Asia in Washington Annual Dinner

William B. Cohen Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense

Washington DC
10 May 2000

Thank you very much, distinguished ambassadors, Ambassador [of Japan to the United States] [Shunji] Yanai. Assistant Secretary [of State] Stan Roth, it's a pleasure to see you here. Let me just take this opportunity to also introduce the first lady of the Pentagon, my wife, Janet. [Applause.]

I must tell you it's a very unusual experience for me to be standing up here next to this sake drum. [Laughter.] I was thinking about the history involved in all of this, and I was thinking about something like oxtail soup -- it's almost going too far back to get a good thing. [Laughter.] But I must say to you that it was a pleasure for me, Mr. Ambassador, to be able to swing that mallet and to break upon the cask and to have that shared with all of the people here tonight. I agree with you, after one solid swig of sake, my speech is going down a lot easier. [Laughter.] Thank you very much. [Applause.]

The Ambassador leaned over and he looked at me and he said, "Shall we let the people enjoy themselves a little longer, or would you like to speak now?" [Laughter.] I said I'd like to speak now because if too much more sake goes around, then no one will be listening to what I have to say.

I'm also reminded of an evening where Robert Frost was one of the featured guests. It was an early dinner. As you know, he wrote beautifully about very wonderful natural settings of New England. Following dinner, he was walking out to see the sunset, and a woman came up to him and she said, "Oh, Mr. Frost, isn't that a lovely sunset?" He said, "My dear, I never discuss business after dinner." [Laughter.] So I will not discuss business after dinner. I will try and do a little bit this evening.

I will tell you that whenever I visit Asia, and I conduct at least two visits each year, sometimes more, I think of Mark Twain's story of the American who is traveling overseas. He wrote about this in his book called Innocents Abroad. He said, "Whenever we went to Asia we found that a good many foreigners had hardly ever heard of America and that a good many more knew it only as a barbarous province way off somewhere." Twain went on to write that, "Many a community in the Eastern Hemisphere will remember for years the incursion of this strange horde that call themselves Americans and seem to imagine in some unaccountable way that they have a right to be proud of it."

Let me tell you, Mr. Ambassador and distinguished guests, that I take my horde frequently to Asia, and we are proud to travel to Asia. We consider ourselves to be an Asia power and country because our links to Asia are just as firm as the ones we have across the Atlantic to Europe.

I recently completed a trip to Vietnam. It was a very historic visit. I had been once before, but this was my first time as Secretary of Defense, and the first Secretary to have visited Vietnam in a quarter of a century.

It was a very moving experience for me because I had the occasion to travel out to a rice paddy about 20 miles outside of Hanoi. There I saw the Vietnamese people, some 200-plus strong, working side by side with Americans, digging through the rice paddies in very cold mud up to their knees looking for any fragment that they could find that would indicate that this is where the remains could be found of a pilot who was shot down so many years ago. They were [seeking] the fate of Commander Richard Rich who was flying an F-4 aircraft. Shortly after my visit there, the remains of some six brave Americans were repatriated.

I mention this because this is very important to the United States that we constantly send the signal that we care very much about the men and women who we ask to serve us, and that we will not rest until those who are missing in action are accounted for. It's not only to bring comfort to the families who have lost their loved ones, but it also provides a basis for us establishing better relationships with Vietnam. And I must tell you that I was enormously impressed while I was in Vietnam, and I believe that in a very few years you will see a dynamic nation. That there is a willingness and an eagerness on the part of the Vietnamese people to reach out and embrace the 21st Century.

There is only one Vietnam, but there are still two economic areas, one in the North and one in the South. But I am convinced that within a short time that we will see both North and South Vietnam increase their economic prosperity.

In addition to going to Vietnam, I had a chance to go on to Korea. This year they will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of a battle that erupted on the 38th Parallel. We are going to pay tribute and are going to honor those who [showed us], in the message that's been etched on the Korean War Memorial, that "freedom is not free." Few people understand that more than the South Koreans.

We are working very closely with President Kim, and we support his effort to build a relationship with the North. We are very supportive of what was once called the "sunshine" policy; the effort to bring about a reconciliation.

We thank Japan for the assistance they have provided. It's been very important to have this trilateral arrangement whereby we can state the same goal and purpose and have the same policies in dealing with the North, to follow what my predecessor in office, Bill Perry, has tried to articulate -- a policy of two paths. I mentioned Robert Frost in the beginning, I will not mention him here, but there are two paths that the North Koreans can follow. Bill Perry has offered for [their] consideration the opportunity of working with the South, of working with Japan, of working with the United States, of building a relationship to allow the North Korean people to integrate into the international community.

We will build upon the Agreed Framework which froze in place their nuclear development. We will continue to press for cessation of testing of missiles. And we will again remind them that the path of confrontation is one that would not be advantageous for them to pursue.

Throughout my travels, I obviously went on to stop and visit friends in Japan, which I will mention in a moment. But let me just say before I continue that there's an individual here in the audience tonight that I should pay special tribute to, and that's Senator [Jay] Rockefeller. I don't know of another Senator who has taken the keen interest that he has in the Asia Pacific region, and it was my privilege to have served with him for so many years in the United States Senate. And I know that shortly after we conclude this meeting and others he'll be traveling once again to China to impress upon the Chinese the need for the Chinese government, and indeed the Taiwanese government, to lower the rhetoric, to step back from an abyss and to find ways to seek a reconciliation in a peaceful fashion. [Applause.] We have, of course, pointed that out to ambassadors from all over the Asia Pacific region.

I was pleased recently to host a dinner for Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. I am pleased to see the progress being made in Singapore on the new pier that will accommodate American aircraft carriers, which sends a signal to all in the region that the United States continues, and will continue, to play a very important stabilizing role throughout the Asia Pacific region.

The Thai Ambassador, who is here as well, will know that there is a major exercise called Cobra Gold underway with some 20,000 U.S. and Thai soldiers. It is one of the largest that we have anywhere in the world. So let me say how much we appreciate the relationship we have with Thailand.

We have been very supportive of Indonesia’s transition to democracy. [Ambassador Dorodjatun Jakti], we are hopeful that your president will be successful in bringing calm and peace and prosperity to the Indonesian people, and we intend to continue to work with you to help bring that about.

We have the new Ambassador from Australia, and let me say that I look forward once again to traveling to Australia, hopefully either before or after the Olympics, because they won't have a room available in Sidney. [Laughter.] But let me say that you are an anchor in the south for us, and our relationship with Australia could not be better. We always say we will make it better, but it is as strong as it possibly could be.

I also want to thank you for the leadership that Australia showed in East Timor. That was a very, very difficult situation for all of us to deal with, and the Australians were up front and in the very first effort to help provide comfort and peace for those people who were being terrorized. And I want to thank also the Thais who were supportive of the Australians in that major effort. So we thank you as well. [Applause.]

We have the Ambassador from the Philippines, and I will say what a difference a decade makes. Most recently, we signed, and the Philippine Senate ratified, the Visiting Forces Agreement. Once again, I think that the relationship that we are building will be beneficial to all throughout the Philippines and throughout the region.

I want to take this opportunity to thank President Clinton for his reaching out to India in addition to traveling to Pakistan, two countries who are going through, and have been going through, a very difficult period of time. But for President Clinton to have traveled there under very tense conditions and then on to Pakistan, I think, is a signal that we want a better relationship with both countries. We look to India as the most populous democracy in the world. And while we continue to have some differences of opinion, particularly in the field of nuclear weaponry, we are determined to build a better working relationship with India, and indeed we hope the same can be said and will be said for Pakistan as well. [Applause.]

I'd like to touch just briefly upon our relationship with Japan, since you are the host. I'll see [Ambassador Yanai] again tomorrow evening at the Pentagon. But I would like to say to all of the Japanese people who may be watching this evening, that our relationship with Japan is the most critical bilateral relationship that we have in all of Asia. It has been the case in the past, it remains the case today, it will be the case in the future.

Whatever relationship we develop with China, it will not come at the expense of Japan. We look to Japan because of your strong economy. We look to Japan to reject that minority of voices who call for Japan to become more inward, to do less in the global economy, to reduce its presence. We look to Japan to take a leadership role, and that is the reason why we've been so successful in negotiating the revised guidelines in our military-to-military relationship so that we can in fact work together on humanitarian type missions and peacekeeping missions and deal with contingencies that affect Japan's security, and to protect Japan itself. That is the reason why we are cooperating today on the theater missile defense program, because of our concern and our commitment to Japan and its security. So Mr. Ambassador, you should rest assured that we will continue to look to Japan as our security anchor in the Asia Pacific region.

Tonight, I'd like to say just a couple of final words about China. There is a measure pending on which Senator Rockefeller could stand up here and perhaps articulate it in a more forceful way. And I want to thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for giving me this opportunity to speak over the head of Senator Rockefeller. It's not often I have that occasion. [Laughter.]

But I want to say that we are in the process of examining whether or not we should extend Permanent Normal Trading Relations with China. This is a matter that was discussed most recently at the White House just yesterday. I see [former U.S. Ambassador to Japan] Mike Armacost somewhere in the audience and I believe you had the opportunity to attend what truly was a magnificent day at the White House, an historic day -- President Ford, President Carter, Secretary [of State Henry] Kissinger, Secretary [of State James] Baker, Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright, the Vice President and the President of the United States all standing on one platform speaking to the audience that was filled with prior Cabinet members, ambassadors, distinguished diplomats, and academics.

It was a remarkable presentation on their part, giving us a whole spread of history from Gerald Ford, who said, "Back in 1949, I was a member of the United States Congress and I voted to establish trading relations with China." He said, "You know who else was in the Congress? John F. Kennedy, who voted for it. And Richard Nixon voted for it. Carl Albert, who became Speaker, voted for it." Then, of course, the Vice President quickly called out to President Ford, "Al Gore, Sr. voted for it." [Laughter.]

But seeing that spread of history on that stage was a remarkable experience I think, and the message they all communicated, every single one, was essentially the same thing. This really should not be a hard call. Economically, the case does not need to be made. I will leave that to [former U.S. Trade Representative] Charlene Barshefsky. I will not talk about the economic issue because that's sort of like, as Groucho Marx once said, when a lawyer came in and saw flies on the wall and asked what was going on in the walls. Marx said, "We have an agreement here. The flies don't practice law, and I don't climb walls." [Laughter.] I would say the same thing is true for me. I will not speak about economics, but I would like to make a powerful case for [PNTR].

Let me just say a few words about the strategic implications of this. I am absolutely convinced after all of my travels to China that a rejection of the permanent trading status for China would have serious strategic implications for the United States. When we have a positive constructive engagement with China, that sends a very powerful message to all of the Asia Pacific countries. They can take some comfort that we are constructively engaged with a country that will continue to grow, that will continue to prosper, that will continue to occupy a very powerful position on the world stage. Indeed, how we treat China, how we relate to them, will be critically important in terms of the path they will take in the future.

It was Jim Baker who said yesterday that if you go looking for an enemy, you'll find one. What we have to do is be sure that we convey just the opposite message. We're not looking for enemies, we're looking for friends. There are bound to be areas of disagreement. We have areas of disagreement with our closest friends. But it's incumbent upon us as a world power to make sure that we are always prepared to constructively engage China and other countries with diplomacy backed up certainly by a strong military which I support. But we put diplomacy first. We have this hall that's filed with so many great diplomats and people who are concerned about the future relationship of the United States and China.

So as China grows more important, it will grow more open. I will tell you that I think it's sheer folly for anyone to suggest that we can somehow contain China. It's folly and it's futile. And the notion that somehow China is going to be immune from change is also folly.

I first went there in 1978, and I can tell you the China that I saw in 1978 is not the China that's there today. When I went there in '78 there were very few private cars. There were buses and there were military trucks, but no private cars. Instead, lots of bicycles. Everyone wore a Mao suit. Women were not allowed to wear cosmetics and makeup. Men and women couldn't hold hands in public.

Go there today. Today you will find a thriving metropolis. You will find the city of Beijing is as congested with automobiles as downtown Manhattan. You will find a country that has been dramatically changed. It's not where we would like to see it in terms of its human rights yet. It is not yet there in terms of their trading practices. But we have the opportunity to work and engage China in a way that will be beneficial to all concerned.

So I thought it would be important for me to stress this to any of my former colleagues who might tune in to C-Span or any other network that is covering this particular presentation to say how important, I think, [PNTR] is for the future of the United States for our relationship with all of the countries throughout the Asia Pacific. When we have a good relationship with China, the position [of those other countries] is strengthened. When we have a bad relationship with China, it does cast out in terms of what the role of their country is going to be in the future.

So I will implore my former colleagues to support this. It's important from an economic point of view, but even more critical, it's important from a strategic point of view. [Applause.]

So I would like to end this presentation by pointing out that it was on this day about 150 years ago at the dawn of the last economic evolution that the final spike was struck in America's transcontinental railroad. A nation that was once composed of two halves, east and west, was joined as one. And through that link of commerce flowed a vast rush of civilization.

That's what we seek today. We seek this fusion of East and West, bringing together the industry, the imagination of the world [on behalf] of humanity with nations that touch both the Pacific and Indian Oceans. And as we move toward this brighter future, as we seek to span this wide ocean that lies between us, I'd like to be mindful of the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who said that, "The great thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we're moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail and not drift nor lie at anchor."

Let me thank all that are here tonight for not lying at anchor, but being willing to sail with the wind, and sometimes against it, to help produce a greater peace, stability and prosperity for all of our nations. Thank you. [Applause.]