Media Availability with Secretary Gates and Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte en route to Canberra, Australia
SEC. GATES: (In progress) -- about the meeting itself. If I'm not mistaken, the AUSMIN meetings have been going on for 23 years, and this is the 19th meeting. There will be three formal sessions and a working lunch. The first session will be eight on a side, including the representative of the Foreign Ministry and State Department and ministers of Defense.
The first session will (amazingly/mainly ?) be a strategic overview and will focus on Middle East, Iraq and North Korea, as well as some broader global issues. The second session will focus on some regional issues such as China, Afghanistan, basically Asian issues. The working lunch will be focused on the neighborhood, principally Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. And the final session will focus on bilateral issues, principally bilateral defense issues and areas where we can further expand our cooperation and have an enhanced relationship.
(Turns to Mr. Negroponte.)
MR. NEGROPONTE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Just to add that, I think from both our perspectives, we have no better ally than Australia. They have been a magnificent partner on the global scene, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have a very close friendship and cooperation and partnership in the East Asia/Pacific region. And we're very appreciative of the role that they play in helping promote regional stability and prosperity. And most recently in particular I'd refer you to the situation in East Timor, where the Australian government security forces have stepped up to that situation. And that when you think about it, they play -- Australia plays a very, very important role in helping maintain a stability and prosperity in the South Pacific region.
SEC. GATES: I'd just like to add one other thing. I was just sitting here thinking about the fact that my first travel abroad, as a senior official in 1982, was to Australia. And I feel like I've had a good relationship with the Australian government in many incarnations for the last quarter of a century.
We will be the first senior U.S. government officials to visit Australia since the new government has come into office. I think that the anticipation will be a great deal of continuity. We have a lot of interests in common. And to initiate, at a senior level, the ongoing dialogue with this new government -- (off mike).
Q Mr. Secretary, the Australians have announced that they're going to reduce the level of troops, the number of troops, that they have. Are you far enough along in your own thinking, about what's going to happen in Iraq through the end of the year, to be able to coordinate with them the kinds of changes that will -- (off mike)?
SEC. GATES: I think that the, at our suggestion, the Iraqis have been, the Australians have been in conversations with General Petraeus. They are still going to have a number of people in Iraq. And in terms of the role they might continue to play, training, other kinds of activities like that, that's a dialogue right now that's going on between the Australians and General Petraeus.
Q (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: Well, I think the Australians have made their own decision to change the role in Iraq. And I would tell you that while obviously we value them and the roles that they have played in Iraq, at the same time, we're mindful of the fact that nearly half of the Australian army is deployed, between the Pacific Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan. And so, you know, we, as you all know, we're concerned about the stress on our own forces. The Australians currently are confronting that challenge.
Q Mr. Secretary, for several months, you've suggested that you hope the pace of withdrawal from Iraq could continue in the second half of the year, so that you would have roughly 100,000 troops there. When you went and met with General Petraeus recently, you suggested -- (off mike). Why did you change your mind?
SEC. GATES: Well, I don't -- (off mike) -- and my hope still is that we would be able to further draw down our troops in Iraq over the course of the next 10 to 12 months.
I've always indicated that it would be based on the conditions on the ground. And frankly, in my recent conversations with General Petraeus, General Odierno, when I was in Baghdad a short time ago, they persuaded me that before brigade combat teams coming out in the space of about four months, that a period of consolidation and evaluation in terms of how that works and whether they're able to not only sustain but further expand on the security improvements that we've seen is a legitimate thing. I hope (it will be ?) a relatively brief period, but we will see in greater detail what General Petraeus has in mind when he brings his recommendations back to Washington and to the president next month.
Q (Off mike) -- a relatively brief period? Can you quantify that? Do you have a sense in your own mind, a range of what that might be?
SEC. GATES: No, I think I'd just leave it at that.
Q Back to Australia, you mentioned in your opening comments that you expected continuity. How is it that with the new government and the bilateral relationship being such a hot issue in the election, and Howard being criticized for being so tight with the U.S -- there seems to have been a bit of a mood swing in Australia on that very point. Could you talk a bit why you expect continuity versus perhaps a change in Australia's view of this relationship because -- (off mike)?
SEC. GATES: Continuity doesn't mean there might not be changes in tactics or changes in approach to certain problems. What I was referring to was continuity in the close relationship that the United States has had with Australia and vice versa for a long time. And I expect both sides strongly believe that there will be continuity in that arena. Where that may end up in somewhat different directions by the new Australian government is one of the things we'll find out.
MR. NEGROPONTE: If I could just add, also we did have a visit recently to Washington by the foreign minister of Australia. And certainly, one of the messages that he most definitely brought with him was their commitment to the bilateral relationship and to the importance of the U.S.-Australia alliance. So I think that he came with a reassuring message about their commitment to this fundamental friendship that we have and the shared interest and the shared values.
Q What about just the narrow issue of the military, particularly the Iraq mission, the Afghan mission? Any concern there that change of government will lessen the commitment of the Australians to those?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think we've already drawn attention to the fact that there is a change in their number of disposition of their forces in Iraq. That decision's already been made. I think that they are a significant player in Afghanistan and clearly a valued ally. I've had two meetings with their Defense minister, I think at this point, and I don't have any sense of a change in direction in Afghanistan at this point.
Q Mr. Secretary?
Q Mr. Secretary, back on Iraq for just a second. Sadr has said that he will make an announcement on Friday about whether or not to continue the cease-fire. Do you have any expectations that there will be an extension or there won't? And what do you think that impact will be in Iraq, considering there has been a slight uptick in violence?
SEC. GATES: I have no idea what he might do.
And as for the latest uptick in violence, I think partly it's due, again, to our forces being on the offensive again, particularly in Diyala province, Nineweh, and I think they are seeing some additional activity.
So you know, I think General Petraeus has been pretty straightforward about this all along, but there -- this is not a straight line projection; that there will be ups and downs. What we've been paying attention to in particular are the long-term trend lines, and those continue to be very positive in terms of the level of violence.
Q Well, has there been outreach to Sadr to urge him to continue? (Laughter.)
MR. NEGROPONTE: Not that I'm aware of. Certainly when I was ambassador there, I don't remember him being that accessible. (Laughter.)
Q Mr. Secretary, the relationship Australia has with China economically is extremely important for them, and getting stronger. Is there any concern that their economic relationship would, in many ways, shape their security and strategic thinking in any kind of negative way?
SEC. GATES: Well, I don't know. I'd invite Ambassador Negroponte to comment. I don't think so.
I mean, we have a huge a economic relationship with China, and each of the two sides has a significant vested interest in the economic relationship. I think it's clearly true of Australia as well. I think China now has become Australia's largest trading partner.
But I don't think that any government is going to put its fundamental security interests at risk over an economic relationship. I think there's no need to do that. There's no need to assume that those two -- that the strategic interests and economic interests are going to diverge any more, necessarily, then they do between the United States and China.
MR. NEGROPONTE: And just one thing to add, I -- both of us I think look forward with interest to our meetings with the Australians on this particular subject because Mr. Rudd himself is a China expert. That was his area of expertise when he was a Foreign Service officer, and he speaks Mandarin Chinese. So -- and that's certainly an issue that's going to be on the agenda in terms of exchanging views and impressions and analyses about the relationship with China.
Q There's a lot of speculation, especially in the financial markets, that there's going to be much deeper ties between Australia and China with this new government that they have there. What kind of impact could that have on Australia's relationship with the United States if they keep strengthening their deepening ties with Beijing?
MR. NEGROPONTE: I think I would stick to what Secretary Gates already said. I don't think there's anything incompatible with developing an economic relationship with China and also managing our bilateral relationship within the alliance. We both have enjoyed economic relationships with China. And as the secretary noted, ours with China is also growing -- in fact, growing rather dramatically. And so it's the question of managing these issues and taking a sort of a holistic and multifaceted approach in which hopefully both (parties are interested ?).
Q You talk very -- quite frequently about your desire to have both Fallon and Petraeus all make a presentation to the president unburdened by, you know, the August (timeline ?). By coming out and siding really with Petraeus on his view of a pause after July, are you concerned at all that you've achieved -- particularly on stress on the force and those kind of concerns that have been raised in recent weeks might somehow be sublimated because you've come out and backed Petraeus on this?
SEC. GATES: You know, I think that talking about a brief pause in no way prejudices the recommendations that either General Petraeus or Admiral Fallon or the Joint Chiefs are going to make about the overall direction of our troop levels and their assessment of the situation on the ground. In fact, I think that consolidation and evaluation is probably necessary in order to be able to assess the pacing, if you will, of the resumption of drawdowns.
Q Can I ask you a question about the satellite story? You briefly touched on this, earlier today. People are sort of -- I mean, you've followed this issue -- (off mike) -- and I'm wondering if you can give us a sense of how sort of significant that was. What does it tell us about U.S. missile defense capabilities? (Off mike.) So I mean, based on what you now know.
SEC. GATES: You know, I think that, you know, people remember a time some years ago when missile defense was extremely controversial and there were a lot of people who questioned whether it would work or not. And it was always a struggle with the Congress to get money for missile defense.
But it seems to me, as I suggested earlier, that one of the significant changes that has taken place in Washington over the past few years has been a general recognition that the development of the system has proceeded -- that it does have capability and is increasingly sophisticated in terms of the kinds of challenges that it may be able to meet, although it's still very much designed for a very limited kind of threat. Everybody needs to understand that.
While those who vote the money and those who are deeply involved in it are aware of the test programs or tests that have taken place, I'm not sure the public has been equally as aware of the progress that has been made. So I think perhaps one benefit of -- I believe a side benefit of yesterday's action was to underscore that the money that Congress has been voting for this has resulted in a very real capability.
Q Can I just go back to China, not just from the perspective of Australia but from the broader regional perspective. For the U.S., there are a number of countries in Asia that have relied on the U.S. for a long time, economically and from the security perspective. But all of these countries now are going to look towards China a lot more in terms of trade relationships. What is the kind of U.S. strategic view of how to deal with Asia going forward as China rises, military and foreign policy?
MR. NEGROPONTE: Well, I guess the first point I'd make is that our view, our policy, is to remain engaged in Asia. We are very much a Pacific nation. We have major security alliances in the region, which we intend to continue to nurture and develop, most notably with Japan and Korea and in Australia. Those are the three major ones. And all the while developing a relationship with China, building on what's gone before, and trying to engage China in such a way as they are a or that they become a responsible stakeholder in the international system.
And I'd say that as regards China (on its ?) political and security areas, we've had some positive experience engaging China on such issues as the six-party talks, on Iran, on certain questions relating to Africa, such as Darfur, and we intend to continue that process. So as far as Asia's concerned, the United States feels and is very much a part of the Asia-Pacific region and intends to continue to be so in the foreseeable future.
STAFF: Let's take one last question.
Q You've expressed that you don't intend to stay past this administration, yet there are several initiatives or issues that are going to continue past. As you begin to think about turning -- (off mike) -- this war on to the next -- (off mike), what are some specific benchmarks -- (laughter) -- what are some of the specific benchmarks for -- I mean, how would you like to (paint it ?)? What are some things you'd like to get -- (off mike)?
SEC. GATES: Well, I said before that I consider it one of my challenges to just try and do what I could to help put Iraq in a place where we could continue a process of gradual drawdowns, but with the reality in mind that some level of U.S. forces significantly lower than right now will need to remain in Iraq for some period of time for stabilization, for -- to continue the fight against al Qaeda, to help continue training and equipping the Iraqi forces and so on. So you know, I think that that -- knock wood -- is on track.
Clearly, trying to get this longer-term -- when we began to get this longer-term strategy for Afghanistan approved by NATO and the heads of state, heads of government, in early April, is important in terms of looking well beyond this administration. And see what we can do to bring greater allied unity and commitment to the kind of long-term effort that's going to be required in Afghanistan. You know, as far as weapons systems and so on are concerned, those all will have evolved well beyond -- (inaudible) -- presence.
And so I think that -- you know, I think sometimes there's a temptation to figure out, well, let's see if we can't solve all the problems before Inauguration Day. This will be my, I guess, my seventh or eighth transition. I have yet to see one where the new administration didn't inherit some problems. And so I think -- (inaudible) -- as many issues as we can in as good a place as we can. And I would say -- a chord that I've struck a number of times before -- we're doing our best to put them in a place where there can be sustained bipartisan support for these policies.
And you know, I think another big challenge that we face this year is trying to continue to warrant the bipartisan support on the Hill for funding the Defense budget and funding the amount of modernization programs that do take a number of years and several presidencies. It is, in fact, the Congress that provides that kind of continuity, more than just four or eight years at a time. So I think those are some of the issues that we'll try and work on.
Q Thank you.
MR. NEGROPONTE: Thank you all. Appreciate it. Thanks.
Q Thank you.
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