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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III On-The-Record Gaggle in Jakarta With Traveling Press

Brig. Gen. Ryder:  All right, ladies and gentlemen, just real quick, a couple of ground rules at the top.  This will be on the record, which means you may quote the Secretary by name.  I will be facilitating, so I'll go ahead and call on you.  The Secretary will kick it off with some brief opening remarks.  We'll have time for each of you to have a question and then we'll go from there.

So without further ado, over to you, sir.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III:  Again, thanks for -- for being on the trip.  And I think you've had a chance to see a -- a wide range of things today and -- and hear us report out on a number of issues.  But it's great to be here in Jakarta for the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus.  It really has been a productive couple of days, and this is a bookend to the overall trip here.
So a common thread across all of my engagements here in Indonesia and the Republic of Korea and in India has been our shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and you've heard us talk about that a number of times.
We've heard our allies and partners express their support for this goal and we're working closely with our ASEAN friends to promote a regional order based on the rule of law, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.
We're advancing some groundbreaking initiatives on defense and security cooperation, and it's been an historic year on -- on that front.  So we started 2023 by announcing the expansion of our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines.  And with that announcement, we added four new sites -- four new EDCA sites for a total of nine sites, which was a -- a really significant move forward there.
In September, we co-hosted the largest-ever iteration of Super Garuda Shield in Indonesia, and in that exercise, we had seven participating countries with 11 observer nations.  And while I was here in Jakarta, Indonesia and the United States signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement that compliments the upgrade of the bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

So you've seen us grow the scope and scale of our exercises with partners across south -- Southeast Asia.  Now, we've launched a pilot of our ASEAN Emerging Leaders Defense Fellowship, which convenes its inaugural class next spring.  And we'll be moving forward with a new gender advisors initiative to support the incorporation of women and women's perspectives in -- into regional security planning and operations.
So all these efforts point to this region's increased -- increasing connectiveness, and we're working shoulder-to-shoulder with ASEAN to ensure that we're preparing to address existing and emerging threats.
So this week, I had the -- also had the opportunity to speak with counterparts from the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, to discuss a -- a number of bilateral initiatives.  And as you know, we had been open to meeting with the PRC here in Jakarta but we're encouraged by recent news from the White House on the planned resumption of military-to-military communications.
You've heard me say before that there is no substitute for consistent and substantive dialogue between senior leaders.  So we'll continue to seek practical discussions with the PRC from the senior leader level to the working level.
So I want to get to your questions but let me conclude with the bottom line, and that is that our commitment to this region and to ASEAN and ASEAN centrality is unwavering.  So we're going to keep working with ASEAN partners and friends over -- in -- all over the Indo-Pacific to deliver a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous future.
And so with that, let me take a couple of questions here.

Brig. Gen. Ryder:  Thank you, sir.  We'll go ahead and kick it off with Joe here.

Q:  Thank you so much for your time, sir.  Really appreciate you doing this.  I wanted to ask about the return to military-to-military communications.  Over the same period that China has refused to engage on a senior leader level, we've also seen an uptick in provocations, irresponsible behavior towards U.S. and allied aircraft and vessels.  Does this offer hope that there could be a sort of reset of their strategy or of that behavior?

And then secondly, one read of U.S. progress that you've laid out and that we see on display here in the region is that partners in the region are increasingly view -- viewing the U.S. as a credible alternative to China and coalescing around a -- a vision that may not align with China's vision.  Another -- you know, that -- stated another way, China is effectively alienating themselves and that's on display.  Do you feel like that message is being received in Beijing or are you seeing any sign of that?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, thanks, Joe.  First of all, in terms of what the dialogue means, I think -- the potential for dialogue means -- you know, I wouldn't care -- I -- I won't make any predictions about China's future behavior.  What I will say is that we will continue to need the -- the mechanisms to manage crises and -- and make sure that -- that, you know, we -- we prevent the wrong things -- of -- we prevent things from spiraling out of control from time to time.
That's even more important, as you pointed out, if, you know, activities in the region have increased, if unhelpful things like close intercepts and that sort of stuff, if the numbers of those events have increased, then all the more reason that senior leaders need to be able to talk to each other.
So I'm encouraged by the fact that -- that we have -- we will have channels open.  But, again, I won't predict -- make any predictions about what this means for China's behavior.  We would hope that they would -- they would begin to dial that back, because, again, those types of things have every opportunity of -- of creating a crisis.
Whether or not people view us as a credible alternative, I would say, absolutely, what we've done over the last three years, Joe, is we have worked hard to strengthen existing relationships and in some cases build new relationships.  And -- and we have demonstrated in all cases that, you know, we have an interest in our partners and where we share values, where we have common values, common goals and objectives, we're going to work together to -- to reach those objectives.
The main objective, Joe, is a free and open Indo-Pacific region.  You also heard us say we're going to sail the international waterways and fly the international skies in accordance with international law.  And -- and so we will continue to do that.
But, again, as -- as we have worked with allies and partners to strengthen existing relationships, I think that, you know, countries have been -- been reassured by -- by that.  And what they've also seen, Joe, is that we have been out in the region throughout.  And even though we're -- we're busy in Europe, we're busy in the Middle East, we're here in -- in the Indo-Pacific.
This is my ninth trip to the -- to the region.  And, you know, as secretary of defense, I think that sends a pretty powerful message of -- and reassures our allies and partners.

Brig. Gen. Ryder:  Thank you, sir.
All right.  Let's go to Ryo, Nikkei.

Q:  Thank you very much, Secretary, for doing this.  Two questions today.  The first, on Taiwan, are you still committed to delivering weapon systems and ammunitions to Taiwan as quickly as possible, even after President Biden and President Xi agreed to stabilize the bilateral relationship?
And, secondly, on the South China Sea, China continues the unsafe behavior, despite the president's and secretary's strong commitments to defend the Philippines.  Do you believe that U.S. deterrence is working?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Could you say the second part again there?

Q:  Yeah.  The -- China continues the dangerous behavior against the Philippine ships despite the president's strong commitment and the secretary's strong commitment to defend the Philippines.
So my question is, the U.S. deterrence is working?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Okay.  In terms of what we are doing and what we will continue to do with -- with respect to Taiwan, as you know, of course with the Taiwan Relations Act, we -- we are committed to doing what's necessary to help Taiwan acquire the means to defend itself.  And we've done that for a number of years, and we'll continue to do that.
And -- and, again, I don't think that anything that, you know, the president -- that both leaders discussed today would -- would cause that to move in a different direction.  Again, we will continue to follow the path that we've outlined for ourselves and with the Taiwan Relations Act.
You know, as you said -- well, as you've heard me say, over and over again, I don't think that the conflict with China is inevitable or imminent.  And so we have all said that we believe that, you know, a conflict that occurs in the streets would affect the -- not only the entire region but the entire world.
So that's something that nobody wants to see happen.  We've said, over and over again, that, you know, any unilateral change to the status quo is undesired.  So -- so we have maintained our course there, Ryo.  That hasn't changed.

Brig. Gen. Ryder:  Okay.  Let's --

Q:  What about the other question, on the -- on the Philippines?

SEC. AUSTIN:  The Philippines?

Q:  Yeah.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Yeah, so, you know, we will continue to stick by our allies going forward.  You know, we have a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, and we're serious about our responsibilities there.  And -- and, again -- I'll leave it at that.

Q:  Thank you.

Brig. Gen. Ryder:  All right.  Let's go ahead and bounce around here, a little bit, and we'll go to Alex, Fox.

Q:  Thank you.  Thank you for your time.  My first question's almost, like, a point of clarification, because I think the average American sees tensions increasing in Gaza and the number of attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, combined with things like the Yemeni drone that was just shot down by USS Thomas Hudner.
And I think they wonder how we can maintain that we're deterring wider regional conflict.  Does -- does Yemen, Iraq and Syria not count as wider regional conflict?
And then, on a different topic, I was also wondering, being that Biden just called Xi a dictator, what is the practicality of expecting mil-to-mil relations with a dictatorship?
Does him expressing that sentiment publicly impact your ability to have these conversations?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, I think we have to have the ability to talk to friends; we have to have the ability to talk to adversaries.  It's important to have those channels open.  Even in -- in the height of all the things that have happened with respect to Russia and Ukraine, I've had the ability to pick up the phone and talk to the minister of defense of Russia.  And -- and I think that's a critical capability that we have to maintain, to manage crisis going forward.  So it's -- the fact that the leaders have agreed to make sure that those channels are open, I think, is -- is a real benefit.
In terms of regional conflict in the Middle East, you know, our goal is to make sure that, if possible, we can contain what's going on in -- with Israel and Gaza to Gaza and not have it cause a -- an all-out regional conflict.  There have been incidents of -- of Iranian proxies or Houthis launching weapons or munitions at -- at various -- at various times, but I wouldn't describe that as a -- a wider regional conflict.  They're -- they're incidents certainly that -- that we continue to see and you'll probably -- you'll probably see them going forward, but I don't think that's reached the threshold of a -- of -- of wider regional conflict at this point, so.

Q:  What would reach that threshold?

SEC. AUSTIN:  I'm sorry?

Q:  What would reach that threshold for you?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, I mean, if you -- if -- if you saw us in a fight with Iran or if you saw us in a fight with the Houthis, an all-out fight, I think that's -- that's a regional conflict.

Brig. Gen. Ryder:  Okay, all right, let's go to Lauren, Defense One.

Q:  Thanks so much for doing this.  You talked about how the U.S. has recently expanded military exercises with partners in the INDOPACOM region, specifically with respect to space and cyber.  I'm curious about what exactly (the gaps in ?) concerns are there in those capabilities and how basically, like, increased cooperation or exercises would fix those?
And in the same vein, how will strengthening those vulnerabilities enhance countries' ability to deter aggression from China?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Yeah, so we -- we want to make sure -- you know, the -- we -- the way that we operate obviously is, you know, we incorporate capabilities from all warfighting domains -- air, land, sea, space, cyberspace.  And what we've done here over the years is incorporate those capabilities into our training.
And -- and so as we train with allies and partners, we want to make sure that we're, you know, helping them bring their capabilities along as well.  And -- and so they won't all be at the same -- in the same place as we are obviously but we can -- we can begin to help them understand the value of having capability in these -- in these domains and develop those capabilities.
Now, cyber, for example, is one of those -- one of those areas where you don't have to be an -- or -- an enormous country with a -- with a significant inventory of -- of armament.  You can be -- you can be -- bring capability to the table in the cyber domain even if you're a smaller country with limited capability.  And -- and so that can be helpful to, you know, other allies and partners.
And in space, I mean, there's a lot of development that needs to happen going forward but -- but certainly, you know, countries are interested in that, countries are interested in sharing, they're interested in learning more about what they would need to do in order to develop a capability.
And so I think we're having the right conversations, we're doing the right things with training, and -- and the countries are excited about that.  They want a -- they want more of that.  Just had a pretty good and in-depth conversation with one of our -- with one of our partners here, and again, very much interested in doing more in the cyber domain and -- and the space domain.

Q:  Could you say just a little bit more about what needs to come along in the space domain?  Cause that's kind of a big area.  C2 is electronic warfare, it's a (lot of stuff ?).

SEC. AUSTIN:  Yeah, in -- in terms of other countries?

Q:  Yeah, like where you would like to see more development there.

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, I mean, you know, it -- when you -- when you speak -- when you talk about space, it's -- none -- none of that capability is cheap, but we can -- there are opportunities for countries to partner with us, to -- to work with each other, and -- and develop nascent capabilities.

And it's certainly -- there -- there are terrestrial capabilities that can have impact in the space domain as well.  And -- and -- and I'll -- I'll stop there.  So yeah.

Brig. Gen. Ryder:  Thank you, sir.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

Brig. Gen. Ryder:  Last question will go to Pete from Bloomberg.

Q:  Yeah, thank you.  So two questions, both on the Middle East.
The first one -- given the way that Iran has unleashed its proxies since October 7th, what have Gulf allies, such as Saudi Arabia, asked for in terms of weapons or greater defense collaboration with the U.S.?
And the second question is, in light of your personal experience with wars in the Middle East, do you think that Israel can achieve a military victory in Gaza in the absence of clear political objectives?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Peter, can you say again that last piece there?

Q:  Yeah.  The -- so in the light of your -- your personal experience in the Middle East, do you think that Israel can achieve a military victory in Gaza in the absence of clear political objectives?

SEC. AUSTIN:  In terms of what Gulf countries are asking for, they really haven't asked for anything, Peter.  I -- it -- it -- what you've seen us do, seen me do is make sure that, where we have troops deployed in various places, that we've -- we've strengthened their force protection, in some cases we've put additional Patriot elements in, and that -- and that's where … and it wasn't because our host asked for that, it's because we felt that there was a need to -- to really increase the protective posture.
So, you know, we're not getting a lot of demand for specific capabilities as a -- as a result of increased activity by Iranian proxies.
In terms of Israel's objectives and whether or not they can be successful, your -- your question assumes that they don't have any political objectives.  And so you -- one could take issue with the question.  And -- and so I think the first thing we'd have to do is really kind of look to Israel to explain what its -- what its political objectives are at the end of the day.

One of the things that they've said, Peter, is that they -- they want to look -- they -- they look to have a transition to something different in -- in -- in Gaza.  It cannot be go back to the status quo.  And in order to do that, it's going to require, you know, a number of things.
And I think, you know, detailing that and outlining that and resourcing that is the work that lies ahead, but that transition, I think, is pretty clear.  You know, it's -- and -- and so whether or not they can be successful militarily, yeah, they can, if -- if that's the goal, and I think that is the goal.
Does it mean that you have to defeat or destroy every Hamas operator in the -- in Gaza in order to do that?  Maybe not, you know?  It's left to be seen, you know, what conditions that -- there -- need to exist before that -- that transition can happen, so.

Brig. Gen. Ryder:  Thank you very much, sir.  Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our press engagement.  Thank you very much.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.