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Adm. Blair: Thank you very much, and thank you Mr. Ambassador for being here as well. This is my first visit to Vietnam in the three years that I've been Commander in Chief of the Pacific Command. Yesterday I spent in meetings with a full range of Vietnamese leaders from the Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Minister of Defense, and then with some of my military counterparts, the Chief of General Staff and his Deputy.
Later on today I will go to one of our recovery sites where a Joint Task Force Full Accounting team is at work. I leave the country later today.
The discussions here in Vietnam were very productive and informative from my point of view. I was told by virtually everyone I talked to that the passage of the Bilateral Trade Agreement recently does mark a new chapter in U.S./Vietnamese relations, and that the military phase of our relationship also has a good future.
We talked about the possibilities for more participation by Vietnam in the regional military activities which many countries in the region are participating in, and in particular we talked a good deal about our common cause against terrorism which has been very much in the forefront for us in the U.S. armed forces.
Vietnam has given support to the terrorist coalition that is in operation now, both through condemnation of the September 11th bombings and support for U.S. actions and some practical forms of assistance such as checking on the financial dealings that support terrorism that we have requested, and response to some requests for weather-diverted overflight rights of some of our aircraft which have been flowing through this region. It was quite clear from my meetings that the Vietnamese leadership shares our commitment against terrorism and to eliminate international terrorism and the threat it poses to our citizens.
Just to put the entire trip in context, this is my third stop. I was in Singapore and Malaysia before this stop, and I go on to Japan and Korea for the rest of the trip.
With that, let me stop and take any questions that you may have.
Question: If it's proven that the [New] People's Army in the Philippines was responsible for firing on this U.S. aircraft, is the American government ready to expand its cooperation with Manila against terrorism to include the NPA as well as the Abu Sayyaf?
Adm. Blair: The focus of our effort in the Philippines is against the Abu Sayyaf Group. That has historical links and some contemporary links with al Qaida. It has U.S. hostages in its custody now, and has killed one in the past and held another one. It's been the center of the cross-hairs now for our cooperation with the Philippines.
Question: Is there any information available as to who was responsible for firing on this aircraft in the Northern Philippines, which obviously wasn't the Abu Sayyaf because they aren't active there?
Adm. Blair: I'm not going to go into that incident in any detail.
Question: During the meeting between you and Vietnamese officers, did you discuss the situation at Cam Ranh Bay? How did you raise the possibility of U.S. naval ships stopping by Cam Ranh in the future?
Adm. Blair: We did discuss Cam Ranh Bay in several of the meetings. The United States is very interested in many different arrangements here in this part of the world as far as places our forces can visit, places our forces can get various kinds of support, and that's something that's important to us in this entire region of the world.
The status of Cam Ranh Bay is clearly changing now with the end of the Russian lease, but particular activities or arrangements involving the United States are something for the future.
Question: You specify arrangements --
Adm. Blair: Our discussions were in pretty general terms at this time. More specifics would have to follow in the future.
Mr. Ambassador, is there anything else on that one?
Amb. Burghardt: Just to note that Vietnam has taken a, as I think everyone here knows, a position that its ports are open for naval ship visits on a multilateral basis. Many countries have visited the ports, have brought their naval ships to visit ports of Haiphong and Saigon port, and Vietnam will have to decide whether it's going to open Cam Ranh Bay for naval ship visits, but we would expect if it is open for naval ship visits that it would be on the same basis as the two ports that are currently open.
My impression was that Vietnam still is thinking about how it's going to develop Cam Ranh Bay. It's still the very early stages in that process.
Question: Russia expressed that they will withdraw their troops this month. On U.S. side how do you see that situation now? And how many Russian troops are there in Cam Ranh Bay? Thank you.
Adm. Blair: I'd say that's something for the Russians and the Vietnamese to answer, not for me to answer.
Question: Do you suspect or do you know if Vietnam will participate in Cobra Gold next time or any other joint military operation?
Adm. Blair: I talked about the importance of the Cobra Gold exercise as the premier regional exercise for countries getting together to practice peacekeeping operations, non-combatant evacuation operations, humanitarian operations, the missions of the future. And Vietnam has been invited in an observer status and I saw some good strong interest by the Vietnamese in observing that exercise which is the first step really to greater involvement in it.
Question: So participation, not as observers, but active participation in two years?
Adm. Blair: That would be down the road. I don't know, it really depends on what the Vietnamese observed at the exercise that they thought would be in their interest. But I think, and I made it quite clear to the Vietnamese that I talked to that I think participation in that exercise is good for them as for all countries in the region so that we can become more skilled at working together on these instances.
It's so important when military forces come together to be effective quickly in the early stages when the disaster is at its worst or when you need to be effective. The way to do this is really to practice, so I think it's important that we exercise together as well as observe.
Question: So you think they'll observe next time?
Adm. Blair: Yes, I think they will observe next time, and I hope in time they will participate.
Question: When is the next Cobra Gold?
Adm. Blair: The next Cobra Gold is in May of this year.
Question: David Thurber with Associated Press.
You said that you see some opportunities for expanded military relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. What are some of the other ways that you see military cooperation in the future?
Adm. Blair: The activities that I primarily talked about with my Vietnamese hosts were these multilateral regional activities which many countries are playing a role in. It's a range from seminars and conferences where experts get together through field exercises such as Cobra Gold that we described.
Vietnam is involved in some of them to a certain extent through ASEAN and through its bilateral and multilateral relationships, and I really encourage working on in this direction so that Vietnam would be able to contribute to these sorts of activities commensurate with its stature and capability in the region.
Question: What about on a bilateral basis?
Adm. Blair: On a bilateral basis I think we are working our way after the free trade agreement into a more, into a fuller military relationship. Right now it's really, I would characterize it as based on the missions of the past, things like Joint Task Force Full Accounting, from our point of view; the scientific research on Agent Orange; assistance on demining. Most of these bilateral relationships really are looking backwards and based on the war that we fought here that ended 25 years ago. I think it's time to transition and look more to the missions of the future.
Question: Michael Manzis with the German Press Agency. That said, can you talk about the status of the MIA program, especially in light of the accident last year?
Adm. Blair: Yes. I talked with Vietnamese counterparts about that. The accident itself, as you know, was one that killed Americans and Vietnamese. It was investigated by the Vietnamese. I sent an investigating team over from my headquarters as well, and the conclusion was that it was a pilot error based on deteriorating weather conditions. It was a tragic event that set us all back.
After we satisfied ourselves that we understood what had happened, we've now resumed the operations and we are just going to be mindful, even more mindful in the future about helicopter safety which is something that you always worry about, but which will be even more of a focus of concern.
But we intend to continue with both the investigative work and the recovery work, and we're going to continue to press until the remaining approximately 2,000 Americans that we haven't accounted for are as fully accounted for as we possibly can.
Question: Some of the official media here have pointed to the presence in the United States of leaders of Vietnamese opposition groups who they accuse of organizing armed attacks against Vietnam. Those papers have accused the United States of being hypocritical in its fight against terrorism because of the presence of those people. Were those concerns raised in your talks about the fight against terror with Vietnamese officials?
Adm. Blair: Vietnamese officials did raise in our meetings the activities of overseas Vietnamese and requested our assistance in dealing with attacks on their own targets. So that was raised with me.
As you know, that particular area is not in my area of responsibility, but the Vietnamese did raise their concerns.
Question: To go back to the MIA question, has there been a rethink in the Administration about maybe winding down a bit or backing off a bit saying rest in peace, it's an unachievable goal?
Adm. Blair: I've talked with Mr. Jennings who is the new director of the office in Washington. The commitment to press on all possible leads that we have remains the same. In fact we have a sense of urgency because of course the human memories which are so important in this work are becoming older, and we have to press on while people can still, until we can find everybody we can talk to who has some piece of evidence that can help direct us to the right spot. So we're pressing on.
Question: When President Clinton was here there was talk about the U.S. cooperating with Vietnam in its search for its own MIAs. Is there anything going on in that area at this time?
Adm. Blair: I talked with some Vietnamese military officers about that. The Vietnam armed forces have a department whose job it is to have the fullest accounting for their own some 300,000 missing in action.
We, the United States, have provided documents which we think are relevant to that cause and those documents are being worked.
I don't know, you all probably understand how this works, but basically you have to do a lot of data research and investigation and talking with people before you can really pick out a site and say yes, this area is an area we ought to dig.
So the front-end work of going through the records, talking to people is really the hard part and we've delivered a large number of documents that we think are helpful, but until the Vietnamese researchers go through and look at them and begin to narrow things down, they're not going to make progress, just as we don't, until we do an awful lot of academic work ahead of time.
Question: Is that the end of the U.S. cooperation?
Adm. Blair: No. We will cooperate with their efforts just as we expect them to cooperate with ours and as they are cooperating with ours.
Question: Is there anything concrete planned in that area?
Adm. Blair: In preparation for this visit I wasn't given any specific outstanding requests from our own side, and I wasn't given any specific requests on our side, so I would tell you that it's, the ongoing processes of communication seem to be working.
Question: Some of the former enemies of communist Vietnam including the Australians have signed formal defense pacts with Hanoi. How far off is a formal defense pact between Hanoi and Washington?
Adm. Blair: Gee, a formal defense pact. Mr. Ambassador, you're the pact-signer. I think we've got a lot of work to do.
Amb. Burghardt: As the Admiral said, our military-to-military relationship is still just beginning. I think any thought of a more formal relationship is not something that either side has raised. I think we should focus on developing substance before we worry too much about form.
Question: Can we go back to Cam Ranh Bay? You had several meetings. How are these meetings characterized as to the situation in Cam Ranh Bay, the future of Cam Ranh Bay. What was the explanation about particularly our future?
Adm. Blair: I did not conduct detailed negotiations about the future of Cam Ranh Bay. We talked about Cam Ranh Bay in general terms.
My Vietnamese interlocutors explained that the long term arrangement with Russia had lapsed and that they were thinking through what the future of Cam Ranh Bay would be. I expressed that as our military relationship developed with the Vietnamese we are looking for places for our ships to visit, we are looking for various arrangements in this region to support our objective, so it was a good initial discussion. It will proceed in the future as the Vietnamese make their plans for Cam Ranh Bay, both military and commercial, and as we make our plans for the region. So there will be many more talks in the future, and our discussion was in general terms.
Question: Seriously, do you consider the Spratly's to be some sort of flash point for regional tension?
Adm. Blair: I think that the -- It's never good when you have more than one country claiming the same piece of real estate. In the South China Sea in general we have six countries claiming some of the same pieces of real estate.
Early on, say a couple of years ago, I think that China was adopting a pretty aggressive approach -- fortifying some islands, being very bilateral in their approach to different countries. But I think over the last say year or year and a half the countries of the region seem to have realized that the multilateral approach is better, that the negotiations on the code of conduct offer a way to make progress to the benefit of all of its citizens.
I look at other places in the region where the diplomatic solution seemed to have brought benefits. Thailand and Malaysia have been able to figure out how to divvy up gas drilling rights further over in the Gulf of Thailand. That seems to be working.
I'm just struck by the fact that no nation can benefit from the South China Sea economically until the countries of the regions come up with a regime that will give business confidence to develop the oil and gas. And certainly the fish don't seem to follow the rules. They go around the whole region. And if every country just fishes to the maximum extent where it can it's going to benefit nobody.
So I detect a realization in the region that the way forward here is to set a code of conduct, to come to commercial agreements so that all can benefit, and that using military force to occupy islands and to intimidate others is not really the way forward. So I'm encouraged by what I see.
Question: But given the fact that they haven't even been able to reach a code of conduct after years of talking about it, let alone boundaries, does that cause the Spratly's to be a big blip on your radar?
Adm. Blair: I think because the trends which seem to me towards counting military outposts have now shifted to the details of working out the code of conduct, I count that as positive and it makes me think that -- It makes the particular military pieces of it less of a concern on my radar screen.
Question: You've made several references to the desire to have access to ports in the region. Given the operations in the Southern Philippines and so on, is there a desire to have more permanent facilities in Southeast Asia ten years after the withdrawal from the Philippines?
Adm. Blair: No. We have no desire to have more permanent bases in the region. What we seek is a flexible set of arrangements so that we can cooperate with countries in the region and get the job done when the necessity is there. But we do not look to build large permanent bases in the region.
Question: Will Cobra Gold have a counter-terrorism element? How long will the U.S. be involved in the Philippines?
Adm. Blair: On Cobra Gold starting this May, we and the Thais who are the hosts of the exercise have designed a counterterrorism section of the exercise in order to build the capability of the nations involved against terrorism and the specifics of that part of the exercise will range everything from intelligence, intelligence sharing through coordination of special forces through dealing with consequences of a terrorist act which might cause damage and destruction and which the armed forces would be part of the reaction capability. So there will be a combating terrorism part of the Cobra Gold exercise.
Our support for the Philippines in their war against the Abu Sayyaf Group will occur in stages. Right now we are deploying advisors, we are building intelligence capability, we are in the preliminary stages. The first phase of the exercise will last six months and then we will evaluate where we are and how we proceed.
This is a new type of activity for all of us so it's impossible to set a nice, neat time table for the operation, but I would anticipate that our involvement here will be in months, not in years in the Philippines. Our objective is to assist and support the Philippines, particularly the armed forces of the Philippines, and then to leave and leave them to complete the campaign.
It's very clear that the responsibilities, the authority, the operation lies with the Republic of the Philippines and with their armed forces. These are not U.S. operations, this is not a U.S. military endeavor. This is support to the armed forces of the Philippines to build this capacity against this Abu Sayyaf Group which threatens them and many others in the world.
Question: To follow up on that, I've been puzzled by exactly what the United States can contribute to the situation there, because the Philippines has been fighting Abu Sayyaf and other groups for decades and has a lot of experience in doing so, and I also recall that it was in the Philippines that U.S. special forces were trained in jungle warfare for Vietnam. So if anything, it seems like they might have more experience than the United States. So what exactly do we have to contribute there?
Adm. Blair: I think what we will have is a combination of the American technical, strength on the technical side of warfare and also the experience that we have gained in other parts of the world in unconventional operations. Melded with there Philippine local knowledge.
We had an assessment team in Zamboango in November of last year which had very open discussions with the Philippine forces involved in the war. The findings that were the Philippines knew a great deal about what was going on. They had an approach to it, but there were some things they needed in terms of specialized training, in terms of technical capability which would assist their fight. So I think it will be a good combination of strengths and we will be successful in eliminating this Abu Sayyaf Group.
The other part of it which I think is extremely important, and I saw President Arroyo talking about it from New York on the television this morning, is the economic assistance in that part of the Philippines. Ambassador Burghardt served in the Philippines and knows that the Southern Philippines are really underdeveloped for a bunch of reasons. There needs to be economic development and that's part of the pledge of the Philippine government and also the U.S. government through the non-military departments, is going to be assisting in that in order to raise the standard of living there and that will help prevent the Abu Sayyaf Group from reestablishing itself once it's dealt with from a security point of view.
Question: In somewhat more specific terms, what exactly will the U.S. troops leave for the Philippines when they're gone? How will they benefit --
Adm. Blair: Let me give you an example.
A year ago we were asked to train a light reaction infantry company in specialized field tactics, specifically hostage rescue skills. That company continues to be one of the more proficient military units that's operating now in the Philippines. So we find that those units that we work with are the better units for it, and as they continue they are more effective.
So certainly the training that we provide has a residual benefit.
On the equipment side, our emphasis is going to be more on maintenance and supply skills than it is on new pieces of equipment. I can tell you as a military officer, being able to fix your gear is just as important as how much you have of it. I think the United States can help the armed forces of the Philippines in that regard, and that will leave more operable equipment for them to be able to move their people around.
I also think that the organizational constructs, particularly in organizing intelligence that we will work out will be important.
So I'd say those three areas which will be of long term benefit to the Philippines, and the Philippine officers that we've talked to look at it the same way. This is very much a cooperative effort.
Question: Please tell me what kind of cooperation is in the future between Vietnam and the United States.
Adm. Blair: I think cooperation in the areas that I mentioned -- combating terrorism, in humanitarian assistance, in international peace operations under the UN charter, in cooperating against narcotics, in cooperating against international crime are all areas in which we can work together in the future. And cooperating against piracy in this area would be another area.
So those are the sorts of common missions that I think could be the missions of the future that would involve the United States, the forces of Vietnam and other countries in the region. China, in particular. I think we would welcome the PLA involvement in these activities as well.
Question: Admiral, have there been credible threats, terroristic threats against shipping in the region? Especially in the Straits of Malacca?
Adm. Blair: We know that terrorist organizations looking at the success of piracy in the Straits of Malacca have put two and two together and have thought about attacks on shipping for terrorist purposes similar to those piracy purposes.
Question: And have these increased since 9/11?
Adm. Blair: I don't think I'll talk about the details, but the potential is there and it's something terrorist groups have thought about.
Question: What is being done to prevent that? Has there been security and escorts --
Adm. Blair: Yes. Not only have the three most important countries who have responsibility there increased their efforts -- that is Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia -- but the United States, for example, has had a ship for the last couple of months in the strait keeping a close eye on the shipping that we think is important and cooperating with those countries. In fact other countries in the region are thinking about perhaps joining the effort.
As some of you may know in the piracy effort, this is separate from terrorism, but the piracy incidents have led countries like Japan, India, to increase their attention to the problem, in some cases to offer additional assistance. It's the same skills to protect a ship against a pirate as it is from a terrorist and we think that's good.
Question: And about the Philippine approach, when the exercise turns into operation because of Abu Sayyaf activity, how would you consider the matter, that U.S. combat is against their constitution?
Adm. Blair: We've worked out arrangements for the current activities that we will undertake which are satisfactory to both sides. The Philippine forces and the Philippine commanders are in charge of the overall operation. The U.S. soldiers and others are operating as trainers and advisors, and they will be supporting the Philippine effort. There's no confusion about how that will work. It's an arrangement which military men the world over are familiar with, and both sides can get the job done.
Question: You've described a pretty friendly cooperative visit so far. What's the sticking point or points of contention between Vietnam and the United States? In your portfolio.
Adm. Blair: I think we're on a positive direction in military relations between the United States and Vietnam now. I think it's more a case of the pace and the specifics of cooperation than it is an overall, any overall conflict. It's clear from my discussions that the armed forces of Vietnam are internally focused. Economic development, border issues are their primary concern. The concerns of the United States are more regionally focused and have to do with the areas that I mentioned. But there is overlap of interest and I think we can work gradually to do things that are in the interest of both countries. I see that as the best way for us to develop.
Question: On a personal basis, what were you most looking forward to on at least this leg of the trip? I suspect you might have studied or followed General Giap's tactics in the past. I know he's on your schedule.
Adm. Blair: Right. He is, to any military officer, he's one of the officers who played a strong and decisive role in this region. So it was a great interest of mine to talk to him, and knowing the role that he's played in military history in this part of the world.
On a personal basis, I did not fight in Vietnam. I was on my way on a ship to Vietnam when the war ended for us. This was 1972. So I, unlike all of my predecessors, have not fought here. So I was coming with a great deal of interest and not many preconceptions.
I have seen a country in real transition here, so I'm going back with a much better idea of how we can work together in the future.
Question: In your discussions did the Vietnamese provide any concrete commitments to this war on terrorism that you could share with us?
Adm. Blair: I think the best way to characterize the commitment was that specific actions based on evidence which the United States would like Vietnam to take will receive a positive reception. That's the history we've had, both in terms of checking on names and financial inquiries that we asked to be run. That was the case in the one request for overflight permission that I mentioned. The permission was for a specific flight which we needed, was granted very promptly and it helped us do our job off in the North Arabian Sea area. And what I heard in the meetings that those sorts of requests by the United States to stamp out terrorism will receive a favorable reception from the Vietnamese.
In addition, they mentioned that they are committed to ensuring that Americans are safe in Vietnam from terrorism -- both embassy personnel and businessmen and private citizens. They emphasized that the evaluation, I guess there are no travel advisories in effect related to terrorism in Vietnam. No place is completely safe in the world now from terrorism, but Vietnam is a safe place for Americans to be stationed for duty, to travel on business, and to visit. And clearly the Vietnamese intend to keep it that way.
Amb. Burghardt: I'd just add to that, the Vietnamese government has in fact been very cooperative in working with the American embassy on security measures for our installations here and in Ho Chi Minh City, and continues to be so. And very open to any requests that we might have. That was repeated during the Admiral's visit.
Question: On your talks here, what kind of a sense do you have about the ability and the willingness of the military of both Vietnam and the United States to put the past war behind and look to the future?
Adm. Blair: I think that on the U.S. side there is -- The only part of the past that we intend to carry into the future is the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting, the continued pressed effort to ensure that we have the fullest possible accounting for the still 2,000 missing people that we have. With the exception of that one issue, all the people that I know in uniform are interested in looking to the future and not doing anything about the past except to learn the lessons and move forward.
On the Vietnamese side, I'm certainly not an expert based on only 24 ours in the country, but I sensed a general willingness to move forward. Certainly not any sort of personal animosity towards Americans in uniform, but also on the Vietnamese side a feeling that there were things from the war that still had to be physically repaired. War damage such as mines and other unexploded ordnance as well as accounting for their own missing.
So I think, I'd say that would be my best characterization.
I think we have time for one more question before I have to head out.
One or less, whichever comes first. (Laughter)
Thank you very much.
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