Transcript

Media Availability by Secretary Esper En Route to Tokyo

Aug. 6, 2019
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Yeah, so first things first.

First good few days, and -- in Australia and -- and New Zealand.  I think I often just (inaudible) since I had a chance in each country to meet with my counterpart and fellow defense minister and I had a chance to meet with the foreign ministers, and I had a chance to even meet with -- or chat with the prime ministers of each country.  So very good -- very good in that regard.

Also had a chance to talk about our strategic direction.  I had the opportunity to express how Indo-Pacific is our priority theater for all the reasons why you've heard me say in the last few days and couple weeks, and -- and to hear from them and to learn from them about how they view and approach the theater as well.

So we're off to Japan now, as you all know, and I hope to have similar discussions there with my counterparts and with Prime Minister Abe to continue to stress the importance of the Indo-Pacific.  Obviously, Japan is the cornerstone of our security in the Pacific, and so I'm looking for a lot of good dialogue with -- with my Japanese counterpart there.  And, of course, we'll spend some time on the ground with some of our service members, too, while -- while I'm there.  So I'm looking forward to, again, continuing this trip and talking about our interests and our direction.

And with that I'll stop, and go directly to your questions.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, one, sort of, broad trip question, and then a specific thing on Turkey.

You're going to Mongolia in another day and we may not get a chance to talk to you, so can you just talk a little bit broadly about, there's been three engagements with Mongolia in recent weeks with -- by the administration -- why it's so important and -- and what you're looking to -- what your message is when you go there?  And so just a broad thing.

And then, just on Turkey and Syria, there's been a couple meetings today, and then tomorrow on trying to convince Turkey not to invade in Syria.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  Can you give us an update on where that stands?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I'll -- I'll take your second question first.

On -- on Turkey, I think we have a DOD team there right now, or they may be coming back.  But we've been heavily engaged with the Turks with regard to their security interests in northern Syria.  Clearly we do believe any unilateral action by them would be unacceptable.  And so what we're trying to do now is work out with them an arrangement to address their concerns and I'm hopeful we'll get there.

I've had discussions with my counterpart, Minister Akar, a few times.  The last time was last week, and we'll continue those dialogues.  But again, let’s continue those discussions, and we'll work something out in due course.

Regarding your first question on Mongolia, it gets to, as I said, the importance of implementing our National Defense Strategy.  Line of effort number two on the defense strategy is expanding our -- make our alliances more -- more robust and expanding our partnerships, and Mongolia -- given its location, given its interest in working more with us, their third neighbor policy -- all those things is the reason why I want to go there and engage.

I had the chance to meet with the president of Mongolia last week alongside President Trump.  We had discussions there, as well.

So it's -- again, continue to build relationships with key countries in the Indo-Pacific, and I look, on each trip, to do more of that, whether it's Mongolia this trip, Vietnam, a future trip, Indonesia, other countries who I think are key to making sure we -- we just look to like-minded countries who believe in a free and open Indo-Pacific, who share the values we do, who believe in respecting one another's sovereignty -- all those things that rely on the -- the -- the rules-based Western order that has been established for many decades now.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  But is there something specific that you're looking for that you'd like to do in terms of expanding the military relationship?

SEC. ESPER:  No, no -- no, nothing in particular.

I think it's -- you know, there's a good working-level discussion right now with them, but it's just building the relationship at a more senior level, defense minister to defense minister, and again, another chance for me to speak to the president of the country.

Q:  As we were taking off, North Korea launched a -- just a couple more projectiles.  And do you -- do you have an update on what those were?  Were they short-range?

But more broadly, is it sort of the policy now do nothing and to allow them to do these short-range missiles, or is there going to be some sort of consequences if they, sort of, go beyond short-range?

SEC. ESPER:  My -- my understanding is they are short-range ballistic missiles.

I -- I wouldn't say we don't do anything.  We monitor these very close, and we make sure we understand what they're doing.  We try to understand why.

But again, I think the key is to keep the door open for diplomacy.  The president had a good meeting last month or so with -- with -- with President Kim Jong-un.  And we're not going to overreact to these, but we monitor and we watch them closely, and we're -- we're cognizant of what's happening.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  A follow-up.  The North Koreans have obviously talked about, you know, exercises and then the upcoming exercise which I believe has started already, and it's one of the reasons why they've done these several tests for the past few weeks.  Is there any plan to -- to scale back future exercises?

SEC. ESPER:  No, not at this point.  You know, we -- we -- we made some adjustments after the presidents' -- plural -- last meeting last year and we're -- we're still abiding by those, and -- and -- and again, in order to open the door for diplomacy -- diplomacy.  But at the same time, we need to maintain our readiness and making sure that we're prepared.

Q:  I want to follow up on that (inaudible). These other short-range missiles -- sorry, I can't talk louder -- it's (inaudible) devastating to Seoul, Tokyo, all of those service members that we have here.  So what's going to be your message to our allies in the region and to the troops in the region who are concerned and may be concerned, though the president says, "They don't bother me" -- direct quote?  What are you going to be telling our allies?

SEC. ESPER:  So look, my -- this -- these will obviously be items of discussion when I meet with my counterparts in Seoul and in Tokyo, I would expect.  I understand they all appreciate the fact that we need to find a political solution, a political agreement to this.

The -- the tensions between at least the United States and Korea since the president engaged some time ago have been probably lessened.  Those are -- you know, in my discussion with Gen. Abrams in -- in Korea, he said that to me.  And so I think we all appreciate that we're in a much better place today than where we were in the past.

I've said to you all before, when I first came to office in November 2017, we were on the wrong path.  We're now on a much better path.  And the key is -- is while we take these launchings seriously, we monitor them, we're -- we try and understand what they're doing and why.  We -- we -- we also need to be careful not to overreact, and not to -- to get ourselves into a situation where diplomacy is closed off.

And so I know that the State Department continues to engage and we're looking forward to the next -- the next round of working-level talks sooner rather than --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Could you confirm that the exercises in South Korea started on Monday of this week?  And what's the goal?  What is the U.S. (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER:  It's -- it -- it's command post training.  It's -- you know, it's how do we -- how -- how do we conduct ourselves at the highest levels of decision-making, command and control communication, and continue to make sure we fine tune those things which are important when you are looking at two allies on a peninsula -- those types of interactions.

So we can get you the dates.  I -- I can't say whether it technically started two days ago or whatever, but there's always some type of lead-up.  But it's fair to say I started -- it -- it -- yes, right.  And of course, it goes in different phases.  So we can get you the details about it.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  (inaudible) keeping the door to diplomacy open?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm sorry?

Q:  You were talking about keeping the door to diplomacy open with North Korea, and --

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I think it's open right now.

Q:  But if they really don't like these exercises that are about to happen, would you consider, or is it off the table to cancel that exercise completely in the future?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not going to make -- I'm not going to answer a hypothetical at this time.

I think the key right now is -- is for working-level groups to get back to the discussions, and we're hopeful that'll happen in the coming weeks.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, can I ask you about the -- the tension between South Korea and Japan right now?  If South Korea says to end intel sharing with Japan, what effect does that have on our ability to conduct exercises, operations in the region and going to that the NDS towards deterring China and North Korea as well?

SEC. ESPER:  I would honestly encourage the -- the intel-sharing to continue.  It's key to us in our common defense, if you will, against North Korea.

And my message to -- in both Seoul and Tokyo will likely be, look, we have really big challenges in the near term, threats, challenges if you will in North Korea in the longer term, bigger one of China, we should focus on those two things.  So, I'd ask them to both resolve this issue quickly and let's really focus on North Korea and China.

(CROSSTALK)

I'll come back to you.

Q:  You said earlier that any unilateral action for Turkey would be unacceptable.

SEC. ESPER:  Right.

Q:  What would they risk if they launched an operation in Syria?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I mean, there's -- we have a lot of mutual interest in northern Syria, right.  I mean, we want to sustain the continued defeat at least of the physical caliphate of ISIS, right?  That becomes a question, if they move in and the SDF is impacted, we're obviously holding thousands of fighters -- ISIS fighters, and so those are some of the -- some of the things that we risk if there's a unilateral incursion into northern Syria by the Turks.

So, again, I'm hopeful we'll work out something to address their security concerns.  We just need to take one day at a time and continue working through the process.

Q:  As a follow-up, what happened with the S-400 that they received?  Do you think -- do you know if they are operational now?

SEC. ESPER:  I don't know that.  But I know they were receiving it in tranches, if you will, and as you know, we've told them, we've cut off the F-35 program to them.

(Inaudible).

Q:  (inaudible).

Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I want to turn to Turkey, an issue kind of on the opposite side of the coin.  You talked about the message to Turkey.  What's the message at this point to the SDF, the YPG and others that, you know, have been working with the United States in Syria for years?  Who shed a lot of blood there. Are -- and I'm assuming we are now quite worried about an incursion or an evasion.

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, we continue to talk with the SDF in the region.  I'm not going to convey any more than that at this time.  But we stay in contact with them, as much as we do with the Turks.  The State Department is obviously involved as well; it’s a joint State-DOD venture here.  So we -- I'll just leave it at that for now.

Q:  We hear the message at times that they feel abandoned or that they're worried about being invaded.  I guess what would you say to that sort of concern?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I -- we don't have any ambition to abandon them, if you will.  But at the same time, what we're going to do is prevent unilateral incursions that would upset, again, these mutual interests that both the United States, Turkey and the SDF share with regard to Syria.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, if we could go to Iran for a minute; as you know, U.K. has agreed to do maritime controls.

SEC. ESPER:  Yes.

Q:  You alluded a couple times to impending other announcements.

SEC. ESPER:  Sure.

Q:  Do you have a sense of when that could happen?  Are there other announcements?

But also, what can the U.S. do to broader expand the interest in doing this, because it's clearly been some fence-sitters?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I'd say a few things.  I told you all a few days ago that there would be a few announcements and here's the first.

And so, we welcome the U.K.'s participation.  They're a very capable ally and partner, and we've always enjoyed that special relationship with them.  So we look forward to getting into the details of how we will operate together in the straits.

And then I think, like I said, over the coming days you may see a few more.  I don't want to put a number on it.  But then over time -- partly this is not -- in some cases each country has a different process by which they go through making these decisions.  That's one of the reasons why we held that sourcing conference in Tampa last week and I told you had we had 30-plus countries attend, there was a range of interests:  some very positive, some less so.

And -- but in each case every country has a different process to go through to come to -- to come to a final determination.  In some cases, they have to go to their parliament.  You know, I don’t know what is (inaudible).

But this is a long way of saying it takes time in some cases, to kind of get people to come up with a final answer, so we've --

Q:  Are -- are there --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  -- just got to be patient.

Q:  -- are there ways the U.S. can tweak the request to make it more appealing, one?  And, two, when did some of the details get worked out with the Brits?

SEC. ESPER:  I think we're -- I think we remain open to adjustments, if you will, or tweaks.  But we have to see what those are.

Again, at the end of the day, what we're trying to do is maintain maritime surveillance, monitoring of the straits.  Number two, affirm our view of the importance of freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce.  And, number three, deter provocative acts by the Iranians that can lead to conflict.  We do not want conflict with Iran.

So if we can accomplish those three things with a very robust international presence, then I think we're all better off for it, including Iran, frankly.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, Japan kind of has some relationship with Iran.  Would you prefer to see Japan join a coalition, like Operation Sentinel?  And if they decide not to, how do you see that impacting the alliance?

SEC. ESPER:  I think any -- any and every country that has an interest in freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce, needs to really consider and in (inaudible) to be involved in this type of -- this monitoring of the Strait, the Gulf.

Again, what we're trying to do is affirm four principles, four values.  Just like we're trying to affirm, here in the Indo-Pacific, four values of freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce, sovereignty, et cetera.  And so I think it's something that the Japanese should strongly consider.  I'll be discussing this with them, as I will with my counter partners on this (inaudible).

Q:  If they don't join the coalition, do you think there is some kind of moderating role they could play between the U.S. and Iran?

SEC. ESPER:  I don't want to hypothesize with respect to -- you know, we'll take it one step at a time.

Q:  I have one (inaudible) real quick.  You said about North Korea, you said you are pausing, trying to look at why they were launching them.  Do you kind of have a better sense of what their actions mean or what their mindset is?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, not that I could share (inaudible).  You know, you always want to understand why people go to certain lengths and how -- (inaudible) to make sure we understand what they’re launching (inaudible).

Again, our job is not to overreact, and to keep the door open for diplomacy.

Q:  You don't see any changes --

SEC. ESPER:  I don't see any changes.

Q:  Do you see any change in any of their behavior right now?

SEC. ESPER:  Nothing, nothing marked.

Q:  -- (inaudible) --

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  On Afghanistan, it is reported that the president has spoken with advisors -- discussed wanting to have a drawdown by 2020.  Have you discussed this with the president?  And what do you think of that timeline?

SEC. ESPER:  I haven't -- everything that you mentioned, I have not discussed with the president.  Maybe it has happened the last few days. I haven't seen that or I haven't seen that report, so.  No comment on that.

Q:  Has North Korea done anything to make us more confident in their interest in denuclearization?

SEC. ESPER:  I'd have to refer you to State Department on that one.  So obviously they lead the discussions and (inaudible).

Q:  You’ve seen the intelligence.

SEC. ESPER:  You can (inaudible), sure.   

Sir?  What else?

Q:  Just a point of clarification on the -- on Operation Sentinel.

SEC. ESPER:  Yes?

Q:  This British announcement, are they going to be any part of Sentinel, or complimentary to it?  How does that break out?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.  Look, they're going to be working alongside us.  This is just part of what we're trying to set up, if you will.  It's the whole network of, you know, coordination and communication, stuff like that.  We have a very robust degree of surveillance out there, et cetera, so -- so they'll be part of us.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Are we not calling it Sentinel anymore?  Or --

SEC. ESPER:  Sure, we're -- we're calling it Sentinel.

Q:  Okay, but Sentinel is a – 

SEC. ESPER:  We call it Operation Sentinel.  You can call it whatever you want.  We call it Sentinel.

Q:  But just to clarify, Operation Sentinel is the U.S.?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, that's what we call it.  That's (inaudible).

Okay, anything else?

Q:  Sir, just on Sentinel, have you had to divert any resources to support this new operation?  I mean, we talked about it before.

SEC. ESPER:  We -- we already have resources in the region, so no.  And -- and obviously, as more countries participate, the better.

Q:  Can I just -- just on Turkey, one quick thing.  When you're doing --

SEC. ESPER:  Talk Turkey?

Q:  On Turkey -- talk Turkey.  During your hearing you talked about how it was -- you thought it was sort of disheartening --

SEC. ESPER:  Yes.

Q:  -- the way it -- this sort of (inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  Yes.

Q:  And I'm wondering, this latest discussions about a possible invasion, what that does to your mindset on this?  And does it, sort of, suggest to you that maybe you're even further down that road?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, you're -- you're right.  I mean, if I'm here and I just didn't discuss how, you know, Turkey's been a long-standing ally of us going back to the early days of -- of NATO, and they've been a good partner.  And, you know, the -- the -- the issues with Turkey and the PKK are not new, so that's -- I -- I think it's a little bit different than what we've seen with regard to the procurement of Russian system, the S-400.  I -- I think that's a markedly different action they've taken.

This one, it's -- it's not new.  We've seen -- we've all seen this before.  They have, you know, long-standing concerns about the PKK.  And so that's why we want to work with them -- to address their legitimate security concerns going forward.

Q:  Do you think you have less leverage with them now, considering the --

SEC. ESPER:  I -- I --

Q:  -- S-400 issue?

SEC. ESPER:  I haven't thought about it in terms of leverage.  Again, I think we need to work with them as partners.

So this is not a new issue for Turkey.  It's not a new issue for us working with Turkey on this, so we've just got to address it.

Q:  And the security zone in Syria, is it -- is it getting somewhere?  Do you think you can enter --

SEC. ESPER:  We -- we -- we made progress on some of the key issues.  I don't want to get ahead of -- get ahead of our folks who working this.  We've made progress on some -- on some of the key issues.

Okay?

Q:  I have a question on burden-sharing with Japan.  How much would you like to see Japan step up their contribution, in terms of burden-sharing?  And are you worried about if there are tensions in negotiations, that that'll effect the mil-to-mil relationship?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I think the consistent theme that the -- the president has expressed, I've expressed, is we value our alliances, but there needs to be equitable -- equitable burden -- burden-sharing.  Wherever that may be, whether it's in Asia, or whether it's in -- in Europe with NATO or elsewhere, is we want to make sure that everybody is pulling their fair weight and -- and helping us defend these core values, principles out there, whether it's, again, freedom of the seas and -- and sovereignty in the Indo-Pacific or, you know, sovereignty in deterring bad behavior by the Russians in Europe.

Okay?

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  Does anyone asked me about missiles in Asia (inaudible).

(Laughter.)

Q:  Have you -- have you heard from any other ally, Asian allies about the missiles being placed in their potential countries?  Like --

SEC. ESPER:  Okay, good.  Glad you asked that question.

(Laughter.)

Q:  (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER:  I have never asked anybody about the deployment of missiles in -- in Asia, so this -- what was reported about the -- you know, with us and the Australians are -- is -- I never asked.  They never declined.

We are -- we are quite some ways away from that.  It's going to take, again, a -- a few years to actually have some type of initial operational-capable missiles, whether they are ballistic, cruise -- you name it, to be able to deploy.  And that's -- between now and then there's going to be a, you know, a lot of dialogue.  We've got to -- it has to fit with the commanders, you know, the -- in this case for INDOPACOM, within these plans.  And then we'd have to figure out in -- in long -- in the discussions, dialogue with our partners where is the best place to deploy these systems?  And we're talking, again, about local ground-based conventional systems to deter conflict.

So anyways, that's (inaudible).  Somehow this got spun along to a point where I guess some people thought we'd deploy missiles next week, or something like that.

So does that clarify the missile thing?

Q:  Ask you a quick question?  In your joint statement with the Aussies, you referred to the potential base -- Chinese base in Cambodia.  The U.S. has been concerned about Cambodia's move away from the U.S. -- or toward the West, and -- and toward China.  Did you hear in your stops thus far much concern about that issue, more specifically and broadly?  And is there anything the U.S. is actively working on now to, kind of, bring Cambodia back into the fold?

SEC. ESPER:  We had some discussion.  You know, the -- the broader discussion was about Chinese attempts to get basing and other rights in a number of countries across Asia, and when you look at -- when you look at what they're -- what they either have or what they are -- or potential places where they are seeking it, it really does raise your attention about what -- what they're trying to do across, you know, all the way from India across -- not -- not in India, but kind of get -- get -- get it right, in terms of all the way across the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia into, you -- you know, in -- into --

(UNKNOWN):  (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER:  -- north of east -- yeah, north of New Zealand, all that area.  It's pretty vast, in terms of where they're going or where they're touching. 

And so this is the competition we've been talking about.  We've got to be able to compete with them, left of conflict, of course, to make sure that we are standing up for sovereignty, standing up for freedom of navigation, standing up for freedom of (inaudible), standing up for democracy -- all those things that we value.

We've got to be conscious of the toeholds that they're trying to get into many of these countries, in many of these locations.  That's why I said in my remarks at the press conference in Sydney -- Sydney that we, you know, can't be the -- we -- we -- we may -- we allow them, they can go into these countries and -- and put a base or whatever the case may be and -- and get these countries entrenched in debt that they can never get out of.  They lose their sovereignty as a result. 

So that's what we've got to continue to engage many folks on and -- and keep that dialogue up.

Q:  Are you worried about that in the Philippines at all?

SEC. ESPER:  I worry about that everywhere, right?  So we need to be conscious of it everywhere.  It's in Africa, right?  I mean, just go around the globe, the -- the -- the Chinese have a global approach to how they're trying to expand their -- their interests and their tentacles around the globe, and we need to be able to, again, compete with them in that space.  

Okay?

STAFF:  All right, guys.

SEC. ESPER:  Okay?  Good.

STAFF:  (inaudible)

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  Okay, thanks.  Are we off -- are we off the record?

Q:  Yes.

(CROSSTALK)