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Media Availability with Mr. Helvey Enroute to Singapore

June 2, 2017
David F. Helvey, Performing the Duties of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs

STAFF:  All right.  So, I'll let everybody introduce themselves.  But, Dave and Cara are going to be here on the record.  We'll go about a half an hour, plus or minus, playing it by ear.  

Over to you. 

DAVID F. HELVEY:  All right.  Well -- yes.  All right.  Well, thanks a lot and good morning.  

Is there a microphone?  Is there a microphone?  Is that good?  All right.  

Well, good morning, everybody.  And I hope everybody got a chance to get a good night's rest last night.  It's going to be a long flight.  But I'm glad to be able to talk to you today.  And we'll talk a little bit about what we can expect for the secretary over the next coming days in Singapore where he's going to attend the 16th round of Institute for International Strategic Studies' Shangri-La Dialogue.  

I think this trip is coming at a particularly important time.  The Asia-Pacific region is a very dynamic security environment.  There's a lot of concern in the region today over the rising challenges from North Korea, the threat posed by its nuclear developments, ballistic missile developments.  There's concern over China's rise and its assertive behavior, particularly in the maritime space.  And there's also questions about where the United States is going to be in the Asia-Pacific region new administration.  

Now, Sec. Mattis is -- this will be his second trip to the Asia-Pacific since January, his second trip in 130 days actually.  His first trip was to South Korea and Japan.  We've also had trips to the region by Secretary of State Sec. Tillerson and the vice president.  

These trips, including the one that the secretary's currently on, have demonstrated and reinforced the United States' commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, and have shown the American people why this region is so important for our interests and for our security and for our future economic health and prosperity. 

So, in terms of the Shangri-La Dialogue itself, the secretary's going to deliver a speech outlining some of his views and perspectives on U.S. Defense policy and strategy in the Asia-Pacific.  
He's also going to have a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings with a lot of our allies and partners across the region, meet with a number of Defense ministers, counterparts and representatives from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.  

And that'll be an opportunity for him, representing the United States, again, to underscore the commitment that we have to the Asia-Pacific region, to encourage a greater contributions and shared responsibility among our allies and partners across the region in the pursuit of common interests, including making contributions for their own self-defense, and cooperating with us in the international community in the delivery of international public goods.  As well as talk about how we're broadening and deepening our defense cooperation across the region, whether it's in the field of counterpiracy, maritime security, maritime domain awareness.  

So, this meeting and the series of meetings in Singapore is going to be all about those primary topics.  

With that, I'll ask if anybody has any questions.  I'll try to answer them.  If I can't... 

STAFF:  (off mic) microphone.  Just shout them out. 

Q:  OK.  You mentioned the speech.  Can you give us some idea of how he's going to deal with the speech, deal with the issues of North Korea's nuclear program, missile program and the South China Sea, how they relate to each other? 

SEC. HELVEY:  Well, I'll let the secretary's speech stand on its own.  So -- and he'll deliver it tomorrow.  You'll get a chance to see how he's going to play it. 

But what I can say about North Korea is we continue to have concerns about North Korea's nuclear missile developments.  This represents a very clear and direct threat, not only to the United States in our interests, but particularly to our allies South Korea and Japan, and to the region as a whole.  

North Korea's nuclear development missile programs clearly are a source of instability, a grave source of instability across the Asia-Pacific region, which really are a threat to everybody.  So, I mean... 

Q:  How are you going to deal with that?   You've been saying that for years, and it's been true for years.  How is he going to deal with it differently than the previous? 

SEC. HELVEY:  The president has launched a new strategy for North Korea that focuses on maximizing pressure.  This is primarily a diplomatic and economic effort at this point. 

The Department of Defense, the role of the military is to support the diplomatic effort, to create the conditions for success of diplomacy in terms of getting North Korea back to the negotiating table, aimed incredible negotiations toward the complete verifiable and irreversible denuclearization agreement. 

Q:  I couldn't hear the last part.  Is the administration in favor of renewing six-party talks?  Is that what you said? 

SEC. HELVEY:  No.  The administration is open to a clear negotiations -- credible negotiations aimed at denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.  Sec. Tillerson has said now is not the time, however, for those negotiations to start.  

       Right now, we're focused on working with the international community to ensure that all of our partners and all members of the international community are living up to their obligations and fulfilling the requirements of the U.N. Security Council resolutions. 

       We're working with our partners in New York.  We're working with the Chinese.  We're working with our allies, Japan and South Korea, to increase the economic pressure by North Korea, to increase the diplomatic isolation.  And when the time is right, we'll be ready to talk.  

       Q:  Do you think the Chinese are doing all they can to deal with North Korea?  Or is there something more that they can and should be doing? 

       SEC. HELVEY:  I'll let the Chinese explain what they're doing and how much they're doing.  

       Q:  Are you satisfied with it? 

       SEC. HELVEY:  It's going to take time for the actions that China's taking to have effect in terms of North Korea.  We certainly expect China to live up to its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions.  China clearly has a lot of influence over North Korea.  And we expect China to play its part. 

       Q:  I have -- can I ask -- I have two questions.  

       On North Korea, it's been announced -- it's been reported that there're two U.S. carrier strike groups operating together near the Korean Peninsula.  This is really the first time it's been described since I think the 1990s, that this occurred.  The Japanese have -- are participating in, as they've discussed that.  

       My first question is, so what is the significance of this?  What message are you trying to send through this military exercise?  Because this one is not an everyday occurrence.  

SEC. HELVEY:  It's -- you're talking about the dual carrier operations there...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Dual carrier operations, yes...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. HELVEY:  ... in the Sea of Japan... 

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Ronald Reagan... 

SEC. HELVEY:  Right.  Dual carrier operations in the -- are underway in the Sea of Japan, involving the Carl Vinson carrier strike group and the Ronald Reagan carrier strike group.  

       These are routine types of operations.  We have -- they've been conducted in the waters around the Korean Peninsula and the East China Sea and the South China Sea periodically over the past decade and a half.  The last time we did it was in 2014.  

Q:  Excuse me.  When's the last time we had dual carriers near the Korean Peninsula?

SEC. HELVEY:  I believe we had dual -- I think the last time we had dual carrier operations in the Sea of Japan was in the late 1990s.  So, it's not... 

Q:  So, it's not so routine. 

SEC. HELVEY:  But the fact that we do dual carrier operations is fairly routine.  It's an occurrence where we have a carrier strike group that's based in the western United States joins up with the forward deployed carrier strike group that we have in Japan. 

       It's a unique opportunity for training.  It allows our forces for both of the carrier strike groups to be able to conduct operations together.  So, I think they're doing right now some aviation operations off the aircraft carriers. 

       I think the key messages that we're trying to send here is one, this is about readiness.  This is about an opportunity, a unique training opportunity for our forward-based forces to be able to conduct this type of training in waters that we've operated in over the past 70 years with great regularity and frequency.  

       The other point about this is this is about presence.  This demonstrates that the United States has military capabilities across the western Pacific, including in the Sea of Japan.  We continue to operate these capabilities on a regular basis with our partners and our allies across the region.  

       That presence not only demonstrates the capability that we have, and our willingness and ability to uphold our interests and our interests in ensuring freedom of navigation, rules-based international order.  But also reassures our allies and partners that we're there, we're present and we're engaged with them.  

       And it sends a message of resolve to those that would do -- that would, you know, operate in a manner inconsistent with our interests, or that would engage in aggression or coercion against the United States, our allies or our partners. 

       Q:  I just have a second follow-up on a different subject, unless someone wants to... 

       Q:  I have a follow-up on that question. 

       STAFF:  OK.  You follow up and then follow...

       Q:  Just -- Michael, why now?  You haven't done this since the late 1990s.  Why did you choose to do these two carrier ops now as opposed to before? 

       SEC. HELVEY:  I mean, I can't get into, you know, ship scheduling.  But this was an opportunity where we had the Ronald Reagan, which was just coming out of some maintenance work that it was being -- that was being undertaken in Japan.  Along with the Carl Vinson, which is completing its operations in the western Pacific.  As you know, it'd been recently operating up in the Sea of Japan off the Korean Peninsula.  

       So, this is an opportunity for those two strike groups to join up.  As the Reagan was coming out, the Vinson is completing its operations before it goes to its next deployment location.  So...

Q:  How long will they be together? 

SEC. HELVEY:  I -- it's my understanding that they'll be operating just a couple of days.  Three days.  I think the 31st through the 3rd.  

STAFF:  Three days (inaudible). 

SEC. HELVEY:  I'm sorry...

STAFF:  Yes.  You can go ahead.  You're following on this? 

Q:  I just have a -- I just wanted -- I think some of us are interested in this as well, on a different subject.  I mean, the -- there's a difficult military situation in Philippines where the Philippine government is fighting Islamic militants of various stripes.  

       What can you tell us about what's happening in that conflict, the Abu Sayyaf?  Who are these people?  How many are there?  Are there foreign fighters?  And what sort of assistance or advice is U.S. providing or willing to provide on this? 

SEC. HELVEY:  Well, first, we certainly condemn the violence that's going on in southern Philippines right now.  And we send our condolences out to the victims and their families of that violence.  

       I think what this underscores is that terrorism is a threat that faces -- that confronts everybody.  And it underscores that this is one of the challenges that we and everybody across the Asia-Pacific region, and indeed globally, is facing.  

I'll have to defer to the specifics on what we're doing and what's going on to the folks out at PACOM.  But we are engaging our allies in the Philippines, the Armed Forces in the Philippines with training -- advising functions.  

       We've got some special operations forces that are in the Philippines now, around 100 that have been there you know on a rotational basis, working with our Philippine partners, supporting counterterrorism missions.  And so, I'll leave the specifics to the folks out at PACOM.  

       Q:  Are those 100 troops helping in the southern Philippines right now?

       SEC. HELVEY:  I don't know their exact location.  But they're providing training and advising to the Armed Forces in the Philippines in support of counterterrorism missions.  

       Q:  Follow-on question here.  That mission that -- as that mission you mentioned was scaled back several years ago from probably 300 or 400 down to 100, given the stated goals and objective of combating terrorism and extremism, is the Pentagon looking at you know, pushing it back up, sending more people back?

       SEC. HELVEY:  No.  Right now, we're focused on the mission that we've got.  And we'll obviously get the input and recommendations from the commanders in the field.  And then the secretary will make a recommendation on if and how we do any adjustments to that.  But you know, whether or not we do that is a hypothetical that I'm not going to entertain at this point. 

Q:  Yes.  Two questions on North Korea.  One is, is there a risk of provocation by having these carriers in the region and sending more of a message than you want to North Korea?  One.  

And two, can I press you a little bit more on Chinese influence, which is we understand will take time diplomatically or whatever.  But I mean, do you have the time?  In other words, is there -- is the time it takes diplomatically to get China to do what you need it to do for North Korea time enough?  Or is it going to take too long? 

SEC. HELVEY:  Thanks for that question.  

       With respect to your first question, these are routine operations that we conduct and we have been conducting them you know across the region for over 70 years.  You know, we conduct these operations purposefully.  We're intending to, as I've said, demonstrate readiness, ensure that our forces are ready to be able to respond to any missions that the secretary or the president gives them.  

       In terms of you know, whether or not they're provocative, I think you know -- I mean, this is the normal, routine types of things that we do, whether it's in the Sea of Japan or elsewhere.  So, no I don't view them as being provocative in any way.  

In terms of your second question, you know Secretary Tillerson has said that the era of strategic patience is over.  That's why we're stepping up our efforts diplomatically and economically.  

       You know, we certainly expect China and others to take immediate actions to live up to their obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions, and do what they can to increase pressure on North Korea.  How long that's going to take is -- it's not clear from my perspective.  You'd have to talk to State Department folks.  

       Sec. Tillerson and the role of the Department of Defense is to support that diplomatic effort.  And so, we'll continue supporting that diplomatic effort until we're told otherwise. 

Q:  How much are you expecting the conversation to shift this year compared to last year in terms of the FONOPS and the island building and so on?  Because that's been the dominant theme for years now.  And it seems we're seeing a shift in attention.  

       Like, are you getting a lot of concerns still from allies in the region about the apparent decrease in FONOPS?  And are you -- is it true that you have taken less assertive action there to give China a bit more -- you know, to avoid ruffling the feathers of China? 

       SEC. HELVEY:  Well, thanks for that question.  

       We continue to have concerns about tensions in the South China Sea.  Our position has been made -- our position is clear.  We call on all claimants, or all parties in the South China Sea to clarify their maritime and territorial claims in accordance with international law.  And seek to address, manage these disputes peacefully, including through the use of peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms such as arbitration.  

       Our concern in the South China Sea certainly hasn't diminished.  We remain concerned about any effort to further militarize those islands.  We would oppose any action that would infringe upon the fundamental principle of freedom of navigation.  

       This is something that is an essential part of the regional and international system, the international rules-based order that we seek to uphold.  And we will continue to operate in ways that uphold our freedom of navigation.  

       These are freedoms and rights, privileges that are available to all countries, any sea-faring nation.  And we'll continue to operate in a way that upholds those. 

       We just recently completed freedom of navigation operation, and we'll continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations to demonstrate our intent, our willingness and ability to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. 

Q:  Why didn't you do them more frequently?  Because each time many months go by it becomes this huge kind of international story.  But if it's routine in international waters, why not just sail through them routinely? 

SEC. HELVEY:  We will continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations on a routine basis.  This is a global program.  It's part of what we do not only in the western Pacific, in the Asian-Pacific, but we do it around the world.  And we do it to challenge excessive maritime claims.  

This is part and parcel of our routine military presence and operations, whether it's in the western Pacific or anywhere else in the world.  And we'll continue to do them as a routine matter of our operations and presence.  

Q:  Again on the South China Sea, for those couple of years, three or four years, the line from American officials was this tremendous demand for the region from Asian allies to be more assertive, to be a hedge against Chinese bad behavior.  

       Do you sense the allies are every bit as keen to (inaudible) present?  Will they understand the realities of America's priorities, the threat of North Korea?  I mean they -- basically have they given up on (inaudible)?  Or are they just as keen as ever to be present (inaudible)? 

SEC. HELVEY:  Well, I'll let our Asian, Southeast Asian allies and partners speak for themselves.  But our commitment to the international -- our commitment to the Asia-Pacific is enduring.  

       Vice President Pence, when he was in the region not too long ago, spoke of our enduring commitment to the Asian-Pacific region.  You know we have enduring interests, security interests and economic interests in the region.  And that hasn't diminished one bit.  

       In fact, what we're doing, part of what Sec. Mattis's first trip out and part of this second trip is to increase and improve, deepen our alliance and partner relationships with our treaty-based allies and our growing partners across the region.  We continue to get requests from our partners across the region for defense cooperation, defense assistance, whether it's providing maritime security assistance, maritime domain awareness assistance through programs like the Maritime Strategic Initiative.  

       So that our interest, our engagement hasn't diminished.  In fact, it's increasing.  And I'm not detecting any pullback from our allies either. 

Q:  Just a follow-up on that.  Basically, Philippines, (inaudible) to previous (inaudible) the international (inaudible) just general cooperation (inaudible) state of new relations (inaudible)? 

SEC. HELVEY:  We have a very longstanding alliance with the Philippines.  And we continue to maintain a strong defense alliance with the Philippines.  

       We continue to have routine defense and military interactions.  We've had over 200 different interactions are scheduled to occur this year.  That goes from the range of you know, key leader engagements to regular functional military exchanges and exercises.  

       We continue to work, as I mentioned previously, with our Philippine allies on counterterrorism operation.  It's a key part of our working with our allies in areas of mutual benefit.  And so, we'll continue working. 

Q:  Can you provide an update on the situation with THAAD, provided some of the questions that were raised by the government in Seoul? 

SEC. HELVEY:  Well, in terms of those questions, I'll have to refer you to the Republic of Korea government.  You know, we have consulted with our ROK allies and this was an alliance decision.  We've consulted with our ROK allies throughout this entire process.  We've done it in an open and transparent way.  

As the -- as you know here, this is a defensive capability that's intended to respond directly to the threat -- the missile threat posed by North Korea to the United States, our forces that are forward deployed, our allies in South Korea, in Japan, in the region.  So that's all I got say on that. 

Q:  So, it is the case that you inform the South Korean government about the number of launchers that were going into their country?  They were fully informed on that by the United States, on your part? 

SEC. HELVEY:  As I said, we consulted with them throughout.  We've been transparent the entire process. 

Q:  Sounds like a yes. 

Q:  That's a yes? 

SEC. HELVEY:  We've consulted with them throughout.  We've been very transparent. 

Q:  With all due respect... 

SEC. HELVEY:  I'm not going to get into the -- I can't get into the specifics of you know what was communicated by whom and when.  

       But you know, we have been consulting with the ROK government throughout this entire process to get the entire battery, THAAD battery to the Korean Peninsula, which includes six launchers.  We've been very transparent with our ROK allies through this process.  

This is an alliance decision.  And any questions about the questions that have been raised by the new South Korean president, I'd have to ask you to refer to the South Korean government. 

Q:  Just (inaudible)...

STAFF:  (Inaudible) you guys (inaudible).  There's probably about another 5 minutes... 

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Going back to the two aircraft carriers, with all due respect, if it hasn't happened in over -- in about 20 years, how is it routine? 

SEC. HELVEY:  It's routine in the sense that we do dual carrier operations.  We do single carrier operations...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  (Inaudible) Korea?

SEC. HELVEY:  It's in the Sea of Japan.  So -- which butts the Korean Peninsula.  But it's in the Sea of Japan.  

       It's routine in the sense that you know this is an opportunity, taking one carrier that was operating in the Sea of Japan, having it being joined by a carrier that's coming out of Japan, to do a couple of days of cooperative activities, carrier-based aviation practice and other types of activities between the two strike groups.  So, in that sense it's routine.  

       In terms of location, we haven't done it since the late 1990s.  But this is not something that is unprecedented in the western Pacific.  

Q:  Do you think this will change North Korea's behavior?  Is that the hope? 

SEC. HELVEY:  I don't expect this to change North Korea's behavior.  This is not about sending a message directly to North Korea.  This is more about readiness, demonstrating the readiness for our forces, demonstrating through our operations and our actions the presence that we have both in the Sea of Japan and across the western Pacific.  

       This is something that underscores our commitment to defend our interests and defend our allies.  It sends a message of reassurance, and it does send a message of resolve.  But this is part of our routine actions and our presence, and our military presence and our operations toward a broader strategy across the Asia-Pacific region, including North Korea.  

Q:  And you said at the very beginning something about encouraging allies to pay more for their -- or increase their contributions for their own self-defense.  Are you thinking of anyone -- any countries in particular or as a block?  And are you going to be using any of the similar kind of strong language that we've seen with the European allies? 

SEC. HELVEY:  You know, we've got a lot of very good, deep and enduring alliance and partner relationships across the Asia-Pacific region.  One of the things that we are encouraging all parties to do is to ensure that they're investing appropriately in their own self-defense capabilities.  That's an obligation that we have, and that's an obligation that we view every country as having.  

Q:  They're not big enough? 

SEC. HELVEY:  We've actually got some partners in the region, allies like Japan and South Korea that we actually uphold and highlight as being models in terms of their investment in their own self-defense capabilities, their contributions in support of the alliance.  

       So, no, I wouldn't say that they're -- I wouldn't use your words.  I mean, we've got some allies and partners in the region that are clearly ones we want to uphold as models of investment and contributions for our presence as well. 

STAFF:  OK.  Thank you very much for your time...

Q:  Thank you. 

STAFF:  ... (inaudible) very helpful.  And let's (inaudible).