Mary Beth Polley: Hi and good evening from the Asia Pacific Regional Media Hub in Manila. I would like to thank all of our participants from across Asia for joining us.
Today we’re pleased to be joined from Washington by the Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Heather Wilson. Secretary Wilson is currently visiting Manila and will talk with you about efforts to strengthen U.S. alliances and partnerships in the region, and enhance security cooperation and interoperability. Secretary Wilson will make some remarks and then we’ll go to Q&A.
A reminder that today’s call is on the record. And, with that, I will turn it over now to Secretary Wilson.
Secretary Wilson: Mary Beth, thank you very much.
This is Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force. I am in Manila this evening as part of my first trip through the Pacific as the Secretary of the United States Air Force. The trip includes stops in Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, South Korea, as well as Japan.
And, really, a couple of objectives for my trip. One is to deepen my understanding of the U.S. Air Force operations in the Pacific; and second, really, to reinforce our commitment to our allies in the region.
The United States’ interests here are that our objective is to have a stable and prosperous region in which a rules-based international order is respected. And my presence here is intended to reinforce that fact with our allies.
And perhaps, with that, maybe we could open this up to questions.
Mary Beth Polley: Okay. Thank you so much.
Moderator: Our first question will come from the line of Catherine Wong with the South China Morning Post. Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you Secretary Wilson. My question is about Taiwan. The PLA Air Force has conducted a series of multi-purpose drills in the Western Pacific since last year, including at least 17 rounds of “island encirclement” patrols over Taiwan. I am wondering what type of response the US – to these air drills – especially the US Air Force response to these regular air drills. Thank you.
Secretary Wilson: Of course the United States supports Taiwan as one of our allies and we also support freedom of the seas and a rules-based international order. I think our interests are to ensure that that rules based international order and the sovereignty of nations in the Indo-Pacific are respected is a priority of the United States.
Mary Beth Polley: Thank you so much. We’ll move on to the second question.
Moderator: And next we’ll go to the line of Jonathan Edward with Malay Mail. Please go ahead.
Question: Yeah. Hi. So are U.S. military personnel stationed in the South China Sea region simply here as a trip wire against Beijing, or are we going to see serious defense cooperation between the U.S. and regional partners?
Secretary Wilson: The Indo-Pacific region is actually the largest air and maritime region in the world. 40% of the world’s gross domestic product is produced in this region of the world, and the United States has longstanding interests here.
Our interests are in a stable and prosperous region in which a rules-based international order is respected. And we have some of our closest allies and longest allies in the region. So we are an Indo-Pacific power, and we continue to maintain those allies and partnerships.
Moderator: And our next question comes from the line of Lisa Martin with Australian Associated Press. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello, Secretary Wilson. Is there likely to be any changes to the size of the contingent of U.S. military personnel or aircraft deployed to Darwin in 2018? And, also, does the U.S. support Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar military drills with India and Japan, and will Australia be participating in 2018?
Secretary Wilson: Lisa, I didn’t hear the last part of your question. Could you repeat it?
Question: Does the U.S. support Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar military drills with India and Japan, and will Australia be participating in 2018?
Secretary Wilson: It was the last bit of that sentence. I’m sorry. I — the English language is separating us. The last part of your sentence there?
Question: Will Australia be participating in the Malabar drills in 2018?
Secretary Wilson: Okay. In 2018. Thank you.
With respect to our presence in Darwin and U.S. relations with Australia, of course, Australia is one of our closest allies, and we have very close relationships with the Australian Air Force. We never discuss future operations and where we deploy our aircraft. We never talk about that in advance.
And with respect to Australia’s participation in other exercises, Australia is a sovereign country, and we encourage its participation in and recognize its importance in regional security throughout the region.
Moderator: The next question will come from the line of Mike Yeo with Defense News. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes. Hi. Good day, Secretary. I was just wondering: Will you be announcing any new initiatives during your trip to Asia?
Secretary Wilson: The intention is not to announce new initiatives, Mike. It’s really twofold. It’s for me to deepen my own understanding of U.S. operations in the Pacific, but also to reinforce our commitment to our allies in the region.
Now, the Philippines, for example, is our longest-standing ally in Southeast Asia. We’ve had a bilateral relationship with the Philippines since 1951. The relationship with the Philippines goes back further than that, of course.
And likewise, our relationships with Japan and South Korea are very important to us. And I think it’s — and so it — I’m here to reinforce our commitment to our allies.
Moderator: Next we go to the line of Masa Oto with Kyodo News. Please go ahead.
Question: Okay. Thank you very much, Secretary Wilson. My question is related with the North Korean nuclear issue.
The — we are going to have our, you know, Winter Olympic in Pyeongchang in ten days. And how would you impose the deterrence [inaudible] in the region, would you include the deployment of the air power including the DCA [inaudible] capable aircraft to the region during the Olympic?
Secretary Wilson: Of course, North Korea poses a threat to all nations in the region and also beyond. And the Air Force is supporting diplomatic efforts, and we also always provide military options to the President should diplomacy fail. Our goal with North Korea is a verifiable demilitarization of the Korean Peninsula.
With respect to the Olympics, both the U.S. and the Republic of Korea are focused on security and successful completion of the Olympic Games, and we’re deconflicting our exercise start with South Korea in a very practical way so that we can focus on a successful completion of the Olympics.
Moderator: The next question is from the line of Sao Phal Niseiy with Thmey Thmey. Please go ahead.
Mary Beth Polley: Hi. Yes, we can hear you.
Question: Okay. Oh, okay. Okay. Thank you, Secretary Wilson. I have a question regarding the recent release of the defense strategy of the Defense Department.
So my question to you is that how the recently released strategy is — to you, I mean, how it is important for the Air Force to strengthen its role in the Indo-Pacific region, and how — and what are the greatest challenges for the Air Force in the region? Thank you.
Secretary Wilson: Thank you. The National Defense Strategy, which was completed and announced by Secretary Mattis last week, recognizes that we’ve returned to an era of great power competition. And that really is the central challenge to American security and prosperity.
It also recognizes explicitly that we are stronger together with our allies and partners than we are alone, and that one of the important elements of our defense strategy is to deepen our relations with our allies and partners. That’s no more important than in the Pacific region; but in the United States Air Force, we are ready to defend our allies and our vital national interests at any time when called upon.
I would say the greatest challenge in the Pacific is not unique to the United States Air Force. It just challenges really what we call the tyranny of distance, that it is the largest air and maritime region of the world. And just the distances between places are a challenge, I think, for all of us.
Moderator: And our next question comes from the line of Rita Zang with China Review News. Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you, Secretary Wilson. My question is about the Chinese government criticize the U.S. national security to label China and other countries as competitors of U.S. interests, what’s your comments about it?
Secretary Wilson: Well, our strategy seeks to build a strong military advantage in order to convince both China and Russia to choose peaceful competition within commonsense [inaudible] and cooperation on key issues rather than choosing confrontation or conflict and aggression.
And our approach to the Indo-Pacific region is really to promote a stable and prosperous region in which a rules-based international order is respected, not just for large powers, but for every country.
Moderator: And our next question comes from the line of Jake Maxwell Watts with Wall Street Journal Singapore. Please go ahead.
Question: Yeah, thank you. I had a couple of questions about the Philippines. Over the general course of about a week ago the — a named operation — an overseas contingency operation called Pacific Eagle Philippines has been launched. Can you tell me about whether or not that involved the Air Force; were there any discussions that have taken place with the Philippine authorities on that front?
And, as a follow-up to that, can you tell me what the current status is of U.S. Air Force’s assets in the Philippines? I understand that the Gray Eagle was put out there for Marawi. Is that still around, or is there anything else in the area?
Secretary Wilson: The United States has a longstanding partnership with the Philippines. Of course, after the volcano erupted — and I’m trying to remember when that was. You probably could look it up, but Clark Air Base closed after the eruption of the volcano, which was a very important base for us for a very long time.
So we no longer have a permanent military base in the Philippines, but we have very close cooperative arrangements with the government of the Philippines and the Philippines’ Air Force. We did provide assistance to the government of the Philippines as they addressed the ISIS-related activity in Mindanao. And they’re allies, and we were called upon to help them, and we did.
I would say that we are very pleased to see the success the Philippine Armed Forces had there, and particularly impressed by the professionalism of the Philippine Armed Forces and that there were no human rights violations as they countered and conducted– their counterterrorism operations there. We will continue to uphold our commitments to the Philippines under the Neutral Defense Treaty that we’ve had since 1951. And everything we do here is done in cooperation with and at the request of the government of the Philippines.
Mary Beth Polley: I think we have time to spare one last question if anyone has one, otherwise, we can go to wrap up.
Moderator: Our last question is going to come from the line of Catherine Wong with the South China Morning Post. Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you. I’d like to have the last question about North Korea.
Secretary Wilson you mentioned mentioned that you will also go to South Korea as part of your trip. And wondering if you will have any discussion with South Korea in regards to whether the U.S. has any plan to increase its troops including the Air Force or fighter jets to South Korea as part of the measures to address the threat from North Korea? Thank you.
Secretary Wilson: Well, of course, we don’t discuss future operations, but I expect that we will have a full set of discussions with the South Korean Air Force about mutual security interests. And I also look forward to visiting U.S. air forces that are stationed in South Korea.
Mary Beth Polley: Great. And that was all the questions we have time for.
Secretary Wilson, I just wanted to turn it back over to you in case you wanted to make any closing remarks.
Secretary Wilson: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. And I very much appreciate the opportunity to spend some time in the Indo-Pacific region engaging with allies and deepening our partnerships.
We have strong, cooperative relationships with Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea, as well as other countries across the region. And it is in the interest of the United States to strengthen those partnerships so that we promote stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. Thank you very much for joining us.
Mary Beth Polley: Thank you, and thank you so much for your time.