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Cohen Press Conference in Bangkok, Thailand

Presenter: Defense Secretary William S. Cohen
September 19, 2000

(Press conference in Bangkok, Thailand)

Secretary Cohen: Good morning, This is my third visit to Bangkok as Secretary of Defense, and I must tell you that it is great to be back in this wonderful country.

There is one word that describes the security relationship between Thailand and the United States. That word is partnership. Thai and U.S. soldiers have fought together in war, and now they are working together in peace. We are treaty allies. Thai troops have played an important role in the United Nations' efforts to stabilize East Timor. In fact, today U. N. troops are being ably lead by a Thai general who graduated from West Point.

I came here from Indonesia where I met with Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. transitional administrator in East Timor. He is encouraged by the progress that he sees in East Timor. Work is underway to create a new police force; reconstruction is moving ahead, and the foundations for political and financial institutions are being laid. While the security situation has improved dramatically, militia groups are still causing problems. In my meetings with Indonesian leaders, I made it clear that Indonesia must act aggressively to disarm and disband these militia groups and hold their leaders and supporters accountable for their atrocities.

East Timor and Thailand's commitment to peacekeeping were among the issues that Prime Minister Chuan and I discussed last night. This year's Cobra Gold exercise involved some 22,500 U.S. and Thai service members focused on peacekeeping and peace enforcement. This type of demanding training increases the ability of troops from both countries to deal with real world challenges. Our militaries work very closely together and they hold more than thirty joint exercises a year. This year, we have expanded our cooperation to include a U.S.-Thai humanitarian de-mining program along the Thai-Cambodia border. The pilot exercise was conducted in April.

For years, Thailand has been a leading participant in ASEAN and ASEAN Regional Forum. Thailand's leadership in East Timor, its creation of the mine action centers, and its role in ASEAN demonstrates Thailand's commitment to regional security and stability. These are the goals that the United States shares; we are proud to work side by side with Thailand for peace and prosperity. Now, let me entertain your questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Charlie Aldinger of Reuters. Do budding talks between North and South Korea, the upcoming meeting between the defense ministers of the two countries, and the opening of a rail line through the DMZ between the two countries signal a major easing of tensions on the peninsula? And, do you expect any progress or perhaps a final conclusion to a new SOFA agreement, while you are there?

Secretary Cohen: On the SOFA agreement, we continue to have good and productive discussions. At this time, I don't anticipate that we will be able to conclude those discussions by the end of my visit there. But, we are satisfied that good progress is being made. With respect to the North-South tensions being eased, I think it is clear that there has been a reduction in the tensions that have previously existed. But, I think we are in the first stages of a move toward reconciliation or rapprochement, or some state of positive affairs between North and South. I think we need to be very cautious. We are encouraged by the steps that we see being taken, but, we must remain vigilant because of the size of the army that North Korea still maintains -- their status of being forward-deployed with as many as 800,000 (troops) are still forward-deployed with a large amount of artillery. That could certainly pose a serious threat to the people of Seoul and beyond. It's important that as these steps are taken, that we remain vigilant. I think that prudence is the watchword for all concerned. However, we certainly have been encouraged by the steps that have been taken to date.

Q: Gary Thomas, Voice of America. Mr. Secretary, is the problem in Indonesia that the government is either unwilling or is unable to control the militias in Timor? And, the corollary to that is are you concerned that the government does not have control of its own military?

Cohen: Well, I'm not satisfied that the government doesn't have control of its military. I have had discussions with President Wahid, and I spoke yesterday with Vice President Megawati. I made it clear that to establish civilian control over the military, it is important to dismantle, disband, and disarm the militia operating out of West Timor. And to bring to the bars of justice some kind of accountability for past abuses. Obviously, Indonesia is facing a number of challenges and they have to measure up to those challenges in the near future. It remains to be seen whether they are willing and able. I believe they are able. The question is: Do they have the will to do this? We have to see whether that will is present.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Jim Garamone of American Forces Press Service. Did you discuss our multilateral exercises with the Thais? And if so, what was their response?

Cohen: Yes, I have discussed the issue of multilateral exercises, as I will do with others, and, have done with others in the region, the Philippines, Singapore, here, as well. We intend to maintain our strong bilateral relations with all the countries in the region, but we hope that over a period of time, that we can expand them to a multilateral basis in the fields of peacekeeping and humanitarian disaster relief. Countries who are in the region can exercise together, can share information training techniques, technologies to respond to the kind of crisis that will affect more than one country. Over a period of time, hopefully, they can be expanded, but they all should understand that this in no way reduces or diminishes the strength of our bilateral relations. Point one, point number two is to make sure that everyone understands that this is not something designed to in anyway isolate China. We want China to be a participant in this Asia Pacific Regional Initiative as well. So that they will participate on an equal basis with other countries in the region.

Q: Richard Erlich with the Washington Times. In the terms of economic pressure that you might be putting on Indonesia if they don't control the militias, since you've cut off most military aid to Indonesia, what form of economic pressure, specifically, would be next? And, where did the USS Lincoln go when she went west from here? Did she go to the Gulf because of Saddam Hussein?

Secretary Cohen: The Lincoln will be on its way to the Gulf. With respect to Indonesia's economic situation, what I tried to point out is that the international community was seriously upset with what has taken place in East Timor. That after the government of Indonesia had issued a security guarantee for the UNHCR staff people to go back and provide humanitarian aid to the East Timorese, that we saw a situation where the militias were able to murder someone. So, the international community was very, the reaction was very strong, that's the reason for the passage of the resolution demanding that the Indonesian government take action to disarm, disband, and bring to justice those that have committed these atrocities. We also saw a signal coming from Jim Wolfenson indicating that there may be a lack of eagerness to continue economic assistance if there is not some demonstrable evidence that the Indonesia government is prepared to deal effectively with this issue, as well as, making sure that it brings its military under civilian control. So I think that the leaders that I spoke to understand the gravity of the situation, and, we want Indonesia to succeed. We do not want to see a division of Indonesia. There were some rumors, false rumors circulating that the action on the part of the West was really responsible for this activity taking place in the East-West Timor with the alternative motive of somehow trying to lead to a break up of Indonesia. That is categorically false. Those rumors were started to try to divert attention from what is really taking place. We, and the United States, and indeed the international community, want to see a united Indonesia. Because we believe that that unity is important for stability for the present and for the future. What the international community is sending in the way of signals is for Indonesia to get control over the situation in East Timor. They voted for independence -- that must be respected, and they have the ability to go in and deal with the militia who have been receiving some support, apparently from ex-military types in recent weeks and months and that must stop. And so they have the ability to go in and to disarm them and that is precisely what the U.N. Resolutions are calling for.

Q: James East from the Straits Times. Thanks. Last year, Andrew Marshall, a Pentagon official, came up with an Asia 2025 report which projected into the future. And, it rejected the view that Chinese-American relations might evolve gently and fruitfully. "Whether stronger or relatively weak, China will be a constant competitor of the United States," The report concludes: "A powerful China will be constantly challenging the status quo in East Asia, and, an unstable and relatively weak China can be dangerous because its state leaders might try to bolster their power with military adventurism." How do you see China developing and what ways do you see it threatening U.S. interests?

Cohen: Well, first of all, Andy Marshall did not file a report as such. He examined a number of potential options which might evolve in the next twenty years. Which is precisely what he is charged to do -- to try to look and peer into the future to see what potentialities might exist and what would be the United States' response to those potentialities. It's been very clear from this administration, the Clinton administration, that we believe that positive engagement with China is very important for the future development of China and for the evolution of a successful integration into the international community of a growing power. And so, President Clinton has indicated that we want to engage China for that reason. Recognizing that there are bound to be areas where we will have disputes or contentions over issues, but they must be resolved peacefully and diplomatically. And so, President Clinton has pursued a course of engagement. I have spent a good deal of time travelling to China, meeting with my counterparts, most recently having traveled there in July. And I must say that the reception that I received was very warm, very positive, and constructive. And we have reestablished good military-to-military relations, with a purpose of once again keeping this relationship on track, understanding that China will continue to grow as an economic power and will increase its military capabilities. If we engage China in a way that is positive, then I think that we can continue to promote peace and stability throughout the region. In addition, I would point out that we intend to maintain a presence in the Asia-Pacific Region. And that presence is indispensable for the continued stability and prosperity of the entire region. If the United States were not present, that would create a vacuum which would be filled by a number of competing and contending interests and countries. That would be adverse to China's interests and to the interests of all in the region. So we have made it very clear that we intend to maintain a presence throughout Asia-Pacific with the purpose of maintaining stability and promoting prosperity.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Jason Sherman from Defense News. Earlier this month President Clinton went to Colombia carrying a 1.3 billion-dollar aid package for the counter-narcotics effort there. Thailand has a requirement for helicopters, night vision technology, and training to deal with the drug flow from Burma. What U.S. military assistance, if any, is the U.S. prepared to give Thailand to help with their counter-narcotics effort?

Secretary Cohen: We have always worked very cooperatively with Thailand on the drug problem. The Thais have been absolutely instrumental in helping to curb the production of heroin. We understand that there is a serious problem confronting Thailand by virtue of Methamphetamines that are being produced and distributed from Burma. Our DEA, Drug Enforcement Agency, as well as our State Department, are working closely with Thai officials to see how we can be helpful. Admiral Blair will be here shortly and that will be an item high on his agenda. Finding ways in which we can cooperate with Thailand to help curb this flow of methamphetamines which have the real potential to degrade life in Thailand, corrupt individuals, and cause the addictions of many people, young and old. This can pose a devastating threat to Thailand and we are prepared to work with them in a positive way.

Q: Jim Mannion. It has been almost four days since the Philippines launched their military assault to rescue hostages. Still there is no word on the fate of those hostages. Have you or the US government expressed any concern to the Philippines government over the situation there? Has the Philippine government asked for, or has the U.S. offered any help in either tracking down the hostages or just generally with that situation there?

Cohen: To my knowledge, there has been no request for assistance in tracking down the hostages. We have not received any information pertaining to their location or word that they have no evidence that they have been harmed, unless Ken Bacon received further information...

Bacon: (off mike) The Philippine government has said that they have seen some of the hostages.

Q: I'm from The Nation. I just wanted to ask about your discussion with Prime Minister Chuan yesterday concerning your proposal for a multilateral exercise cooperation, what was the Prime Minister's response to your proposal?

Cohen: Well, the prime minister and I discussed Cobra Gold, which was a very successful operation. It did have participation on the part of Singaporeans and it also had Air Force observers from Indonesia. So you can see that there was a multilateral aspect to that as well, in a very small way. But the success of Cobra Gold demonstrated the strong (US-Thai) bilateral relations we have, and for the first time, focussed upon peacekeeping activities. What I mentioned to the prime minister, and I believe, that he will take this into account, is the need to broaden that. The fact that Thailand is playing a very important role in East Timor by working with other nations in a peacekeeping mission is evidence that in the future this (kind of exercise) can be very beneficial to the Thais, and to all the countries in the region if they have to cooperate on peacekeeping missions or humanitarian rescue or disaster relief types of missions. It's important to be able to have the experience of training together, exercising together, sharing information, sharing techniques. I think that is something that governments will welcome in the future. As long as everyone understands that in no way it will diminish the strength of our bilateral commitment to Thailand and to others. We want to continue those bilateral ties, strengthen them at the same time, expand our relationship, so we can be even more effective in dealing with common issues and interests. Thank you.