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Secretary Cohen's Press Conference in Bangkok, Thailand

Presenter: Defense Secretary William Cohen
January 17, 1998

PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICER: Thank you. It's my pleasure to introduce the Secretary of Defense of the United States of America, Mr. William Cohen. Mr. Cohen will make a brief statement and then take questions. Please move to the mike and identify yourself and your organization when you ask the question. Thank you. Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY COHEN: First, let me say it's a great pleasure for me to be back in Bangkok. I was here in November of 1996 during President Clinton's historic visit to Thailand. Our countries have been friends since 1833. The United States aided the liberation of Thailand during World War II, and our soldiers have fought together during the course of two wars. Today we are allies for peace. We share a commitment to democracy, regional stability and prosperity. 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 your security contributes to our security.

I want to thank Prime Minister Chuan for hosting this visit. My meetings with His Majesty the King and the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Surin have given me an opportunity to reaffirm the close friendship between our nations. Our security relationship is very strong. Our forces exercise and train together. The bonds between our militaries contribute to the stability and security of Southeast Asia. Security, of course, has many elements -- military, diplomatic, social and economic. This visit has given me insight into Thailand's current economic problems and the reforms that are underway to solve those problems. The United States stands ready to help Thailand regain its economic strength.

Yesterday we agreed on ways to deal with the funding obligations of the F-18 program, and I'm about to send a team here to seek some very creative solutions. The challenges that Thailand faces are not easy, but I am leaving Bangkok convinced that the government of Thailand is determined to put sound economic reforms in place and to build a foundation for a prosperous and secure future. And let me say once again, how pleased we are to see the new government, how confident we are in their abilities, and how committed they are to the reforms, and how much that conveys to American officials and others -- confidence that the current difficulties will in fact be surmounted. And with that, let me entertain your questions.

Q: How do you react to recent and widespread criticism in the Thai media that visits by you and Mr. Summers here are too little and too late in terms of expressing interest and providing help to Thailand?

SECRETARY COHEN: Well, I would fundamentally disagree with that assessment. We are here to reaffirm a strong relationship. I think the visit by Secretary Summers has had a very positive effect throughout the region. And I think it is complemented by my own presence here to reaffirm to our Thai allies and friends that we are here for the long term. I think that's been a very positive signal and commitment on the part of the United States. So, this is a democracy. There are bound to be critics here and elsewhere, but I think that the proof will be in the performance of our relationship and that is an enduring one. And so, I would accept the criticism saying this is part of a democratic society, but as far as being too little, too late, we are here, and we will help the Thai people overcome their current difficulties.

Q: And just a brief follow-up if I may. Is the United States military still interested in prepositioning military equipment in the Gulf of Thailand, as you've express interest in that previously?

COHEN: We did not raise that as an issue, nor have the Thai officials raised it as an issue. What we did talk about for example is the IMET program. We have perhaps the largest program in Asia, involving Thailand. We intend to commit to that program. It's very important to the Thai military. It's very important to us. And so, we did talk about ways that we are going to strengthen the program in the future. So that was a very positive development on our part.

Q: You said that both agreed on ways of funding up the F-18. Can you spell out exactly what are the possible, acceptable solutions?

COHEN: Well, what we both agreed to do is to explore ways in which we could resolve the funding problem. I hope to have a team here within the next week or two to meet with Thai experts and officials to find ways in which we can help resolve the problem. We did not get into specifics as such, but did agree that such an exchange of experts would be welcome, and as soon as we can put the team together.

Q: The Thai side has given three options. What are the likely solutions?

COHEN: I think the options should be explored next week or the week thereafter when the experts get together.

Q: The Russians have proposed substituting U-2 overflights for Russian flights. Will the U.S. insist on maintaining the U.S. U-2 flights, and why do you regard that as important?

COHEN: Well, as we've indicated before, we certainly have no objection to other countries helping to supplement the United States' U-2, or indeed, inspectors, inviting inspectors from other countries, provided there is no effort and there is no consequence of undermining or in anyway degrading the United States' participation in the UNSCOM inspections. So to the extent that the French, or the Russians, or others have an ability to supplement and add to our capability, I don't think that would be objectionable. To the extent they try to substitute their systems for the United States, then we would have strong objection.

Q: And are we moving closer to further conflict with Iraq over this inspection? This is a continuing problem. Is the situation heating up again?

COHEN: I think the chances for conflict are enhanced to the extent that Saddam Hussein could be successful in dividing the Security Council. Every indication that I've seen is that the Security Council is more resolved and united than ever. To the extent that there is unity in the Security Council and solidarity among the UN members that they are committed to the enforcement of the UN resolutions, then I think that reduces the chance for conflict rather than increases it.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you're heading now to China. What do you hope to accomplish there, and to what extent does that, does your visit signal a warming of relations between the United States and China?

COHEN: I think it does signal a continuing effort and contribution to the effort that was undertaken by former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, who recently visited Beijing and Shanghai, and other officials -- Brent Scowcroft I think also a part of that visit. It was a process begun more than a year ago. It was certainly accelerated by President Jiang Zemin's visit to Washington, and it's part of an effort on my part to continue building those military-to-military relationships and contacts. The signing of the Maritime Safety Agreement, as such, will be, I think, an important signal that we intend to find ways in which we can reduce the possibilities of contention or tension in the area of the sea. We're going to explore ways in which we can share our expertise in terms of humanitarian operations, find ways in which we can potentially explore exercise movements in the future. All of those, we think, will be helpful in contributing to building a greater trust, a greater transparency, and we think in making a greater contribution to security throughout the region.

Q: Mr. Secretary, did the Thais ask to stretch out payment on other military equipment besides the FA-18's and if so, what was your response to them?

COHEN: The Thai officials obviously are interested in finding ways in which they can get some immediate relief from their current problems. We are prepared to explore ways in which we can help achieve that, but yes, the answer is they're looking for ways in which they can reduce the burden they're currently having by virtue of the fact of the reduction, or the devaluation, of the currency compared to the dollar. So, we're looking for ways in which we can be helpful, and that will also be part of our explorations when we come next week or the week thereafter.

Q: You've now spent an entire week in Southeast Asia, and at each stop you've discussed the economic situation in the region. Is it your assessment that the region has begun to turn the corner on the crisis?

COHEN: It seems like two weeks, Bob, that we've been here, but the answer is yes. That I have been very impressed with the commitment on the part of all of the officials that I've talked to about their commitment to instituting and implementing the kind of economic reforms that would give confidence to the international financial community to continue their investments and build upon them in the region. The leadership here in Thailand, for example, is truly outstanding. I have known the Foreign Minister for several years. We worked together when I was in the Senate, and he had been in the opposition as such. In fact, the last time I was here, we were both sitting outside of the hotel contemplating where we were going with our futures, and it turned out that we had occasion to meet yesterday, and each of us had a position that neither one perhaps anticipated at the time. The Prime Minister enjoys great support and confidence on the part of President Clinton who met with him in Vancouver, and they hope to build upon that relationship with this very strong, I think, appreciation for the quality, the integrity and the commitment on the part of the Thai government to these reforms. And if they do, of course, that provides the best opportunity for regaining the stability and prosperity of the region. The same is true in Malaysia. The same, I think, is true in Indonesia with President Suharto making the firm commitment to reform the kind of, the system so that they will eliminate the abuses and excesses that had taken place in the past which have resulted in the loss of confidence on the part of the international investment community.

Q: To follow up on Iraq. Recently, White House Spokesman Mike McCurry said the United States is increasingly exhausting the diplomatic options. What should we read into that?

COHEN: Well, I did not see Mike McCurry's statements, but I have also seen statements coming from members of Capitol Hill. I think that they are reflecting the sentiment that patience is perhaps wearing thin. Patience is a virtue but it need not be eternal. And I think the patience is frankly wearing somewhat thin on the part of our allies as well. There's a sense of frustration on their parts since several have tried to be helpful -- the Russians, the French and others -- that Saddam Hussein is not responding to reasonable proposals. And the more unreasonable he becomes, the more frustrated they become. And so again it has only served in a counterproductive effort, a consequence on his part by being unreasonable in his demands that it has only solidified the unity of the members of the Security Council and the United Nations. So I think there's a question of, that the Security Council is very committed. He must comply with the resolution. There will be no relief from sanctions until he does so, and further action awaits to be determined in the foreseeable future. But that's, I believe, what Mr. McCurry was talking about.

Q: More explanation about the F-18 agreement. Is there an option about Thailand selling the contract to a third party? Does the United States agree to this?

COHEN: Well, as I indicated before, there has been no judgment made in terms of what the options are -- what is feasible, what is achievable. Obviously, that would be an option if there are in fact third countries that would be available to acquire them. That would be one thing. There may not be. So we have to explore the entire range of options to see what is desirable, then what is achievable.

Q: Follow up on your commitment to Thailand. There's a continuing joint operation like Cobra Gold. With the economic situation like this, will it go on, or will the U.S. improve or adjust anything with Thailand about this?

COHEN: We think the Cobra Gold program is very important and we would anticipate that it would be carried out. We expect in fact it may be enhanced, that Indonesia might be invited to serve as an observer so that we can have it, even a multilateral type of exercise. But the Cobra Gold program is one that has been in effect for some time. We expect it to continue. We find ways which we can accommodate whatever economic difficulties are presented. But joint exercises, training, this is something that is vitally important for both the United States and for the Thai military as well. And that's why I discussed IMET as being very important to us and to the Thai military, something that we discussed at virtually every meeting that we had while I was here yesterday. So, training, joint exercises, these are all very important to the security interests of Thailand and also to the security interests of the United States.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what is your assessment of the potential, security and strategic consequences of the current economic crisis? I'm referring especially to two things. The situation in Indonesia which many people think could result, I mean the economic crisis could result in some internal and, possibly expanding to other countries, security problems. And as well, the current efforts by Taiwan to, in this economic crisis, build more relationship with countries in the region like we've seen yesterday, for example, with those visits that included meetings with the Prime Minister. And as you are on your way to Beijing, what do you expect from Beijing in the answer on those two issues, and what can you tell them on those issues?

COHEN: First of all, with respect to the economic situation, obviously there is a inter-relationship between the economic instability and a threat to the security of the individual countries. What takes place in South Korea, what takes place in Indonesia, what takes place in Malaysia, will have an impact on all of the other countries in the region. This is not something that can be viewed in isolation where the instability that might be experienced by one country has no impact upon the others. And that is the reason why we are looking at it from a regional security point of view, why the IMF, other institutions are going to be helpful to stabilize the region because what takes place in Indonesia, for example, could have a direct bearing, notwithstanding everything that takes place in Thailand, assuming all the reforms, assuming all the commitment to good government which we believe is well under way, that could be completely overwhelmed by instability in other regions, neighboring countries. So there is a direct connection between the economic instability and the ultimate security of the region.

So, with respect to Taiwan, that is a matter for the individual countries to determine. If Thailand or any other country seeks to have conversations with Taiwan, that is something that they will have to judge, but I think it would be very clear that is not something that should be viewed as a threat to China. But rather, each country I think would reaffirm that they have a one China policy, and that they can have a one China policy and still have either contacts or even economic relations with Taiwan without jeopardizing the commitment to a one China policy. I think that that is something that would be true of Thailand and other countries. And to the extent that it's very open and transparent and the Chinese government sees it for what it is, then I think that there would be an understanding of it. But, I think that Thailand is committed to a one China policy. I talked to the Foreign Minister yesterday. He made it very clear that whatever relationships, whatever discussions are underway between the Thai government and Taiwan has really to do with economic exchanges as such or investments, and nothing to do with altering the fundamental foreign policy that is a one China policy recognized by Thailand.

Q: The Thai government has said that they want the U.S. to increase the number of scholarships for military officials to go study in U.S. military school?

COHEN: This is the IMET program, and we are committed to that program and hope to sustain it, certainly at the current levels which are the highest in Asia.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what are the U.S. security policies concerning Burma and Cambodia, and were there any discussions with the Thai leaders yesterday?

COHEN: The subject of Burma did come up in our discussions with Foreign Minister Surin. And he indicated, of course, that Burma has been admitted to ASEAN, and I also discussed this issue with the King. And the purpose of course on the part of the ASEAN nations is to encourage Burma to come into and adopt the standards that other members of the ASEAN have maintained and to try to encourage moderation and modification of their policies. To the extent that that is successful, obviously the United States would welcome a change in the oppressive behavior on the part of the Burma government of the past, and if that is a trend, then it would be a very positive one. We will have to wait and see what the outcome of that is, but that has been the motivation behind the ASEAN countries to invite Burma in -- believing that they can help modify and moderate their behavior toward their citizens. If that is a positive result, then we would obviously welcome it.

PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Thank you for taking the time to meet with the press today.

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