SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: All right. Let me give you some preliminary remarks and then we’ll just open it up. First, look, obviously, the purpose of this trip is to define the new strategy – the new defense strategy for the region and particularly the emphasis on the rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region.
We have a strong presence now in the Pacific, but we’ll continue to strengthen that presence over the next five to 10 years. And our goal is to obviously build a region that enjoys peace, prosperity, security and stability.
There are four key shared principles that are going to be critical to achieving those goals. One is the principle of a rules-based region that relies on international rules and international order. We’ve got to have that region be able to have rules – international rules that every nation adheres to.
Secondly, that we want to build partnerships – strong partnerships for the future and try to modernize our alliances and partnerships in the region, build on their capabilities, build new and stronger relationships with the countries in that region and that part of that is obviously an effort to build a closer relationship with China as well, to develop our mil-to-mil relations, to be able to be more transparent in that relationship because that is also going to be critical to our ability to achieve the goals that we want to achieve.
Thirdly, to strengthen our presence in the region as well. And we want to do that through a key element of our new strategy which is developing these innovative rotational exchanges and deployments that we’ve already begun to do in Australia, that we’re working on in the Philippines, and that we’re working on elsewhere as well. And also to obviously build on our key alliances and partnerships in the region. We have strong treaty alliances with Korea, Japan, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, and we also have strong partners in India, Singapore and Indonesia. And we want to use all of those relationships as a foundational element to further our relations and partnerships with other countries, particularly those that are part of the ASEAN grouping of nations.
And lastly, you know, we want to strengthen our power projection as well. We’re going to be having a higher proportion of our forces that will be located in the Asia-Pacific. We want to develop some new platforms for the kind of operations that I talked about in that region as well. And we want to obviously continue to invest in new technologies that will help us build a stronger power projection in the region as well.
The trip is basically designed to emphasize those points. In Hawaii I had the opportunity to meet with Admiral Locklear and PACOM and we talked about steps to implement the new strategy. And we also talked about Korea and the role that Korea will play in all of this, particularly the threat from North Korea and the relationship with South Korea.
Secondly, in Singapore I’m going to be talking to the Shangri-La Security Dialogue and there I’ll again define the Asia-Pacific rebalance and our new strategy. And I’ll also engage in a number of bilateral and multilateral meetings to listen to them, to listen to their thoughts, but also to define for them what our new strategy is all about.
Thirdly, in Vietnam we’re celebrating the 17th anniversary of normalization with Vietnam, but also the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. And I’m hoping to do what I can to help improve our relationship with Vietnam and at the same time work with them to identify and try to locate our MIAs that are there and try to make sure we bring them all home.
India is an important strategic partner in this region of the world. I’m going to be speaking to the India Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis. And what I’ll do is again outline our long-term strategic relationship with India as part and parcel of this larger strategy in the Pacific[WC1] .
Q: Mr. Secretary, just on Syria. Secretary Clinton today has talked a lot about Russia’s failings and was criticizing Russia for not sort of – criticizing Russia for not relinquishing its backing of the Assad regime. The U.S. has talked a lot about not wanting to do military action, but is there some sort of military intervention including some sort of arming of the rebels or other things that the U.S. can do maybe short of a military action there?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I think there’s no question that we’re very concerned about the atrocities that are taking place in Syria. It just makes clear how important it is to remove Assad from power and try to implement the necessary political reforms that are necessary in that country.
I think as the president and secretary have made clear, we need to continue to work with the international community to continue to put economic and diplomatic pressure on them, and take whatever other steps need to be taken in order to make very clear that Assad does have to step down. It does mean continuing to put pressure on Russia to do what it can to achieve that goal. It means continuing to explore every other possible option here to try to continue the effort to get Assad to step down.
This is an intolerable situation. We cannot be satisfied with what’s going on. And the international community has got to take further steps to make sure that Assad steps down.
Q: Sir, do you see a situation where the U.S. takes action – military action without U.N. authorization?
SEC. PANETTA: No, I cannot envision that because, look, as secretary of defense, my greatest responsibility is to make sure that when we deploy our men and women in uniform and put them at risk that we not only know what the mission is, but we have the kind of support that we need in order to accomplish that mission. And for that reason, obviously – you know, we plan. We’re prepared for any contingency, but ultimately, you know, the international community and the president of the United States are going to have to decide what steps we take.
Q: Just to follow up, does that mean that you disagree with what Susan Rice said yesterday, Ambassador Rice said that we may be at the – in a situation where it will be necessary to move forward without the U.N.?
SEC. PANETTA: I think it’s always important for the United States of America to protect every possible option for taking action in the future, but I think it’s very important right now that we continue to work with the international community because we all share the same concerns and the same goals here. And, you know, my hope would be that the international community becomes much more aggressive at deciding what additional steps are necessary here to achieve what all of us want to achieve, which is Assad stepping down and Syria being given to the Syrian people to determine their future.
Q: Are you at all worried about the judgment of history in terms of delays in – as massacres mount in Syria and the international consensus has not come together, are you worried that history may judge that the United States waited too long to act? How much does that figure in the calculation, if at all?
SEC. PANETTA: History will always have to make judgments and I don’t think we ought to base what actions we take based on what we assume history may or may not say about what we do. I think we have to base our actions on what we think is the most important way to achieve the mission that we’re engaged in. And right now the key mission is to do whatever is necessary to bring pressure on Assad to step down.
Q: Sorry. On Syria, is there also a danger that if Assad’s regime remains in power that this is a serious blow to U.S. interests, stability in the region, and effectively be a victory for Iran? Is that also something to weigh as the Security Council continues to dither?
SEC. PANETTA: I think that Assad ultimately is going to be removed from power. None of us can tell you when but I think it’s a matter of time before that happens. I think the most important thing right now is for the international community to take whatever steps are necessary in order to ensure that that happens.
Q: This is a quick one, Mr. Secretary. Have you briefed the president at all on any possible military options for Syria?
SEC. PANETTA: We – as I’ve often said, one thing we do at the Pentagon is we plan for all contingencies and we’ve done that here. And I’m not going to go into what we briefed the president on, but I think it does suffice to say that we are prepared for any contingency or for any action that we’re called upon to do.
Q: Mr. Secretary, just on Asia-Pacific, if you don’t mind. Did you discuss the rotational assignment process with Admiral Locklear or the other folks from PACOM? And how will that look? And we already have folks in Australia. I guess we have some into the Philippines. What other countries specifically do you see American troops doing this rotation to?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I think one thing that, you know, just kind of standing back, we’re implementing a very new strategy in this region. And, you know, we’re moving away from the Cold War strategy where you build permanent bases and just basically impose our power on the region. We’re moving towards a very innovative and creative relationship in which we develop these rotational deployments that we work with these countries to develop their capabilities, that we strengthen the partnerships for the future.
And, yes, I talked with Admiral Locklear about how can we best do that. And, you know, we are testing that approach in Australia. We’re working on developing the same kind of approach in the Philippines and elsewhere. And there’s a lot of work here. This is something that’s going to take every aspect of DOD and our defense capabilities, how can we be creative in making these kinds of rotational deployments really work effectively for us in the future. And that’s something every commander is engaged in.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You talked about building pockets of capacity in the region. As part of that, are you going to be able to offer any details on increases in exercises and military cooperation with the countries in the region?
SEC. PANETTA: One of the things I hope to do in this process is not just to talk to them, but to listen to their needs as well. And, you know, I think we have a number of capabilities that we can bring to bear here. We can obviously provide advice. We can provide assistance. We can provide technological help. We can provide weaponry that is necessary. So I’m going to be listening to all of these countries and listen to what kind of assistance makes sense in developing that partnership relationship.
MR. : David.
Q: On the strategy – how concerned are you that allies in the region and other partners could misinterpret the shift that’s going on here? And really that that could raise tensions with China, encouraging them to be more strident in some of these disputes in the South China Sea, et cetera?
SEC. PANETTA: Look, you know, to make this work – this isn’t just about the military. It’s got to be diplomatic. It’s got to be economic. It’s got to be trade. It’s got to be building a number of relations that build prosperity and security in the region. And I think the key point here is that this is not about containment of China.
This is about bringing China into that relationship to try to deal with some common challenges that we all face: the challenge of humanitarian assistance and needs; the challenge of dealing with weapons of mass destruction that are proliferating throughout the world; and dealing with narco-trafficking, and dealing with piracy; and dealing with issues that relate to trade and how do we improve trade and how do we improve lines of communication.
So there are some common challenges here that impact on every country in the region including China. And I think it’s going to be in their interest, our interest, India’s interest and the nations in ASEAN’s interest to try to work together because the goal here is how do we confront those challenges and how do we build prosperity and security in the region for the future. That’s the fundamental goal that not only is in our interest, but it’s in China’s interest as well.
MR. LITTLE: A few more. William ?.
Q: Thanks Inaudible – from the Washington Post. I was wondering – so on that question of drawing China into more responsibility, you know, they tried this at the beginning of the administration and met with some resistance, significant resistance on stuff like climate. How do you do it differently this time in a way that overcomes some of that? And then, the other question is just in terms of – it’s been happier since the rollout of this rebalancing strategy. What kind of concerns have you heard from Asian allies about this? What’s the response been? And what are their key kind of worries either about what this rebalancing could mean or what the implications, unintended implications could be of it?
SEC. PANETTA: Okay. First part of the question, with regards to China and can we build an effective mil-to-mil relationship and also frankly can we build a strong partnership for that region, I’m much more hopeful, based on the meetings that I had with the Chinese leadership, based on the follow-through that we’ve had as a result of those meetings that they are interested in being able to do that.
And, look, like every relationship ultimately has to be based on an element of trust that both sides trust each other in the relationship. We’re going to have bumps in the road. There are going to be challenges out there. There’re going to be differences, but if there’s an element of trust in the relationship, then I think we can make this work.
With regards to the other countries in the region, as they look at the new strategy I think it’s important that we made clear to them that this isn’t just about our military presence, but it is building a relationship in a number of ways; as I said, diplomatically, economically, trade. This is a region that is extremely important to all of us because of its security and its economic implications for the future. And I think everybody understands that, but this isn’t just about military power. It’s not just about developing military capabilities. It is really about building a broader base of capabilities and support in the countries of the region so that they can confront the challenges I’ve just talked about.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You mentioned the need to develop new types of systems that are geared toward the Pacific. Can you talk about the systems you envision? And also when you spoke to the troops earlier today, you mentioned that Hawaii will continue to be such a key location. Do you see an increase in personnel going on?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I think that we have about a quarter of a million – a quarter of a million?
MR. LITTLE: (Off mic.)
SEC. PANETTA: Yes, in the PACOM area?
MR. LITTLE: (Off mic.)
SEC. PANETTA: Yes, we got about 330,000 in this region right now, but we’re going to continue to strengthen that for the future as we develop this. So the likelihood is that, you know, there will be increased personnel going into the region and perform different roles. I mean, as I said, when you look at the proportion of forces that we have in the world, I think it’s fair to say that a higher percentage, higher proportion of those forces is going to wind up in the Pacific.
MR. LITTLE: All right. Maybe one or two more, David.
Q: Back on Syria, isn’t there a risk as this is delayed and pushed back in solving the problem, isn’t there a risk that this becomes a sectarian proxy war that begins to drag in other countries in the region? What do you do to try to slow down that process of – (inaudible).
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I think one of the concerns is that, you know, there’re countries like Iran and others are already involved in trying to assist Assad, that there’re other – other groups that – you know, both good and bad that are engaged as well right now, and that, you know, the longer this goes on, I think the greater the threat that the situation is going to get worse in terms of, you know, what happens ultimately when Assad does step down.
I think the key right now – and I think we still have the opportunity – is to make an effective transition, getting rid of Assad, but doing it in a way that continues to provide stability for Syria. That ought to be the goal that we try to achieve.
MR. LITTLE: And finally Larry.
Q: Thanks. Larry Abramson with NPR. To go back to the pivot, can you talk about whether or not this is built into the budget cuts that you’ve already planned for and is it something that you basically have to abandon if you face future budget cuts because of what’s going on in Congress.
SEC. PANETTA: The strategy – the strategy that we’ve put in place, the new strategy, was the basis on which we developed the budget that we sent up to the Congress. So the answer to your question is that the budget does encompass what we need to do in terms of rebalancing to the Pacific. We feel very comfortable with our ability to accomplish that with the budget we’ve proposed.
If sequester takes place, as I pointed out before, it’s going to – it’s going to seriously impact on our strategy, I think we’d probably have to be in a situation where we have to throw that strategy out the window and then have to take a whole new look at how we’re able to respond. I’m hoping that won’t happen. I’m hoping Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, will exercise the necessary leadership to make sure that the sequester is detriggered, but the only way that’s going to happen is if they are willing to make some tough decisions. They have to be made not sometime in the future, frankly, those decisions ought to be in the process of being made now.
I don’t like the idea of putting everything off till after the election. I think it gets real dangerous when you start piling all of the crises into one period after the election and hope that you can solve all those issues. I think the greater danger is they’ll try to kick the can down the road on all of those issues and that would – you know, I think that’s unacceptable, particularly when it comes to the sequester issue.
So I would hope that they would work on how we detrigger sequester, that they try to lay the platform for getting that done now, not wait till after the election.
MR. : Thank you everyone. All right. I appreciate it. Thank you.