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DoD News Briefing, Thursday, August 12, 1999, 1:40 p.m.

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
August 12, 1999 1:40 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: This is a suspiciously big group for an August afternoon. Welcome.

I'd like to welcome 12 Army Public Affairs officers from -- I guess you're NCOs from the Advanced NCO Course at Fort Meade. Glad to have you here. If you want to leap in and ask tough questions, feel free.

Secondly, I'd just like to note, some of you already know that today is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Geneva Convention, which not only specifies the rights and protections of prisoners of war, but also lays out the rules that parties are supposed to follow in protecting civilians during warfare. So it's been a very important document over the last 50 years.

With that, I'll take your questions.

Q: Housekeeping. Ken, what about the SecDef's vacation? When's he, and you're going to take some vacation later this month, aren't you? And when's PJ moving?

Mr. Bacon: First of all, the Secretary will be in and out pretty much for the rest of the month. He's at a conference now in Sun Valley, Idaho, and he'll be back early next week. He'll be taking off time over the next couple of weeks until Labor Day.

I'll be gone the two weeks prior to Labor Day, and we don't intend to have briefings during that period, which is our traditional pattern, unless there's some hot breaking news that requires briefings.

PJ Crowley will begin as my Deputy right after Labor Day.

Q: But you won't have any briefings the next two weeks?

Mr. Bacon: There will be briefings next week. The last briefing will be on August 19th, which is a week from today.

Q: Ken, can you talk about the Trent Lott letter to the Secretary on the Chinese shipping firm that apparently is going to do some work in the Panama Canal?

Mr. Bacon: The Secretary has received the letter and hasn't had a chance to respond yet. Let me just make a couple of points.

First of all, this is not a new issue. It's one that's been around for some time.

Second, the company that owns port facilities at either end of the Canal owns precisely that, port facilities that as I understand it are being designed to unload and load containers from ships that are too big to go into the Canal. So it's a way to move containers across the isthmus.

The company does not have any ability to stop or impede traffic through the Canal. In fact the treaty that has been signed by the U.S. and Panama calling for the transfer of the Canal at the end of this year provides a guarantee for security of the Canal, and it also says that the Canal will be operated in a neutral way so that, [it] is open to ships from all countries.

We do not anticipate any problems whatsoever as a result of this -- of the port facilities that are owned by a Chinese company.

Q: Does he intend to respond to the Majority Leader?

Mr. Bacon: Of course. He responds to all congressional correspondence.

Q: In other words, you do not see this development as a potential national security threat?

Mr. Bacon: We do not, and General Wilhelm has testified to that effect before the Senate Armed Services Committee. This has been reviewed by the Department of Defense and we do not see it as a potential national security threat.

Q: The fact that they own these two port facilities.

Mr. Bacon: That is correct.

Q: Back to the security agreement that was made I think in 1977. Does the United States have to be called upon by Panama to make some kind of military intervention? Or is it at the discretion of the United States? How is this to work?

Mr. Bacon: There was a reservation drafted as part of the ratification process called the DiConcini Reservation that states that if the Canal is closed, or its operations are interfered with, that the United States and the Republic of Panama each have an independent right to take any steps necessary including the use of military force to reopen the Canal. So the United States has a unilateral right to maintain the neutrality of the Canal and reopen it if there should be any military threat.

Now we do not see, as I said earlier, we do not see the Chinese-owned port facilities as a military or a national security threat.

Q: And this could be done at the discretion of the U.S. without collaboration with Panama?

Mr. Bacon: Yes.

Q: Ken, another China question.

The South China Post today reported that China may be mobilizing up to a half million reservists in the provinces or regions abutting the Taiwan Straits. Does the Pentagon have any independent corroboration that such movements are taking place, or mobilizations?

Mr. Bacon: We do not.

Q: Can you give us a sense of, how much of a logistics effort would be involved in something like this? That's quite a large number of troops.

Mr. Bacon: I'm afraid I can't talk authoritatively about the Chinese logistics system.

Q: But you haven't seen any indications to back up the report?

Mr. Bacon: No.

Q: Ken, on this hemisphere, back with China. The Spanish Miami Herald recently reported that China was building some kind of electronic facilities, transmitters, or eavesdropping posts in Cuba. Do you have any comment on that report? Is that accurate? Do you have any indications that there are some Chinese/Cuban military or intelligence collaboration?

Mr. Bacon: There's nothing I can say about that. It's an intelligence matter that I can't comment on.

Q: Also, the South China Morning Post also reported that two U.S. aircraft carriers were maneuvering in the South China Sea and that this was a signal to China. Is this actually the case? And on another subject, has the Administration in any way signaled to China that it opposes any use of force against Taiwan?

Mr. Bacon: We have made public statements time after time that our policy calls for the peaceful resolution of disputes. That's at the core of our policy.

We have a one-China policy that calls for the peaceful resolution of Taiwan status. That has been our policy for over 20 years.

In terms of the carriers, there was a passing exercise in that two carriers, one coming back from the Gulf -- I believe the KITTY HAWK returning from the Gulf; and the CONSTELLATION on the way to the Gulf -- passed somewhere around Singapore and they carried out what's called a PASEX or passing exercise. In fact, there were two battle groups that passed.

This happened I believe last week on the 6th or the 7th -- the 7th Bryan Whitman tells me. They took the opportunity to carry out some exercise protocols which battle groups do frequently when they pass. It had nothing to do with the China situation. It had everything to do with rotation of battle groups in the Gulf.

Q: Ken, the conferees (inaudible) work on the Defense Authorization Bill before they went home for the summer. Secretary Richardson, Energy, is concerned about the provision affecting him and said he may recommend a veto. Is there anything in that bill that the Pentagon finds objectionable?

Mr. Bacon: Is there anything in the bill the Pentagon finds objectionable?

Q: ...veto...

Mr. Bacon: I don't have a good answer to that question. I'll have to go back and check on that.

Q: A change of topic. The Navy says it's getting ready to reestablish ties with the Tailhook Association. Given the fact that that was an issue several years ago that this Department had to address, do you guys think it's a good idea? Do you think the time has come?

Mr. Bacon: First of all, the Navy isn't quite getting ready to reestablish ties with the Tailhook Association. What the Navy is doing is sending a team of three people out to the Tailhook Association's meeting in Reno, Nevada, next weekend to review the Tailhook Association's proceedings and to decide whether it makes sense for the Navy to reestablish a traditional relationship with the Tailhook Association.

So based on what Caroline Becraft, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy who's leading this delegation finds, the Secretary of the Navy will make a decision.

There has been some congressional requests that the Navy reestablish a relationship with the Tailhook Association which does represent the naval aviation community. Secretary Danzig wants to satisfy himself that the Tailhook Association, one, has reformed itself from its old ways. Two, it fully represents the entire naval aviation community -- men and women, young and old, active and retired. And that it operates in a way that supports the career of naval aviation in a positive and helpful way. So Ms. Becraft will go out there and talk to leaders of the association, will witness the proceedings, and come back and make a report to Secretary Danzig. Based on her findings, then Secretary Danzig will have to decide whether to establish the same type -- reestablish the same type of relationship with the Tailhook Association that the Navy currently has, for instance, with the Surface Warfare Association.

Q: Does the Pentagon agree that this would be a healthy thing if it's determined that the proper changes have been made and it's a professional organization?

Mr. Bacon: Yes. Secretary Cohen supports the approach that Secretary Danzig is taking. That is really an approach to survey the situation and decide what the appropriate next step is.

Q: Ken, just to follow that. Has Secretary Cohen or the Secretary's office asked to be kept apprised of the Navy's evaluation as it proceeds, or has Secretary Danzig got a free hand to make this decision on his own?

Mr. Bacon: Well, Secretary Danzig meets frequently with Secretary Cohen, keeps him well informed about what he's doing. I'm sure that he will report back to the Secretary on Secretary Becraft's findings. But I think that there will be a marriage of the minds here, and that Secretary Cohen is certain that Secretary Danzig is capable of making this decision. But Secretary Danzig will certainly keep Secretary Cohen informed of how it's going on this.

Q: The upcoming U.S./South Korean military exercises. What's the goal of those exercises? And have the exercises in any way been affected, changed, diminished, increased by concern over the possible missile test?

Mr. Bacon: First of all, these are annual exercises. They've been going on for, I believe, well over a decade. Second, the exercise doesn't begin until next week. I think it begins on the 16th. Third, the exercises -- I'm not aware that the exercises have been changed in any way to reflect any concerns by North Korea. North Korea frequently objects to these exercises. They're an important part of maintaining the readiness of U.S. and Republic of Korea forces to make sure that they can work together. In fact, the goal of these exercises is to evaluate and improve combined and joint coordination, planning, operations, etc., between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea forces, the South Korean forces.

Q: Will they be live fire?

Mr. Bacon: It's a command post exercise, and I don't believe there will be live fire, but I'll double check on that. I don't believe there will be. Our troops do practice their marksmanship over there on a regular basis, and our planes carry out bombing and air combat practice on a regular basis. These troops consider themselves on the front line of freedom and they are constantly ready, and they take all of the steps necessary to maintain their readiness.

Q: You said the other day that you didn't think a missile test was imminent. A South Korean security official said it could be three to four weeks before North Korea is even in a position to test the missile. Does that square with your information?

Mr. Bacon: I don't have anything to add or subtract from what the South Korean security official said.

Q: Ken, has a decision been made yet on whether to send THAAD radar to the theater there to...

Mr. Bacon: You asked me that yesterday and I'm afraid I don't have an answer yet. Let me try to get an answer.

Q: One more question about this China thing, because periodically there are all kinds of reports about China's intentions, China's threats. Ken, is there some way to give some kind of overall sense of what the Pentagon's assumption is about China's intentions, abilities, ambitions? Is this a regional power? Is this a country that is seeking worldwide influence? Is this a country that is keeping to itself? How would you describe it?

Mr. Bacon: China is the most populous country in the world. It's a country that is working very hard to improve its agriculture and its economy. It has one fundamental challenge that is repeated time and time by its leaders, and that is to find ways to feed and employ its population which is huge, despite efforts to control it, obviously.

I think that their fundamental goal has been economic and agricultural development. When Deng Xaoping set up the four modernizations, military modernization was the last one, and it's the last one they've gotten to. They've concentrated much more heavily on industrial, agricultural modernization. We see signs that they're still doing that.

Obviously they are moving to improve their military, but I think they're generally moving in a relatively slow and measured way to improve their military. They've cut back the size of the military recently. They're clearly trying to modernize aspects of it -- their navy, their air force. But they're not doing this on a crash basis. It's nothing like a North Korean effort to funnel a huge percentage of their budget or gross domestic product into the military.

They have a relatively small strategic nuclear force that has not grown much in the last couple of years, really not grown much at all.

I think that China has benefited dramatically from stability in Asia over the last 10 or 15 years. It's this stability that has helped almost every country in Asia undergo an economic transformation including, in part, China. But certainly it's helped Taiwan, it's helped South Korea, it's helped Thailand, to a certain extent Indonesia until they encountered some economic and political problems. But this stability has benefited China enormously, and I see no indication that China wants to end this period of stability or take actions that would lead to extremely heightened tension or destabilizing factors and conditions in Asia.

Q: ...in cases of countries like Taiwan?

Mr. Bacon: We have a one-China policy.

I've just been told that there is no live fire in the Ulchi Focus Lens exercise in Korea. As I said, it's a command post exercise primarily.

We have a one-China policy. That policy says that differences between Taiwan and the Mainland will be resolved peacefully, through dialogue, over time. And we believe that's what China wants, and that's certainly what we want and have said very, very clearly -- the President has said it recently. Nearly everybody else has spoken on this, and the Administration has stressed that recently.

Q: Can I follow that up? There were some quotes by the Chinese Defense Minister earlier this month that China has to develop forces to be able to fight a war against the United States. This is a little different from what they've been saying. They usually couch their rhetoric in terms of anti-hegemonists. But this was clearly a reference directly to the United States.

Is the Pentagon concerned by the increased level of rhetoric coming from Beijing against the United States on these issues?

Mr. Bacon: I don't know how accurate those quotes were, and before commenting on them, I think I'd like to know more about the circumstances of them and whether it was an accurate account.

But the fact of the matter is that China has not put as high a premium on military modernization as it has on economic and agricultural modernization. This is true from the days of when the four modernization policies were first announced, and that hasn't changed dramatically.

China continues -- it has a very large military force, but it's not a highly modern military force. Although they are clearly working on ways to improve the force, they have a long way to go in terms of technological improvements. This does not seem to be their primary national development goal by any stretch of the imagination right now.

Press: Thank you.

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