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Media Availability with Secretary Mattis en route to Vietnam

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: Okay, so we're on the record here for a little bit, okay?

Good to see some of you again.  I haven't seen you in a while.  Thought maybe you'd voted me off the island or something, you know?

Okay.  We're headed -- and that's not up right now, but we're headed west -- trust me -- for the Indo-Pacific.  It is a priority theater, as you all know.  We'll be going -- stopping first in Vietnam.  This is my second trip there.  I've met several times with my counterpart.  More about that in a minute.

Then we're going down to Singapore.  Basically, the defense ministers get together there for ASEAN plus.  In other words, there's also one from outside ASEAN, which makes it a great forum to meet and do collaboration, consultation.

This -- I think this is my eighth time in the Indo-Pacific.  I don't know who's counting for me.  I lose track of it sometimes, it's that many trips.  Five of those times were to Southeast Asia.  You know, it's kind of the geopolitical heart, as we look at this theater.

And the U.S. and the – allies, are partners in the region.  It's very obvious, when I look at the words from my counterparts, how we share many of the same interests, basically with -- also in many cases, the same values, I might add, but not always.  But certainly security interests.

The geography is pretty compelling, that America is also an Indo-Pacific nation.  I'm always amazed how many people in government are from the eastern United States or the Eastern Seaboard, and some are from states that actually are on the Pacific coastline -- the dean of our press corps, as a matter of fact, in one of them -- but all of you know California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, places like Guam, others out there are all part of the United States.

This'll be my fifth -- fifth meeting with my counterpart, Minister Lich from Vietnam.  It is a growing defense partner in a number of ways, and I want to go there.  Instead of going to Hanoi this time, I'm going to Saigon -- Ho Chi Minh City; former Saigon.  And I want to meet with some of the leaders down there.  My counterpart will come -- come there to meet me.

And we're -- USAID is about to start a major remediation project there at Bien Hoa Air Base from the old days.  And it's going to take several years, so I just want to get eyes on it so when I go back and I talk to Congress, I can tell them my impression with actually having seen the site.

And we had promised to help, and this promise goes back more than, I think, four years.  So this is America keeping her promise to remediate some of the past.

Q:  Agent Orange?

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

Q:  Agent Orange remediation?

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, yeah.  I'm sorry.  Yes, yeah, exactly.

So between our two nations, we respect the -- the past, or we have.  But we're also looking toward the future.  And the legacy of the war has turned into, actually, a basis for defense cooperation.

In Singapore I'll be conferring with allies and partners on mutual security interests.

One point that I made a year ago as well:  that we consider ASEAN central -- that organization -- central to the security interests and maintaining peace in the -- in the Pacific.  And as both the president and the vice president said, we want a constructive relationship so prosperity and security grow together, not apart.

We are cooperating where possible with China.  You see that on DPRK, from the U.N. to -- to an area out there in the Pacific on the sanctions.

And obviously, we're not out to contain China.  We'd have taken an altogether different stance had that been considered.  It has not been considered.  But it's out mutual responsibility to responsibly manage differences.

We remain highly concerned with continued militarization of features in the South China Sea.  Plus, we look at the -- what we consider to be almost predatory -- in some cases certainly predatory economic behavior, where massive debt is piled on countries that fiscal analysis would say they are going to have difficulty, at best, repaying in the smaller countries.

And as the vice president said last week, we seek a relationship with China that's grounded in fairness, reciprocity and respect for sovereignty, and that means respect for international rules and for all nations' sovereignty, whether they're large or small.

So we're two large powers, or two Pacific powers, two economic powers.  There's going to be times we step on each other's toes, so we're going to have to find a way to productively manage our relationship.  And the military relationship is to be a stabilizing force in the relations between the two countries.

Take you a little more broadly, as you know, the hurricane hit Florida hard.  We have met all requests from FEMA for support.  We basically, again, surrounded the storm and kept the troops outside until it passed -- the storm passed.  We had troops who were in -- ready to go in.  In some cases, states' governors would call them up.

Where we took the biggest hit was Tyndall Air Force Base.  Other bases were also hit, but not significantly.  Tyndall, the operation center was maintained as part of NORAD, and she is up and operating on emergency -- on generator power.

The hangers, the base infrastructure, took significant damage.  Right now the initial review of the aircraft that were not fly-able -- we flew all the aircraft that could be flown out.  They went out -- the base commander had called them back in, so remember there was a three-day holiday weekend as the storm gathered strength down in the south of the Gulf of Mexico.  He called his troops back in over the three-day weekend and putting -- this is a place we do a lot of maintenance work on aircraft.

So the ones they could button up and fly out, they did.  Others that were there took damage in some cases.

Right now the initial review yesterday by secretary of the Air Force, coming on 48 hours due by Air Combat Command, and Systems Command, looks like all the planes are fixable.  But we'll know after we get the hangars -- get them out of the hangars that're damaged and get more work done.  So I'm not ready to say it can all be fixed, but our initial review was perhaps more positive than I anticipated in the last -- in light of the amount of damage.

On NATO, we have a very large exercise going on right now off Norway.  That exercise is ongoing.  The secretary general and SACEUR are out on board the carrier.  It’s going well.  Got a lot of nations here, including a couple of non-NATO nations.

It's very transparent.  We were very open about what we're doing so nobody could draw any miscalculations about it.  And so far, it looks like there have been no exclamations of concern out of any -- any other nations.

Down in Syria, as we told you here over the last several months as we're pushing against the last remnants of the geographic caliphate, we told you it'd be tougher fighting.  It is.  It's going well.

The SDF continues, with coalition support, to move against the adversary and ISIS is taking a beating.

The -- in the rear area in Syria and over in Iraq, continued efforts are underway to go after the sleeper cells and the cells of ISIS we know are out there.  That's ongoing.

Special envoy -- the U.N. special envoy on Yemen continues, with our full support, to try to draw the warring parties together.

It's too early to say when he's going to be successful, but I would say "when," not "if."  He will draw them together.  He's a good man.  He knows what he's doing.  Lots of experience.  He'll do it.

And we are giving him full support in all ways, where we're encouraging people to support him.  We're helping with information, whatever we can do.

That's what all responsible nations are doing right now.

In the Pacific, where we're headed to, up in Korea, the negotiations, as you know, have been in the diplomatic realm for some 18 months now, led by State Department.  Secretary Pompeo just returned, as you know, a short time ago.

There is progress.  We know it's going to be difficult as they deal with this difficult issue.  No surprise there.

And on the military side, as you know, there are some suspended exercises but training goes on, the rotation of forces goes on.  And collaboration, mil-to-mil, between us and ROK, continues.

A Canadian lieutenant general is on board now as the deputy commander of the U.N. Command.  And the sanctions patrols to enforce the unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution sanctions, specifically on ship-to-ship transfer, are being maintained.

On a steady basis we have a number of countries helping on that.  I think it's up to five countries right now, I may be wrong, but it's -- it's around that number.  And the information-sharing among those countries is going well.

I think that's it.  Just going quickly around the world.

So on the record, why don't we do a couple questions here?

Q:  Can I start you off with the story that, as you know, over the past 12 hours or so, you've been mentioned in the "60 Minutes" interview that the president did, when he spoke about you, said that you may leave to use his words.  And he thinks you're sort of a Democrat.  I'm wondering what you make of his comments.

SEC. MATTIS:  Nothing at all.

I'm on his team.  We have never talked about me leaving.  And as you can see right here, we're on our way.  We just continue doing our job.

Q:  Have you spoken to him since -- since the interview?

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

Q:  Have you spoken to him about his comments?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  I have not.

Frankly, I didn't watch the interview, I didn't see it.  So I -- I read what's in your papers about it, but going through them; I haven't gotten through them all yet.

No, we're at -- we're just -- we continue in the Department of Defense to do our job.  It's no problem.

Q:  Yeah, hi, thank you. About a month or six weeks ago, I forget the exact date, you said that the support that the U.S. gives to the Saudis in Yemen was not unconditional.

Have any of the events playing out over the last -- you know, the last week or so, with Mr. Khashoggi going missing over there, in the consulate there in Turkey -- has -- has that --

SEC. MATTIS:  The embassy, and what else?

Q:  So you know Mr. Khashoggi who went missing in the --


Q:  -- consulate in -- in Turkey, has your -- has your position evolved or changed at all in terms of how you view Saudi? Do you think the US should be going into these arms deals, and, you're -- you're all about -- you're all about American ideals, rule of law, democracy, and here's what appears to be a very egregious example of something that runs counter to your ideals, with, your very essence, if you like.  It’s now front and center on the world stage.  I'm really interested to hear what your views are on this crisis that's playing out.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I'm not sure why I didn't pick that up while I did my round-the-world thing.  Thank you.

The -- the implications of everything going on extend far beyond our defense relationship.  So, the president and the secretary of state are currently dealing with this issue.  I'm not going to speculate until I have a better understanding of what happened.  But I would not depart from anything as characterized by the president or the secretary of state.

If you look at their words on this, as our leads on foreign policy -- again, here's foreign policy and military is nested inside that.  I'll leave this to them for right now, as they sort this out.

Q:  With all due respect, what -- what the president has said on this -- and you're referring to his comments -- is that while it's a terrible thing and he wants to get to the bottom of it, but at the end of the day there's $100-plus billion in arms sales that are in the balance.

So how do -- I mean, I know -- I understand that you don't want to deviate from that.  But as an American and as a -- as a man of great honor, you must feel -- you must -- I mean, is it -- what is your -- where does this leave you?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, Tom.  It's a fair question, Tom.

I need to have the facts first.  I know it's unusual at times in -- in government circles.  Some people talk quickly.

I think the secretary of state will be airborne shortly.  And we will know more when he gets back.  And that'll be very, very soon.

So I want to wait until I have facts before I start talking, because facts will determine where I stand.

Q:  Sir, you -- when you spoke recently at VMI, I believe, and they asked you a question that often gets asked about books that you read and such --


Q:  -- I've gone through some of those books, and I couldn't find an answer to this question.

When a -- a military person like yourself, a warrior, returns to a country that has defeated our military in battle, is there a different approach you take?

SEC. MATTIS:  What country are you referring to?

Q:  Vietnam.


I think your preface there -- "defeated us in battle" -- there were a lot of battles.  There weren't many defeats of Americans in battles.

But I will tell you that as I study history and I think of after World War II, when our army was occupying Germany, and then you see, by the 1950s, former German prisoners of war are immigrating to America, American and German people-to-people contacts growing out of the military contacts, begin the maturation of a relationship that has gone all the way through the Cold War, even when their own country was divided.

You see the role of Americans, that when wars are over, they're over.  And in this case, I think that the Vietnam -- it is a firm commitment on both sides -- I have not in any sense felt it was less than coequal -- that we would be working together for the future of the generations that are coming up now.

My brother fought in Vietnam -- my older brother.  And he -- he has been to Vietnam.  He loves the people.  And I think that you find that commonly among our Vietnam veterans.  There is not the animus that some would think.

So I don't think it's really unique to a -- a minister of defense and a secretary of defense that we look forward.  I think this is something that redounds to both societies.  So I'd have to think, -- I don't think so.  I don't -- but just offhand, I can't imagine it being different than when I deal with, for example, Japan.  It might be longer ago, but it was -- it was still a Pacific nation that -- that we were in a war with at one time.

Q:  Yeah.

SEC. MATTIS:  I think the most important thing is to recognize that all wars ultimately end.  And you are -- we're going out to the Pacific, and Dr. Felter, my -- former U.S. Army Special Forces retired Dr. Joe Felter, a colleague from Stanford University -- how's that for an introduction, Joe? -- and I have been working, for example, on some bells that were taken out of the Philippines over 100 years ago, following fighting there.  And we will return those bells this year.

It's all about, wars end, you know, and then what steps do you take for the people-to-people trust-building, and confidence-building.  So it's all -- it's all the same theme.

Q:  Thank you.

SEC. MATTIS:  And then you had a question.

Q:  Yeah.  Mr. Secretary, are you a Democrat?

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

Q:  Are you a Democrat?

SEC. MATTIS:  You know, we're all built on our formative experiences.

When I was 18, I joined the Marine Corps, and in the U.S. military we are proudly apolitical.  By that, I mean that in our duties, we were brought up to obey the elected commander in chief, whoever that is.  And we've seen, over those -- since I was in the military longer than some of you have been alive, I have seen Republicans and Democrats come and go.

Where am I today?  I'm a member of the president's administration.  And you have seen that President Trump's military policies, security policies, reaping significant bipartisan support.  So my role, when you see 83 percent -- think about this -- for -- and I realize you all write about tension between this person and that, this administration and that party, and this sort of thing.

But when you think 83 percent of the U.S. Congress voting the same way on an issue put forward by the Republican president, you can see that my portfolio is bipartisan by its very basis, and that is the protection of the United States.

That's what President Trump has told me to do, and I eagerly carry that out, alongside probably the most selfless young men and women -- not all young; some old men and women, too -- civilian and military, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines working together.

So that's where I stand.  That defines me.

Q:  I don't want to put too fine a point on it, but you haven't registered Republican or Democrat.  Is that what I'm hearing you say?

SEC. MATTIS:  I've never registered for any political party.

Q:  Thank you.

And can I follow up with a question on your comments on Saudi Arabia?

You said that you wanted to see all the facts before you make your decision.  Can you help me understand what you need to make an assessment?  What specifically are you assessing?  Are you looking at it vis-a-vis the U.S. role in Yemen?  Are your looking at it in terms of arms sales?  When you're looking for responsibility and what the Saudi role might have been and the ramifications of that assessment on military policy in Saudi Arabia?


And it's -- again, our foreign policy is this wide, and the president speaks to the United States on those matters.

First, we need to find out what happened.  Once you know what happened, you can do a lot.

And I realize many of you have written things that are very direct, and you're very confident.  When I am confident and I understand what the foreign policy implications are -- and those are not -- we do not write -- in the U.S. military, we do not write foreign policy.  We reinforce, we buttress, we support, we align with the nation's foreign policy.

Once we have the facts -- and we'll see Secretary Pompeo airborne shortly -- and we see the effort, you'll -- I mean, when you have the most senior Cabinet official in America going on -- going out to the region, you get an idea of the priority the president's placed on getting the facts.  Once we know the facts, then I talk.  I don't talk in his place.

Q:  And have you --

SEC. MATTIS:  Nor will I talk about, that I'll limit it, or I'll expand it, or something like that.  When I know the facts, I'll know what to do.

Q:  And have you spoken to crown prince Salman --


Q:  -- or any other high-ranking Saudi officials?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, could I ask you about China?


Q:  You -- you've made some remarks about it.  The vice president laid out a -- in his speech, what he called a new approach to China, in which -- some of which seems aimed at being more confrontational in a variety of ways, but militarily, economically, et cetera.

On the military front, your -- your meetings in Beijing were canceled.  On the military front, are we seeing a more -- will we be seeing a more confrontational U.S. approach to China in the South China Sea and in other places?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, we are not seeing a more military, confrontational approach vis-a-vis China.

In the South China Sea, over many American administrations, we have said that in international airspace, international waters, we will fly or sail.  You've seen that continue.  And my relationship with my counterpart has in no way been changed over this.

Q:  Is there a military component to the new approach that the vice president laid out?

SEC. MATTIS:  I believe that what the vice president laid out was a reiteration of:  We cooperate where we can.  We are looking for ways to cooperate more.  We've seen that cooperation manifested in the most blunt terms with three unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions on sanctions on North Korea, and that's where we're voting in alignment with each other.

And then you're seeing, too, that we continue to sail through areas, but even if you go back to when President Obama and President Xi were meeting in the Rose Garden, President Xi vowed that he would not militarize the Spratley Islands for example.  That happened, but our policy has not changed, we do not accept that.  So no one nation can change the international rules of the road.

So I do not see this as any increase in confrontations -- military confrontation –- but a continuation of a longstanding American policy:  international rule of law, prosperity for all nations, sail wherever they wish in international waters, and respect the sovereignty of all nations, peaceful resolution of disputes through international tribunals.

Q:  I have a follow-up on China.  So, regarding the recent incident with USS Decatur in South China Sea, yesterday, Chinese ambassador to the U.S. got interview to FOX News, and he say it’s so close to the Chinese islands, and it's so close to their Chinese coast. So, who is offensive, who is on the offensive? So he say. Can I -- could you give me a comment on it?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  I mean, if Chinese freighters or Chinese ships are in the Gulf of Mexico, that's international waters.  If -- South China Sea is one of the most heavily trafficked international sea lanes of communication, so when the Chinese ships are putting bumpers over the side of it.  You don't do that when you're out in the middle of the ocean, unless you're intending to run into something.  And so I would just leave it at that.

Q:  So how would China factor into your meetings --

SEC. MATTIS:  Into my what?

Q:  How would China factor into, you know, ASEAN --

SEC. MATTIS:  I'll probably be meeting with my counterpart.  There's a number of meetings, and, you know, we're still two days away so this is normal, that you're still even to the day, you're still -- everybody's kind of working.  So, when do they arrive, when do they leave, how many meetings can they do, which things do you want to be in the regular meeting, how many are you willing to block out for. So we just -- we'll just schedule it, you know, as we get closer.

Q:  Do you expect your counterparts to have strong language on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? Do you expect ASEAN ministers to agree on strong language in the South China Sea?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, that's why I go there, is to listen to them.  I -- I don't expect to weigh in on that ahead of time.  They've all been very clear, over years, that all nations need to have freedom of navigation.  All nations, not just ours.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, are you going to bring up with them, American who has been missing in Vietnam, apparently being held there, Michael Nguyen –

SEC. MATTIS:  American --

Q:  An American held in Vietnam, since July.  I’m wondering if you will be bringing that up with your counterpart?

SEC. MATTIS:  Our Ambassador (inaudible) frequently.  I'll meet with him.  He's flying into Ho Chi Minh City.  I’ll talk with him there.

Again, because I do reinforce foreign policy, I wouldn't say no.  But right now, I -- generally, I leave that Ambassador and State Department.  I'll see if he wants to bring it up.