Press Briefing by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes and NSC Senior Director for Asian Affairs Evan Medeiros
Grand Millennium Hotel
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
6:50 P.M. MST
MR. CARNEY: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us this evening. For your briefing pleasure we have Ben Rhodes, a familiar face -- Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications. We also have Evan Medeiros, who is Senior Director at the NSC for Asian Affairs. So they’re going to provide a topper for you about our visit to the Philippines, and then we’re all here to take questions if you have them.
I give you Ben.
MR. RHODES: Great. I’ll say a few words about the Philippines, then Evan will, and then we can take questions about the events of the day or other things.
So tomorrow we will be completing and signing with the Philippines a very important agreement that will allow the United States access to basing in the Philippines in a way that will build out our defense and security cooperation. And Evan will speak to that in a moment.
All I’d just say at the outset is, throughout the course of the last several years, as a key part of our strategy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific, we have sought to build out our alliance relationships, our cooperation with other partners in the Asia Pacific, and our ability to respond to a variety of missions. You see that manifested in the increased cooperation in Northeast Asia, with Japan and the Republic of Korea, both bilaterally and on a trilateral basis. You see that, for instance, in the agreement we had for a rotational presence in Darwin, in Australia, where we have a MAGTF and other military presence that allows us to respond to, for instance, natural disasters; do other types of joint exercises in the South Pacific. And you see that in the defense relationships that we’ve built up with ASEAN countries, including Malaysia, where we have a range of joint exercises, information-sharing, and defense cooperation.
So this agreement I think comes in the context of the United States being more present and more capable to build partnerships and meet specific missions, not just in Northeast Asia where we’ve had the traditional presence, but also in South Asia. And again, tomorrow will be an important step forward in advancing that cooperation.
With that, Evan can give you a little more background.
MR. MEDEIROS: Great. Thanks, Ben. Well, it’s a pleasure today to be able to confirm that tomorrow the United States and the Philippines will be signing our new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, EDCA. This is the most significant defense agreement that we have concluded with the Philippines in decades.
What the agreement is, is that it’s a framework that facilitates enhanced security cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines that will allow us enhanced rotational presence at facilities in the Philippines. It’s not a basing agreement. This is not a sort of return to bases, so to speak. But rather what it does is it’s a framework that will allow us to train and to exercise with the armed forces of the Philippines on a range of missions, including humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security; countering transnational crime, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, for example.
The scope, the duration, and the timing of this rotational presence is something that we will work out with the Philippines as part of a consultation process under our longstanding 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty Framework with the Philippines. The agreement itself has been under negotiation for about eight months. We’ve had eight rounds of negotiation, but it’s part of a longer conversation that the U.S. military has been having with its Philippine counterparts over the last few years as they have started to shift from an internal security-focused mission to an external security-focused mission.
And as an alliance partner and as part of the broader regional strategy that Ben outlined to modernize our alliances, we began this conversation with the Philippines about how under this alliance framework we can help them facilitate this shift toward external security. And this new agreement that we’re signing with the Philippines is going to be a very significant contribution to that.
So why don’t I stop there, and I’m happy to answer any questions.
MR. RHODES: Christi.
Q Can you talk a little about what this means for the long-term U.S.-Philippine relations just over the course of the last 30 years since the bases were --
MR. RHODES: Yes, it’s a good question. And I think it shows how far we’ve come in building out a very mature partnership based on mutual interest and mutual respect. Clearly, for the Philippines, as they have built their democracy and taken significant steps to deepen their democratic governance, issues of sovereignty are very important to them. And we have a long history as an alliance, but we also have a complex history associated with some of those issues. And what I think it shows is that over the last several years we have been able to deepen the alliance in the context of both the Philippines advancing its democracy, but also the United States and the Philippines identifying common interests in Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific more broadly.
To give you one example, I think one event that gave some momentum and underscored the importance of this type of agreement was the typhoon response, because it was the United States that was able with our capabilities to reach affected areas much more effectively than any other country could. And this type of agreement that could allow, for instance, the U.S. air and naval assets to rotate through Filipino facilities would contribute to the ability to have a very nimble and effective response to a disaster like a typhoon, which tragically is not a non-common occurrence in this region generally that you have those types of natural disasters. It also will help us develop the Filipino capacity to respond in those types of disasters.
So I think it shows that here, in 2014, we have identified a set of common interests around disaster response, maritime security, and joint capabilities between the United States and our ally, the Philippines, and our other partners in the region that makes this the right time to take our partnership and our alliance to a new level with this agreement. And again, I think it speaks to the emphasis that we have put on the alliance with the Philippines and also Southeast Asia more generally as a focal point of the U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific. And that manifests in the relationships we’re building with our ASEAN countries as well.
Q Evan, you said that it will allow U.S. forces to train with the Philippine armed forces on issues like disaster relief, maritime security and the like. But you mean they’re actually going to do more than just training; they’re going to be there, present to take action immediately, right? And can you be more specific about the rotation of ships, troops, planes, basing of that sort?
MR. MEDEIROS: I can’t be more specific, because the agreement itself is just a framework. It creates a legal and policy infrastructure. It’s sort of like the skeletal and the muscular infrastructure that over time, as we talk with the Philippines about what their needs are and what missions they want to work with us on, we will then work through what the specific nature of the training and the exercising will be.
But as I said, the Philippines are involved in this shift in their military, from internal security missions to external security missions. And we’ll be working with them about how best we can help them build up their capability to meet what they call credible minimum deterrence -- that’s sort of their defense strategy. So we’re still working through those specific capabilities with the Philippines.
Q And this appears to be aimed as a deterrent, in other words, you use it as a deterrent towards China’s assertiveness, militarily --
MR. MEDEIROS: Well, we’re not doing this because of China. We’re doing this because we have a longstanding alliance partner. They’re interested in stepping up our military-to-military engagement. There have been a variety of instances, as Ben pointed out, like Typhoon Yolanda, where it became clear that an enhanced rotational presence, a legal and policy framework for the U.S. military to work with their Philippine counterparts was something that was needed by the Philippine government.
For example, one of the lessons that we learned from Typhoon Yolanda is that there are civilian and dual-use airports in the southern part of the Philippines that would benefit from certain types of upgrading so the U.S. military, U.S. Air Force could use them for things like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
MR. RHODES: The only other thing I can say, Matt, is you don’t -- hypotheticals of missions that might occur in the future -- but when you look at the types of things that we work with the Philippines on, we’ve mentioned disaster response. And we’ve worked on counter piracy; we’ve worked on the ability to have joint exercises across the region. We’ve worked on countering proliferation and transnational crime.
So again, I think it’s a flexible agreement that will allow us to position assets as necessary to provide that training and to do that type of joint effort with the Philippines.
Q Is this an unusual arrangement, having this kind of rotational situation -- not a permanent force? And is there an agreement yet on whether the Philippine government will have access to the areas where the Americans are building out their own facilities?
MR. RHODES: Well, I’d say a couple things. Well, first of all, yes, absolutely, these are fundamentally Filipino facilities. So clearly they will be present and will have access to their bases.
On your first question, I think increasingly as we look at our defense approach, we have traditional bases in different parts of the world. But given the nature of the threats and challenges that we face, it is necessary for us to be able to respond in a manner that is nimble with our partners. It’s also necessary for us increasingly to train capable and effective allies and partners. And so, these types of agreements give us that flexibility without necessarily having a base that would get at sovereignty issues for the Philippines and also, is clearly a more resource-intensive endeavor over the long term for us.
So I think it’s an approach that we can take in different parts of the world to meet different challenges. Here in Asia, again, I think in Darwin we have this type of arrangement, which similarly is focused on being able to respond to different contingencies, being able to train and operate with additional partners.
And, again, even in other parts of the region here where we don’t have agreements of this nature, we are able to do port calls, we're able to do exercises either bilaterally or multilaterally. And all of this is putting in place an infrastructure of security cooperation in Southeast Asia that ultimately will support the stability and defense of the region.
Q Could you talk about what impact you think that this may have on some of the maritime disputes that we’ve been talking about -- East China Sea, South China Sea? And you may not have been doing this because of China, but has China been concerned about this? And what have you told them? What have you sought to reassure them? Finally, I also want to know what’s next? You’ve done Darwin. You’re doing this. Is there another one on the horizon now?
MR. RHODES: Sorry, your first question real quick was?
Q What impact might it have on maybe protecting --
MR. RHODES: Maritime disputes.
MR. RHODES: Well, look, I think as a general matter we believe that -- again, this isn’t an agreement designed at resolving maritime disputes with any particular maritime dispute as a focal point of why we did this. At the same time, the presence of the United States in the Asia Pacific has been a stabilizing force for a long time. We have made very clear that we believe that there should be a cooperative approach to addressing maritime disputes consistent with international law, that there should be an avoidance of an escalation of tensions.
At the same time, we’ve made clear we have an interest, a national interest, in for instance the free flow of commerce and open sea lanes. And having the United States present not just in this agreement but in the region more generally we believe provides a sense of stability that I think contributes to a security environment that avoids escalation and conflict.
And so I guess as a general matter the U.S. presence in the Asia Pacific and the U.S. rebalance and prioritization of our defense budget here in the Asia Pacific is meant to continue our historic commitment to be a stabilizing force in the Asia Pacific.
On China -- and Evan may want to come in here, too -- I’d say two things. One is we’ve also increased our military-to- military exchanges with China, in part to have greater transparency and in part to avoid any unnecessary and inadvertent escalation. And so that’s an important part of how we approach these issues, that we have that type of dialogue and exchange with China. The fact of these negotiations has been public and known in the region, so it’s certainly something that the Chinese have been aware of.
But I’ll turn it over to Evan -- what was your third question?
Q What’s next? Darwin, this, and now what?
MR. RHODES: Well, we’re modernizing each of our alliances. So you have Darwin, which allows us to cooperate with Australia. You have this agreement, which is going to deepen our cooperation in the Philippines, with Japan, the Republic of Korea. With Korea, we're discussing the potential delay of OPCON transfer, but also how we can better meet our security requirements. With Japan, they’re going through a process of looking at their approach to collective self-defense. But we’re also I think -- one thing that we’ve indicated on this trip is trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the United States on issues like missile defense, for instance, is another priority.
But the last thing I’ll say is ASEAN cooperation is very important to us. Secretary Hagel just had a visit out here where he met with all the ASEAN defense ministers. And our ability, again, to do joint exercises, to have ability to improve disaster response and humanitarian assistance, to have open dialogue between different militaries -- all of that I think is in service of the stability and growth of the region. That’s not to point to a specific agreement, but across our alliances we’re taking these steps. But also, we’re deepening our defense partnerships with ASEAN countries. And that was a subject of the conversation today with the Malaysian Prime Minister, and it’s an area where, again, we see a lot of common interests.
MR. MEDEIROS: On the last question about what’s next, the way we think about it is our alliance commitments, our security partnerships are tied to the security challenges and the threats our allies and partners face. And as those threats evolve, the nature of our alliances and security partnerships will evolve as well, whether it’s Japan or South Korea. As the North Korean nuclear and missile threat has evolved, then our alliances have evolved. And that’s some of the great work that we did this week in meeting with Prime Minister Abe and President Park of South Korea.
Similarly, in Malaysia today, I want to highlight the joint statement that was released today and the fact that Malaysia formally joined PSI. That’s significant. They’ve been a good partner, but the fact that they formally joined now means that the opportunities for us to cooperate in countering WMD, especially related to interdiction, have increased.
On the China question, Ben is absolutely right, we want a constructive relationship with China. We have made a serious effort at improving our military-to-military ties. And Secretary Hagel’s recent trip to China was a very significant success. And whenever we travel in the region, one of the points that we make very publicly as well as in the private meetings is that we want all the countries in the region to have a constructive relationship with China, and we welcome them working with the Chinese on shared security and economic challenges.
On your first question about the South China Sea, I would just underscore a point that Ben made that our position on this is very, very clear that we oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or aggression by any state -- any state -- to advance their maritime territorial claims. And to the extent that our work with our alliance partners and our security partners helps them become more capable and not being vulnerable to intimidation, coercion or aggression, we think that’s a good thing. And that’s one of the reasons why we seek to modernize our alliances and our security partnerships when we come here in the region.
And in that context, I’d highlight in this new joint statement that we released with Malaysia today there’s a very substantial and very robust joint statement by the U.S. government and the government of Malaysia about our position on the South China Sea. As you know, Malaysia is a claimant. And very significantly in the joint statement, for the first time, they actually came out in support of the principle of international arbitration, which has been a subject of some diplomatic wrangling in recent months as the Philippines has sought to pursue an arbitration case regarding its disputes with China.
Q What are the mechanics in terms of who is going to sign this and when?
MR. MEDEIROS: It’s going to be signed tomorrow morning between -- you want the specific person that’s going --
Q Well, might as well.
MR. MEDEIROS: So our Ambassador, Phil Goldberg, is going to be signing on the U.S. behalf and I believe the Philippine representative is their Minister of Defense.
Q So this will be before the President arrives?
MR. MEDEIROS: Correct.
Q Now, I’ve seen some reports from Manila today that describe this as a 10-year deal.
MR. MEDEIROS: That’s correct. It’s 10-year with a provision for renewing.
Q And, finally, do you foresee limits placed by the Philippines on the type of weaponry that the U.S. can bring there, the types of assets? For example, would they object to, say, nuclear-powered submarines coming there or nuclear weapons?
MR. MEDEIROS: I’m not going to speculate on anything like that. As I said, the scope, the duration and the location of our rotational presence in the Philippines is something that we’re going to be working out with them in the coming weeks and years as we try to determine how we want to train and exercise together.
MR. RHODES: So a nuclear weapon -- this is more about, again, the types of air and naval assets, other assets that can meet the missions that we describe. So I’d just put -- without getting -- we’re obviously not getting into specifics, but those are the missions that we’re focused on, which wouldn’t accept that.
Q In other words, you don’t see this as a heavy-duty, even rotational or temporary basing there?
MR. RHODES: Well, what it is -- again, it’s an agreement that allows us access to facilities. And the size and the scope of that rotational presence will be determined by the mission sets and the training that is done. So that’s why we don’t want to put a specific -- we can’t quantify it because it’s flexible to missions.
Q Could you explain what the U.S. defense agreement with the Philippines, the Mutual Defense Treaty, commits the U.S. to in the event of a clash, for example, between China and the Philippines over disputed atolls? Would it be fair to say that this doesn’t go as far as what the President was talking about related to the Senkakus under the U.S.-Japan agreements?
MR. RHODES: Well, obviously, this agreement is distinct from that. But the Mutual Defense Treaty again gives us a rock-solid commitment to the security of the Philippines. That is a core of our alliance.
With respect to some of the difficult territorial issues that are being worked through, again, it is hard to speculate on those, because they involve hypothetical situations in the South China Sea. What we have said, again, is that we oppose coercion and intimidation as a means of resolving or advancing those territorial interests. So, again, I think the U.S.-Japan agreement has a very specific coverage of territory under Japanese administration. I think some of the disputes in the South China Sea raise more hypothetical circumstances. But, again, in that vein the defense commitment is rock solid. Our approach to these territorial disputes is going to be to, again, oppose intimidation and coercion, and seek to resolve them through peaceful means consistent with international law.
Q Ben, this is more of a staging agreement? This agreement would not in the future allow the establishment of any kind of U.S. base in the Philippines? And you said it’s not about China. I mean, what is it about? What areas in this part of the world are you looking at from a security standpoint in the future?
MR. RHODES: Well, it’s about Filipino bases. So just as in Darwin, we didn’t build a U.S. base. This is about how do we cooperate on Filipino facilities and, again, what types of access would the United States have to those facilities to meet the missions we’ve been discussing. So we’re not building a new United States military base. We are working together on Filipino bases in a way that we were not able to do before this agreement.
With respect to China, again, we went through the mission set. I mean, obviously, we have an interest in -- to go through them again -- the ability to respond to natural disasters; the ability to provide humanitarian assistance; the ability to counter piracy, terrorism, transnational crime, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- all things that are very fundamental to American interests. And there have been challenges in this region with all of those elements.
It also provides for cooperation on maritime security, again, which allows for I think a more stabilizing environment in the region. So I guess the point is that there’s a security environment in the Asia Pacific region, and insofar that the United States is able to work with allies like the Philippines, that provides, again, I think an element of reassurance about our alliance commitment. But it also allows us to use these different relationships to work together with the nations of the Asia Pacific to meet whatever security challenges do emerge.
We say it’s not about China in the sense that this was not an agreement that was reached to have a purpose of --
Q Might they see it that way? I mean, they might see it that way, I suppose.
MR. RHODES: Well, I think what we’d say to the Chinese is, number one, the Philippines is a treaty ally to the United States. So the notion that we are going to have enhanced defense cooperation with them is completely consistent with a longstanding treaty commitment.
Number two, the outcome that we want to see to these maritime disputes, including in the South China Sea, is a situation where the United States is not a claimant, but those claims are resolved in a fair matter consistent with international law that China has an interest in stability in the region rather than an escalation of tension or conflict. And so, therefore, they should not see a threat from America cooperating with allies and partners, precisely because our intent is to provide for a stable environment and to support the peaceful resolution of differences, and international law views all nations equally, big or small. And, again, that’s the outcome we seek not as a claimant, but as an Asia Pacific nation.
And, again, we have a very regular dialogue with the Chinese on these issues. So there’s a degree of transparency and the ability to communicate at the political and military level that can also help I think foster that.
Q Has China weighed in at all? And, obviously, there are things that we disagree with China on that we cooperate on. Do they see this as at all a hindrance to cooperation or something that would increase weariness on their part of an expanded U.S. presence?
MR. MEDEIROS: I’m not aware of the Chinese having raised it with us. They certainly weren’t involved in any way, shape, or form in this negotiation. This was about the U.S. and the Philippines.
Q Can we do a different topic?
MR. RHODES: Anything else on this? Mark, yes.
Q Just a quick question. Subic Bay is obviously a very fraught issue in the Philippines historically. Can you guys say whether Subic Bay -- I know you’re not saying exactly where you’re going to do these agreements, but is that on the table as a potential place that American ships could go back to?
MR. MEDEIROS: There are a variety of facilities on the table. Subic Bay could be one of them.
MR. RHODES: We’ll take one more and then move to other topics.
Q Do you think there is going to -- this new agreement will have any impact on U.S. forces in Okinawa, Japan, where many Japanese -- American troops are stationed?
MR. MEDEIROS: Sorry, the simple answer is no. It’s not going to have any effect on the U.S. presence in Okinawa.
Q At the news conference today it sounded like the President was suggesting that in conversations there were some lessons learned from the Malaysian plane investigation. I was just wondering if you could put any more flesh on that. Was the President speaking broadly, or are there two or three things either about future plane investigations or searches? Just, was there more detail there?
MR. RHODES: I’d say a couple of things. I mean, first of all, they talked about the ongoing cooperation around MH370. But I think there was a discussion among the leaders about what lessons can be learned in a number of areas. One, of course, is that when you go through a very complex recovery effort like this, you learn about what types of cooperation are necessary between nations. So, again, when you have a situation like this where you have many nations participating, you have huge space that runs across many different territories, I think you learn about how to work together better to respond quickly in situations like this.
I think with respect to aviation security -- I’m not the expert on that -- but I think that people will take a hard look and see as we think through how we keep track of aircraft, what types of lessons can be learned in this respect as to the means by which we have the awareness around aircraft. So I don’t want to suggest that they got into the weeds on this, but I think it was identified as an area where potentially we could take a look back eventually -- I mean, right now the focus is on the recovery -- and draw from this experience to get better at both aviation security and a response or recovery mission in future cases.
Q And last one. Did the Prime Minister or any of his staff give the President any kind of briefing? Or since the President has been briefed, as you said before, was he already in the loop on this? Or was there any details or leads or anything that was talked about?
MR. RHODES: I don’t want to suggest a new lead. The President has been briefed on this regularly. He was aware of it. I think what the Malaysian government -- the Prime Minister and other officials made clear is that they’re going to keep at this. They said, look, this is -- we’re not going to hit the pause button on this. As long as it takes, we’re going to continue to pursue this recovery mission. But they didn’t get into very specific notions of exactly what happened, for instance.
Q Can you give us a sense if we know the sanctions, the new targeted sanctions could come as early as tomorrow? Can we say for certain they will go into effect tomorrow, and how that will be communicated, first of all?
MR. RHODES: I don’t want to give a specific time. We’ve been clear that it could be as early as tomorrow. And the Europeans are also having a meeting tomorrow. And so we’ll keep you updated as that story evolves.
Q Fair enough. Separately, it’s been reported that Vladimir Putin has effectively cut off his conversations with high-level officials in Washington. Is that a fair way to assess it? And when we heard from you a while back, the White House had said that they thought it was signs of progress that while President Obama had been initiating it in the past, now Vladimir Putin was initiating talks. And if he’s not initiating them now, what that indicates to you.
MR. RHODES: That report was wrong. We had no indications from the Russians that there is a suspension of those types of contacts. In fact, Secretary Kerry spoke to Prime Minister Lavrov earlier today, our time, so I'm not sure what that was in reference to. We hadn’t had that indication, and the Kerry-Lavrov communication I think is a signal that we continue to have high-level discussions. So we haven't had an indication that there’s any formal change in how they seek to engage us at a high level.
END 7:24 P.M. MST