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Media Availability with Secretary Gates en route to Singapore - Updated

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
June 02, 2011

[The following transcript originally posted on June 2 has been updated to include embargoed information and missing comments caused by an audio break.]

                SEC. GATES:  Let me just say a word about going to Shangri-La.  This will be the fifth consecutive time I’ve done this.  I think one of the things that has surprised me coming back to government despite all the controversies of recent years and the Iraq war and everything else has been the very broad interest on the part of many countries to strengthen the relationship with the United States and to have a stronger partnership with the United States.  And I don’t think this is true anywhere more than in Asia.

                And I think that there has been really extraordinary progress made, particularly in – I would say in the last couple of years or so with a number of countries in strengthening our military-to-military relationships and our overall relationship – Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Australia certainly, as well as our traditional allies in Thailand, Japan, and Korea.  Obviously, a lot of attention focused on Southeast Asia at Shangri-La.

                And I think the general recognition on the part of all the countries over the past several years that their own security environment is evolving and their desire to adjust their own positions accordingly and the need for us to be flexible as we develop our relationships with these countries and the nature of the activities that we have with others, whether it’s exercises or training programs or equipment or whatever.

               So I see – and what I will largely talk about at the conference is the evolution and the changes in these positions and kind of where we are and moving to the future, but it is this – it goes back to what I have said, frankly using Madeline Albright’s term that the one thing that has been brought home to me again in this job is how many countries around the world truly do consider the United States the indispensable nation.  We are often the catalyst not only for bilateral relationships, but for multilateral, the development of multilateral cooperation.  And we are willing to partner with the people in these things.

                And I think as the kinds of problems that the world is facing make it more difficult to have to be successful with a unilateral approach, the opportunity to build these partnerships it becomes even more important.

               Obviously, China plays a big part in this.  We’re very satisfied with the progress of the relationship.  My first visit to China in this job was in the fall of 2007.  I laid out a fairly ambitious agenda for developing our military-to-military relationship.  We’ve obviously hit snags and obstacles along the way, but I think we’re in a pretty good place now, pretty realistic.

               And if anything, what all of this has sort of suggested to me is we need more of what is almost always in short supply when it comes to the United States and its government, and that is patience, that these relationships take time to develop.  And we get very impatient because our timelines are always short.  And we just – we need to understand that these things develop over time.  So why don’t I stop there.

              Q:  Another thing that’s going to be in short supply besides patience is money.  You’ve been forthright in talking about how the downward pressures on the budget make the American people have to say what it can forego having the military do.  They should look at Asia, are there things the military is doing in Asia now that can be jettisoned or are there risks that you see in what we can do in Asia by the downward pressure on the budget?

              SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that in a way many of the things that we’re doing in Asia in building these relationships are actually pretty cost effective – training, exercises, rotations of forces and so on are – and the use of our Navy, our air assets moving from place to place.  I think these are all cost effective ways of enhancing our influence, but also letting these countries know that we’re a reliable partner and that we can be counted on.

              But it does – I would say, if anything these pressures put a premium on multilateral responses to problems.  And whether it’s humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, where we see opportunities with a number of countries out here, including China, to deal with what seem to be all too frequent natural disasters that occur in Asia.

               So I think that, as I said once before, everything will be on the table, but I believe that our approach to enhancing our relationships, our presence and our influence in Asia is a very cost effective approach.

              Q:  To pick up on your comment about being in a pretty good place with China right now, the relationship, obviously, as you said has had its ups and downs.  And it is currently on the ups.  But at this moment there’s also pressure to do – pressure building in Congress to move ahead with the F-16 sale, and I wondered whether you think the benefits of that to Taiwan’s security would outweigh the costs that would be incurred in the relationship with China?

              SEC. GATES:  Well, we do have obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.  And we have this discussion in virtually every meeting that we have with the Chinese.  I would say that I think under both the Bush and Obama administrations, we have tried to thread the needle pretty carefully in terms of Taiwan’s defensive capabilities, but at the same time being aware of China’s sensitivities.  I think both administrations have done this very thoughtfully and very carefully.  By the same token, there is – just as the Chinese are very open with us about their concerns, we are also open with them about our obligations.

              Q:  What’s your judgment about the F-16 sale – (off mike)?

              SEC. GATES:  I don’t have a view on that at this point.

              Q:  Sir, does the – at this point it’s a relatively, as far as historical terms, good relationships between Taiwan and Beijing?  And does that give you any confidence that the ups and downs, that there may be a way around the ups and downs in the mil-to-mil relationship for your successor?  I mean, you came in, thought things would go well, had a long period when things didn’t go well, things are a little bit better now.  What might give us some hope that it won’t be Groundhog Day, in the words of Geoff Morrell?

              SEC. GATES:  Well, I don’t know the answer to that because I think we don’t know how the next months or a year or two will evolve.  What is clear to me is that President Hu and President Obama have a shared interest in strengthening this relationship.  They both believe that the military part of this relationship is underdeveloped compared to the military – compared to the political and economic elements of the relationship.

              So, I think General Chen’s visit to the United States, the fact that the Chinese have upgraded their representation for the first time at Shangri-La to their minister of defense – I think we’ll just have to see how it plays out.  And as I said a minute ago, be patient.

              Q:  As the PLA chief you referred to talked about how he felt that the army chief, the Chinese PLA chief Chen said during his visit that he felt that the whole Chinese threat had been hyped – that the Chinese military buildup had been hyped.  Is that the case?  And if not, how would you describe the potential threat that the Chinese military poses and how has that been trending in the past year or so, and including their behavior and their actions?

              SEC. GATES:  I think that their military modernization is proceeding apace.  They are clearly working on capabilities that are of concern to us in terms of denial of access, particularly with respect to our aircraft carriers, the development of long-range accurate cruise and ballistic anti-ship missiles.

              I seem to have some recollection of them having a demonstration of a stealth aircraft, fighter aircraft.  I think clearly some of their work in cyber and anti-satellites.  So, you know, my sense of it is that they are – and in their efforts frankly to build a blue water navy.

              So I don’t have the sense that – let me rephrase that.  I think the Chinese have learned a powerful lesson from the Soviet experience and they do not intend to try and compete with us across the full range of military capabilities.  But I think they are intending to build capabilities that give them considerable freedom of action in Asia and the opportunity to extend their influence.

             Now, one of the things that I’ve thought since I took this job was that under those circumstances there is value in a continuing dialogue by the two sides of just exactly what our concerns are, what our issues are, and how we might alleviate the concerns on both sides.  And that’s why I have believed all along that this strategic dialogue is so important.  We are not trying to hold China down.  China has been a great power for thousands of years.  It is a global power and will be a global power.

              So the question is, how we work our way through this in a way that assures that we continue to have positive relations in areas like economics and other areas that are important to both of us and manage whatever differences of view we have in the other areas?

              Q:  Let me ask you about the selection of the new chairman.  Two questions really.  It’s been widely reported that General Cartwright’s providing alternatives to the White House on the troop debate of last – of a year and a half ago now affected his candidacy.  I guess I’d like you to address that if you would.  And second, the selection of General Dempsey has a kind of last-minute quality to it.  You had a plan I think going back many months, maybe a year for this transition.  Can you explain the selection of General Dempsey and how he fit into that plan?

              SEC. GATES:  Well, I’m clearly not going to get into personalities or the recommendations that I made with the president.  I would say that I’ve been in a dialogue with the president over the succession issues for at least a year.  I will tell you that some of the negative things that have been reported as influencing the decision, for example, the Afghan piece, are completely wrong – have nothing to do with whatsoever.

              Hoss Cartwright is one of the finest officers I’ve ever worked with.  I think he has been an outstanding vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  I think he had made an enormous contribution and I’ve enjoyed working with him for four years and consider him a friend.  And he has rendered extraordinary service to the American people.

              What I have tried to do as I’ve talked about my own successor and the whole range of positions within the government, including a potential successor for Leon [Panetta] at CIA and so on, has been to talk to the president about it as a team.  The cohesiveness that we have had for the last two and a half years as a national security team I think has been an extraordinary asset for the president and for the country.  And so, foremost in my mind was how, do I, make recommendations to him? (Audio break) -- and how do I maintain my dialogue with him, how do we sustain the kind of teamwork that has been so critical?

              And it has everything to do with relationships.  And it's the relationship between the secretary of defense and the president, between the secretary of defense and the chairman, all of these relationships are important.  Those were the kinds of considerations as we looked at the kind of challenges at the defense department and in the national security arena that we could face in the future that were uppermost in my mind.  And so, that's the reality, and this other stuff, frankly, most of its garbage.

              Q: Do you think the tested fighter jet in China, do think there is still a disconnect?  And on Japan, the letter (inaudible)?

              SEC. GATES: Well on the latter one, we have in just three weeks; we have a 2-plus-2 meeting with the Japanese.  We remain committed to the positions that have been agreed with the Japanese, we will sit down at that session and see, you know measure the progress that's being made and what the prospects are and then together we'll decide on the next steps for moving forward.  In terms of the senators letter they've clearly looked at it closely.  Frankly some of the suggestions they make we've looked at many times.  And some of the things such as the consolidation have been, both our military and the Japanese have big problems with.  So I think we'll continue on the path we're on, we'll see where we are at the 2-plus-2 and then together with the Japanese will decide on the next steps forward.

              In terms of the Chinese leadership and the military, I've never believed that the PLA was not responsive to the Chinese leadership.  What I perceived was that on a day to day basis, they didn't go out of their way to keep the political leadership informed of what they were doing.  I have used these examples before, I think the J20 test was one, and I will tell you that everything I have seen since then reinforces my belief then that the leadership was not aware that plane was going to be tested.  But it's also been things the (inaudible) tests, the kind of day to day things that seemed to catch the political leadership by surprise.  But my impression is that President Hu and leadership has made clear that they want this relationship with the United States to move in a particular direction. And I think that the PLA has been responsible for that.

              STAFF:  Is there anything you wanted to say off the top, sir?

              SEC. GATES:  I think, just to state the obvious -- I can't remember whether this is the 14th or 15th [trip to Afghanistan] --

              STAFF:  I think it's your 13th.

              SEC. GATES:  -- whatever trip -- (laughter) --

              STAFF:  But we'll double-check.

              SEC. GATES:  This is principally an opportunity to -- for me, to thank the troops and bid them farewell.  So I don't expect it to be a very easy trip.

              Q:  Did you bring a lot of coins, Mr. Secretary?

              SEC. GATES:  Brought a lot of coins -- aircraft will be a lot lighter going to Belgium.

              Q:  Is there anything that you think you can learn from this trip that would plug into the decision on the pace and the conditions for a drawdown?  And there were -- have been press reports about whether funding should play a role in that decision.  Do you think that's an appropriate variable to discuss when talking about the drawdown plans for this summer and beyond?

              SEC. GATES:  I think that once you've committed, that success of the mission should override everything else, because the most costly thing of all would be to fail.

              Now that does not preclude adjustments in the mission or in the strategy.  But ultimately the objective has to be success in the mission that has been set forth by the president.

              And so I guess that answers that question.

              Q:  Could I ask just a little bit --

              SEC. GATES:  (Inaudible) -- it's always helpful to go into these discussions with the latest information from the field and some feeling of the ground truth in terms of how things are going.  So that will obviously be helpful.

              Q:  Your expectations for what will come out of the troop discussion?  We've been told for a year now that not only will there be an initial withdrawal but that it -- a pace of withdrawals over the -- over some undefined period would possibly also come out of it.  Will we hear sort of at least a possible schedule for, you know, how quickly American troops will come out of Afghanistan beyond July and for the rest of this year?  In other words, is it next year and the years beyond?

              SEC. GATES:  Well, I don't -- I don't want to pre-empt the president's decisions phase.  He's made a commitment that we will begin this process next month.  But obviously, as we look ahead, we're going to have to think about sort of the next year or two in terms of where we are.  The president has been very explicit that specific decisions will be based on conditions on the ground.  And so General Petraeus will obviously be an integral element in the -- in the deliberations.  As we weigh all these things, we have to weigh the impact, potentially, on our allies of what we decide.  We certainly don't want to precipitate a rush for the exits by our partners.

              By the same token, you can't be oblivious to the growing war-weariness at home and the -- and diminishing support in the Congress.  So I think these are all things that the president will have to weigh and those of -- those of us advising him, will have to weigh as well.

              STAFF:  Last one.

              Q:  A question about Pakistan.  Do you see any signs -- in the weeks since the bin Laden raid, do you see any signs that they are more or perhaps significantly less willing to cooperate?  Have you seen?

              SEC. GATES:  Well, I think there were some pretty explicit discussions between Secretary Clinton and Admiral Mullen, on the one hand, and the Pakistani leaders, on the other.  And that visit's only a week old.  And so I think it's a little early to make any judgments on that score.

              Q:  (Inaudible.)

              STAFF:  OK.  Thanks, guys.

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