An audio file of this briefing is available here.
Moderator: Good afternoon, everyone, from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia-Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I am Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and the United States.
Today, we are pleased to be joined by U.S. Department of State Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper. We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from Assistant Secretary Cooper. We will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes. Please note that due to the high number of journalists on this call, we ask that you please limit your questions to just the one question so others can participate.
Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Assistant Secretary Cooper.
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Great. Thank you all for joining us today. Thrilled to be back in Singapore – certainly the right time and right place, as the United States puts particular focus on the Indo-Pacific region, and we certainly see Singapore and this biennial air show as a manifestation of that. The U.S-Singapore partnership is one, very clear, tangible example of the United States commitment to a very free and open Indo-Pacific for all states in the region. And myself being here, I am just part of a broad, large delegation. This is the largest international presence at the air show that the United States has come with. I’m joined by colleagues from the Department of Commerce and the Department of Defense, and it’s actually – from our imprint, we’re the largest defense exhibitor at this show this year, and that was as planned.
I’m looking forward to being able to provide, again, a physical expression of that not only close, deep, bilateral tie that we have with Singapore, but also our commitment to the region and the necessity to build it as a free and open space for all states to be able to have freedom of navigation and freedom of trade.
Moderator: Okay, thank you very much. With that, we will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question will go to Philip Heijmans, who’s dialing in from Singapore [with Bloomberg News]. Philip, please go ahead.
Question: Is that – is that Joshua Melvin for AFP? There was a mix-up in the names, I think.
Moderator: Oh, I apologize. Okay, let’s go ahead and go with Josh Melvin then, please.
Question: No, that’s all right. Good morning, sir, it’s Joshua Melvin with AFP News Agency, based here in Manila. I wanted to ask you about the VFA, which is the Visiting Forces Agreement between the United States military and the Philippines. The Philippine Government seems to be poised to deliver notice to break the agreement. Obviously, there would be a lot that would follow after that. But I wanted to ask one very precise question about it. How important is the VFA to the American military presence or efforts on the ground in the Philippines?
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Sure. Well, let’s start with near-term. You mentioned the discussions. There’s certainly been some political conversations there in Manila. And looking at the near-term calendar, we already have a tentatively planned Bilateral Strategic Dialogue with the United States and the Philippines in March, and certainly the Visiting Forces Agreement would be part of that dialogue, but it’ll also be part of the broader commitments that we have with each other. We already have an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States and the Philippines, and there’s certainly been recommitment at ministerial levels – Secretary Pompeo was out there last year, Secretary Esper was there. And at the top of the call I referred to all the states in the Indo-Pacific region and our commitment to providing not only assurances, but also resources and our presence with these states for them to not only enjoy their own sovereignty, but also to certainly promote regional peace, prosperity, and stability.
But the Philippines — specific to why the VFA is important, is on an annual basis, the United States has about 300 engagements and exercises that we conduct bilaterally with the Philippines. And so this is – this is why [inaudible], from a critical operational standpoint, the necessity to have some sort of agreement to ensure that those exercises can take place unimpeded.
What’s at risk without a VFA? Well, without a VFA, it puts at risk things like these engagements, like these exercises. So again, from an interagency standpoint at home in the United States, and from the inter-ministerial standpoint in Manila, there’s a recognized, broad value of not only maintaining our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will beget further procurements and interoperability between the U.S.-Philippine alliance, but the very practical application of a Visiting Forces Agreement that enables these activities like port calls, like engagements, like exercises.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we have Jamie Freed who’s dialing in from Singapore, from Reuters. Jamie, please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Just, you said it’s a very large U.S. delegation to the air show. I wonder how much that was reduced due to the concerns over coronavirus, and also whether you expect to sign any agreements in Singapore at the show, particularly regarding the F-35B or other equipment.
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Yes. So as far as agreements, many of those actually were signed before the show, which we – you’re right, that’s usually an opportunity to roll out something new. But where we are is, we’re in the phase of production, we’re in the phase of delivery of those schedules and what that all may be. We – I would say the most recent agreement was the long-term basing in Guam for a fighter detachment, and that certainly is applicable to the long-term training relationship that we have. We already had a significant amount of Singapore air force colleagues joining at Luke Air Force Base in the United States CONUS, looking at Andersen in Guam as an addition to that.
As far as our presence — the full interagency complement is here. I’ll start with my department, the Department of State did not amend our posture at all. Our Embassy is at full staff, full post, full posture. And then my delegation representing the Department of State, we’re all here. Sure, there were some adjustments by some colleagues, but it has not changed our footprint. The United States still remains the largest international presence at the air show for 2020, and we also still remain the largest defense exhibitor for this.
But knowing that there was an amended posture for some certainly did not actually reduce the overall posture in total.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we have Sarah Ison from Sevenwest in Canberra, Australia. Sarah, please go ahead.
Question: Hi there. I just wanted to ask about China and Russia particularly, talk about, some of the topics that you might touch on, and why countries should be wary of the risks that come with defense acquisitions from China and Russia. You’d know that Australia and China have a particularly close relationship. We have a close trading relationship as well as research there that goes on, including the defense space and all kinds. Does that concern you, and what is your warning, if at all, to Australia when it comes to this relationship into 2020?
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Right. So, at the beginning, I mentioned the regional aspect of this, and two years ago the United States had embarked upon putting additional focus on resources and relationships in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly to address the mobility and the freedom for not just navigation and security cooperation, but for trade. And you mentioned China. They are very much a part of the region; they are a contributing state. What we seek from them is reciprocity and fairness in trade, and what we seek from them is to not exploit, encumber, or steal from any other of the states in the region.
So in a very pragmatic, realistic space, it’s a competitive market. But when one is looking at choice, and one is making a decision in the space, particularly when one’s looking at defense trade, or security – and this is what is the highlight, of course, of this air show – the United States does provide a total package option that one would not find with, say, China or Russia. And that approach that the United States takes toward foreign military sales is very inclusive of not just the materiel, but it also is inclusive of training, of maintenance, and support that provides a full, broader capacity with partners. And then further, in particular to an ally like Australia, future operability is quite important when we’re looking at what we’re going to work with each other, not just in the Indo-Pacific region but in global commitments around the world. And other states in the region – Singapore being another one – interoperability is key.
So if one’s doing their decision process as far as where to partner up with, particularly on security cooperation, defense trade, and foreign military sales, we provide the better product — but it isn’t just a better product, it is the actual development and investment in the relationship, and as I said, it is a total package. It is inclusive of – it’s not just a transaction. There is a long [term] aspect of training, maintenance, and sustainment that comes with that sale.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next, if we could please go to JC Gotinga, who’s from Rappler in Manila, Philippines. JC, please go ahead.
Question: Hello. My question is: What is the U.S. Government’s position on President Rodrigo Duterte, of the Philippines, has ordered to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement?
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Right. So as I mentioned earlier, there is an opportunity in March where both governments are looking to have a Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, coming up in the near future. And, so from a broad perspective, while there has been certainly comments made and statements made – there has not been a decision. And as I mentioned, there is a significant amount of resources that had been invested in that bilateral relationship, and putting at risk – I don’t think anyone in the government of the Philippines would want to put at risk the numerous engagements. And as I said, annual basis, at any given time, if one just totals up port calls and joint exercises and bilateral engagements, it is – the number is over 300. And the Visiting Forces Agreement provides a framework that engenders us to do those activities. Absent that agreement, we do put at risk those activities that the different defenses, the different services in the Philippines very much value.
So I imagine if one was sitting in Manila, that regardless if they’re in ministerial capacity or if they’re actually in an operational service capacity, they do not want to see any of these engagements or exercises either be reduced or disappear.
Moderator: Thank you. We have another 10 minutes or so. Next, if we could please go to Chuanren Chen from Aviation Week in Singapore. Chuanren, please go ahead.
Question: Hi, good afternoon. It’s Chen from Aviation Week. So [inaudible] the U.S. of the trade deal, so [inaudible] equipment to Asian countries [inaudible] Vietnam, that’s like India, for example. But how do you ensure that – how do you ensure these countries that they will not be hit with CAATSA if they plan to buy other defenses from Russia and China, for example? So what is the State Department’s policy on CAATSA in this region? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Sure, and I think I heard the question was what the position is on CAATSA and how we – how we address that with countries. So in a very broad sense, it’s not limited to – I think you mentioned – I thought I heard Vietnam and I thought I heard Thailand. But it would be applicable for all countries.
So the CAATSA statute, that law is very much focused at doing several things, but the most important one is to ensure that states where we have developed not only bilateral partnerships – if we’ve developed regional or coalition relationships – that we remain interoperable with each other and that materiel or systems that are not interoperable, or could put at risk that interoperability, is something that is of concern.
Further, we are not seeking to make or change the integrated approach that many states have when they’re building their own – their defenses and making sure that they have what they need to maintain their sovereignty. It doesn’t mean that if they have a historic sustainment line with, say, Russia or China, that they can’t maintain it. What we’re seeking to mitigate is the introduction of particular systems or armaments that would put at risk the unique technologies that come with U.S.-manufactured, U.S.-designed systems and armaments. We do not want to have opportunities for co-production put at risk because Moscow or Beijing may be seeking to either exploit that co-production or co-research, or simply looking to steal that particular technology or information.
So the CAATSA regime was designed to protect unique technologies that we, the United States, only share with partners that we work with closely and only share with partners that are willing to embark upon an interoperable relationship. Again, it doesn’t cover everything, but what does put partners at risk of sanctions is if they acquire a system that would challenge that. A good example is the S-400 acquisition in Turkey. Turkey is an F-35 member, and we certainly do not want that — the S-400 acquisition in Turkey – to put at risk particular technologies. It is why the F-35 program no longer exists in Turkey.
So if we’re talking about the region and we’re looking at regional partners, and they’re looking at what they’re seeking to build out for their own defense requirements, the case we’re making is we have the best of the materiel available, we have the best systems available, and we’re most likely to be interoperable with you. If something is acquired from Russia that puts that at risk, then sanctions could be – can be a consideration. There is no blanket exemptions for any partner, but there is no blanket application either.
Moderator: Thank you. Next, we have Phan Vietanh from VnExpress in Hanoi, Vietnam. Phan, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you. My question is: What activities the U.S. plans in this year to maintain the freedom of navigation in Asia, especially in the South China Sea? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Okay. I think I heard the question was about what the U.S. is looking to do on freedom of navigation in the region.
Assistant Secretary Cooper: So, this goes back to the number of activities that we participate and share bilaterally with a number of states. I mentioned exercises earlier. One of the best physical manifestations of that is not only port calls, but of freedom of navigation operations. So, sheer presence, sheer naval presence, and air presence. These, of course, are designed bilaterally, in some cases jointly, with a number of states at any given time. Some of these are annual exercises. We have certainly been looking with partners throughout the Indo-Pacific region to expand some of the opportunities with states, and without getting ahead of some of those actual conversations, I can say there are capitals in the Indo-Pacific region, and particularly in Southeast Asia, where we have discussed, from the context of a regional approach, of a further presence.
And then, if we also look at, from a multilateral aspect, in the context of ASEAN states, all the ASEAN states want to ensure that there is a regional space for prosperity and stability, and want to make sure that the region remains free and open for navigation and trade. So there’s a mutual benefit for that. What we don’t want to see happen is, we don’t want to see disruption or coercion of vessels that are actually legally operating, and that is something that when one looks at freedom of navigation operations, or one looks at the presence of naval forces, that is there to engender good behavior and certainly be supportive of those who are operating within the legal framework of the seas.
Moderator: Thank you. Next, if we can go to Cliff Venzon from Nikkei, based in Manila. Cliff, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, good afternoon. You mentioned that – still on VFA, you mentioned that the – there’s a bilateral dialogue set for next month. Will the U.S. use that occasion to formally ask the Philippines to keep the VFA? And can you confirm that a phone conversation between Presidents Trump and Duterte is being set up? And if yes, what are the talking points from U.S. side? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Cooper: So I would say there’s always an ongoing conversation with our Philippine partners. I mean, it hasn’t stopped. We have an embassy in Manila that is – has a very robust presence there. And of course, our military-to-military channels remain very open. We have a significant military exchange through our International Military Education Training programs, and we have certainly a very deep, bilateral relationship with them. In fact, we’re communicating with the Philippines now on future Foreign Military Sales and procurements for their defense forces.
So, on the communication, it isn’t as if there was a linear aspect to it. There’s an ongoing communication, and because of outstanding shared interests when it comes to freedom of navigation, freedom of movement, joint security interests, future procurements — this is part of the broader dialogue as to why there remains value in the Visiting Forces Agreement.
And as far as the timeline, I’d say the tentative plan is for March — that’s not a set date. But that is – that is something that we’re working towards with the Philippines.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next, if we could go to Yoichiro Tanaka from the Yomiuri Shimbun. Tanaka-san, please go ahead. Tanaka, Yoichiro Tanaka, are you there? Okay. If not, can we please go to Roy Choo from USNI News in Singapore?
Question: Hi, yes. So the Singaporean Minister of Defense announced the order of 12 F-35Bs last month, which is currently awaiting congressional approval. Can I understand, how do you foresee the deal as a whole will contribute to security and stability in the region as well as the interests of the U.S.?
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Yes, I heard congressional approval, but if you could just repeat the question one more time. It – it got garbled there. So I’m assuming you’re talking about either a sale or an agreement, but if you could start from the beginning, sir.
Question: So the Singaporean Minister of Defense announced the order for 12 F-35Bs last month, which is currently awaiting congressional approval. I want to understand how do you foresee the deal as a whole will contribute to security and stability in the region as well as to help the U.S.?
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Okay. I did not hear what the asset was.
Moderator: It’s F-35Bs, 12 of them.
Question: Could I understand how do you foresee the deal as a whole will contribute to security and stability in the region as well as the interests of the U.S.?
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Okay. What was the asset again?
Moderator: Sure. Sir, if I could just jump in, it’s – my understanding of the question was that he —
Assistant Secretary Cooper: And what was the particular case?
Moderator: He’s asking about the sale of 12 F-35Bs to Singapore.
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Oh, yes. Okay, yes. Sorry about that. Yeah. So it’s the – that is, the – part of the broader integration of the air capability for Singapore, and it is just the start of the process. This is – I mentioned earlier about interoperability with the United States and with other partner states. This certainly contributes to it. Remember, there still remains the primary capability for the Singapore Air Force is their F-16 fleet. That is their primary capability. The F-35 procurement is just the beginning. So there’s an initial, actual 12 that you mentioned are certainly part of the longer-term process. And we also are looking at – well, we mentioned basing and training – Luke Air Force Base is already a place that we have a number of personnel. There’s about 200 Singapore personnel there. And then to expand training, looking at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
But so the question is to the F-35s procurement. This is a furtherance of our relationship and our bilateral tie with Singapore. And again, it’s actually another manifestation of the vital, longstanding relationship and they have our trust that Singapore is actually being able to be the guarantor of their own sovereignty, but [also] their significant contribution to the regional peace and regional stability. So it isn’t just a matter of their homeland sovereignty, it is a contribution to regional peace and regional stability.
Moderator: Okay, thank you very much. Next, if we could please go to Sarah Ison from Sevenwest in Canberra. Sarah, if you can please – if you can go ahead and ask your question. Thank you.
Question: Yeah. Hi, me again. You mentioned about the different technologies that you have and how you have the capability of choosing which of those unique technologies — choosing whom you share them with and having that sort of security. But how concerned are you that you can maintain that into the future, given how fast new technology is developed? It must be always hard to have that certainty every year, month, or whatever. Or how certain you are – are you that you can maintain that security? And in general, how much of a concern or a threat is, like, foreign interference and intellectual property theft?
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Yes. Well, foreign interference and attempted exploitation and theft of intellectual property is not new. Industrial espionage is not new. But to your earlier observation, the risks are a little bit greater because of how much is integrated today in communications technology and in IT technology. That said, when we’re talking about systems that we have developed either ourselves or with a particular set of partners, this is where certain trusts — either through information-sharing agreements or in particular access agreements and also making sure that there’s shared protocols when it comes to protecting information or protecting technology — come into play in the calculus of the decision-making process to pursue either the procurements or the sharing of a particular capability.
Relationships, alliances, certainly factor into all of this. But beyond alliances and relationships, there are – there is the practical measure of: is a partner capable of protecting what is unique? Is a partner also capable of maintaining those certain capabilities? And in some places, it may be incumbent upon the United States or another partner, like in Australia, to take a more active role in ensuring that a particular system, platform, or technology is protected. It is also why sometimes we decide to walk away from an opportunity if we assess that the risk is so great. But safe to say, there’s always room to grow; there’s certainly room for partners to be able to bolster and strengthen their security protocols not just in a physical security sense, but in how they operate and maintain what they have actually acquired.
So it does mean that there is a very rigorous regime, at least from the United States side, that’s inclusive of Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Commerce. The whole interagency comes to bear to ensure that whatever we are transferring, either be it an actual technology or a hardware or both — that it’s done with the confidence that the partner that is on the receiving end, or on the co-production end, is taking the same amount of care to ensure that it is not either exploited or stolen.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. Next, if we could please go to Julie McCarthy from National Public Radio. Julia, if you’re there, please go ahead.
Question: Hi, this is Julie McCarthy from NPR. Thank you so much for doing this, sir. My question relates back to your statement about being wary of embracing Russia or China in terms of defense acquisitions. We’re here – I’m here in Manila and I’m wondering if you actually see the Philippines reaching that point. Is there any evidence that they are looking towards defense acquisitions from China? And what does the U.S. make of the more compromising line Manila is taking with China, including access to the South China Sea? What is the best strategy to deal with that?
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Yes. So on acquisitions, and we – this is – what I’m sharing here is not too much different than it is with any other partners, is being able to recognize what their defense needs are. And so, of course, the Philippines certainly has a host of legitimate defense needs that they require to not only maintain their own self-defense and sovereignty, and this is something that we certainly would not want any partner to put at risk. But when we talk about risk, the concerns that we have shared with many partners, bilaterally and in public fora as well, is be very careful as to what it is that you’re seeking to embark upon. And we’ve already discussed today about the risk of exploitation and coercion. What we’ve not talked about is the proposition of loss of sovereignty, and this is where there is some risk where if partners are moving to get something at a – you know, a credit process that may be dodgy, to put it in the colloquial way, or puts a government’s budget at risk, that is a risk of losing sovereignty there.
So that is something that when we look at foreign investments that may be made in a particular partner’s capital, we do talk to them about it. So it is – it’s much broader than a conversation of how are they meeting their defense needs, because we certainly do not want a partner to feel as if their defense needs aren’t being met, but at the same time, we don’t want a partner to put themselves in a position where an introduction of, say, significant Chinese or Russian platforms or systems put at risk either their credit, their finances, or even put at risk their own tech – not just ours, but their own technology and their own military capabilities.
So, it is, much about a risk calculus and having very honest conversations state-by-state, partner-by-partner, as to why we have a better option for them. Why, not only is our product a better product, but our investment in the relationship is one that doesn’t put their sovereignty at risk, and the investment in our relationship doesn’t put their finances at risk, and our relationship doesn’t put their security at risk. So it does require a significant amount of dialogue, and it does require a significant amount of the United States looking at what could be answered in their requirements and what could be provided in a way that is much more — not only amenable to what they need either in a – whatever their capacity or requirement or gap they’re addressing, but that we have one that is much better in the long term and isn’t a short-term proposition and isn’t going to break down on them or actually be an impediment upon their finances.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We have time for one last, very short question from JC Gotinga from Rappler. JC, please go ahead.
Question: All right. Thank you so much, Zia. Sir, my question would be: Should the VFA be terminated, how would it affect the Mutual Defense Treaty as a whole? Secretary Pompeo last year made a commitment that the MDT covers the South China Sea. Would cutting the VFA affect that?
Assistant Secretary Cooper: Well, the VFA, what it would immediately affect from an operational standpoint is it could potentially challenge the operations. So, the VFA would not challenge procurements. We have many partners around the globe where we have significant foreign military sales and direct commercial sales that are being pursued, where we may not have a status of forces agreement or a visiting forces agreement.
But remember, earlier in our conversation today I cited several times the significant amount of military-to-military activities that we conduct with the Philippines — not only in the United States, but particularly in the Philippines. This is where that impact would probably be mostly felt, and this is why it’s a worthy conversation to have with our Philippine interlocutors, is that of all the engagements, all the freedom of navigation operations, all the exercises, all the joint training, having U.S. military personnel in port, on the ground, on the flight line, does require that we have a mechanism that allows that, and that’s why the VFA is so important. But it’s certainly – it is certainly something that it doesn’t mean that it has to be [inaudible].
So having the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, that still is in place, and as I said, there are a number of significant procurements the Philippines are seeking to pursue with us. I would just say from an assessment standpoint, we’re looking at what would be an immediate impact would be all those joint military-to-military activities that we currently enjoy right now between Manila and Washington.
Moderator: Excellent. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank R. Clarke Cooper, the U.S. Department of State’s Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs, and I also thank all of our journalists on the line for participating. Please stay on the line for information regarding access to an audio recording of the call. Also, please be aware that a transcript of the call will be posted to our social media platforms and sent out to all of you within a day, most likely by tomorrow morning. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Asia-Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov.
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