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Adm. Blair: This visit to Singapore is something I try to do a couple of times a year to stay in touch with our strong partner, the Singapore armed forces. My discussions this time have covered a very dense set of relationships that we have with the Singapore armed forces. Our forces are both serving together in East Timor, for example. We are conducting a number of joint research and development projects together. We talk a lot about regional issues. Our forces both participate in exercises. Cobra Gold coming up here in a couple of months is an example. But the issue which has our intensity and is in the front of our minds these days, of course, is our campaign against terrorism, and Singapore has been a strong supporter and partner ever since the 11th of September, and as we all know last month Singapore arrested a number of members of what looks like a terrorist ring here and showed a video on television of some of the tactical planning that had been undertaken by at least one member of the group.
I mentioned in my meetings here that we are very grateful for and pleased with the defensive measures that have been taken by Singapore. When I came in at Paya Labar Airfield it was clear that there was good tight security. And as I discussed with my hosts after this ring was arrested here in December, we reviewed the force protection measures that Singapore had taken here in addition to the usual strong measures that are taken and we went ahead with the visits of the carrier battle group USS Vinson, and the Marine expeditionary unit and amphibious group, USS Bohnomme Richard. Those sailors and marines had an excellent visit here late last month, and they were made to feel welcome. I can tell you they enjoyed being here after several months off in the North Arabian Sea being involved in combat operations there.
We are looking not only to the present struggle against terrorism but to the future, and we think that a long term relationship with the Singapore armed forces will continue and intensify, and it is in both of our country's interests and the interests of the region, so we just see more good things in the military relationship between the United States and Singapore coming up.
Let me stop there. The rest of my trip, going from here to the Sabah area of Malaysia and to Vietnam and then up to Japan and Korea. It will be my first trip to Vietnam. Then checking in also with Malaysia with whom we do a lot of work here in the region.
So let me take any questions you may have after that.
Question: Admiral, Michael Richards of the Herald Tribune.
The trip to Sabah in Malaysia, why are you going? Is it linked to the joint exercise, U.S. Philippine exercise that's about to get underway in the southern Philippines? And in relation to that exercise can you at this point give an assurance for an undertaking that that exercise will be completely finished and all the U.S. forces out of the Philippines within six months?
Adm. Blair: I've been wanting to go see the Malaysian forces in the Sabah region for some time. Unfortunately, on past visits to Malaysia I just haven't had a chance to get much outside of Kuala Lumpur, so this is a good chance to see the other half of Malaysia, so it's fulfilling a longstanding desire to get out and see some of the good Malaysian troops in the field.
Malaysia has reinforced its forces in the Sabah region, has done so for the last couple of years, and I look forward to seeing both the army troops and the naval forces that are doing their job of protecting that part of Malaysia.
The timing of our exercise and support in the Philippines was set for an initial period there of six months and I think we'll evaluate it as we go. On both sides we're committed to getting the job done, but you do have to take these things a period at a time.
Question: Admiral, Indonesia is not on your itinerary this time.
Adm. Blair: Right.
Question: The last time you were in Singapore, if I'm not mistaken, you expressed some views about Indonesia being a possible site for terrorist activity, al Qaeda connected activity, or at least having an environment that could allow it. There's been a lot of concern about Indonesia here as kind of the weak link or perceived as the weak link in Southeast Asia in terms of tackling terrorist situations.
Could you update us with your assessment of how Indonesia fits in now, or is it fitting in?
Adm. Blair: I think the overall characterization, an impression that I had a little over a month ago when I visited Indonesia is still substantially correct. It is a big country with difficulty controlling its borders from a number of threats to law and order, everything from piracy to illegal immigration and internal insurgencies. It's on the backdrop of a country that is going through tremendous economic, social and certainly military change. So it has a big set of challenges, and certainly it has to be worried about whether international terrorism is one more group that might be working from Indonesia.
Some connections that have come up from some of the arrests here in Singapore and in Malaysia and in the Philippines point towards some connections in Indonesia as well, and we've heard the statements from some Indonesian leaders about the concerns that they have about international terrorist links to groups that are in Indonesia.
From the point of view of the United States, our military relations with Indonesia were cut down to a pretty minimal level about two years ago in conjunction with the East Timor events. But in the meeting between President Bush and President Megawati, both Presidents reaffirmed their commitment towards going against international terrorism. So I think the Indonesian government is committed and we have to figure out how we can work with them to achieve that. I think we agree on the goal. We have to figure out what's going to be effective.
Question: Admiral, John O'Callaghan from Reuters.
There's been reports in the papers this morning that the U.S. is intending to commit millions of dollars to train Indonesian police.
I was wondering whether you would envisage that extending as far as has been the case in the Philippines with U.S. military advisors on the ground in Indonesia to help with the operations.
Adm. Blair: I hadn't heard of that millions of new dollars for police. I know that the United States and a bunch of other countries have been for a number of years working with the Indonesian police which were, as you know, separated from the armed forces a number of years ago.
We are still working out with the Indonesians what the effective way forward is. We do compare intelligence on international terrorist groups with them. That is in progress. As far as more, additional actions, those are still being considered and worked on right now and they're certainly nothing of the scale of what we're working with in the Philippines that's planned for the near future. I think it's fair to say that we are continually reevaluating the activities that we conduct with Indonesia across the board and with the Indonesian armed forces in particular. And as I said publicly in Indonesia, for our part on the military side we're really looking for continued maturing of the professional development of the TNI accountability for past actions and proper conduct of their troops that are involved in counterinsurgency operations right now.
There are some congressional restrictions on what we can do, but more than simply congressional restrictions, it's our policy that we are not going to have a full military relationship with the armed forces of Indonesia until they complete the reforms that they have undertaken which will bring the standards of conduct and accountability up to what we expect of advanced armed forces. The actions against terrorism that are in both of our interests are clearly things we want to pursue, to protect the citizens of both of our countries and those of the region. So those are factors that are constantly being reevaluated in terms of particular actions that we may take or not take.
Question: If you don't have the cooperation of the TNI, you're never going to solve the problem.
Adm. Blair: I think you're right, that both strong internal action by security forces of a country, of Indonesia, and international cooperation are keys to solving the problem eventually.
Question: When you look, Admiral, at the recent actions of the Indonesian military and government, for example, it seems to be a bit of a mixed picture. You have on the one hand the government setting up the trial mechanism for the East Timor human rights abuse case. On the other hand in Aceh you appear to have the military moving much more to try to impose a military rather than a negotiated political solution.
But as you evaluate the situation, and in this context and perhaps overriding context of importance of counterterrorism, where does it leave U.S. relations with the Indonesian military as of now?
Adm. Blair: The relations that we have now are in several categories. We meet at conferences on topics of common interest. There is an Indonesian representative, Admiral Widoto, for example, at our Chiefs of Defense Conference in Hawaii this past November. He was a strong participant in our discussions on combatting terrorism and how we can and should work together.
We have conducted last year and intend to conduct again this year a navy-to-navy exercise with the Indonesians centered on some humanitarian actions in Indonesia.
Question: When was that, sir?
Adm. Blair: That took place last summer, I think it was July or so, and it will take place early summer this year. It's called the CAROT exercise -- Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training. It's a multi-phased exercise of U.S. Navy forces with many different countries here in Southeast Asia.
Although we have an embargo on some military equipment going to Indonesia, we do permit the sale and provision of non-lethal equipment. Spare parts for C-130s, parts for naval vessels and so on.
So we do have that sort of a relationship and are in touch with, and of course visits to Indonesia. I mentioned myself that I was there last in November. We have a relationship with Indonesia and we also currently are looking for opportunities to take specific action with Indonesia on actions to combat terrorism which would involve taking down terrorist groups that would be a danger to both of us. That would be something in both of our interests. I think in answer to your question, Mr. Richardson, as you take a step back from the actions of the TNI and look at it over a couple of year period since really the low of 1999 when the activities in East Timor were spread over the international press in detail, and were reprehensible.
I think there is an overall positive trend. I think that the TNI is by giving more training to its soldiers, acting more in accordance with proper rules of engagement. I'd see a generally positive trend. I think that's a trend that needs to be encouraged and nurtured and assisted so that it can reach the level in which we can resume the relations which I think would be in both of our countries' interests.
Question: Given that trend, what have been the actions to, or the opportunities to combat terrorism that would be in the interests of both countries that you see?
Adm. Blair: I think one certainly that is going on in a certain form now are the anti-piracy patrols in the Straits of Malacca, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia; cooperate on it. The Indonesians themselves tell me, and I'm sure they would tell you, that they are not able to devote the resources to the Navy on their side that enables them to be a fully effective partner in that operation and that would certainly be a good contribution.
The efforts against illegal immigration in general is somewhat the same. The Indonesians are not able to assert total control in the maritime areas whether against pirates or illegal migrants, the way they would like to be able to. The situation in Sulawesi is of concern to the Indonesian leaders themselves. Additional forces were sent there. I think they would tell you that they're not as far as they would like to be in being able to control that sectarian violence and control the really lawless forces that are there including potentially, some outside terrorists there who are suspected to be part of that operation.
Question: How can the U.S. assist Indonesia in those areas? Is there anything you can do within the confines of the present legislative --
Adm. Blair: We can offer some modest targeted assistance. As I mentioned, things like insuring that spare parts are available for the transport aircraft, which are used to get troops up there. That was one of the things that I discussed on my last trip, the sharing of intelligence information and what the outside connections are to release it are going on there. So there are modest thing we can do now, but certainly we could all be much more effective if we had a fuller relationship which we do hope would be available as the Indonesian armed forces make progress in those areas that I mentioned.
Question: Do you think the changing mood in Washington toward Indonesia will impact our military relationship?
Adm. Blair: I think that really depends primarily on events in Indonesia rather than events in Washington.
Question: How would you characterize your relationships with the various governments in Southeast Asia in terms of intelligence sharing in particular? Is it comparing night with day, pre and post-September 11th? Or is there much more continuity than from that?
Adm. Blair: It's always difficult to talk in detail about sharing intelligence and I'm not going to do it. (Laughter)
Question: Not the specifics but the nature of the relationship.
Adm. Blair: Qualitatively speaking the events of September 11th have given positive jolts to our comparing of information and I would say it is far more detailed and forthcoming on all sides than it was before then. All of us recognize that none of us has a complete picture and the only way that we're going to be able to understand what this international enemy that we're dealing with is to compare the piece of intelligence that we have and build a whole picture.
That also goes, by the way, for relationships within governments as well as between and among them. I know that within our own government there is much more exchange of information and intelligence among the various agencies, both those in the national security field and those like the FBI who have the domestic responsibilities. As I talk to my counterparts in other countries and here in Southeast Asia, it's no exception. I find that they are also having better intelligence cooperation within their governments. So it's within the governments, it's across the governments, and it's the pulling the pieces together that will make the difference.
Question: Without going into specifics, what's your perception of al Qaeda penetration in Southeast Asia? With Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore be riddled with al Qaeda connections? Or is it something which is fairly low key but of concern?
Adm. Blair: Two months ago none of us knew what the KI and KJ were and now here they are, and one has a concern that you don't know what you don't know. The other thing is that it takes so little these days to conduct a really powerful attack. A few plane tickets, some local sympathizers, half a million dollars and some determined work from the outside. That's basically what went into killing 4,000 Americans in Washington and in New York City. I don't think any of us want to overplay the threat, but we don't want to think that we know, are completely on top of it because we've got to continue to drive and to work until we can really root this thing out.
Also part of it is, I think one dramatic, from my point of view what's really been different since the events of September has been that really all of our governments and countries have gone over onto the offensive rather than just sort of waiting there until the next attack hits and trying to build a higher fence or a bigger wall and so on. I think what's making all of our citizens safer is that security forces and military forces in all our countries are pushing out and taking actions, making arrests aggressively. Of course the biggest military campaign has been a coalition effort in Afghanistan, but the effort by both internal and external security forces has been good.
I think anybody who is a terrorist these days is not sitting there making his plans in quiet and thinking that he has all the time in the world. There are security forces and armed forces that are actively looking to track him down and arrest him or break up what he's doing, and I think we need to maintain that sort of relentless pursuit of these groups in order to number one, stay safe in the mean time, and number two, actually root these groups out.
So I think that's what's important, is that we keep relentlessly pursuing them.
Question: One final question if I may. As a military man are you worried that there's sort of a lack of intellectual coherence on in terms of a war on terrorism? It's about declaring war on what's essentially a tactic, and you look at various areas of the world, be it Somalia or be it the Philippines. Stringing all this together, it's too disparate to grasp.
Adm. Blair: I think that classical military strategists would probably find it doesn't fit neatly into their former theories. That it's some blend between traditional military operations and police work and customs work. Nonetheless, I find that those of us who are charged with the security of our countries are adapting pretty well and getting the job done pretty well, applying the tools that we have across the board.
Question: Your talk with Indonesian military leaders. What is your first impression? The determination or willingness to solve the problems that we have been talking about? Do we share this kind of objective? Are we serious about it or is it?
Adm. Blair: I think that each country has its own set of circumstances that it's dealing with, but I sense that the leaders that I talk to in Indonesia are committed to rooting out international terrorism in their country also.
Question: A quick one, Admiral? Presumably the opening last year of the new base here and America's use of the facility has been helpful. Do you need more facilities in Southeast or East Asia than we currently have? In other words, are you going to be looking for more seaport type arrangements in other places?
Adm. Blair: As a military commander you can never have enough places for your airplanes to land and your ships to pull in, so in this area certainly more is better.
But the relationships and support that we've had so far from the countries here in the region in terms of overflight and use of airfields, and use of seaports has been very adequate for the job we've had to do.
Question: In your introduction, Admiral, you mentioned that you had reviewed force protection measures with the Singapore authorities. The U.S. Commissioner of Customs, among others in the United States, has recently been talking about the need for much tougher surveillance measures to be imposed in megaports, including Singapore and Hong Kong, against possible use by terrorists with containers for nefarious purposes.
Is this something that you have discussed here with the Singapore authorities? How do you see it playing out?
Adm. Blair: I know this has been a subject of discussion among authorities here in Singapore. I haven't had an update on that recently so I'm not really, I can't really give you anything specific on that, Michael, but it is something which we have to ensure that the efficient flow of commerce takes place or it's not being used against us. There's a role of technology and a role of cooperation and we need to pursue that.
Question: You mentioned early about US - Singapore joint R&D projects going on? Can you give us some more information?
Adm. Blair: The ones that are most exciting with Singapore are in the use of information technology in coalition operations. The traditional way of doing a coalition operation is to send a liaison officer with a radio over to your coalition partner. We can do much better than that in an era in which our kids can send e-mails back and forth to each other and Singapore is really a very information, technology savvy country and has been a really strong partner in figuring out how we can solve problems of security of information and compatibility of equipment where we can put together coalitions that will operate in common missions, whether they be combatting piracy or peacekeeping operations or humanitarian assistance. So it's that sort of area that we're really cooperating with Singapore and we have Singapore officers in our headquarters, we're out on experimental exercises together.
Great. It's good to get a chance to talk to all of you. I hope to see you on the next trip. Thanks.
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