News Briefings

DoD News Briefing

Sunday, July 16, 2000
Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

(Interview with "Sunday" program, Nine Television Network, Australia)

Presenter: American Defense Secretary William Cohen is in Australia this weekend for talks with our defense and foreign ministers.

Secretary Cohen has just flown in from China, where there's major disquiet about America's pursuit of Ronald Reagan's dream -- a Star Wars missile defense system. There are concerns the move could lead to a new arms race in our own region, prompting not just China, but India and Pakistan to build up their missile stocks. Also on the agenda: the new instability in the South Pacific.

Secretary Cohen joins us this morning from his Sydney hotel to talk with Sunday's political editor, Laurie Oakes. Good morning, Laurie.

Oakes: Good morning, Jim. Mr. Cohen, welcome to Australia and to the program.

Cohen: A pleasure to be here.

Oakes: Sir, one of the things the Australian government is hoping you'll brief them on is "Star Wars Two," the proposed national missile defense shield. How likely is that to go ahead now?

Cohen: Well, President Clinton has not yet made a decision as to whether we should actually deploy such a system, but I think the characterization in the lead-in to this discussion is in error. This is not Ronald Reagan's Star Wars. This is something far more limited in nature, and it's designed to provide a limited amount of protection against a limited type of attack coming from nations such as North Korea, Iran, potentially Iraq, and others.

And so, it is not the Star Wars that's been described or that Ronald Reagan had in mind back in the '80s. It's something far more limited in nature and something that I think is quite necessary, given today's spread of technology.

Oakes: Well, you mention Iran. They've just tested successfully the second time their Shahab-3 missile, capable of hitting countries in the Middle East. Israel says that will give them nuclear capability by 2005. Will that spur you on with this project?

Cohen: Well, this is exactly one of the things that is most troublesome. We have tried to point out that it's not -- this system is not aimed at Russia, is not aimed at China. It is aimed to protect the American people against a capability by nations such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea and others.

Again, we have to go through the four criteria that President Clinton has set forth. What is the nature of the threat? What is the level of maturation of our technology? What are the costs? And what are the implications for overall arms control? And that's something that I'm examining, Secretary of State Albright will examine, and we will make a recommendation to the President taking into account all four factors.

Oakes: Now, did the Chinese leaders that you've been speaking to accept that explanation, accept it as not a threat to China?

Cohen: No, they are in disagreement on this issue. We have taken the opportunity of my visit to try to point out the nature of the system and why it's important that they also share in the effort to cut down on the proliferation of technology. They too will find themselves in a situation where nations that might have hostile intents toward China could have this capability. So, there's an interest on their part in curbing the proliferation of missile technology, weapons of mass destruction, biological, chemical and indeed even nuclear.

Oakes: No, it's not just China and Russia that are against this and regard it as potentially destabilizing, starting an arms race. The Canadians, the Germans have also been critical. I guess you're relieved then that the Australian government is supporting you in this.

Cohen: We are very pleased that the Australian government has been supportive of the research development. They have made no decision on the deployment, but they understand the nature of the threat that our citizens will face in the future when countries such as Iran have a long-range missile capability, capable of threatening the United States and impeding our effort to provide for stability and peace throughout many parts of the world.

Oakes: It's true, isn't it, that if this goes ahead the joint facilities in Australia, particularly Pine Gap, would be involved in detecting missile launches?

Cohen: They could very much be involved in terms of providing the kind of radar capability that will be necessary for any effective NMD program. No decision, of course, has been made on that, but it could play a role.

Oakes: Now there is talk about an extended version of this system called TMD, theater missile defense, which, I understand, could put a protective shield not only around continental U.S. but also around particular regions. Would that be used to protect allies like Australia?

Cohen: Well, the theater missile defense system is more limited in nature and is designed to protect our forces that are forward deployed. We have talked on a level with various countries in terms of having their cooperation. Japan, for example, has provided some research and development contributions to a theater missile defense system.

But this is going to be certainly available to our allies and our friends who wish to share in this type of program, but that is somewhere down the line. It is not as immediate, in terms of the technology, as the national missile defense system is, but is something that we are exploring with a variety of countries and certainly Australia would be a country that we'd be very interested in cooperating with.

Oakes: So ultimately, this could be used to protect Australian forces too?

Cohen: Absolutely.

Oakes: The leaders you met in China, are you now quite confident that they accept there should be no attempt to use armed force to regain Taiwan?

Cohen: Well, what the Chinese leadership has said is that they reserve the right to use force, although they indicated they have no intent to use force against Taiwan. And my message was that it's very important that they pursue every diplomatic opportunity. New leadership in Taiwan, I believe there has been some flexibility demonstrated by the new President of Taiwan. They should seek ways to be creative in their own thinking to bring about a reconciliation on a peaceful basis because the use of military force would certainly have some pretty grave consequences.

Oakes: I raise that because of comments made last year by Richard Armitage. I guess, as the one Republican in the Democrat administration you'd know him. He advises George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, and used to advise his father, I think. Did you read his comments where he said that Australia has a role in preventing Beijing from using military force against Taiwan, and Australia must stand ready to give military support to Washington if the U.S. goes to war with China?

Cohen: Well, I didn't read his comments on that. I might point out that Mr. Armitage is only one of George W. Bush's advisers. There are quite a few others. But the fact is that Australia has always been supportive of the United States, certainly during the 20th century. In every conflict that we've been involved, Australia's been side-by-side with the United States.

This does not, of course, commit Australia to anything in the future but we have a very strong bilateral relationship with Australia. We treasure it. I have now visited Australia three times as secretary of Defense. I've visited China only twice, France once, Great Britain once, and so it shows you that we value very much the role that Australia plays in helping to maintain peace and stability throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Oakes: I am interested, though, in finding out how generally held these views are. Mr. Armitage said that Australia can't pick and choose. If tension in the Taiwan Strait led to war between the U.S. and China, Washington would expect Australia to contribute to, and I quote, "the dirty, hard and dangerous work".

Now, is that how you see it, and do you think it's how George W. Bush sees it?

Cohen: Well, I don't know that Mr. Armitage speaks for George W. Bush. These are his own views.

Oakes: Yes.

Cohen: We would look to Australia in any type of conflict that we have been involved for their partnership and share in the responsibility of providing peace and stability throughout the Asia-Pacific region. I would point out that they have been, again, engaged in every conflict that we have had.

They are now helping to provide intercept operations in the Persian Gulf. They have been most supportive in Fiji and the Solomon Islands disputes and unrest in those two areas. But more specifically, I want to praise Australia for the leadership role it has taken in dealing with East Timor. This was something very important to maintaining stability in the region and Australia deserves a great deal of credit for that.

Oakes: Well, how concerned is the U.S. about the instability, the apparently growing instability, in this region? Is it of strategic importance to the United States?

Cohen: Well, certainly, the southern part of the Pacific is of great strategic importance and that's why we look to Australia as the key anchor of our policy and our goals. But the instability, I think, has to be measured against what took place a year or two ago. We see more stability. We look at what has taken place in Korea as far as the summit that occurred. We look at East Timor, which is certainly in far better shape this year than it was last year.

And so there are still pockets of instability but that's precisely the reason why, I think, your prime minister and defense minister are now looking at ways in which they can strengthen their own military capability to be able to respond to crises, and to operate well with the United States to have interoperable equipment to share tactics and doctrine and strategies. This is something that's very important for maintaining stability in the entire region.

Oakes: You just said, I think, that Australia is seen by the U.S. as, sort of, anchor for its policy in the region. What do you think of the description of Australia perhaps being a kind of deputy to the U.S. when it comes to peacekeeping in the region?

Cohen: I don't think that's the case at all. I think that Australia has its own foreign policy. It tends to coincide with our own objectives of promoting stability so there can be prosperity. But Australia is by no means subordinate to the United States. We talk, we cooperate, we discuss, but Australia has its own sovereign policies. Hopefully, they will continue to be consistent with our objective of promoting peace and stability and prosperity throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Oakes: And do you think the role Australia played in East Timor provides any sort of a precedent for the way we should behave in the region? Should we fulfill this sort of role in other places?

Cohen: Well, I think that Australia must decide that for itself, but it will have to pick and choose and be selective where it is engaged, and to put its priority in those areas that pose the greatest threat to instability. It by no means should be a precedent, but it does show what kind of capability Australia should have and maintain, and to be able to deal with such crises as that presented by East Timor in the past year.

Oakes: Could I ask you specifically about Fiji, where a nation has capitulated to terrorists and hostage-takers. Is the U.S. going to react to that to try to help restore democracy?

Cohen: Well, we certainly are concerned about what has taken place in Fiji. We can look to Australia for leadership, in terms of what kind of action and reaction should be taken, and we will cooperate very much in coordinating the kind of response that will be important to restoring democracy to Fiji.

Oakes: Are you thinking in terms of sanctions and will you be discussing that with Mr. Moore tomorrow?

Cohen: Well, we will discuss what Australia thinks to be the best policy to pursue. I think that Australia, being closer, much closer to the situation, that we can perhaps work together. But we will look to Australia to give us some advice in terms of how this should be handled as well.

Oakes: And what about Indonesia? The tension between Australia and Indonesia doesn't seem to be abating, following our intervention in East Timor. Is that of concern to the U.S.?

Cohen: It may take some time but I think that this relationship can be repaired and should be repaired. The United States, of course, discontinued our military-to-military relationship with Indonesia, we are now starting to re-engage Indonesia on a step-by-step basis, looking for ways in which we can have a sharing of information, having the military attend conferences, trying to rebuild the relationship in the future. But this is something that's important -- Indonesia's very important -- and I believe over a period of time the relationship between Indonesia and Australia will improve.

Oakes: Now, one of the things that Mr. Moore wants to discuss with you, I gather, and I think you mentioned it, is the degree of access Australia is given to the latest U.S. defense technology. Will we be given favored treatment so that we can maintain our technological edge over other military forces in the region?

Cohen: One of the concerns the United States has had with many of our allies is that there is a growing technological gap. We want to close that gap and we have proposed changing our export laws as they pertain to the sharing of technology. We had Australia very much in mind in proposing this change in modification of our own laws -- Australia, Japan, our NATO allies -- but Australia is very high on the list and we believe that the signing of a declaration of principles while I am here, during this visit, will be important to helping to close that gap.

Oakes: Now, for us to close that gap, to invest in more modern equipment, will obviously involve more spending. I gather that both parties in Washington are concerned that Australia has allowed its military spending to decline.

Cohen: Well, the prime minister, of course, and the defense minister, have recently issued a paper which indicate that Australia itself believes that defense spending should increase.

Yes, there will have to be additional investment if Australia hopes to maintain a modern interoperable force with the United States and other allies. And so this is a requirement on all of our allies. We have become concerned about many of our NATO allies, who continue to talk about modernization of their forces and yet we see declining defense budgets.

It's going to be very hard to reconcile that and that's the reason why I've urged all of them to look at their forces, but to also look to increase their defense spending so that there will not be a growing gap between the United States' capability and that of our allies. So that if joint action is required, we will not have a mismatch in capability and with negative consequences.

Oakes: A couple of quick issues. Could I have your assessment of the terrorist threat to the Sydney Olympic Games?

Cohen: Well, it's hard for me to make such an assessment. I think any time you have a gathering, a world-class gathering of sports types of activities, that there's always an attraction there for groups, or individuals, who would seek to destroy the purpose of the Olympics themselves. I think you have to be on guard. I'm satisfied there will be extraordinary security precautions taken, much as there have been in other parts of the world where these are held.

Oakes: And are you confident that Australia's forces are up to the task?

Cohen: Oh, I think Australian forces will be more than up to the task.

Oakes: Now, have you had any word on progress in the Middle East talks in Washington?

Cohen: Oh, it continues to be a very vigorous discussion and dialogue at Camp David. I can't report any progress that has not already been reported on the national news.

Oakes: A final issue, you mentioned North Korea. Has the threat from North Korea subsided? Do you still class it as a rogue state?

Cohen: Go ahead, I'm sorry.

Oakes: And -- I was going to add, there've been talks between the U.S. and North Korea about the missile program. What progress there?

Cohen: Well, they have so far suspended the actual testing, flight-testing, of the missiles, but their testing at sub-levels still continues. We have to be concerned about that. We are very encouraged by the summit that occurred. But we cannot afford to drop our guard, or have the South Koreans drop their guard, until such time as we see how this is going to unfold in the future. It's a very good sign, but we have to see what the follow-through is going to be. In the meantime, we have to maintain vigilance.

Oakes: But do you see a light at the end of the tunnel? Do you see the day when American forces will be pulled out of Korea?

Cohen: Well, that, as President Kim of South Korea has indicated, even if there should be some kind of a unification, a federation, confederation, whatever the ultimate solution is going to be, that they would -- that President Kim would anticipate that American forces would remain there, at whatever level will be determined in the future. But he foresees a time when we will have a presence there for the indefinite future, so that we can help maintain stability throughout the Asia Pacific region.

Oakes: Mr. Cohen, we thank you.

Cohen: Thank you very much.

Oakes: Back to you, Jim.

Presenter: Thank you, Laurie. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen talking with Laurie Oakes.