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Press Gaggle by Secretary Mattis En Route to Indonesia

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:   So first of all, thank you.  I know you had to wake up mighty early to do this one.  And -- but that's good.  It builds character, I find, after a few decades, you know?  But thanks for coming out.  It's a very, very long airplane flight, so I appreciate you taking the time.  And we'll go into Indonesia and Vietnam.  And with Indonesia, we're dealing with a country that we have very -- very good military to military relations.  

We probably engage with the Indonesian military more than any other nation anywhere in terms of mil-to-mil engagements.  But let me just -- you know, as you -- coming out of Washington right now, let's just look at how we're going forward.  We released the national defense strategy last week, as you know.  And what we've talked about it prioritizing preparedness and making a lot of change, urgent change.  

But I noted that I had three lines of effort.  Is there a problem here?  Pardon?  

STAFF:  It's the sound.  

SEC. MATTIS:  OK.  Yes, this is still probably a quieter place than anywhere else on the plane.  But the three lines of effort, build a more lethal force and the second one was to engage and build more partnerships and allies and the third one is to reform the Pentagon's internal business practices so that we use every dollar we get wisely and move -- make change at the speed of relevance.  

The second line of effort of building more trusted relationships with allies and partners, that's why we go out here on trips like this, to -- for the normal consultations with each other.  The U.S., as you know, is a Pacific power.  Five of our states plus the territory of Guam have Pacific shorelines.  California, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam.  We're very committee to this region, as you know.  

My first trip abroad, when I came into the job about a year ago now, was to the Pacific, up to Japan and South Korea.  The -- as you know, the president was also out in the Pacific just a couple months ago.  So again, bottom line, we're working by, with and through allies and partners from the president's level, from my level down to our mil-to-mil engagements.  

And what we want out here -- I think we've said it many times but it -- it bears repeating -- a peaceful, prosperous and freer Asia with a free and open regional order defined by the rule of law.  And what we're looking for here is -- is that small nations get the same respect, the same regard as large nations, larger nations.  Every nation matters and there should not be any bullying or shredding of trust toward others.  

I first will stop in Jakarta when we -- when we land and -- and see President Jokowi and the minister of defense there, Minister Ryamizard.  This is a very strategic partnership with the third largest democracy in the world.  It's the most populous Muslim nation in the world and it's the largest archipelago, stretching across the South China Sea and as you know, all the way to the Indian Ocean.  

We're going to continue our efforts to maritime -- maritime cooperation, but also support Indonesia as a sort of fulcrum between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.  So international trade flows through there and a democracy like this, we have a lot, obviously, to start with that we can -- that -- that gives us a basis for getting along with each other and working together.  

But again, this'll be my first time in Indonesia as the secretary of defense, so I'll be doing a lot of listening.  We'll move from there into Vietnam and there, some of the big issues there, just so you're thinking about what you want to ask me about there, freedom of navigation, obviously, in the South China Sea, the respect for international rule of law and respect for national sovereignty.  

So we share the Pacific.  It's an ocean named for peace, we would like to see it remain peaceful so all the nations that use it, that live here are -- are prosperous.  Very vibrant and diverse region, but it can be made safe for prosperity and for large nations and small without sacrificing any -- anything in terms of national equities.  So that's why we're -- why I'm going out there.  

Be a lot of talks with -- with people.  And -- and hopefully get -- get to understand each other better.  So what questions do you have and how do you want to -- go ahead, Bob

Q:  Secretary, could you be a little more specific with regard to Vietnam, as to what you hope to accomplish in the relationship?  The three way situation with China and Vietnam (inaudible)

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  The -- well, you -- you know the history we've had with Vietnam.  That has been largely made a matter of the past and the new relationship is one of much more trust.  They have a Hamilton-class Coast Guard cutter now and they're -- may be interested in more.  I need to hear more about how they see things developing as they maintain sovereignty over their territorial waters and economic zone, that they maintain oversight of that.  

Obviously, we want to know what level of engagement they want with us.  Is it professional military education, is it joint training?  I want to sit down and just talk with them, get a better sense of the pragmatic steps that we can take as we move the relationship forward into one of trust and collaboration.  

Q: Vietnam.  You will be there almost on the day of the 50th anniversary of Tet Offensive.  And I wanted to know, as an historian -- world  historian that you are, what is the take that you -- what is your take about this -- the Tet Offensive and what is the lesson we can learn from this event?  Because it was a military victory for U.S. but a political failure.  And what do you think today we can learn from there?  

SEC. MATTIS:  I hadn't though -- like I said, that -- the matters of the past, I'd put no thought into that.  Let me think about it.  I have friends who fought in the Tet Offensive.  Let me think about it and I'll come back to you.  

Q:  OK.  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  Yes.  It's an interesting question, especially the way you cast it, there.  Let me think about it.  I was raised by the Vietnam veterans in the Marine Corps -- in the Marine Corps.  And so it's an interesting question.  I'll have to get back to you, though.  

Q:  OK.  

Q:  ...tack onto that, sir, while you're thinking about it.  Did you join the military thinking that you might be sent to Vietnam?  Was that...  

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, it was 1969 and, so... 

Q:  ...(inaudible) more about -- about what it's like for you to go to this country, you know, how you entered the military and the people that were your mentors as you came (inaudible)....  

SEC. MATTIS:  I -- I -- I probably should mention -- I'll -- I'll do this when I -- when we come our of Jakarta on our way to Hanoi, but I -- I've already hosted my counterpart in Washington D.C.  And it was a very candid -- you know, we're dealing with the current and the future.  Frankly, it never came up and it was a meeting between professionals looking toward the future with no inhibitions from the past.  But -- so this isn't my first time with my counterpart, nor -- nor with the Indonesian counterpart, by the way.  

We've met a Shangri-La and we met at the Manila Clark City -- excuse me, Clark City, Philippines ASEAN event.  So both Shangri-La -- so I've got relationships with both of the MODs we're going out to see, here.  And I -- I -- I spent a lot more time on what's on their mind than where I'm coming from.  You know?  That's -- both of you, you've got good questions, I just -- just not -- you caught me flat-footed, here.  

What else is on your minds?  

Q:  Sir, just to change gears really quick.  There's a lot of -- lot of breaking news since you last spoken with Turkey and Syria and the (inaudible).  Could you just bring us up to date about how you see the situation there?  Do you think it's going to escalate?  Is this going to draw the Kurds away from the mission that you think is the priority?  And has this kind of wrecked the relationship between U.S. and Turkey?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  Turkey is a NATO ally.  It is the only NATO country with an active insurgency inside it's borders.  And Turkey has legitimate security concerns.  We work very closely with Turkey.  They have been very supportive of our Defeat-ISIS campaign, allowing us to use Incirlik to fly out of and other NATO countries.  

We have ongoing collaboration consultations.  They are constant.  The SACEUR and his NATO hat.  Obviously General Dunford has been there numerous times and has very close phone connections and in -- in NATO forums, close connect with the Turks.  The area where we've had disagreement on our tactical collaboration with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include a sizable percentage of -- of which is YPG.  

YPG had historic connections to the PKK by having our officers and NCOs on the ground, we monitor that they are using what we are giving them for support to go against ISIS and they have proven their effectiveness.  It has cost them thousands of casualties, but you have watched them, with -- with the coalition support, shred ISIS caliphate in Syria.  I mean, that's a matter of arithmetic.  

They've lost the ground, they've lost the cities, they've lost the people that they were terrorizing and -- and occupying.  And so that's all a reality.  That does not remove many of Turkey's concerns.  And if you look at Syria, it's easy to understand why Turkey has concerns about the chaos that Assad's handling of his people's protests has unleashed and then drawn all the terrorists in, into the chaos that he created.  

So we work with Turkey.  We -- they -- Turkey was candid.  They warned us before they launched the aircraft they were going to do it, in consultation with us.  And we are working now on the way ahead through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, obviously on the mil-to-mil side and -- and we'll work this out.  

Q:  (Inaudible) how did they advise you and what was your reaction?  

SEC. MATTIS:  They -- we received a telephone call from high levels in Turkey's military to high levels in the U.S. military.  In advance.  

Q:  And did you say go do it, or?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, we'll -- we'll -- I'm not -- I prefer not to answer that.  

Q:  And then lastly, just so I understand, are you worried about the situation right now?  

SEC. MATTIS:  We are very -- yes.  Good -- we are very alert to it.  Our top levels are engaged, not just in Defense Department.  That's both -- both Turkey and the American side.  And -- and we're working through it.  

Q:  Is there any kind of alternative to working with the SDF to stabilize an area long term?  The -- Turkey obviously doesn't want that sort of collaboration with certain groups, is there any... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, good question.  What we're doing is as we -- as it goes -- as we break down ISIS -- and there's still hard fighting going on, very hard fighting.  We are losing people, ISIS (inaudible) location is counterattacking.  It is hard fighting.  But as this -- as we uncover territory from ISIS control, you obviously have to set up some kind of local authorities.  

I mean, it's not like we've cleansed the area of every ISIS fighter with an AK-47 or a VBIED, a vehicle-borne IED at his disposal.  So you have to put those folks together.  Those are local security forces, made up of locals.  So we're training them, we're trying to use international policing standards in order to make certain they're trained properly, and we're equipping them -- I would put -- along the lines of a heavily armed police force.  Obviously you don't want somebody with a sidearm only dealing with ISIS.  OK?  It's not that kind of a security mission.  So they're going to be armed.  I would say at a minimum, rifles and machine guns, that sort of thing.  

But these are locals.  And these -- this area that we're talking about right now is heavily Sunni Arab, so you're going to see a lot of Sunni Arabs, obviously in the -- in the police force.  But there's other -- there's other ethnic minorities and other people mixed in there.  It's not like it's all one thing.  

So we're trying to put together a force that we don't get a return of ISIS or we don't -- you know, we've done this before, where we took down Al-Qaeda in Iraq and you saw what happened when we all took our -- our attention off it, and out came ISIS.  So what we're going to do is leave local security forces.  But the solution to the area goes to Geneva.  

The U.N.-brokered Staffan de Mistura Staffa De Mistra is leading an effort that we fully support and that's -- that's ultimately how we're going to solve this.  Does that put it in the context that -- do you understand?  

Q:  Yes, sir.  But if you're arming those police forces, ostensibly, well-armed police force, as you describe them, they wouldn't be able to stand up if the regime decided to reclaim some of this territory.  So do you have to provide guarantees that if the regime decides to step in, the U.S. will return?  

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  Right now, our forces we are reducing.  We don't need as many forces there are before if -- if we break ISIS out of all of it's strongholds.  But this is a force that holds.  There will be some U.S. military there, but the main effort shifts to state department's diplomats.  And they're putting more of their diplomats in and that again will be resolved by in Geneva.  

And so we've got NCOs in among them, officers in among them.  We're not doing the fighting but we're keenly aware of where they are fighting and we're keenly aware of where our ammunition is being used and that sort of thing, so we don't lose control of it.  But it's a -- a diplomatic solution, is what we're doing -- what we're doing this for.  It's not for a long term U.S. presence.  

We're not occupying that place.  We're just making certain that it's turned over responsibly to the locals and that the locals have a seat at the table in Geneva.  

Q:  Sir, does the Turkish offensive put any U.S. forces at risk?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Did they what?  

Q:  Does the Turkish offensive put any U.S. forces at risk?  

SEC. MATTIS:  We have had no U.S. forces at risk at this time.  

Q:  Switching targets, sir, I'd (inaudible ) to ask you about the shutdown and it's context in this trip.  We've heard your initial assessment of what it's doing to the military.  I'd be interested to ask about any practical changes that that's incurred for you on this trip.  

But also looking more broadly, at a time when countries like Vietnam are considering what major powers they want to be cooperating with, does this effect the discussions you're going to have?  And how will you explain the shutdown to your counterparts?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, just by me being here shows it's had -- the shutdown's had no effect on this trip.  If it comes up, I'll explain what's going on.  In a democracy, where you have three co-equal branches of government, this is what we protect in the U.S. military, and we'll stay in the military-to-military discussions.  I don't foresee it having any impact, there.  And I'm -- I haven't been alerted to any or anything like that. 

And we've got a pretty full agenda in terms of things we want to talk about already, based on his -- my counterpart's visit to Washington and -- you know, my Vietnam counterpart.  And then we've got a pretty full agenda with my MOD counterpart in Jakarta based on our last two discussions, so.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, (inaudible) North Korea come up, when you're talking about Indonesia and Vietnam.  Is that not part of the discussions (inaudible)?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, North Korea comes up in our discussions everywhere in the world, because this is a global issue.  You saw a couple weeks -- or -- I guess about it'd be about two weeks ago now, or one week ago, I was in Vancouver, British Columbia, when the secretary of state, the diplomats, got together from the sending states, (inaudible) the troops that sent troops to Korea -- the Korean War in 1950, plus the Republic of Korea and Japan, and Canada and the United States cohosted in Vancouver, British Columbia discussions about the Korea problem and how we keep this in a diplomatically solved portfolio.

When I spoke with them it was interesting to hear from a European representative, and again, these were not military -- I was the only military -- no the Canadian minister of defense and I were the only two military representatives in the room.  But the European foreign minister said, our capital is closer to North Korea to Seattle or Washington, D.C.  That was interesting to hear a European leader, saying that.  So that shows that this continues to be a subject wherever we are in the world, as the entire world -- you've seen three unanimous Security Council resolutions on the issue of strengthening sanctions, and this is an ongoing effort, so I'm sure it will come out in both of these countries.

Q:  Your national defense strategy you laid out this last week mentioned the great power competition with China and Russia.  I'm wondering what role that might play in this trip (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, you know, I think that what we're looking for is a world where we solve problems, and we don't shred trust.  We don't militarize features in the middle of international waters.  We don't invade other countries, in Russia's case -- Georgia, Ukraine.  That we settle things by international rule of law, you know, this sort of thing.  And so I think that in terms of great power and competition.  One point I want to make is we respect these as sovereign nations with a sovereign voice and sovereign decisions, and we don't think anyone else should have a veto authority over their economic, their diplomatic or their security decisions.

So one of the points I will be making just by being there is we respect these countries, and we respect their sovereignty, their sovereign decisions.

Q:  So what do you think is the impact of the U.S. withdrawal at TPP on some of those relationships...


SEC. MATTIS:  Withdrawal from?

Q:  From the Tran-Pacific Partnership.

What sort of impact do you think that has on the relationships (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, the trade relationships, obviously, will continue to go forward along their own -- I'm not involved in those, but secretary of commerce, secretary of treasury, those secretaries are obviously moving with trade relations, discussions with a host of countries.

Q:  But you don't think it has an impact on your relationships when it comes to cooperation and partnerships with some of these countries?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm confident it does not.

STAFF:  We're about out of time -- did you...

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, do you want to go off the record at all?

All right, so we'll go off...