Background Briefing with Senior Administration Officials
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Okay, we are en route from the APEC meetings in Hawaii to Manila for a bilateral visit by the Secretary of State, and then we will go on to Bangkok. We have here Senior State Department Official Number One.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. Thank you, [State Department Official Two]. And we’ll have a second official if there are some specific questions on the defense side. Okay, so let me just provide some context for both visits, if I can. Obviously, both the Philippines and Thailand are close military and security partners for decades. Our first stop is in Manila. We are celebrating the 60th anniversary of that relationship, and we have a series of events, plans that commemorate the close partnership our two countries have had over the course of the last several decades and what we want to do going forward.
The Secretary has visited the Philippines on several occasions in the past, both in her private capacity, as first lady, as senator, and now as Secretary of State. I believe this is her second visit as Secretary of State, and she is very much looking forward to meeting her counterparts and also the president of the Philippines, President Aquino, who was also in Hawaii. And they’ve had a number of meetings over the years. Her counterpart is Foreign Secretary Del Rosario, and she will also have a chance to meet the minister of defense and other senior officials in the Philippine Government.
We want to do several things while we are there. The Secretary, with the Philippine Government, will sign the so-called Manila statement, Manila declaration, which is essentially a visionary statement about where the United States and the Philippines have worked well together in the past and what we’d like to accomplish going forward.
She will visit the palace and have an audience with the president. They will have a chance to review the bilateral relationship and the issues that they want to focus on going forward. The Secretary will talk about the Partnership for Growth, of which the Philippines is a key country within. It’s a global program very much like the BRIC program of the past, which was an attempt to identify those countries that were near takeoff. We just sort of take that for granted now, but a decade ago, Brazil, Russia, India, and China were not – and South Africa were not thought in those terms. So the Partnership for Growth is to try to identify sort of the next phase of countries, and the Philippines is front and center in that regard.
We’ve brought to the table some new resources. Most of those are designed to do a couple of things, and they’re primarily about combating corruption and improving fiscal and other steps within the country to make business more transparent and more efficient.
In addition to the visit to the palace, we will go to Manila Harbor. We will go to the USS [Fitzgerald], which is a [cutter]. On the [cutter], we will sign some specific declarations about our security partnership. I will say that over the course of the last decade, the United States and the Philippines have worked very closely together, primarily in Mindanao, on a series of counterterrorism efforts to go against al-Qaida-affiliated groups. That has been successful, very substantial, largely out of the public view.
And we are now in the process, under [Senior Defense Department Official]’s leadership, of diversifying and changing the nature of our engagement. We will continue those efforts in the south, but we are focusing more on maritime capabilities and other aspects of expeditionary military power. We have provided the Philippines recently with a [cutter]. We will be announcing soon a second [cutter] that will be coming. We are working on a whole host of things that improve their own indigenous capabilities to be able to deal with maritime challenges. In addition, we’ll be looking for ways that the United States and the Philippines can cooperate going forward.
In many respects, this is sort of a celebration, the Secretary has very close relations with the – the Philippine community in the United States has (inaudible) an enormous amount for Philippine veterans groups and the like, and I think the Philippine Government are looking forward to her visit to celebrate her in many respects.
Let me – [Senior Defense Department Official], do you want to jump in on anything?
SENIOR DEFENSE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think on the security side of things, as [Senior State Department Official One] said, our military – our defense relationship goes back 60 years, so it’s a long time (inaudible) ups and downs. It’s very, very strong now. I think this is another upward cycle. The Philippines are looking at (inaudible) they have some what they feel are legitimate claims, the South China Sea, and they are being contested by other countries. So they’re concerned from a security point of view and are looking at us to identify ways to work together. We’re very sensitive to making sure that this does not in any way alarm or provoke anybody else (inaudible) on a solid footing. I think this meeting, these sets of meetings, will be very helpful in creating a strong foundation for the future.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: That was Senior Defense Department Official traveling with us.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. And then on Bangkok, obviously after meetings in Manila, we proceed to Bangkok. I think you will see something that is just almost impossible to fathom. I was there three weeks ago. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been to incredible places that are flooded, but virtually half the country is under water right now, the worst flooding by orders of magnitude in Thailand’s history. This is a young government elected not long ago. The prime minister, Prime Minister Yingluck, is the sister of the former president, President1* Thaksin, who was deposed in a military coup a little over seven2* years ago. She is a relative newcomer to politics. She and her government have struggled mightily against just incredible odds and enormous environmental challenges to deal with floods that are biblical in proportions. And she is – she has done an excellent job in seeking to balance huge interests both in the countryside and in urban areas, particularly in Bangkok.
The Secretary wanted to be able to go on this trip in particular because the prime minister was unable to come to Hawaii. And so really just at the last moment, the Secretary said, well look, if she can’t come, we’re going to go to her. So the Bangkok government is just thrilled that someone is coming to not only pay respects to (inaudible) the government for the first time, but the Secretary will be announcing a very substantial package of flood assistance and other cleanup efforts that will take place not just in the coming days and weeks but over a sustained period to try to address what will be very expensive rebuilding efforts, very challenging efforts from agriculture to building issues to disease. And the Secretary has worked closely with an interagency team so that we’ll be able to announce some specifics when we’re there tomorrow. We will – or day after tomorrow.
We will also do some things on site. We will visit some flood evacuation areas. She will be able to see firsthand some of the things that have taken place.
SENIOR DEFENSE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Maybe I could add to this. The significant point about the (inaudible) flooding, the Thai Government has really done a great job on its own. It’s just something – it’s (inaudible) done a fantastic job. They have reached out to us to support them in that. And as [Senor State Department Official One] mentioned, the Secretary will (inaudible) significant package (inaudible) Defense Department (inaudible) requirements are (inaudible) help for them. And then from that point on, we can then take measures to help them. I’ll let the Secretary make the announcement of what the specific measures are, but (inaudible) a very significant package. When Secretary Clinton was (inaudible) embarked on this trip, when it was learned that the prime minister of Thailand was unable to join the other heads of state at APEC. Secretary Panetta jumped in to support this as well, and so the DOD supports this whole-of-government, whole-of-U.S. Government effort to help the Thai Government to deal with the aftermath of this, doing the dirty work, digging out the (inaudible) and trying to get the country back up and running once the floodwaters recede.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It’s also the case – just last thing – is that in both capitals we will do substantial discussions about the upcoming East Asia Summit, our first appearance as – in the organization. We’ll talk about a range of issues, the three priority areas of the United States (inaudible) disaster relief, nonproliferation, and also issues associated with maritime security.
We’ll also talk about regional developments. And there’ll be substantial interest in how the United States is thinking about next steps with relation to Burma, and we’ll be prepared to talk about those things.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Just to underscore one point that our Defense Senior Official made, it’s another instance where Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta have teamed up to provide essential support together, as they did in Libya with the Wounded Warrior program, now again with floods in Thailand, again continuing the tradition that Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates had of working closely together on (inaudible) issues.
QUESTION: Can I follow up a little bit on Thailand? I know it’s a sensitive issue, but the relationship between the military and (inaudible) the government, in terms of the flood relief, I mean, do you get a sense that they’re on the same page and that things are working well? In terms of the U.S. message and what the U.S. is going to do, is there a – in terms of how to deal with the civilian government, is there a (inaudible) democracy at this point?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Look, I mean, one of the messages that the Secretary will bring directly to the Thai people and the government is that we believe it is in the national security and political interest of the United States to have this government succeed, and we will do what we can to support that going forward. There are substantial tensions in Thailand, and those tensions will not be resolved after one or even a few elections.
The new government, the fledgling government, has worked generally well with the military. The challenges that they face are unprecedented, so they defy in many respects the kind of capabilities that any country can bring to bear. But I think it would be fair to say that there has been a relatively high degree of national unity, although there are inevitable sniping between the various camps about either poor preparation or delaying the floods until after the election, these sorts of things. That’s to be expected. But overall, the Thai people are demonstrating some resolve behind a young but still new prime minister finding their way in a very difficult set of challenges.
QUESTION: Could I just to follow up briefly, the USS George Washington with the (inaudible) the USS George Washington when the – when the USS George Washington was there, was there any concern about whether the military and the civilian government are on the same page in terms of dealing (inaudible)?
SENIOR DEFENSE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I don’t think – I think the nation was pulling together to deal with this emergency. And our support was seen as just that, support to the Government of Thailand and help this humanitarian situation to deal with unprecedented flooding. It was – this ship was – there was an assessment team already going for other reasons and it was augmented to deal with this situation to provide an enhanced assessment capability and to also provide some assistance at the time.
But what we’re seeing now is a different phase, preparing for a different phase in the crisis. That was dealing with the initial problem of the flooding and the sort of human impact of that. Over 500 people were killed, I think as you know. Now we’re looking at the next phase, which is a long, arduous process of getting the country back on its feet, dealing with the damage. And as I said, our Defense Department is supporting whole-of-government, supporting the White House-led efforts in this area and supporting the Thai Government. We don’t see these tensions as being (inaudible).
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Some of the biggest challenges: a huge amount of sediment in all areas, on runways, on roads; problems associated with sanitation; huge numbers of animals that have escaped – dogs, cats, zoos, everything driven. Thailand has very rich natural resources in terms of animals. Many of them have vacated their natural habitat. Enormous challenges in that regard. Public distribution systems have broken down in many places. Thailand has a good train system; much of that is unusable. And I think as worrying as anything else is that Thailand is really in many respects the bread basket of Asia with respect to its rice, and many of the early assessments suggest that their rice harvest will be badly affected this year, perhaps in years to come.
So the challenge is there. This is our oldest ally in Asia. We are going to attempt to do everything we can to support them going forward in a very critical period. And I think the Secretary is very much looking forward to giving support, comfort; looking forward to meeting the prime minister and really indicating that we are behind her in this very difficult set of circumstances 100 percent.
QUESTION: Was it an issue or there was a risk that we couldn’t even really get in there during this period of time, I mean, in planning this trip?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think it would be fair to say that we had thought about this trip perhaps later. We’ve had close conversations with [Senior State Department Official Two] and other folks about this. One of the problems is that in a crisis like this, you do not want to be the outside group that causes in any way resources to be taken away from the urgent tasks at hand. It was our assessment, after close consultation with Thai authorities, that they very much wanted us to come, they wanted us to come now, they wanted us to roll out some of our capabilities, and they wanted us to provide sort of the moral, almost spiritual support that a person like Secretary Clinton brings to the table. She has traveled widely in Asia, and particularly in Southeast Asia, in recent years. She is very popular. Her last trip to Thailand was extraordinary in terms of the kind of public response she gets, not just from women and girls, but sort of across society.
I think it would be fair to say one of our biggest challenges, it is the issue is not that there are so much tensions inside the government, is that we have a very specific set of steps that we follow in terms of the kind of formal requests that we need from a government when we determine how we respond in a natural disaster crisis. It has been difficult, just because of the nature of the challenges in Thailand and (inaudible) communication problems to consolidate exactly what the government needs. One of the purposes of this trip is to make sure that we have excellent lines of communication to ensure that the right messages are finding their way to Washington.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: One more.
QUESTION: An alliance question. Many of the key Asia Pacific alliances the United States has are celebrating their 60th anniversary. One big different between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, now at least, is boots on the ground. We have a large presence in Japan and in Korea. But this new reworking of these alliances, is it a sort of a new formula where there’s not going to be a heavy American footprint and but it’s more sort of like pods where you can sort of link up and get in there if you need to?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Look, I think it would be fair to say that we are looking to establish more creative and innovative opportunities for engagement – [Senior Defense Department Official] can say more about this – joint facilities, training, other opportunities, to ensure that we’re closely engaged not just with our security partners but (inaudible) in the region.
What we have found, generally speaking, across Asia is a very strong desire among all of our interlocutors to increase the dialogue and discussion on a whole range of issues. And the Philippines and Thailand are two prominent cases (inaudible).
SENIOR DEFENSE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’ll make two points about that. One, as the Secretary of State indicated in her speech and her important policy article, as well as when Secretary Panetta was traveling in Asia just two weeks back, they both talked about the importance of forward presence. Secretary Panetta said that we will maintain the kind of military presence that we had in the past; in fact, we might even expand that in certain ways.
The three facets of this presence that we keep in mind and both secretaries have emphasized, number one is operational relevance. Forces aren’t there – forces are there for very specific operational reasons, and that’s what we’re considering first and foremost. Secondly is geographic distribution. If you look at the range of scenarios, from hardcore security threats to humanitarian/natural disaster assistance, that kind of response, these happen throughout the Asia Pacific region, so we’re looking for a more geographical balance in our forces going forward. And the third aspect of this is political (inaudible). You have to understand that all of these countries treasure, as they rightly should treasure their independence, their national sovereignty. We certainly support that. We don’t anticipate needing the kind of force presence we had during the Cold War of a containment strategy (inaudible) we need boots on the ground (inaudible). We’re looking at something that’s much more politically sensitive and also operationally relevant (inaudible).
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you.