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Secretary Cohen Announces Philipine Visiting Forces Agreement

Presenter: Defense Secretary William Cohen
January 14, 1998

Today, amidst the uncertainty we are currently facing in the Asia-Pacific, the United States and the Government of the Philippines have taken an important step together to reassure the region and promote peace and stability.

This morning in Manila, representatives of the U.S. Government and the Government of the Philippines initialed the Visiting Forces Agreement which, once it is confirmed by the Philippine Senate, will enable the United States and the Philippines to resume major military exercises, combined training, and ship visits.

The United States and the Philippines have a unique and important history, and the U.S.-Philippine security relationship is the oldest security relationship in the region.

The United States has not had bases in the Philippines since 1992 and is not seeking bases there now. Instead we are embarking on a new phase in our security relationship as partners, friends, and allies.

The agreement that was initialed today is the result of an intensive negotiation process, marked by mutual respect and goodwill on both sides. We want to take this opportunity to commend the Philippine Government for its support and leadership towards bringing this important agreement to fruition.

Q: What essentially is this agreement?

Cohen: It has to do with what arrangements we make in terms of the legal status of forces who are there, comparable to other agreements we have when we train abroad and have forces visit abroad. But Dr. Campbell, according to my script, is going to give you all the details should you require more.

Q: How soon do you think there will be any form of direct joint exercises or anything of this nature which actually will take place?

Cohen: Well, first of all, I think the Philippine Senate has to ratify the agreement; and as soon as that takes place, I would assume that from that point there would be a resumption of more active participation.

Q: Are there already proposed activities?

Cohen: I'm sure that the military is prepared to exercise with the Philippine forces as soon as this is ratified.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can we get a quick comment on the situation in Iraq? Saddam Hussein has again blocked some inspections. How long can you rely on diplomatic initiatives by the United Nations to resolve this question?

Cohen: I think, as the President indicated, the United States is prepared to pursue all reasonable and responsible diplomatic initiatives, and that's precisely what is taking place today. We, I think, will have to wait for Mr. Butler to make his trip to Iraq and see how it proceeds from there. But all the indications that I've heard from here are quite positive that our allies are solid in their support for the need to have unlimited and unrestrained access to those sites that are currently being blocked. We will have to wait a bit longer to see how this unfolds diplomatically.

Q: Are we heading for a military confrontation?

Cohen: We are not heading toward any conclusion as such. As the President indicated, nothing has been ruled out. We hope to solve this diplomatically and peacefully.

Q: Several years ago we were essentially booted out of Subic Bay because we wouldn't pay the rent they were demanding. Does today's action signal a warming relationship that has been pretty chilly for the last five years?

Cohen: I think this agreement makes a statement on the part of the Philippine Government and others in the region that the United States is a welcomed friend, and they would like to see the United States and the Philippine military exercise together to build a stronger relationship in the future. I think most of the countries in this region see the United States forces as a very salutary, important contributor to stability in the region and would like to build upon the relationship that we have. So I see it as a very positive development.

Q: Did they come to us and say, "Listen, we would sort of like you back?"

Cohen: Again, we're not seeking permanent bases. We're talking about promoting joint exercises and training. I think, to that extent, they would obviously like to see us back--the Government would. We have to wait to see what the Philippine Senate has to say about it, but we hope that they would ratify it within a reasonable time frame.

Q: The Philippines have been having a dispute with China over some islands. Does this Philippine-U.S. agreement strengthen the security arrangements between the United States and the Philippines vis-à-vis China over disputes like this?

Cohen: That is not the motivation of the initialing of the agreement. Again, it is not directed toward any country. It really has to do with the United States wanting to build upon its relationship that we have had with the Philippine Government and to enhance that relationship. Whatever benefits that provides for us is another matter. But I would say this as I indicated during a number of statements yesterday -- they were off the record, and on the front page of today's local paper -- that we believe the United States presence has been an important factor as far as stabilizing this region and contributing to the security of the individual countries.

ASEAN has played a major role, I think, in terms of its solidarity in persuading the Chinese Government that it should resolve matters peacefully, especially in dealing with those areas or islands in the South China Sea. I think all of that contributes to the security of the region. This is really initialed based upon its merits, with the United States and Philippine Governments having no particular objectives as far as China is concerned. We hope to engage China in a very positive way when I travel there later this week.

Q: Inaudible.

Cohen: It helps establish a presence in the sense that we are in the region. Again, I want to emphasize the point that we are not seeking facilities or bases but rather to establish and to build upon the bonds that we have had over the years and to enhance that to the extent that we train and exercise together; that benefits the Philippine military, our military and it helps, I think, to contribute to the stability of the region.

Q: Inaudible

Cohen: I think that obviously there are other countries who had to help with the loss of the facilities that were in the Philippines, and other countries have, but this will, I think, benefit everybody in the region.

Q: You say the U.S. is not seeking bases in the region, but why aren't you seeking bases, and secondly, is that something that you might be doing in the future?

Cohen: Well, that would be up to the Philippine Government. We think we have adequate presence and ability to be in the region as it is. To the extent that that can be improved in the future, then obviously we would welcome that. But we are not seeking to establish more facilities or bases in the Philippines at this time.

Q: Is this a first step in possibly returning to the Philippines in some basic form?

Cohen: This all depends upon the Philippines, the Philippine Government, I should say. If they were to desire the United States to return in that fashion, that would be one thing. But we are not seeking it; they are not asking for it. At this point we are taking this step alone and it should be viewed only on its own merits.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you said earlier at your press conference that you did not ask President Soeharto about whether or not he will stand for re-election. What did his health seem to be? Was he alert? Was he engaged?

Cohen: Yes, he was very alert, engaged, seemed very strong, gave a brief overview of the history of the country, the progress that they've made, the problems that they've encountered. He was very much encouraged by our discussion as such, and I thought it was a very strong performance on his part.

Q: Did he mention that there had been ill-founded reports about his health? Cohen: He did.

Q: How did he put it?

Cohen: He indicated that there had been rumors that had been floated which caused questions of whether he was in charge and alive in some reports, initially, that he was no longer in existence, and that his health was poor. And those rumors, he felt, were contributing to the lack of stability in the region. People raising questions because of the reverence for him obviously; they look to him and see a very strong leader who had done a great deal for his country. And he did express some concern about false rumors, without directing it toward any particular network.

Q: How did he seem?

Cohen: He indicated to me by his presence and by the conversation that we had that he is very strong, very much in charge. He gave a very coherent overview of the situation here, understood fully what was taking place, what needed to be done. And I was impressed that -- in fact I did quote from Mark Twain "that the reports of my death being greatly exaggerated" -- and it was really a statement that he was concerned that when you get rumors that get floated, and, I guess, transmitted internationally, it creates some concern and has an effect that keeps one rumor building upon another rumor and that can be destructive. I think what he was there to demonstrate was that his health is good and, again, he seemed very confident, very assured, very much in control of events.

Q: Beyond lucid, was he cagey?

Cohen: He was direct, very candid. I don't think there was caginess, wiliness about him. He gave a very, I thought, comprehensive overview of the factual situation, understood that there were problems that he had to deal with, and seemed to deal with them.

He has had a number of phone calls from President Clinton, other leaders who have been here and will be coming, and officials from the IMF to offer either advice or support. They understand that instability in Indonesia is not going to be confined to Indonesia and could spread. So other countries are concerned about it, and I think he is prepared to deal with the issues Indonesia is now confronting.

Q: You noted that one of the consequences of the monetary crisis in the region is the slowdown of the arms race in this part of the world. From a security standpoint, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Cohen: I think you always have to balance your security needs against your economic conditions. And that's a balance every country has to examine. We examine it in our own country. When the economy is not functioning as it is today, does that mean that we can afford to acquire those systems that we might acquire?

Q: Is this a stabilizing force or a de-stabilizing force?

Cohen: I think the most important thing right now is for the countries that are encountering financial difficulties to get their financial houses in order. I guess the most important thing is to stabilize their currencies, obviously, to stabilize their banking institutions, to become as transparent as possible so that the investment communities will have confidence in the integrity of their economies.

Obviously, that doesn't come at the total expense of their security needs. They still have to have their security needs, some acquisitions will be canceled, some will be put on hold, some will be delayed or deferred as far as payment is concerned. But it's always a balancing that has to be taken into account by the leaders of countries. That applies to the United States, that applies to Great Britain, it applies to France, Germany, all of our NATO allies; whenever they have economic constraints, they have to look at their defense requirements and usually they balance themselves. Under our constitution, obviously, our national security is paramount, and we take into account what our fiscal needs and opportunities are and balance that against the things we need to do. So there is a connection, but obviously each country will secure its national security as a paramount interest, but also you must have a viable economy in order to sustain the military needs as well.

Q: Did he comment at all on the calls for his resignation?

Cohen: I got the impression that he is very much in charge. He did not raise any issues about his resignation or a call for his resignation. He talked about the state of affairs in Indonesia; its past, its present and hopes for the future. But he did not offer any speculation about the political situation.

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