Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—December 12, 2013.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good morning. By now you have, I think, all seen a statement that I released earlier this morning on the budget deal. And I know the House is scheduled for a vote later this afternoon around 6 o’clock, and I want to just briefly mention that before I address Minister Ng and my conversation this morning.
This agreement does not solve all of DOD’s budget problems, but it helps us address our readiness, especially in 2014, with putting more money back into training, in particular, and procurement. It also gives us some new certainty and predictability for our planning, for our budgeting over the next two years, which is particularly important.
And I think with Minister Ng standing here, this is an important signal to our partners and our allies around the world that we are going to come together as a country, as a Congress, and make some tough choices and decisions and commit resources where we have to commit them. And it gives, I hope, some assurance to our allies and friends like Singapore that we’re going to do this. And it clearly, in that process, reassures those around the world that we will stay committed to our allies and our interests around the world.
And as many of you know, because some of you were on the trip with me last week, that was much of the message that I wanted to bring to our partners in particular in — in the Middle East and South Asia, as well.
So let me get to Minister Ng and our conversation this morning. We just completed a good and positive and warm and productive meeting, which I have appreciated over the years our relationship with Singapore. I appreciate it on a personal level, as well as our countries doing so much together over the years. And I think, too, it’s a particularly important relationship as we rebalance, the United States rebalances to the Asia Pacific.
Many of you know that yesterday I had an opportunity to host ambassadors from the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries for lunch, and we talked about many things, but in particular I wanted to get a sense from them and from their ministers of defense, Minister Ng and my counterparts, what they wanted to talk about and what they wanted to put — be put on the agenda for the ASEAN defense ministers ministerial that I will be hosting earlier next year in Hawaii. That was a very productive meeting, and it flows right into Minister Ng in my meeting today.
Because Singapore is an important leader in ASEAN, in the Asia Pacific region, it is even more important that we had this meeting, really, back — back to back. I also want to thank Singapore for its continued important contributions to our efforts in Afghanistan, which we talked a little bit about, and our counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Significant has been a very important partner, and I — we all appreciate what you continue to do.
I thank Minister Ng for logistical support that Singapore has provided the United States military aircraft and ships operating in the Pacific. This, as you know, enables our forces to maintain a strong forward presence in that part of the world. And we had an opportunity earlier this year to spend some time together in Singapore, in Brunei, and I had an opportunity during those visits, especially to Singapore, to visit our littoral combat ship, the USS Freedom. As you know, it’s completed a successful inaugural deployment, and we look forward to the deployment of the next littorals to Singapore next year and a third in 2015. The deployment of these ships is part of our commitment to a deepening military engagement in Asia Pacific, which we discussed, as well.
We also talked about new ways to increase the bilateral collaboration between our militaries in such areas as cyber, which we have put a lot of attention to and focus on, and in particular maritime security, where we’re doing more joint ventures, while expanding our multilateral engagement by increasing exchanges and conducting more of these exercises, but also more complex elements of these exercises with more nations, and Singapore has led on a number of these with other ASEAN partners.
I think, in particular, one of the areas we discussed and we both believe, that finding solutions to the Asia Pacific is most pressing because it — it really focuses on the security issues and the challenges and taking the pressure and the tension off of some of the big issues that we’re going to need to manage through to — and it’s going to require platforms of cooperation, and ASEAN is — is such an institution and a platform to get us through and into more dialogue, cooperation, collaboration, so we’ve put — we’ve put a particular emphasis and priority on that relationship.
We discussed China’s troubling announcement of the establishment of an East China Sea defense identification zone. And we talked about the implications this has — has created for freedom of maritime and airspace navigation. I shared with the minister our deep concern about the Chinese announcement. I have addressed that before. And I think all the nations of Southeast Asia also are concerned.
Their — China’s actions raise regional tensions and increases the risk of miscalculation, confrontation, and accidents, and restraint is critically important on these issues, especially at this time. The United States does not recognize the newly announced ADIZ [air defense identification zone], which I have noted before, and we urge China not to — not to implement the ADIZ decision and to refrain from taking similar actions elsewhere in the region.
And as we have said many times, and as our actions have clearly demonstrated, China’s announcement of the ADIZ will not change how we conduct U.S. military operations in the region. The United States will continue to stand by our allies and partners in the Asia Pacific. The United States remains committed to the rebalance to the Asia Pacific in every way and to our important partnership with Singapore.
I look forward to continuing to work with Minister Ng to advance our friendship, our common interests, and ensure a more secure and prosperous future for both of our nations and for the nations of the Asia Pacific.
With that, let me ask Minister Ng for his comments, and then we’ll — we’ll take a couple of questions. Minister, thank you, and welcome.
MINISTER OF DEFENSE NG ENG HEN: Thank you, Secretary Hagel. First, let me thank Secretary Hagel for his very warm reception, add to some of the comments he has made.
We had frank and broad discussions about stability in the Asia Pacific region. I welcome Secretary Hagel’s reassurance and reaffirmation of America’s commitment to the Pacific region. I reminded Secretary Hagel that Singapore has been explicit in our position that America’s presence in the Asia Pacific in the last 50 years has been a critical force of stability and progress for many of the emerging economies. In 1990, we signed an MOU [memorandum of understanding] that allowed the American ships and planes to transit our naval base and air bases when the U.S. military lost its access to Clark and Subic. And in 2005, Prime Minister Lee, the current prime minister, and then-President Bush signed a strategic framework agreement. And it was arising from this strategic framework agreement that the USS Freedom deployed recently.
So I welcome this reassurance, because we believe that the U.S. presence in our region is a force for stability. We talked about how we can continue to use the platforms that are existing to improve collaboration, cooperation and dialogue, platforms such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus, platforms such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, which every secretary of defense has not failed to attend since its inception, and you — I remind members that it was Secretary Hagel that had a birthing hand in the Shangri-La Dialogue.
And we talked about deepening, as Secretary Hagel said, bilateral defense relationships. I thank him very much for our training opportunities here. We have — yesterday, I was at a 20th anniversary celebration in Luke Air Base, where our F-16s are based. Our F-15s are based in Idaho, in Mountain Home. Apaches are based here, as well as Chinooks. And we’ve conducted an integrated live-firing exercise in the Barry Goldwater Range.
So we want to thank you for all the opportunities, and we want to continue to look forward to a very forward-looking relationship with U.S., together with our ASEAN partners in forging another period of stability and growth for the Asia Pacific region. Thank you.
SEC. HAGEL: Lita.
Q: Mr. Secretary, I was wondering if I could get your assessment of the latest news coming out of Syria, including the flight of General Idris. What do you think that says about the situation on the ground in Syria? Are the — particularly the moderate rebels. Are they no longer a force that the U.S. can rely on? And do you think that this will have an impact on the destruction of the chemical weapons?
SEC. HAGEL: First, I think what has occurred here in the last couple of days is a clear reflection on how complicated and dangerous this situation is and how unpredictable it is. We continue to support General Idris and the moderate opposition. And we’re going to continue to help in the humanitarian area, which we have been doing consistently.
But this is a problem, I mean, what has occurred here, a big problem. And we’re going to have to work through it and manage through it with General Idris and the moderate opposition.
As to the effect that it might have on the disposition of chemical weapons, we continue to make progress on, as you know, gone beyond now the part of identifying most of these precursors and the chemical weapons themselves positions and are now in the process of implementing getting it out, and, as you also know, then the destruction, which you all know we’re talking about most likely the technology that we do possess now of destroying it at sea.
Still issues, still things that we still have to work out. This is a warzone. It’s a country torn in every region by war, unpredictability. So, yes, everything every day is affected by war. But where we are now on the continuing progress that we’re making with the destruction of chemical weapons is on track.
SEC. HAGEL: Jeremy?
Q: Hi, Minister Ng, Secretary Hagel, I was wondering, given the changing stance of China in East China Sea and South China Sea, I was wondering if you all see the role of the U.S. in those regions changing? And how does the U.S.-Singapore relationship fit into the broader strategy of preserving peace and lowering tensions in the region?
SEC. HAGEL: I’ll begin, and Minister Ng I’m sure will have a comment.
Well, as I’ve said in my remarks, and what we talked about today and yesterday with the ASEAN ambassadors, this — this country, the United States of America, is committed — will continue to stay committed to our allies and our partners and our friends in the Asia Pacific. And these issues of the ADIZ and the dispute in the South China Sea, East China Sea, are realities that we’re going to have to work through.
But I’ve also made very clear, the president had made clear, Secretary Kerry, that our commitment to our allies in this area remains strong. We will honor those commitments. We will honor them in every way. Our force protection, the commitment of our forces, that’s not going to change. We’ve made that very — very clear.
We have to work within the framework of especially the institutions that are there to try to resolve these issues, but these issues have to be resolved carefully, diplomatically, peacefully. And when we run into dangers — and this is why this unilateral decision by China to impose ADIZ was done just exactly that way, unilaterally trying to influence the status quo without any consultation, without any collaboration or cooperation, that’s what makes all of this so dangerous, when that happens.
So we’re continuing to stay committed. We are committed. We will be committed, as I’ve made very clear in my comments and in our meeting today.
MIN. NG: Well, I said that the U.S. presence in — from Singapore’s point of view is critical for stability in the Asia Pacific region. We’ve also said that the China-U.S. relationship is the relationship that will impact all countries, as well as the stability. We are very cheered by comments from President Obama and Xi Jinping, President Xi, that the Pacific region is big enough to accommodate both a resident power and a rising power.
There will be strategic competition, but Secretary Hagel and I discussed at length how we need to use the platforms to make sure that — reduce the risk of miscalculation, that we don’t precipitate tensions, and we talked about how we can take this forward using various platforms, whether it’s the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus or the Shangri-La Dialogue, so that we avoid conflicts and precipitating tensions.
So I think we have our work cut out for us. And we are very happy that Secretary Hagel invited the ASEAN ministers to Hawaii, and we’re looking forward to that meeting.
SEC. HAGEL: I might just add, Jeremy, that much of Vice President Biden’s agenda in that part of the world, in Japan, China, South Korea, was focused on this overall issue. And he during those visits made very clear the U.S. continued commitment to Asia Pacific.
SEC. HAGEL: Phil.
Q: Well, just following up there, you say that the issue with Syria was a — that Idris’ departure was a big problem. Is it a problem that you think has a solution? And if so, what is that solution?
And for you, Mr. Minister, could you please tell us about Singapore’s interest in the F-35B? I know that some of you were watching that in demonstrations this week in Arizona. Thanks.
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as I said, there’s a war going on in Syria and it’s devastating to the people, having effects that hurt the people, destabilize the region. And when the moderate opposition is set back, that’s not good. But that’s what we deal with. So we have to deal with it. We will deal with it. And it is difficult. But we take it straight up, work with the moderate opposition, with our allies in the area, and we’ll continue to do that.
MIN. NG: Well, I’ve said in parliament during the last budget that Singapore is seriously looking at the F-35s to replace our F-16s. We’re in no particular hurry, because our F-16s are still very operational, and they’re due for upgrades. But it is a serious consideration.
And during my visit here to Luke Air Base, the U.S. Marines were kind enough to have a demonstration of the F-35Bs, and it’s quite an engineering marvel. We recognize that there are aspects to consider, and we will make our deliberate decision, because as I said, we’re in no particular hurry, but we are seriously considering it.
STAFF: Time for one more.
Q: Thanks. Just back to Syria, do you — have it gotten to the point now where some of these rebel groups are so extreme that they represent a greater threat even than the Assad regime?
And then, also, can you confirm, too, that some of these depots that the Free Syrian Army had control of, they’ve lost control of some of the depots? Is that — is that your understanding?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, we’re evaluating right now. We’re assessing what has happened, where we are. So I would leave it at that. As to the other issues, as you know and we’ve said and I said here, this continues to be a very difficult problem. It is putting increased pressure on the people of Syria, tension in the region.
And we will continue, have to work with the moderate opposition and the governments in the area, and I think this also points to the potential of Geneva II, because, yes, there are dangerous — very dangerous elements in part of that opposition, which, again, complicates our support and I think our decision to withhold any further assistance in the area that we’ve been helping in particular the non-lethal assistance and these warehouses and so on until, first of all, we can get a clear assessment of what has happened.
But, again, it reflects on the complexity of this problem. There are many dangerous elements. We know Al-Nusra, we know Al Qaida, we know Hezbollah, extremist groups, terrorist groups are involved in this. So it’s not a matter of just an easy choice between the good guys and the bad guys here.
But, again, we look to — as we have said — a diplomatic resolution, solution, settlement. We continue to pursue that effort. As we organize toward Geneva II next month, I think the efforts, getting the international community involved with us on the chemical weapons issue, through a U.S. Security Council resolution. The Russians have been helpful. You got the international community working with us. That could be some help toward building a bridge to get us to a diplomatic settlement.
Q: Mr. Secretary, will you take one on…
SEC. HAGEL: Did you — did you have anything…
Q: (OFF-MIC) on the BSA? Just looking for a little clarity. On your recent trip, you suggested a new deadline could be in February. But…
SEC. HAGEL: No, I didn’t say that.
Q: Well, you suggested it.
SEC. HAGEL: No, let — if you go back and read the transcript, what I…
Q: So it’s not February? It’s the end of this year?
SEC. HAGEL: No, what — let me tell you what I said. I said we have a NATO defense ministerial at the end of February, and I said at that NATO defense ministerial, which will also be attended by ISAF partners who are there — and, remember, we have 50 partners in Afghanistan, and we appreciate Singapore’s efforts, they, too, have to plan, they, too, have to budget, they, too, have political constituencies, they, too, have parliaments they have to work through.
And what I said was, our partners are going to want some clarity, some signal from the United States as to where we are. If we don’t have a bilateral security agreement, that means there is no status-of-forces agreement that NATO must have to stay in Afghanistan post-2014, our ISAF partners are — some are going to require some form of bilateral security agreement.
So just the events and the timing will force a number of questions and significant issues because of the complications of planning. This is not an easy or uncomplicated process. If you just look at our military and what we have to do in order to plan and prepare for a post-2014 mission train, assist, advise, counterterrorism (inaudible) budgets, the Congress, this is complicated.
Then you factor in all of our partners, that adds further complications. And the BSA is just the beginning of that, as I’ve already gone through the inventory of just some of the things that have to be required. So that’s what I’ve said. I wasn’t setting a deadline for anything. I was just giving a fact of life that, when we all meet, our ISAF partners, the defense ministers meet at that NATO defense ministerial at the end of February, we’re going to have to have some clarity, and not just for us, but our partners are going to expect that. Okay? Thank you. Thanks.
DR. NG: Thank you.