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Adm. Dennis C. Blair Briefs on Current Activities of U.S. Pacific Command

Presenter: Adm. Dennis C. Blair Briefs on U.S. Pacific Command
March 07, 2000 2:30 PM EDT

Tuesday, March 07, 2000 - 2:30 p.m.

KENNETH BACON (Defense Department Spokesman): I'm glad to welcome back Admiral Dennis Blair, who is the commander in chief of our forces in the Pacific. He will make a statement on the record that will give you a brief overview of his entire area of operation, and then take your questions. We probably should be done in about 30 minutes or so.

Admiral Blair.

ADM. BLAIR: Good afternoon.

As Secretary Bacon said, I've been at the Pacific Command for about a year now, and it's been a busy time. In fact, it feels like a century has gone by during that time. But let me tell you about a few of the events that we've been concerned with for the past 12 months out in the Pacific region, and then we can take your questions.

North Korea is a continuing concern to all of us out there because we've got this armed confrontation across the DMZ. And last summer, the Northern Limit Line naval battle reminded us just how close we are to military conflict in that region.

In addition, the North Korean armed forces have just finished the heaviest winter training cycle that we have seen in recent years, showing that they certainly, in the midst of this terrible economic and agricultural situation, are devoting resources to a military capability. It also reminds us, my job in this, and General Schwartz's, is to maintain the strong military deterrence which is the foundation for our policy there on the peninsula and provides a foundation for the diplomatic moves which have taken place recently which have made some progress in key areas.

Southern Asia -- India and Pakistan, in the past year have fought a war up in the Siachen glacier. Shortly thereafter, there was a hijacking of an Air India flight, which then ended up in Afghanistan. And tensions remain high between those two countries, both of which now have nuclear weapons. And it's an area of continuing concern.

I've visited India in January and talked with much of the leadership there and believe that we have a basis for establishing a working relationship with India which is -- on the military side which is in both of our interests.

But we are waiting for the president's trip here next month, to make the next move forward in terms of our relationship there. But it's one we watch very, very closely because of the consequences of the tension and the potential for conflict there.

Indonesia has also been a big focus of concern over the last year. In Indonesia itself, it's been an eventful year as they have gone through tremendous political, economic and military changes. There was an election, the first free election in about 40 years. And on the military side, the TNI, their armed forces, provided -- maintained law and order and then supported the results.

There was then the referendum in East Timor, back in August, in which the East Timorese voted against remaining part of Indonesia. And the TNI forces there in Indonesia, behaved very, very badly, permitting, if not abetting, repression and brutality against the citizens of East Timor.

More recently, the president of Indonesia, President Wahid, suspended General Wiranto, ex-chief of the armed forces in Indonesia and who was then the minister for Coordination and Security. And again, the Indonesian Armed Forces supported that decision.

So the TNI has been going through changes, and their performance has been mixed. We hope to be able to resume military relations with them, which were cut off as a result of the East Timor misbehavior. But it will have to be done, under the right conditions, when the time is appropriate.

Turning to our peace operations in East Timor, the last time I was here in this room, I was talking about that operation. And since then, it has taken place. And let me update you on it.

U.S. troops supported an Australian-led international coalition under a U.N. mandate in that effort. The Australians did a magnificent job of leading that. And we contributed in ways that the United States is uniquely capable of and were committed to its success.

At the height, we had about 400 people on the ground there in East Timor, 200 of them down in Darwin in the support base, 200 up in Dili, where the action was. And in addition, we had Navy ships that were visiting and providing support ashore with Marine helicopters, embarked and various other deployments.

I think this is a new pattern for cooperation that the United States participates in Asia and perhaps in the world, and for my money it's a very positive one.

It's sort of a third gear between being in charge and running the whole thing and not participating at all.

Just about 10 days ago, this coalition under Australia transitioned to a U.N. force. The lead nation is the Philippines, Major General De Los Santos (sic) [Lieutenant General] is the head of the military section. The United States has about two dozen troops in Dili who are staff officers who are both supporting the U.N. staff there and also doing the liaison for periodic U.S. deployments which will come in, things like construction engineers, Navy Seabees, medical units, some more transportation units, other assessment and support functions.

Let me then turn to China. I just returned last week from my first visit as CINCPAC, and talked about the many areas of the Asia-Pacific region in which the United States and China have interests, but the conversation inevitably came back to Taiwan, which occupies center stage in that relationship.

I urged restraint and moderation on the Chinese leaders with whom I talked, told them that the White Paper that they had published about three days before I arrived was not a helpful step towards that peaceful solution that we thought, and we had some lively discussions on that score.

From the military point of view, by way of background, both the deployment patterns of China and those of Taiwan and those of the United States are fairly normal during this time. There are some small variations, but none of us is preparing for major military moves there, and that's good.

But because at the end of the day the only way we're going to solve this thing is by peaceful resolution, which is the diplomatic and the -- not the military way. I think that our military engagement is an important part of reaching that right solution and that opinion was shared by the Chinese military leaders that I talked to.

I also want to talk about the strong work we've been doing in terms of our other relationships in the region. We have five mutual defense treaties in Asia, out of the seven total that the United States has, and we work hard on keeping those strong and vibrant. What we're trying to do for the future is take those strong bilateral relationships and knit them together into more regional arrangements to support common objectives in the Asia Pacific region, and we're doing a lot of the military groundwork that lies under that sort of an arrangement.

It can be a foundation for a greater peaceful development in that part of the world, and that's what -- that's in this country's interest, and that's in the interest of the countries that are there.

And I do have to mention the greatest thrill of the job in the last year, which is having the privilege to lead these 300,000 men and women out there who make up the Pacific Command. They're out there day in, day out, doing the hard jobs, making everybody proud of their -- of a country that can produce folks like that, whether they're soldiers on the DMZ in Korea or they're airmen in Diego Garcia fixing airplanes, or all of the other service people. They are working hard. They're doing a great job. We need to take care of them -- we who lead them, those of you who write about them, and members of Congress, who I talked to this morning, who also support them -- and they'll take care of us.

Let me stop there and then take your questions, if I can. Yeah?

Q: Admiral, you said there were -- you have suggested there were no overt signs by the Chinese, the Taiwanese, or certainly by us of military movements in the area, to ratchet up the tension now. I take you mean that there are no signs at all that China might be preparing to fly missiles into the straits, like it did before the last presidential elections.

ADM. BLAIR: See, for an actual missile firing, a lot of the preparations are not detectable. But as I look at the pattern of what China is doing, I don't see preparations for large-scale exercises or operations.

Q: Did you receive any assurances from the Chinese that they would not do that?

ADM. BLAIR: No. Mm-mm. (Negative.)

Q: Did you ask?

ADM. BLAIR: We discussed it more in terms of a military solution is not in the -- is not in our best interests, rather than asking each other where we were moving this or that, and we agreed.

Q: Admiral Blair, did you have --

ADM. BLAIR: Let's go here and then here.

Q: Yes, thank you. Thank you, Admiral Blair. Thank you for your work.

Yes, sir. Is China, the PRC -- are they in fact making threats, making these threats now, especially for political purposes, to have an impact on the Taiwanese elections?

And my second question is, is the PRC a paper dragon in this situation, making these kind of threats of war when they haven't got the wherewithal to carry through, to have the sealift in order to make good on some kind of an invasion threat? And are they upping their sealift currently?

ADM. BLAIR: See, I read a lot of the same things that you-all do -- these articles about sinking aircraft carriers, unlimited warfare, mine warfare -- that are written in Chinese journals. And I asked Chinese leadership, "What about these things? Are you trying to turn us into an enemy, or are you following the peaceful policy that you profess?"

And senior leaders told me that these articles that we read are the personal opinions of military scholars and not to read too much more into it than that.

So I think it's a mixed picture. They've got people who are working on their military preparations. But I think their overall thrust is toward a peaceful resolution. And I think their statement in the White Paper is something they believe, that they think force is an ultimate weapon in their tool kit. But I don't see near-term sorts of preparations to use it.

Q: Are they a paper --

ADM. BLAIR: Just let me turn --

Q: Go ahead.

Q: Rhetoric aside, give us your assessment of Chinese capabilities to use force against Taiwan.

ADM. BLAIR: I think should Taiwan undertake military action -- or, should China undertake military action to try to invade Taiwan they would not be successful in taking it and holding it. But the -- that the Taiwanese military posture and the difficulty of the task and where China is so far would come up, that would be the result. So I think that that's the military reality underlying where we are right now. And I think that's what underlies a move toward a peaceful resolution not the use of military force, which is the preferred outcome.

Q: If Taiwan -- if China isn't capable at this point of invading and holding Taiwan, what is China capable of doing? Clearly --

ADM. BLAIR: They're capable of doing a lot of damage to Taiwan with the several hundred missiles that they have, with the navy and the air force that they have. So any sort of conflict in that part of the world would cause a lot of damage and casualties, and that would be the effect of it. It would also cause terrific economic hardship, both for Taiwan, but also for China itself, in the sort of international reaction to it. And at the time when China is trying to -- China's top priorities had to do with economic and technological reform and taking care of its people. And it knows that conflict would result in destroying all of the progress it's making in terms of joining the world economy. And so that's another part of it that would be there. So that would sort of be the tremendous down side of having conflict breaking out there, and that's why I think we all need to work for the -- work with restraint and moderation towards the diplomatic solution.

Q: Can you just explain a little bit more, because when the average person hears that the military assessment is that this huge country, China, is not capable of invading this tiny island of Taiwan, they're amazed. So can you explain a little bit more, perhaps, just in layman's terms about why it is that that would be such a difficult challenge militarily for China with its current capabilities?

ADM. BLAIR: It primarily has to do with the 70 to 100 miles of open water that lie across the Taiwan Strait, the inherent defenses that Taiwan has built up over the years, and the relatively measured pace of modernization of Chinese forces, and the urgency of peaceful economic pursuits of China as opposed to others. I think that's really where the answer lies.

Q: But militarily --

ADM. BLAIR: Let me move to another, then, if we can.

Q: Yeah, Admiral Blair, how would you rate the chance that China will take some form of action, even at a lesser military scale, if Chen Shui-bian is elected president?

ADM. BLAIR: I don't really want to speculate about different outcomes like that. I think that the present signs are positive that in the near term we can de-emphasize military actions, work on the peaceful diplomatic side, and that's the message I hear coming from the candidates in Taiwan, and that's certainly what the United States wants.

Let me go to the back here.

Q: You talked about the North Korean military exercises, the heaviest in some years. Do you see North Korea getting back on its feet in some fashion, or how do you explain that? Are they continuing the slide that they've been on economically?

ADM. BLAIR: They seem to have stabilized economically at what we would consider an impossibly low level of production and consumption. They continue to divert a disproportionate part of that small national wealth to military purposes and are able to wring a formidable military capability out of a busted economy because that's in the interest of the ruling family there and they maintain it with authoritarian means.

Q: Is it sustainable?

ADM. BLAIR: Not forever. Not forever.

Q: Admiral Blair, on Vietnam, other than the joint efforts in searching for missing servicemen, there's virtually no military-to-military relationship. What, in your view, should -- how far should the United States go in developing a military relationship with Vietnam?

ADM. BLAIR: I think that's a subject that Secretary Cohen is going to discuss here in his trip here shortly, and I really look forward to the results of those discussions.

I think we need workmanlike working relations with virtually all armed forces in the region. We don't have those with Vietnam right now. And if as a result of secretary's trip we can begin to establish just the basic contacts, I think that will be a good start.

The North -- the North Vietnamese -- I am dating myself -- the Vietnamese -- (laughter) -- do attend some of our international seminars and courses. For instance, at the Asia-Pacific Center in Honolulu, they send students. Our conference on -- of senior military communicators -- some Vietnamese communications officers came to. And so we had these little TAD's (temporary additional duty), but we don't have really a good knowledge of who they are and what they are up to that I think we should have. And that's the basis. And then we can work with them there.

Q: Admiral, your name keeps cropping up in stories about supporting the sale of Aegis destroyers to Taiwan. And you're here in front of us. So what's the state of play on both Taiwan's request and your view on whether the U.S. should in fact sell those DD-51s to them?

ADM. BLAIR: The process that we go through is that Taiwan makes requests of what they would like from the United States. My responsibility is to evaluate the military balance and make a recommendation as to what I think we should sell to maintain a sufficient defense, which is what the Taiwan Relation Act goes for.

So I look at what the Chinese are doing. The Chinese are adding about 50 missiles every year to their force that can target Taiwan. The Chinese recently accepted delivery on the first of their destroyers with anti-ship cruise missiles. And I look what Taiwan has, and then I make the recommendation on that military balance.

Now, that process is going on right now, and I haven't made a final recommendation within it. So, I'll probably -- in fact, I am sure I won't tell you, even and after I do. (Laughter.) But that's where we stand.

Q: The point is it's inaccurate to say that you are weighing -- you just -- you've recommended that the U.S. sells them -- sell the destroyers. This keeps coming up in various stories.

ADM. BLAIR: No, that's not accurate to say.

Q: Admiral?

ADM. BLAIR: Yeah? Yeah?

Q: Do you, or do you not, personally have the impression that nationalistic anti-U.S. emotions and a strong will to conquer Taiwan has been a rather permanent -- (inaudible) -- at all levels in Chinese society, not necessarily limited to certain mid-level officers on -- (inaudible)? What is the impression about the Chinese feelings?

ADM. BLAIR: I don't think that that -- I don't think you can wrap up a whole country of a billion people into one sentence.

I talked to people in China who are -- who have a vision of China as an economically strong country, able to feed its citizens, interacting peacefully with the world. I talked to some PLA officers who have a very narrow view of their own military might, so it's a big country with a lot of opinions.

Yeah.

Q: What's the status of that buildup of short-range missiles near the Taiwan Strait? You said that there's been no movement, no change, but there had been a buildup there. Has that changed in any way? Has it come down? Has it gone up?

ADM. BLAIR: No, it's continuing to go up. I said -- the Chinese are adding about 50 a year, which can range Taiwan, and that's continuing.

Yeah.

Q: Admiral -- Hong Kong, ever since the ship visits, U.S. ship visits resumed last year, they seem to have been -- approval seems to have been iffy by the Chinese government. Did you discuss this with them? Did you get any commitments that they would make this more of a routine, regular approval of such visits?

ADM. BLAIR: It was not a direct item of discussion, but since the visit of the full Stennis battle group about six weeks ago, I guess it was, the -- we're back to pretty much the same routine we were before the events of last year, in which we request and the approval has routinely come. So it looks like we're back on track there, but I did not discuss it directly.

Q: I understand you had to cancel an exercise recently because of readiness and funding concerns. Could you elaborate on that?

ADM. BLAIR: Right. We had about a $4 million shortfall in terms of what we had planned at the beginning of the year, and the funds that are now available about halfway through it, and we had to pick one of our exercises and cancel it for this year. So we had to -- we've had to tighten down on that funding because of where we stand on the overall budget.

Q: What was that exercise? What didn't you accomplish?

ADM. BLAIR: I don't think I'll give you that actual name of it.

Q: Admiral Blair?

ADM. BLAIR: Yeah.

Q: You mentioned in Honolulu that the Taiwan Strait issues should be resolved by diplomatic approach. Before you visited Beijing, you also visited Korea and Japan. Did you get any response -- you know, positive response from U.S. allies, like Japan or Australia -- (inaudible) -- you know, urge China on peaceful resolution or in any sense they are going to help?

ADM. BLAIR: When I talked with my Japanese leaders, they agreed with the peaceful approach and they pointed out the big economic -- both development assistance and business, financial transactions that they have with China, and pointed to them as a tool that they have to keep things peaceful. As I mentioned, all that would be jeopardized if a conflict were to break out.

When I visited Korea, Korea has a different set of concerns with regard to China. In fact, the area in which, when I was discussing with the Chinese we had the most common ground, was keeping things quiet on the Korean Peninsula, keeping nuclear weapons out of there, keeping conflict from breaking out, and that certainly is line with what I learned from the South Koreans who, in fact, are undertaking their own dialogue with China now. There was a visit of defense ministers both ways, for example.

So I think we're lined up with our major allies in the region.

Yeah?

Q: And did you discuss the national missile defense system with the Chinese? And have they changed their opinion at all about -- are they still fully opposed to it?

ADM. BLAIR: I did not discuss that with them. That was a pretty important item discussion for the group that was there about 10 days before I was, headed by Deputy Secretary Talbott, with Undersecretary Slocombe and General Ralston from here. And they discussed that pretty thoroughly.

Q: Sir, is international food aid a big help to the North Korean army? Is it kind of keeping it alive?

ADM. BLAIR: I've talked to the people who monitor that aid, and it appears to be going to Korean citizens. You can make an argument that, you know, that offsets the need to use national storage, which then can go to the army. So there is that consideration.

But I think it's the right thing to do from the humanitarian point of view. And it seems to be that the food that we're giving is going to people who need it, which is not making anybody very well-fed in Korea. They're still struggling.

Q: Given the current rate of Chinese --

Q: (Off mike) --

ADM. BLAIR: Let me -- yeah, okay.

Q: Given the current rate of Chinese military modernization, in your judgment, how many years will it be before China is capable of launching a cross-strait invasion, when they'll have the sealift, perhaps the air power that they would need to prevail militarily? Is that something that's two, three, five, 10 years away?

ADM. BLAIR: Depends what Taiwan and we do.

Yeah?

Q: Admiral, you mentioned this $4 million shortfall you had for that NSO amendment financing. Are you getting any help on that? And while you're back here, are you also going to be discussing with General Shelton and perhaps with Secretary Cohen about adding some additional, say ISR assets into your region?

ADM. BLAIR: Let's see. That 4 million is -- it's a hard number to evaluate just in -- as a number. Let me try to put in a little bit of perspective.

We conduct over 300 exercises in the Asia-Pacific region, of which six are big ones. The exercise we cancelled was not one of our major ones, like Ulchi Focus Lens or like Cobra Gold or the big ones that we do. It was one of the sort of the high end of the smaller ones. So it was that kind of a -- there was that kind of an affect on the region. And we're just going to postpone those skills and pick them up next time.

On the ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets, although it's not the subject of my visit back here this time, I have said consistently that I think we're a little thin in the Pacific and that we need to, particularly on things like U-2s and rivet joints and EP-3s, we find that when there are multiple things going on in the world -- the Kosovo crisis, or the Kosovo war last summer, which took a lot of forces over that direction -- if we get strung out with two or three things going around the world, we find that we don't have revisit times the way we'd like to. An additional couple of aircraft are in both the Air Force and the Navy budget which were responding to that need. The Air Force is working on its U-2 pilots. So I think the tendency is in the right direction and the requirements of me and the other CINCs have been heard. But that's something we need to up the numbers of.

Q: Do you think the picture's getting brighter for you, though?

ADM. BLAIR: Yes, I do.

Q: Admiral, you know, the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act is pending before the Senate. The House has already passed it. Of course, I know the administration opposes it, but you as an admiral personally, what is your view of this piece of legislation? Do we need it to beef up Taiwan's security -- I mean, defense capability and the coordination with the Taiwan armed forces to better cope with the threat from China? Can you give us your personal --

ADM. BLAIR: I was asked the same question about four hours ago by the Senate Armed Services Committee, and I told them that from my professional point of view as CINCPAC, that act does not give me any capabilities or authorities that I don't have now to carry out my responsibilities, and I think it adds to the general raising of rhetoric and tension and takes us away from peaceful solutions to that, so I was not in favor of that act being passed and signed by the president.

Yeah?

Q: Admiral, as the saber-rattling continues over Taiwan --

ADM. BLAIR: As the what continues?

Q: As the saber-rattling and the rhetoric continues over Taiwan --

ADM. BLAIR: Ah. I thought you were talking about "cyber" war. (Laughter.)

Q: Okay. Does it make it any more important to develop a relationship with somebody like Vietnam on the strategic point of view?

ADM. BLAIR: This is something I'm working pretty hard in the Asia-Pacific region as to try to change from balance of power, containment thinking, to a better concept which I think is more suited for the future, which is security communities kind of thinking, which is group of like-minded nations getting together and pursuing common goals where they can, generally without formal treaty organizations or formal structures, but who cooperate on a range of issues in order to develop and resolve them peacefully.

And this idea I think is open to former enemies like Vietnam, to current potential antagonists like China. I think there're just a lot of things that we can work on in the Asia-Pacific region which are in all of our benefit. And we can work on them militarily.

The INTERFET operation provided a great model for this, I think. And we learned a lot of lessons from it, and we're trying to increase our capability to work together on common tasks like that. Simple things. We are building an enclave within the Internet which will be open to any country in the Asia-Pacific region that wants to, where we can plan coalition operations like INTERFET. And we're going to protect it with commercial encryption, so it's not open to any of you or any hackers or anyone. But we can exchange information on ideas of getting ahead. And I talked about that with the Chinese and found interest there. And certainly, the countries who work with us traditionally are going to be joining in there: Australia, Thailand, Japan, Korea.

And so, to me, thinking in terms of this cooperation for common purposes, what's important for the future and not sort of trying to move the chess pieces around the board in 19th century European fashion.

Yeah.

Q: Can I ask a North Korea missile question? What is the current state of -- your understanding of the Taepo Dong program? Obviously they're supposed to not do test flights under -- (inaudible) -- initiatives. What's your best insight in terms of whether they're pursuing ground testing and all the plethora of activities that might need to continue if they were going to develop something?

ADM. BLAIR: Right. I think they're -- I think the North Koreans are probably working on everything that doesn't violate existing commitments or can't be detected. I mean, I think they're churning away inside their laboratories doing the things they can do without testing it, and they're continuing to work on it as programs of that sort tend to do. But they have said that as long as we're continuing this round of talks, they're not, you know, going to be firing a missile, and we have great confidence that they have not done so and they're not preparing to in the near term.

MR. BACON: Last question. Last question. Right here.

ADM. BLAIR: Who hasn't asked a question? Right there. Yeah.

Q: When you discussed this White Paper with the Chinese, did they talk about a definition of what they mean by foreign involvement in the Taiwan issue that would make them use force? And did they talk about, like, TMD, if U.S. involved Taiwan in a TMD system, would that mean kind of a foreign involvement?

ADM. BLAIR: In my conversations, they were not that specific. They told me about the three conditions in the White Paper. They told me that the United States should not sell Aegis ships to Taiwan. They told me that TMD was destabilizing. And they didn't connect the dots any further than that.

Okay.

MR. BACON: Thank you very much.

ADM. BLAIR: Thanks very much.

Q: Thank you.

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