secretary Mercado for what he has just said. The United States of course doesn't take a position in terms of authority or ownership rights or the legal implications for the Spratlys. But we do reject very strongly any country taking unilateral action to assert sovereignty over the Spratlys. This is something that should come about through diplomatic efforts. I want to commend Secretary Mercado for his efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution and to the adoption or formulation of a code of conduct that would apply for all countries and certainly in the region and ASEAN and elsewhere. I think it's a very positive step that they are taking to promote this code of conduct. But we believe all diplomatic avenues should be exhausted. There should be no action taken unilaterally on the part of any country and certainly no acts of aggression. So we support diplomacy prevailing.
Q: Raju Gopala Krishnan, Reuters. Sir, did you mention that the United States is willing to help in transportation of Filipino troops going to FET? Can you give us any idea what numbers are we talking about here?
MERCADO: As far as we are concerned, presently we have 240 troops there. We are willing to increase this by sending another battalion and it can increase anywhere between 600 to a thousand troops.
COHEN: Well, thank you very much.
Q: Manny Mogato from Asahi newspaper. I believe that in your visit with other ASEAN countries there's been some disagreement over the role of the INTERFET in running after militias in West Timor. Did you get any support from Secretary Mercado on this concept?
COHEN: There hasn't been any dispute about West Timor. The statements have been made what if the peacekeeping forces were attacked by rebel groups, militias, or others who might seek to try to destroy the peacekeeping effort in East Timor as to whether there could be any attacks and hot pursuits so to speak. That's an issue that was raised in terms of self-protection. Any peacekeeping force has an absolute obligation to protect its forces from attack. But there's been no disagreement on that subject matter. What Secretary Mercado and I discussed was the need for Indonesia to play a very important, positive role in curbing militia activity directed against the peacekeeping forces to bring about the help and contribute in an affirmative positive way to bring about a peaceful resolution in East Timor, because they have very much at stake. And I think that that message was delivered by me and others and it's very clear and I think that all officials understand what's at stake and I believe that the Indonesian people want to seedemocracy prevail in their country. They want the military to be subject to civilian control. The military will play a key role in Indonesia's future to be sure, but that military should be subject to civilian control if Indonesia is going to make the successful transition to a full democracy. So essentially, how East Timor is resolved -- and that must be peacefully -- with full and active support on the part of Indonesia. Then I think that we will see a successful completion of the effort and that would be beneficial to Indonesia itself.
Q: Thank you.
Q: If I might take one follow up. Secretary Mercado, I wonder if I might press you just a little bit. You declined to say what exactly you need for the military. Where are the areas where you're having problems? I understand that the air force and the navy are getting pretty old and eventually you might need ships and planes. Are those the kinds of things you might need down the road?
MERCADO: Yes. Well, as far as we are concerned, our problems are myriad actually but we have urgent and pressing needs as regards lift capability -- whether it is light, medium or heavy lift. We have been moving not only troops, we have found the Armed Forces of the Philippines engaged in search and rescue operations and emergency functions, and we have difficulty doing so because of our lack of transport facilities. Our helicopters for example are the Vietnam vintage UH-1H or Hueys. We don't have enough C-130s. We are in need of patrol vessels but we have a modernization program, and we are not presenting this to the United States Government to be answered. What we would like to do is rationalize whatever we may need in the context of our international obligations and also our defense capability but that can be done only after our group of experts would have met and discussed the details. At least we are clear as regards our mission and then the equipage will come later.
COHEN: The purpose, Charlie, is to basically to reconcile the requirements and resources, to set forth priorities, and to approach this as methodically, systematically, as we mutually can in order to bring about an improvement in the capabilities of the Philippine defense forces.
Q: Recto Mercene of Today. Secretary Cohen, may we know if you have set aside any specific date for the experts to meet?
COHEN: We have not set aside a specific date. Following this meeting with the press, some of our experts who are here will be having preliminary discussions about arranging for dates, meeting places and to get a time frame but we hope this will begin quite soon.
Q: Dario (Agnote), Kyodo News. I was wondering Mr. Secretary, if you have already finalized the number of troops for instance who will be participating in the forthcoming exercises and other details about the military exercises in early next year. Thank you.
COHEN: I don't think the exact number has been finalized but it will be roughly several thousand that will be participating. It will be a fairly significant exercise and the numbers have not been finalized at this point. But it will be an important exercise between our forces.
Q: Sorry, just one last one, sir. Secretary Cohen, during your visit here and in your previous visits in Southeast Asia, have you held discussions on the camps in West Timor and the thousands of people who were there? And whether any international pressure can be brought? From what one hears, the conditions there are pretty horrific. If you could share any thoughts on that.
COHEN: I have had extensive discussions throughout my visit to the region. And the one very important point I've tried to make is that those displaced persons who are currently in West Timor need to be resettled in East Timor. The ones who voluntarily want to return should be allowed to return with the assistance certainly of the peacekeeping force but also with the assistance of the Indonesian government. I believe this is a fundamental importance to Indonesia -- how East Timor is successfully resolved and that includes securing the safe return of those who are currently in West Timor and preventing them from being attacked by any kind of counter insurgency for those militia groups who may be operating on their own or may operate with the assistance of some select portions of the Indonesian military if there are any. Either way, it must be stopped and there must be every effort undertaken to secure their safe return so that the issue can be resolved peacefully. That is the message that I think is certainly supported by all of the countries that I have traveled to visit. It's something that I believe the Indonesian government has in its fundamental interest. So we're hoping that it will take place and it's vitally important that it does take place.
Q: David Thurber with the Associated Press. Secretary Cohen, I understand that part of your delegation went to East Timor, I believe yesterday. Have you heard any report back from them yet and, if so, what kinds of things have you heard and would there be any change in U.S. involvement?
COHEN: The answer is we have not heard anything back yet, but please don't draw any negative implications from that. We arrived very late last, well, early this morning. We arrived at the hotel about 2:30 this morning and frankly we have not had a chance to catch up with the delegation that went on to Dili, but we assume we'll be getting reports sometime during the course of the day and our travels back to Washington.
MERCADO: Thank you very much.