SEC. GATES: Thank you.
Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be here on my first visit to Malaysia, and certainly my first visit as Secretary of Defense.
I’d like to start by wishing Prime Minister Najib a quick recovery from his illness. I’m sorry that it kept us from meeting in person. We spoke on the phone earlier this afternoon. And Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin and Minister Zahid hosted two very productive sessions today.
As you know, my visit follows closely a trip to Kuala Lumpur by Secretary of State Clinton. Between the two of us and our motorcades, I’m sure we managed to make your traffic even worse. (Laughter.) So I apologize for the disruption.
But in all seriousness, our two side-by-side visits send a clear message about the strong state of our bilateral ties and our mutual desire to deepen them further. In the area of defense, the U.S. and Malaysia have a multifaceted relationship that has spanned over 25 years, with many opportunities to enhance it still. To that end, we discussed building on our cooperation on counterterrorism and counter proliferation, and on maritime security.
I also expressed my support for Malaysia’s contributions in Afghanistan, where we share a desire to combat extremism, strengthen the rule of law, and promote economic development. Malaysia has a strong record as a leader in peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance efforts, and we discussed ways to work together to bolster that capability further.
I also stressed the importance of building stronger mechanisms for military-to-military cooperation, such as increasing the number of combined exercises and enhancing our ability to operate together.
The growth of our defense ties has gone hand-in-hand with the close working relationship I have developed with Minister Zahid. Earlier this year, I welcomed him to the Pentagon for a bilateral meeting, and we both participated last month in the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus in Hanoi.
Malaysia’s important role in that new forum is a testament to its commitment to the principles that I have said before are key to this region’s prosperity, including free and open commerce; adherence to the rule of law and international norms; open access by all to the global commons of sea, air, space and now cyberspace; and the principle of resolving conflict without the use of force. It is our shared belief in these principles that have led the U.S. and Malaysia to the strong defense relationship that we have today, and these are the principles that will continue to guide us as we take on new security challenges together with other nations in the region in the years to come.
Q: With apologies for the off-topic question, Mr. Secretary, on Iraq, what is your message to the political bloc leaders as they go through these couple of days of meetings? Have you been in touch with any of them directly to express that message? And how long does Iraq, once it has a new government, have to ask the United States if it wants to extend U.S. troop presence in that country?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, our -- we have made pretty clear to the -- to the Iraqis that what we seek and hope they will come together on is an inclusive government that represents all of the major elements of Iraqi society, and in a non-sectarian way so that they go forward as a nation together. And it is our hope that that is the direction that they are moving in taking a further step toward a democratic Iraq.
I have not spoken to any of the Iraqi leaders myself recently, although as you well know other members of the administration, in particular Vice President Biden has been very much engaged.
In terms of a future strategic relationship beyond the end of 2011, I would say that that initiative clearly needs to come from the Iraqis. We are open to discussing it. And I think it really depends as much as anything on -- in terms of timing, it’s really up to the Iraqis. I think it will take them a little time once they get a government, once they select a president, prime minister and speaker of the Council of Representatives, to make the ministerial appointments and form the government. So we will just -- we’ll stand by, and we’re ready to have that discussion if and when they want to raise it with us.
Q: Secretary Gates, after the recent foiled plot linked to al Qaeda and Yemen, how do you see -- given your background in intelligence, how do you see the threat posed by al Qaeda evolving generally? And is the United States able to keep up with that threat, given the huge commitment in Afghanistan?
And then to you, Mr. Minister, given the tensions between China and Japan recently, are you concerned that Beijing is bullying the smaller states of the region with its growing economic power?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I would say that the heart of al Qaeda remains with bin Laden and Zawahiri in the -- in the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is -- that is, as Secretary Clinton has said, the epicenter of terrorism. They provide guidance. They provide priorities. They provide legitimacy to other al Qaeda affiliates that are developing in other places, including in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen in particular, and in Northern Africa, in the Maghreb.
The first thing I would say is that, as we see al Qaeda becoming active -- and I should have mentioned here in Asia as well -- as we see al Qaeda spreading its tentacles in this way, the good news is we have some very strong partners that are working on this problem because of their own self-interest. We have many allies that are -- that are helping us. And I would say, just to point to the Maghreb, France is obviously very much involved. And when we’re talking about Asia, this is one of the areas of which the United States and Malaysia have been cooperating.
So we’re not in this fight by ourselves. We have some strong friends who see their own self-interest in dealing with this threat of extremist terrorism. And so I’m confident that we will have the resources and the capability to continue to deal with it.
MIN. ZAHID: China is our traditional friend, so we having trading with them ever since the 1,000 years ago. And we do not feel we are being bullied or other -- the small countries in Southeast Asia are being bullied by that. And as clearly mentioned by our -- (inaudible) -- prime minister in the -- (inaudible) -- we both need each other because we have many challenges in Malaysia which Malaysia and Chinese are contributing the development in this country. And we are very confident that we are more comfortable to engage with China rather than to have a sour relationship with them. So it’s the -- China, they have very positive attitude toward us.
Q: A question for the Minister and Secretary of Defense Gates. You mentioned about increasing the number of combined exercises between Malaysia and the United States. And in what fields would these be?
SEC. GATES: Well, we’ve had a number of exercises already. In fact, I think we had something like 15 exercises just this last year. Clearly, one area where we have exercised -- and just to pick up on the minister’s point, an area where we also would like to work with China -- is -- in terms of exercises and contact, is in the area of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Every country in the region has -- as well as ourselves -- has an interest in this capability. And I note the World Food Program center that’s going to be built here. So I think Malaysia has a -- has a big role to play in this.
So that’s one area. Counterterrorism, counter proliferation, piracy, these are all areas where I think there’s the opportunity for further exercises.
MIN. ZAHID: In terms of military training, as far as the actions and programs between the U.S. and Malaysian top military personnel --and the assistance of 1206 program -- (inaudible). And we are working together and user of the 1206 program, and we would like to share our experience.
And definitely U.S. will be persevering probably to expand the program, if not to upgrade to the level of state-of-the-art equipment. And I reckon the commitment of U.S. government, especially the Defense Department of the U.S., has shown the new development between U.S. and Malaysia. And even this visit, visit by Secretary Gates, gesture of a message saying very clearly that they regard us truly as observer, participant and friend now too.
Q: Secretary Gates, recently the China is moving the navy inside South China Sea. And my question is, the Chinese people is doing our doing our military best in Hainan Island, and how the USA people -- (inaudible) -- from the China -- from the Hainan Island?
SEC. GATES: I won’t get into any specifics, but the points that I made in Hanoi and points that I have been willing to make are in -- are along the lines of what I just described this morning.
Every nation has the right to have its own military forces. And what we ask is that people observe international norms of conduct, that they abide by international law, that they provide for the freedom of navigation and maritime security. And within that framework, that’s our approach in a variety of places around the world, and that continues to be our approach here as well.