Press Gaggle by Secretary Mattis

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis; Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  This will be on the record initially, and then at some point we'll go off the record, unless we take too long.

I do have -- okay, we've got at least a half hour, 35 minutes at least, OK.

So you all set?  Good to go?

First of all, again, usually, I ruin your entire weekend.  Today at least you got breakfast Sunday with your family, you know, so I'm getting a little kinder, gentler, getting more in touch with my softer side here, but I do appreciate your going, again, on a weekend, as always, since we try to use non-workdays to do a lot of the travel, and you can understand why.

First, I have to welcome Senator Dan Sullivan.  He's a Marine, and he's a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and I actually knew him when he was number 100 in seniority in the Senate.  It's some -- just a few years ago, but he's rapidly become, for the Pacific, one of our key go-to legislators, House or Senate, and that obviously, that one of the five states we have, plus Guam territories, and all that have Pacific Ocean frontage so to speak, and so he has a keen interest in the Pacific.

I'm going up with senator to review a number of things up in the great state of Alaska.  And just so you know, I'm not patronizing him.  Remember, that state has 20 percent of the landmass of the entire lower 48, so it truly is a great state, Senator.

SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

SEC. MATTIS:  Sure.  So welcome to Senator Sullivan, the Senate Armed Service Committee, and a great ally, as are all the members of that committee to the Department of Defense and its readiness, both near term and long term.  This is my seventh trip to the Indo-Pacific region, since coming in about, what is it now, 17 months ago, 16 months ago, and it's got 36 countries in the region, 50 percent of the world's population, and over one-third of the global economic output.

The first stop on the trip is going to be Alaska.  We'll get to Eielson.  It's where we're going to land initially, home of the 34th Fighter Wing, which is a unit I want to see there, home to other units as well of course.  It's got a great history of fighting for America, and it's been stationed everywhere.  It's been stationed in Florida, somewhat different than Alaska in terms of the geography and the weather.  It's been a NATO fighter squadron -- or fighter wing.  It's been deployed to Lebanon back a long time ago, Vietnam, Korea, the Mideast, and from World War II to day. 

It's been all over the place as you can see.  Much of our history, military history is written in the location that wing has been.  It's now dedicated to ensuring aviation units are as lethal as possible in high end combat.  It hosts one of our foremost joint training exercises every year, the Red Flag Alaska, which is a great opportunity, and a number of our allies go there for the high quality training.  It's got an instrumented range, it's really a first class national treasure when it comes to a training range.

We'll also visit tomorrow Fort Greely.  It's an opportunity for me to see the ground-based interceptor capability up there, and that follows my visit to STRATCOM back here, Minot Air Force Base.  As you know, up in the Dakotas it's part of the constellation of capabilities that are critical to the defense of our homeland and our allies.  It's also one of the coldest places in Alaska, and probably on Earth.  The fort dates back to World War II, and it remains a key location today in our nation's defense. 

We'll go back from there to the Air Force Base.  We'll -- I think we'll see you all there.

Dana, are they going to be at the press gaggle that we'll have there with the local press as well, there at Eielson before we launch to head out to Beijing?

(Crosstalk)

This is my first trip to China, but it does follow two meeting with interlocutors last year.  The first one was Mar-a-Lago, and the second one was in Washington, D.C.  The first one was with President Xi, President Trump at Mar-a-Lago, and our counterparts for secretary of state and myself.

The second one was in Foggy Bottom, State Department, and that was what we call a two-plus-two, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and our counterparts from China.

To the consultations, as you probably already know, they're designed to exchange strategic perspective, discuss areas of mutual concern, determine where was have common interests, and where our interests diverge, and continue to speak with one another.

On our relations with China, obviously reviewing our mil-to-mil relationship, military to military, military between military relationships, make sure it's aligned within our larger strategic framework, and both our nations, we believe, and all nations in the Pacific, have an interest in a safe, secure, prosperous and free Indo-Pacific region. 

After a couple of days there, we'll launch out of there, and we'll go into Seoul, where I'll meet with Minister of Defense Song, and perhaps other leaders, but Minister of Defense Song is my counterpart, Admiral Song, former admiral in the ROK, Republic of Korea Navy.  We maintain very, very strong links between us, close and continuous consultation.  The alliance is very strong.  We share that commitment to protect our shared democratic values.  That has come through loud and clear with the new administration continuing in Seoul what we had in past administrations.

And alongside the People's Republic of China and Japan, the United States and the Republic of Korea have a common goal.  That's the complete irreversible and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and this will include our agreed upon reduction to larger-scale exercises, and between Minister Moon and I, we'll consult on the way ahead.

I've seen him most recently in Singapore, saw him a couple of days before that in Hawaii and the change of command for Indo-Pacific Command, and we continue to maintain that close consultation, but phone calls since between -- since the meetings in Singapore, as well as a number of meetings, where he's come to Washington, and I've been to Seoul, as you know.

The final stop on the trip will be in Tokyo.  We also work very closely with Tokyo on the way ahead, on denuclearization, which is a fundamental issue as you all understand, for the safety of the Japanese people, and I'll be meeting with Minister Onodera, with whom I have been in close consultation as well, and mutually supporting between our two nations and our military activities.  In our relationship, we recognize Japanese concerns for the short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles, the abductions of the Japanese girls over many years, and broader security issues across the Pacific.

Let me just swing off the trip for a moment and talk a little bit about other things going on over the last several days in other theaters.  One, in northeast Syria, this is the area with the Syrian Democratic Forces, as our partners there.  Basically the Syrians, they're partners with our counter-ISIS, Defeat ISIS Coalition.  The Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi Security Forces successfully linked up last night along the border of Iraq and Syria.  They were firing in support of each other as they closed in on the enemy there in Hasakah Province of Syria.

Basically Hasakah Province for the first time since 2013 is now cleared of all ISIS main force element.  That is a significant achievement.  Border operations were very well coordinated back and forth between the Iraqi Security Forces the Syrian Democratic Forces, and so we will continue that along the border, now that they've linked up, driving north and south along that border.

So that's where we stand on the Defeat ISIS Coalition, still hard fighting ahead, as I've told you.  Ever since June -- and some of you are questioning whether ISIS was completely taken down.  I said just bear with us; there's still hard fighting ahead.  It's been hard fighting, and again, we win every time our forces go up against them.  We've lost no terrain to them once it's been taken.

There's been a lot of questions about our support for border operations.  As you know, this is led by Department of Homeland Security and Secretary Nielsen. 

Right now we are in close alignment with them, as they have come to us, asking us to build out temporary camps on two of our bases...

(TAPE BREAK)

SEC. MATTIS:  ... refugees.  They were put in U.S. military bases for months as -- as it was worked out, how they would be dealt with.

And there's -- we've done it for victims of natural disasters, whatever forced them out of their homes.  So DHS is in the lead.  You'll have to talk to DHS about policy and that sort of thing.  We're in a logistic support response mode to the -- the Department of Homeland Security. 

On the -- here in a couple of days, probably about three days, if I remember right, Exercise RIMPAC will begin out here in the Pacific.  Basically, it's the largest naval exercise in the world. 

And it'll begin on the 27th, go for a few weeks, many different activities both shoreside and at sea.  Exchanges between -- between international navies.  The idea is to maintain transparency, to maintain understanding of what each other is doing.

Navies can be one of the most stabilizing influences, in terms of counter-piracy, freedom of navigation, disaster relief, humanitarian support for various folks.  You've seen all this happening, whether it be in the Mediterranean or in the Pacific, over -- or the Indian Ocean over many years.

So navies that work transparently -- transparently as stabilizing factors are there.  Again, I believe it's 26 navies.  I may have one -- might be one or two more or less.  So don't quote me on the number, there, but it's around two -- it's over two dozen, I believe. 

Let me switch over for just a minute, to the -- the repatriation of remains and where are we at on that.  As you know, there was an agreement coming out of the Singapore summit, that the -- they would begin, once again, repatriating remains.

The United Nations Command in ROK, in the Republic of Korea, is prepared, now, to receive those remains.  They have staged appropriate logistics materials, and we simply are standing by for whenever the -- the diplomatic activities are done.  And we're optimistic that it will begin because that was an agreement coming out of -- coming out of Singapore.

I would just say that the reason the United Nations Command is going to be the one receiving them, and not the ROK military alone or the U.S. military alone, is because, as you know, there were somewhere just short of two dozen countries that were part of the sending states and had troops committed from 1950 to 1953.

They were countries from all over the world.  And the sending states, by and large, most of them lost troop -- now missing troops.  So the first thing that'll happen if they're turned over to us at the border, subsequent to that, they would be moved down to Osan. 

There, they will be checked to make sure that they appear to be what they think -- we think they are, just to make sure that they're probably from either western countries or other countries that were sending states.

And then -- that'll take a couple days, maybe a week.  Then they'll be sent in to Hickam Air Force Base which is located in Hawaii.  And that's where the forensic identification lab is located.  That will then go through and try to make matches on them.

So that's what's going on with that.  In Afghanistan, as you know, some months ago, President Ghani offered a -- offered to talk with the Taliban.  Their response about a month later, two months later was to announce their spring offensive, but did not -- which did not get off to a very good start.

Ghani again offered a ceasefire.  They agreed to three days of it.  Ghani offered an extension.  They did not accept that, but it was quite interesting to see how, among Taliban and Afghans, there were people sharing the -- breaking the fast meal at the end of Eid.

Clearly, Ghani has hit a responsive chord that was not just on the Afghan national government side.  It also cut deep into the Taliban. 

So we'll see how this goes forward.  On the -- in regard to the Pakistan Taliban at the same time, the -- the forces engaged against the terrorists basically killed Fazlullah, the head of the Pakistan Taliban.  He's well known for ordering the attack on the school that killed -- I think it was around 130 -- well over a hundred mostly pupils, mostly children going to school, plus their teachers.

I've been to Swat.  He was the one who ordered the attack in the Swat, and one of the most stunningly beautiful places you'll ever go on Earth, I'll tell you.  If you've -- for those of you who ever get there, for a good trekking opportunity.

There, his reign was known until the Pakistan military threw him out, for the beheadings he was able to carry out there to impose his will, which didn't last long but was certainly murderous while he was there.

He also ordered the murder of Malala, the teenage girl who recommended -- or advocated -- strongly represented education for children and received the Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership at a very young age.  Leadership by example.  He was the one who ordered her to be murdered as well.  So the bottom line is, he's dead. 

Now, why don't we go to questions… we've got a few minutes to take questions.

Yes, Lita?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, one quick, easy question.  Have you been to China before, prior to your service as secretary, or...

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  The question is, have I been to China before, even before I was secretary.  No.  I've been -- I spent several -- I think it's either three or -- it's been more than -- I think more than three court visits in Hong Kong, back while it was still under British dominion.

And then I was there, also, in 2001, I believe...

Q:  Hong Kong?

SEC. MATTIS:  Hong Kong, again, yes.  Hong Kong.  So.

Q:  But...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Hong Kong only.

Q:  When you were in Singapore, you had some pretty strong language for the Chinese at the time.  What is your message, going into these meetings with the Chinese?  Are you going to be, do you think, as strident as you were about the South China Sea and other issues, or do you have bigger, broader goals for your discussions with them?

SEC. MATTIS:  I think -- I think the way to address issues between our two nations is to first establish a transparent strategic dialogue.  How do they see the relationship with us?  The Chinese see the relationship with us developing.

We shared how we see it developing.  And the way to get to be other issues that are vexing is to start with strategic transparency as a way to get to operational transparency.  So that would be my message.

Q:  Can you explain that a little more?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I'd prefer not to right now.  I want to go in and have an open discussion with my counterpart.

Q:  Could I follow up on that?  You mentioned you were reviewing the mil-to-mil program.  Obviously, in light of the South China Sea, there's been a number of incidents.  The laser incident in Djibouti. 

What -- what do you -- are -- are you going to scale back the -- the mil-to-mil program?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  I -- I generally do not talk, as some of you know who have been on a trip with me before, I don't generally talk about what I will do in the future or will not do.

I would tell you that -- going forward, that we obviously look at the actions of China.  But I've made -- I'm going there to do a lot of listening and -- and identification of common ground and uncommon ground on the strategic level at this time.

Q:  And what -- what is your expectations of your talks in Beijing, do you have any...

SEC. MATTIS:  No, no, I'd prefer not to go in with those expectations.  And go in and see -- see what we can work out. 

Q:  Sir...

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah?

Q:  Do you think you can expand a little bit on where you think your interests -- or the U.S. interests with China converge?  And also can Beijing play a role in the kind of burgeoning peace talks in...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  In what?

Q:  In the -- in the kind of nascent peace talks in Afghanistan? 

SEC. MATTIS:  OK.  You -- you know where our interests converge.  You know that the -- the People's Republic of China also want to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.  That's their policy.

But by and large, I want to go in and take a measure for where they're at today, and see where our interests converge.  I think you've mentioned one that I won't be surprised would be on the table as an area where we agreed to work together, which has to do with counterterrorism.

But at the same time, I'm going in to do the listening this time.  And make certain that where we can, we can engage in a transparent strategic conversation.

Missy?

Q:  Just a quick follow-up on China, and then I have my separate question on the border.  On China, you know, the -- China's been identified in the National Defense Strategy as one of the main areas of focus for the U.S. military, going forward.

And they've invested a lot and apparently have made a lot of technological advances.  Can you just sort of say, on the record, what China represents in terms of a military competitor for the United States?

And then on the border issue...

SEC. MATTIS:  That's a great question.  That's why I'm going there.  I want to understand how they see the strategic relationship developing.  And first of all, hear in their words how they see this going strategically.

I do not want to immediately go in with a -- a certain pre-set expectation of what they are going to say.  I -- I want to go in and do a lot of listening.  I'll be very clear on what we see developing. 

But that -- that's -- that's the whole reason I'm making the trip instead of just sitting in Washington and reading news reports, intelligence reports or analyst reports.  That's why -- that's -- really, your question cuts to the heart. 

What was your second question, Missy?

Q:  On the border issue...

SEC. MATTIS:  On which border?  Our border.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Yeah, our border.  I -- you said that the -- that the Defense Department was looking at two possible sites to house migrants...

SEC. MATTIS:  That's right.

Q:  Can you clarify, will those be adults or will those be families of children and men?  And, you know, you -- you said the other day, when -- in  addressing this issue, that the Defense Department would do whatever was in best -- the best interest of the United States, as it had in the past...

SEC. MATTIS:  Right.

Q:  ... in broaching this issue.  But this is an issue that really -- the separation of families is a whole issue at the border right now, it's really generated intense backlash.

Can you just -- I know that it's a DHS lead issue.  But because of the Defense Department's involvement, can you just speak to that a little bit more?

SEC. MATTIS:  Certainly.  Providing shelter for people without shelter, we consider that to be a logistics function that is quite appropriate. 

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  Go ahead. 

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. MATTIS:  Say that again?

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. MATTIS:  Can I say which one's they are?

STAFF:  (off mic)

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  Let me find out if we can.  I -- I don't have any problem with that, I just want to make certain that...

Q:  Sure.

SEC. MATTIS:  ... we're far enough down the decision tree that I'm not being pre-decisional.  I think we can get that word to you just within an hour or two.

Oh, wait, it's Sunday.  Certainly by tomorrow morning, you'll have that.  OK?  Just -- it's just dependent on whether I would get a hold of the right people.

Q:  That's great.  Thank you.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah?

Q:  And then before the trip, we were told that, basically, you know, the -- the decision to cancel the exercises, and that -- that could be reversed if necessary and that the United States would go...

SEC. MATTIS:  What was necessary?

Q:  It could -- it could be reversed, the decision.  You could put it back on if the North Koreans weren't operating in good faith.

And I'm sort of wondering, you know, we were given the sense that we would know pretty soon, whether or not the North Koreans were operating in good faith.

So...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Could you give us a sense of how you'd do that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, listen, folks, you know that we're in historic -- I would even call it initial discussions with the -- with the DPRK negotiators. 

So right now, I want our -- I want the diplomats, as they have been since January 22nd, in -- in the lead on this.  And they will determine how they're going to make progress.  I'll say how.  We anticipate the progress to be made, and as it was decided in Singapore, the large joint combined effort sizes have been suspended, I would just say, and we'll see if the continuing negotiations keep them that way.

But right now, they've been suspended.  That's what I can say and I'm not going to -- I don't have a crystal ball.  No one does.  It's up to the -- the diplomats to make sure this goes OK.

Q:  Do you you have any expectations as to whether we’ll know or not…

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  I -- I don't -- I don't create expectation like that.  I -- I've been on the phone with Secretary Pompeo every day of the last four days, including yesterday.

So we maintain very close collaboration.  I mean, extremely close collaboration.  So he'll keep me posted.  I have absolute faith in him. 

Yeah, Jordan?.

Q:  You said -- our sense was that the large exercises would be handled like Freedom Guardian.  But why did you choose to cancel the other marine exchange programs?

SEC. MATTIS:  We considered both to be consistent with what the two heads of state had come out with.

Yeah, go ahead.

Q:  Mr. Secretary.  Just going back to the situation at the border, the U.S. border.  Are you comfortable -- this is the issue that, obviously, it's inflamed political passions all...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  Are you comfortable with the military becoming more deeply involved?  And is it concerning to you as a military perspective becoming  involved in an issue...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  As you know, the military does not get involved with contact with illegal migrants.  They do not get involved physically.  They do not have any collaboration.  That is done by the professionals of ICE and the Department of Homeland Security.

This is something that we can do -- again, whether it be refugee boat people from Vietnam, people who have been knocked out of their homes by a hurricane.  Absolutely, it's appropriate the military provide logistic support however it's -- however it's needed.

Yes, go ahead.

Q:  On China, could you step back and characterize the relationship, the military relationship at this point.  Is it -- given their advantage in the South Chinese Sea, their heightened talk about Taiwan, the technology theft.  Is this as bad as it was in -- with Russia in the '50s and '60s?

SEC. MATTIS:  Say that last part again?

Q:  Is it as bad as, the relationship, as bad as, say, Russia in the '50s and '60s?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, I wouldn't characterize it that way.  We have larger issues, and you see those being handled with trade negotiations, with the Department of State, to their Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Communications.

And, again, you know, I -- I'm going there to get what I consider to be, straight from them, what -- what they see for a strategic relationship.

And so I want to go in, right now, without basically poisoning the well at this point, as if my mind's already made up; I'm going there to have a conversation.

Q:  Could I follow up on...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  One of -- the U.S. warned Russia not to be bombing...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Say that again?

Q:  ... Southern Syria.  Can you talk about the Russian bombing?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  The -- we warned them not to, but nothing's happened since they started it. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, we're looking very closely at what's going on down there.  That -- that, as you know, the most complex -- I'd call it security challenge anywhere.  What's going on in Syria. 

And I met last Friday with the king of Jordan, who's in town to meet with our president.  I have been on the phone with several of our allies in the region, partners in the region.  And it's right now in the secretary of state's hands, to work this forward.

OK.   Let's go off the record now.