Remarks By Secretary Esper in a Preflight Press Gaggle

Nov. 21, 2019
Secretary Of Defense Mark T. Esper

Q:  So do you have any comments on the trip, or --

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Yeah, so I -- my second trip to the INDOPACOM theater.  My first was in, what, August, a few months ago.  This is my second, so two trips to our priority theater in a span of three to four months.  I think it shows to you the importance we place on this theater with regard to our National Defense Strategy, and this was, what, seven-, eight-day trip.

Once again, we met with our traditional allies and with potential new partners.  And I hesitated saying it that way because if you look, we've had now diplomatic relations with Vietnam for 25 years, and some of you saw from our public comments yesterday that there's a lot of bilateral cooperation and multilateral cooperation helping -- happening between all the countries I visited.  So it was, you know, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

And again, a -- a very positive trip all the way around.  I -- I think in terms of objectives that we often get asked about, there were a number of specific objectives we accomplished in different places along the way.  But overall, the message was this is our priority theater.  We're here to stay.  We're here to -- to show presence and commitment to the international rules-based order, and we want to continue strengthening those ties both bilaterally and in a multilateral means.

So again, overall, very successful trip.  I appreciate my team and the various embassies for all the support they gave to make -- make it successful.  Okay?

Q:  Can I ask you a question of Korea, just for starters, --

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  -- at the beginning of your trip.  So on three major issues the overture you made on the training system, the training, the (inaudible) talks with the South Koreans, as well as the rift between the Japanese and the -- and the South Koreans --

SEC. ESPER:  Right.

Q:  -- which you addressed in some way, there was -- there was no breakthrough, and in a couple cases there were rejections by the North Koreans and South Korean talks had broken down.  Do you feel -- how -- how do you respond to the criticism that perhaps there were actually setbacks on this trip with regard to the alliance, with the current South Korean alliance?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I don't think so.  I -- I think first of all, the -- the -- the friction, the tension between the Japanese and the South Koreans obviously goes back many decades.  And my message to them was, look, I understand the historical issues.  I understand the recent items that prompted it, but we have far greater concerns, if you will, that involve Pyongyang and Beijing, and we have to move forward, and that requires leadership from both countries and -- and the United States -- I, in this case -- will do what we can to -- to push it forward.

The second, with regard to the talks we had in Korea with the SMC, if you will, again, I think there was good discussion at the mil-to-mil level between me and my counterpart and General Milley and his counterpart leading up to the talks -- I'm sorry, SCM -- leading up to the talks, and I think we continue to move forward in terms of the operational control and other matters.  So I think that's positive with regard to the readiness of the alliance.

And then with regard to North Korea, I saw the one response they made was not as positive as we would like, obviously, and that's disappointing.  But I don't -- I don't regret trying to take the high road, if you will, and keep the door open for peace and diplomacy if we can move the ball forward.  We'll see what happens.  We -- we have -- we keep saying the end of -- end of the year will be the -- the time by which at least the North Koreans have stated they may move in a different direction, so I think we've got to keep pressing forward.  I think it's too important not to keep trying.


Q:  Do you expect them to move forward with either testing or a missile device?

SEC. ESPER:  We'll -- we'll see.  Like I said, our -- our -- our decision to postpone the exercise was a gesture of good will, and my clear ask for them was to do the same; show us that you're serious, that you also want to act in good faith and -- and suspend your exercises (inaudible) testing.  So I think the ball is in their court.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, today there was a report that after the United States pulled away from the U.S.-ROK cost-sharing talks, that the United States has delivered to the South Korean government a message that they -- that we would take 4,000 troops and brigades about -- or troops out of South Korea if they don't come back to the table and give in or negotiate more on our -- is that true?  Have we sent that message?

SEC. ESPER:  I have not heard that, so I don't know who's delivering that message, but I haven't heard that.

Q:  And when you talk rifts between allies --

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  -- benefiting Beijing and  this is a rift between now and the United States and caused by our actions on our is benefiting Beijing and Pyongyang, this is a rift between allies, between the United States and our ally, South Korea, caused by our actions, caused by our unilateral demands.  Isn't that benefiting Beijing and Pyongyang?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, no, I don't think so.  I think it's -- and first of all, I wouldn't describe it as a rift.  I think that we've been pressing, for example, our allies in Europe for decades to increase more of their commitment to defense, improve their burden sharing, and this message has been one that we've also stated very clearly to our Asian allies, as well.  It's not just Korea; it's Japan and -- and other countries.

So I don't think it's unreasonable to ask countries who have the means to contribute more to their own defense and to the cost sharing of United States presence to do more.

Q:  Isn't five times as much unreasonable?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not going to get -- I'm not going to negotiate a number here.  Obviously, the State Department has a lead on that.  But this is a process and we should go through it, and we'll see where we come out.

Q:  Do -- do you --

SEC. ESPER:  But I think it's -- it's -- it's, again, I think it's a -- still a strong alliance.  It's getting better and better, based on, you know, our individual readiness, the Koreans' improved capability and capacity.  We need to keep moving forward, but these are -- these are very reasonable discussions to have with regard to cost sharing.


Q:  But do you see that -- how -- did the timing of it when you're in the region proposing for alliances to fight -- to resist against China and you're -- this could be seen as undermining those very same alliances?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, the -- the timing's based on when the -- the current agreement expires, and the purpose for my trip was to -- was to follow up on the SCM talks.  It wasn't -- it wasn't to get involved, if you will, directly with the -- with the negotiations over the update SMA.  That was a question asked to me by the media, and I wanted to convey the message that I conveyed privately to them, as well: that we -- we -- you can and should do more.  So that -- that's -- the purpose was -- the -- the focus was the SCM.

Q:  I just -- you haven't heard about the decision to remove troops from South Korea.

SEC. ESPER:  No, I -- I --

Q:  (inaudible) that point.  Just so I'm (inaudible) very clear.

(UNKNOWN):  Well, I -- I think you're -- you're assuming that their decision (inaudible)

Q:  Yeah.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  The -- the report that says --

SEC. ESPER:  I -- I don't know what report, whose report.  I --


Q:  What's the name of the --


SEC. ESPER:  I -- I read articles in the media all the time that are false and -- or inaccurate or overstated.

Q:  Okay.

SEC. ESPER:  And so I'd have to see who said it.  But I can assure you that I've talked to Chairman Milley 24 or 48 hours ago, and I'm not tracking it.  He didn't raise it, so I don't know what this report is.

Q:  Okay.

Q:  But I mean, on that point, though, I mean, a -- a -- a broader point is is there some sort of stick here to the South Koreans?  And if you don't pay more for defense --

SEC. ESPER:  We're -- we're -- we're --

Q:  Is there a stick?

SEC. ESPER:  I -- we're not threatening allies over this.  This is -- this is a negotiation.  The State Department has the lead.  Let's -- let's let them sit down with their counterparts and work through this, you know, very -- as -- as -- as allies should, privately and -- and work through the details.

Q:  Can you give us your thoughts about your tour of the Hanoi Hilton when you saw -- and -- and the exchange of artifacts with Vietnam?  Have you seen the U.S.-Vietnam relationship healing after all of these years, and -- and what -- what -- what were you feeling at that moment?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, you know, so I -- I've -- I've -- I've known for years about the -- the warmth and sincerity of the Vietnamese people toward America, toward the American people.  You and I have talked about that, given, you know, my -- my uncle was pretty well-known in this country.  Of course, my time I spent on Capitol Hill with Senator McCain and -- and -- and with Senator Hagel, they also spoke of, again, the warmth and sincerity of the Vietnamese people to America.

This is a chance for me to see up front and close, and it's real and it's genuine, and I just think it was reflected in how graciously they hosted our delegation and -- and -- and did all that.

I will tell you, with regard to my visit to the prison, it was a chance for me to honor our POWs who spent years there in -- in some very tough conditions.  I was not aware of how much the -- the Vietnamese had suffered at the hands of the French for many decades before that.

So it -- it -- again, it helps enrich your understanding of the history of Vietnam and -- and -- and how they came about this all.  And -- and again, it's surprising.  It's 25 years since we've reestablished diplomatic relations.  I don't sense they have any hangups about what happened during the Vietnam War, and I think we're moving on a -- forward on a very practical matter and talking about issues like you heard yesterday of, how do we move forward on unexploded ordinance?  How do we move forward on detoxification, if that's the right word, of the toxins that -- left at Bien Hoa Airport.

And then thirdly is, and we -- we often talk about it in the United States, accounting for our own missing in action, and tend to forget they have a lot of their own missing in action.  So the ability to provide -- for me to provide with them a map and a narrative of where we think that a dozen or so of their soldiers may be buried is helpful to -- to them and to their own accounting, and to the families who may be affected by that.  So again, I -- I thought it was a very good visit.

Q:  Those I.D. cards and the dog tags you received --

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  -- are you going to try to get in touch with those families?

SEC. ESPER:  I don't know how much details on them.  I took a quick look.  I obviously will -- will get them into the right hands on the U.S.  side and see if we can -- if there's any identifiable -- I think -- I think we did actually have the -- I think I've got the name of one, I recall.  So yes, I think that would be the aim, is to return it to the family.

Q:  Did they say where they found them?  Was it in the ground, or the museum or something, or --

SEC. ESPER:  You know, they may have said, and I don't remember.  But I -- I, you know, we'll -- we'll get it.  We may go back on that.

Q:  Did you ever think you would be sitting down with Communist party leaders?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm trying to think if I had before.  No.  Short answer is no, and so -- but -- but again, they -- they are very in line with where we are in terms of enforcing international rules-based order, you know, talking about sovereignty and all -- many of the same things we share -- clearly, not all the same things, but many of the same things we share in -- in terms of the practicality of dealing a -- in a -- a neighborhood that's getting tougher and tougher.

Q:  Can you talk about inside the ASEAN defense minister's plenary?  What were the other ASEAN countries saying about China?

Q:  Did they say -- did they use the word China?

Q:  Yeah.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, they -- they are reluctant to -- to -- to use the word China.  They -- more often than not, they talk about, you know, other countries or bigger countries, or use words like that.  But it -- I think it reflects two things.  One is their -- their concern, and in some cases, fear is very, very real, and they're also intimidated enough not to call out China by name.  And in many ways, that's our duty is to call out China by name and to make clear that we're going to stand up for them.

I will tell you, within ASEAN countries, they are all concerned about China.  And when you look at the ASEAN Plus countries, all but, obviously, China and Russia seem to be concerned about China.  So the -- the -- the fear is real.  The -- the -- the want and need for leadership and action is real.  We are committed to providing that, because I think there's just this recognition that China is becoming more aggressive.  Their planes are becoming more excessive, and they're willing to throw their weight around in the region.

Q:  Do you think that there is -- or did you have any discussions with your Vietnamese counterparts about whether they think the United States will back them up if they had a problem with -- with China that got too aggressive?  Are they seeking reassurances from you that, you know, this administration would back them up?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, we didn't have a conversation like that.  You know, it's different because we don't have a treaty relationship like we do with the Philippines or with Thailand.  But clearly, we support them diplomatically.  We support them politically.  We're trying to improve their capacity and their capability through bilateral assistance, through training, through exercise of their -- we think they're going to participate in RIMPAC next year.  We provided the second cutter, so all those things.  But in terms of -- of -- of some type of military response on their behalf, we didn't have any conversation along those lines.

Q:  We have to ask you, today, your -- your own staffer, Deputy Assistant Secretary Laura Cooper testified in open hearing --

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  -- in the impeachment inquiry, and she said that as early as July, she knew that the Ukraine aid was held up, but she didn't know why.  And you were acting secretary of defense at that time.  Did you know that the Ukraine aid was being held up in early July, and did you know why?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I'm -- again, I'm not going to get into the whole issue of Ukraine.  I was -- I was acting secretary, then I wasn't acting secretary, and then I was confirmed in late July.  But I'll -- I'll stick to where I've been.  There's a -- obviously, a congressional inquiry underway.  I'll let that work its course, work its way through there.  I'm not going to add any type of commentary other than to say that as I came onto the scene in late July, the focus was, again, remained on three things: What is the -- the -- the value of the aid to the Ukrainians in -- in terms of deterring or defending against Russia, number -- number one; and number two was what was the level of corruption.  That was a congressional requirement; and number three was to what degree are other European allies also providing security assistance?  And that was our focus.  That's why --

Q:  To -- to be fair, sir, Laura Cooper testified just an hour ago --

SEC. ESPER:  Sure.

Q:  -- that the Defense Department signed off, certified that -- that the aid was -- get -- good to go in May.  So there's no way that the Defense Department could have been -- needed to certify it again in July.

SEC. ESPER:  Again, I'm not going to go down that path.  I'll let Laura's testimony stand on its own.

Q:  Do you support DOD officials testifying in the open hearing and --

SEC. ESPER:  Again, I'm going to stand by where I've been on this matter.  There's a congressional inquiry underway.  I'm not going to add to it at this point in time.

Q:  Have you been asked to testify?

SEC. ESPER:  I have not been asked to testify.

Q:  Do you expect to be?

SEC. ESPER:  I -- we'll see.  Congress has the right to call whoever they want, I guess.

Q:  If called, would you testify?

SEC. ESPER:  I'll take it one step at a time.

What else?

STAFF:  Anybody else?

Q:  On -- on the Lincoln, you know, transiting the strait yesterday.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  I think it was yesterday.  It's hard to know what day we're on.  And I'm just wondering what your thoughts are.  What it -- what was the message that that sent to Iran?  You know, what is the next step, as far as the Truman?  To the extent that you can.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, the -- the -- the message -- we've been trying to send messages on a number of fronts to a variety of audiences.  One, it should be an assurance to our allies and partners that the United States remain -- has a robust presence in the theater, both, you know, on the sea, on the ground and in the air, number one; number two, it asserts, again, the freedom of navigation, the freedom of -- of commerce through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf; number three, it should deter the Iranians from provocative bad behavior, if you will, for those reasons.  So I -- I -- I think that's what the demonstration of not just the Abe, but other U.S. ships and vessels transiting the region.

And by the way, other countries who are also -- support this and share our views.

STAFF:  All right, guys.

SEC. ESPER:  Okay?  Good.  Thanks, folks.