AUSMIN press conference
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good afternoon. I'm delighted to welcome Secretary Carter and our friends from Australia, Foreign Minister Bishop and Defense Minister Payne. Julie and Marise, I'm really happy to have you here in Boston. We've been delighted to be able to give you a slight taste of this great city, which I have the privilege of calling home.
And I think it's been a very constructive and solid exchange of data on things that we tend to agree on, but where we've been really able to set out an agenda. And I want to thank the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and so many folks from the Pentagon from coming up here to share their views and to be part of this discussion, and likewise from Australia.
Before I begin, I just want to say a quick word, if I may, about the situation in Israel and the West Bank. The United States condemns, in the strongest terms possible, the terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. And they have resulted in the murder now of three Israelis and left numerous others wounded, and this is on top of violence that has gone back and forth over a number of weeks now.
Naturally, we mourn the loss of any life, no matter who it is. But this violence and any incitement to violence has got to stop. The situation is simply too volatile, too dangerous. And it is not going to lead to the outcome that people want, which is to have a peaceful resolution of the differences. We continue to stress the importance of all persons of responsibility to condemn the violence on either side and to avoid provocative statements that can inflame the tensions even further.
I conveyed – this past weekend, I conveyed these thoughts and shared an exchange of views with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and with President Abbas and with other regional leaders as well. And I expressed the deep concerns of President Obama and all those of us in the United States about escalating tensions. And I continue to urge all sides to take affirmative steps to restore calm. And I will continue to stay in very close touch with leaders in the region in the days ahead.
Now, obviously, it is no secret that there is a lot going on in the world today and a lot that involves the great friendship, the great alliance of the United States and Australia. Good friends are vital all the time. But they are especially welcome in turbulent, challenging times. And that is why the United States partnership with Australia is so important.
This is the third Australian ministerial that I've had the pleasure of participating in with Foreign Minister Bishop, and I think she would agree that our countries do get along pretty darn well. In fact, this year marks the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our nations. And today, as always, we had a lot to discuss.
For example, our nations are among the largest contributors to the counter-ISIL coalition. And we are determined to move forward with each of the lines of effort to which we are committed in order to shrink Daesh's territory, cut its funding, curb its recruiting, and expose its lies. Overall, Daesh is less capable now than it was a year ago. But we have known from the outset this campaign is going to require persistence, patience, and a firm will to prevail. I think we possess all of that, and no one should doubt that our coalition is committed and determined to win this victory.
But the fight against Daesh is only part of the dilemma that has been created by the Syrian civil war. The terrible suffering that is caused by that conflict will ultimately require a political solution. The Iranians understand that, Russia understands that, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia understands that, the Turks and Jordanians and the Egyptians – every country engaged in this effort understands there is no military solution. There is only a political solution. The military component can help you get to that solution, but Syria is literally being destroyed in the process.
So it is time for great powers, great nations to come together and find a way forward for that political solution. That was the goal that we set three years ago in the Geneva communique and it remains our goal today.
Now, certainly in our discussions here in Boston, we discuss the urgency of finding a way to stop the killing and lay the groundwork for a transition to a government that the Syrian people themselves can support. In the end, the Syrian people have to resolve this. What we need to do is help give them the construct, the framework within which they can do that.
As we have said many times, we understand that continued military support by the regime – for the regime by Russia, or by any other country for that matter, only complicates the possibility of a successful transition. Because the more that Assad believes that he will have support that is unconditional, the more he will resist the notion that he has to negotiate; and the more terrorists will be attracted to the fight; and the more innocent people will be killed; and the more damage will be done to the state of Syria.
I've been very clear in my conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov that our ability to develop a credible international political process would be a farce if it were perceived as a way to simply extend or strengthen Assad's hold on power. So we have to do more to aid the victims of violence, and the United States has provided some $4.5 billion to date in humanitarian assistance to those affected by the war in Syria and more than 478 million for displaced Iraqis.
We're also increasing the number of refugees that we can resettle from Syria – in fact, from around the world. We have the largest recipient of refugees for permanent relocation anywhere in the world. And that is a proud American tradition. But we know that more funds are going to be necessary to ease the suffering and protect the safety of so many people and we urge nations that can help to do so.
On the other topics of our joint statement today, we reaffirm our commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in Iran – with Iran, to implanting our force posture agreement and to promoting stability on the Korean Peninsula. And let me be clear – the United States remains committed to the verifiable and peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And we are absolutely committed as well to the defense of our allies, the Republic of Korea, and Japan.
We also held in-depth talks on the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the East and South China Seas. Freedom of navigation and overflight are among the most essential pillars of international maritime law. And that is why we urge the claimants in that region – we are not a claimant, but we urge the claimants to halt any further reclamation, construction, and militarization of features. It doesn't matter how big a country is; the principle is clear: The rights of all nations are supposed to be respected with respect to maritime law.
And together the United States and Australia are also taking steps to grow our economies in a way that is inclusive and sustainable. The new trade agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which we are both partners in – will bring greater growth, wider prosperity, and higher labor and environmental standards to all the nations that participate.
And finally, we also discussed sustainable management of our ocean and fisheries. And we agreed to continue efforts to address illegal fishing and to work toward a truly ambitious and meaningful climate change pact in Paris later this year. And I'm delighted that Foreign Minister Bishop accepted our invitation to take part in Our Ocean Conference next year in Washington.
In closing, I want to thank the members of both the U.S. and Australian delegations for their very hard work, for a constructive and candid exchange. President Obama and our entire Administration are strongly committed to this relationship. And our talks today have given us a platform for further progress and for what I am absolutely convinced will be a very productive next few months and on into 2016, when we will conduct our fourth Australian-U.S. ministerial meeting.
Please to yield the floor now to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
SECRETARY CARTER: Thank you so much, John. And welcome, everyone. To Minister Bishop, Minister Payne, and to your entire teams, thank you. Thank you for joining us here in Boston to carry on this essential tradition – gathering each year to safeguard the health and the spirit of our strong alliance.
I want to welcome my new counterpart, Defense Minister Marise Payne. Madam Minister, it was my honor to host you yesterday for a wide-ranging and detailed and frank conversation befitting two longstanding allies. I appreciate that. I appreciate you coming so early in your tenure and making it a priority to come so far for such conversations. And I look forward to continuing our important work together.
Our alliance remains strong; it's reach is global. And our nations remain a cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Asia Pacific and in the world. And in that spirit, earlier today Minister Payne and I signed a bilateral statement on defense cooperation in the 21st century. Our joint statement is aimed at prioritizing strategic areas for our partnership in the era ahead, including increased intelligence sharing, improving multilateral and defense industry engagement, and fine-tuning interoperability between our forces.
We're also building on ongoing cooperation, such as our force posture agreement, which remains an enduring framework for the initiatives our governments embarked on in 2011. Since 2013, our Marine Rotational Force near Darwin has expanded more than fivefold to 1,150 Marines, making the U.S. military presence more geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable in that region.
Australia and America both want to sustain and renew an Asia-Pacific regional security architecture where everyone rises and everyone prospers. That's the essence of the U.S. rebalance toward the region. At the same time, we share an interest in upholding basic international norms such as freedom of navigation, as the Secretary of State has said, and the free flow of commerce. Together our nations favor peaceful resolutions to disputes and oppose coercion and infringement on well-established international norms, especially in the face of rising tensions in the East and South China Sea.
Now, make no mistake: The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception. This is simply not – not simply a U.S. commitment. Our two nations are joined by an increasing number of countries in the neighborhood, including Japan, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam, all with an interest in prospering while serving regional – excuse me – solving regional issues. And the United States stands ready to continue our role as a pivotal security partner in this region as we have done for over 70 years. To that end, our strong defense partnership with Australia will continue to anchor regional stability and strengthen our capacity in a variety of other areas, including disaster relief and response to humanitarian crises.
Beyond the Asia Pacific, our two nations face the full spectrum of complex threats, from illegal trafficking and cyber security to, of course, the terrible threat posed by ISIL and violent extremism. In Afghanistan, Australia has been with us from day one in both combat and in support for Afghan forces. I assured Minister Payne that the United States is absolutely committed to seeing the mission through beyond 2016, and we discussed that again – all four of us – today. I want to thank Australia also for continuing to expand its critical role in Iraq and Syria to deliver ISIL a lasting defeat, as Australian pilots have recently begun flying with us in Syria.
Our counter-ISIL fight will proceed unchanged as we continue to urge Russia to change its failing strategy. In the meantime, Russia must act professionally in the skies over Syria and abide by basic safety procedures. We'll have another conversation with the Russians tomorrow on this subject. Those discussions are progressing. Nothing has been finalized. Even as we continue to disagree on Syria policy, we should be able to at least agree on making sure our airmen are as safe as possible.
Over time, our nations have seen security challenges shift and evolve, but the foundation of our countries' relationship has never wavered – a foundation built on our values of freedom, democracy, and a rules-based order. Today, by deepening our alliance, we renew those values and stand resolved to defend them together. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Minister Bishop, thank you.
FOREIGN MINISTER BISHOP: Secretary Kerry, Secretary Carter, we come together at a time of increased global volatility, and it's worth remembering that for over 100 years the United States and Australia have stood together to defend our common interests, our common values. Indeed, we've been prepared to not only defend them but to fight for them – the rule of law, freedoms, democratic institutions. It is 75 years since we commenced formal diplomatic relations by the exchange of ambassadors, and I'm delighted that Ambassador Beazley and Ambassador Berry could be part of our respective delegations to carry on that strong diplomatic tie that we have.
This is the 30th Australian-U.S. ministerial dialogue, and it's the third that Secretary Kerry and I have attended, the first for Minister Payne and Secretary Carter, and I hope that they will continue to enjoy the friendship and the deep connection that Secretary Kerry and I have been able to form not only through the AUSMIN process but at regional and multilateral forums.
John, I want to thank you for the extraordinarily warm welcome that you gave to the Australian delegation in your hometown of Boston. Your personal attention to the detail of this visit did not go unnoticed, and I was particularly keen to come back to Boston, having studied at the Harvard Business School for a few months in 1996. I fell in love with this elegant city at that time with its history of intellectual thought, of fierce and robust debate, and I hope we had some of that during the course of our dialogue today.
This is an annual opportunity for Australia and the United States to reaffirm our commitment to the bilateral relationship. There are few countries as close as Australia and the United States across the broad and diverse range of diplomatic and defense and economic, trade, investment, cultural, and social ties. And it's also an opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to the alliance our defense and security cooperation.
During the course of the day and last evening we shared views on regional and global challenges in the pursuit of peace and prosperity, security, and stability – not only in our region but across the globe. During the course of our discussions, which were broad ranging, we covered a multiple of issues, some of which John and Ash have mentioned just now. We spoke in depth about the conflict in Syria and Iraq, in Afghanistan. We spoke about the rise of violent extremism and terrorist activity around the world and what we can do as two countries working together, but also in coalition with so many other countries who are committed to a more peaceful world.
We discussed tensions in our region due to territorial claims, and we are on the same page with the United States when it comes to the claims in the South China Sea. We do not take sides on the various territorial claims, but we urge all parties to not act unilaterally, to not act in a way that would escalate tensions, and that there be primacy given to the principles of freedom of navigations and freedom of overflight. And we'll continue to work together to press those principles on all claimants in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the leadership role that the United States has taken in the fight against Daesh, against ISIL, the incredible commitment and contribution you have made to the resulting humanitarian crisis that has unfolded in Syria as a result of the conflict there in the presence of this violent and brutal terrorist organization.
Australia likewise has made its single largest humanitarian commitment to the crisis in Syria with about $230 million committed to both Syria and Iraq to date. And we likewise have provided a significant contribution to ensuring that those who are displaced, who are in some of the settlements and communities in countries bordering Syria are receiving basic necessities like food and water and shelter with the oncoming winter. We believe that our latest contribution will assist about 240,000 people seeking those basic necessities. And we have an annual intake of 13,750 people on refugee and humanitarian visas. We have increased that by a further 12,000 places for permanent resettlement in Australia for people affected so egregiously by the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq. Together we can work to find not only a military outcome, but as Secretary Kerry said, a political solution to the deep conflict that has emerged in both Syria and Iraq, but particularly a political solution in Syria.
And as I've indicated previously and said again to my friends from the United States, we believe that all transition options should be on the table. The presence of Russia has complicated the matter, but that should not stop us from considering how this conflict can be resolved in a political sense.
I want to congratulate Secretary Kerry for his work on the P5+1 Iranian deal. It was an example of diplomacy triumphing. At this point, of course, all is subject to Iran upholding its side of the bargain. And while the verification steps take place, Australia will continue to maintain sanctions against Iran, but we hope that the incredible effort that you put into this P5+1 negotiation does pay off in terms of our efforts at denuclearization.
We have the shared goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, and we discussed at length our relationship with a number of pertinent and relevant countries in our region. In that regard, Australia has welcomed since 2011 the rebalance of the United States in terms of its defense and security cooperation in our region. As I've often said, the nations to whom I speak in our region wish to see more leadership from the United States, not less leadership from the United States in the Asia Pacific.
And we congratulate the United States on its role in concluding the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This agreement is surely the economic manifestation of the rebalance, and Australia was proud to be a part of this process. We believe that this is a major economic breakthrough for the United States and Australia and the 10 other countries that made up the TPP. We would welcome other countries joining it, for we see this as an unprecedented opportunity to liberalize trade in the interests of job opportunities and economic growth for those countries who are part of the TPP.
In the days before I came here to Boston and met with my three colleagues, I spent some time in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area in San Francisco. And I found once more what an extraordinary part of the world Silicon Valley and the west coast of the United States is in terms of its commitment to innovation and its ability to transform ideas, commercialize them into reality for the benefit of humankind. And I was inspired by what I saw, what I heard there.
And Australia, under Prime Minister Turnbull, has embraced an innovation agenda to drive economic growth in our country. And so it was exciting, energizing to spend some time there but also see how the west coast is able to feed into the important issues here considered on the east coast of the United States.
This dialogue is important because, again, it's an opportunity for us to commit anew to our shared values. We are two free, open, liberal democracies. We are open market economies and we are committed, absolutely committed to a rules-based international order. To that extent, I want to thank the United States for their support in assisting Australia and the other countries who lost citizens aboard the ill-fated Malaysian Airline MH17.
I raised that today, some months after the crash that occurred on the 17th of July 2014, because today, overnight, the Dutch Safety Board report into the cause of the downing of MH17, where 38 Australian citizens and residents lost their lives, has been made public. And that report, while it does not nor did it have the responsibility to, it does not apportion blame, it most certainly rules out any other cause of the downing of this plane, and we now know that it was brought down by a surface-to-air Buk missile as the Australian Government and indeed the United States knew back in July of 2014. So we thank you for your support, and that will be an ongoing challenge for us as we seek to bring the perpetrators of that atrocious act to account.
I also join with Secretary Kerry in condemning the violence that we have seen of late in Israel against innocent citizens, and we do call for all sides to this conflict to engage in peaceful activities to restore calm. And Australia is committed to a two-state solution where the Israeli people and the people of the Palestinian territories can live side by side behind internationally recognized and defined borders.
These are just some of the – a few of the – some of the matters we discussed during our most useful and productive dialogue, and I certainly look forward to AUSMIN 2016 as we commit again to what is an extraordinary partnership between two likeminded countries.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Minister Payne, Marise.
DEFENSE MINISTER PAYNE: Thank you very much, Secretary Kerry, Secretary Carter. Minister Bishop, ladies and gentlemen, Secretary Kerry, I should begin by thanking you very much for your great hospitality here in Boston, and as you said to us today, sharing a bit of Boston with us. It has been a particularly enjoyable location for my first AUSMIN. Secretary Carter and I sharing that baptism in the past two days, and we are very grateful for the effort that you have put in in hosting us here.
May I also acknowledge both the Australian and U.S. delegations who have done so much work to bring this process together. We know well that it doesn't just happen overnight and that it takes a great deal of consultation and effort amongst departments, amongst diplomatic colleagues, and across the board to ensure that these are well-prepared and constructive talks. And I want to acknowledge that.
I particularly want to acknowledge our ambassadors who are here with us in body and spirit to particularly also note that we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries in terms of a presence in each other's countries. And I particularly want to acknowledge one of my predecessors as defense minister of Australia, my friend Kim Beazley. Kim is a robust and challenging political adversary, but there is no stronger advocate and representative of our nation anywhere, and Kim, I want to thank you publicly for your efforts and your work and the many decades that you have put into public service in Australia. It is an extraordinarily valuable contribution.
Secretary Carter was kind enough yesterday to note that in meeting here in 2015 we meet in the year of the centenary of the Anzac campaign. He was also kind enough to ensure that I take home with me after these talks a flag of the United States that flew over the Pentagon on the 25th of April 2015, this year, the day of that centenary. I acknowledged on a professional note the importance of that to Australia as a nation and of that recognition and that acknowledgement, and I want to thank you again, Ash, for your generosity in that very thoughtful presentation.
In a personal way, though, I think that will convey to so many Australians the depth of the relationship, the respect of the history of the relationship between our nations. For us, even the utterance of the word "Anzac" is more often than not enough to bring a lump to the throat. To know that I am able to convey that extremely generous acknowledgement of that centenary home with me means a great deal.
I also want to acknowledge Secretary Carter's very strong, long-term, deeply held focus on our region. I know that his experience and his knowledge that he's brought to the table in these discussions is considerable, and that makes a very important aspect and focus of our discussions, and I value that enormously in the last two days.
In our bilateral yesterday, where – you spent your Columbus Day with me and I'm very grateful for that, Ash – in our bilateral yesterday, we had the opportunity for some very in-depth discussions about some of the challenges that we face internationally, and more specifically in our region. And I think that will certainly stand me in very good stead as Australia's new defense minister by being here for these talks now at this stage in that process.
We discussed a number of ways in which we can further enhance our bilateral relationship. We strongly reiterated our shared commitment to the full implementation of the U.S. force posture initiatives in Australia. As Secretary Carter said, we have signed a joint statement underpinning that defense cooperation between our two countries. As part of that, we have a very strong agreement to pursue enhanced, enabled cooperation, which we'll include through additional combined training and exercises between our two navies.
We discussed further developing our interoperability through those new shared capabilities. The acquisition program, which Australia has in front of it at the moment, can only see that grow further. So those – this opportunity to speak one on one with the Secretary in relation to some very specific aspects of the programs and very specific projects that we have and will have underway has been extremely important.
We've looked at ways to maintain and enhance our cooperation in areas such as intelligence sharing, including in the very important 21st century domains of space and cyber. We talked about the pace at which these things change and move, and the need to ensure that we are at the leading edge of capability together in that regard. And as Minister Bishop referred to, we are in very close proximity with our prime minister on that particular issue of innovation, of creativity, of agility, and flexibility. He has also appointed, of course, the minister for industry and innovation, and I expect to be working very closely with regard to matters in defense science particularly and defense industry with that minister.
Importantly, we have also looked in some great detail at ways in which we can enhance our work together to strengthen our relationships in and across the region. That U.S. rebalance to the region continues and will continue to present enormous opportunities for both Australia and the United States to work together and with our key regional partners in support of sustaining a strong U.S. presence in the Asia Pacific. We are very supportive of that rebalance and we welcome that engagement very strongly.
The Secretary and I also discussed our shared interests in addressing the complex global security challenges that we both currently face as nations on the international stage. We of course know that there are continuing concerns about, at the very least, instability and unrest across the Middle East, including in Syria and Iraq. We strongly reiterated our support for the development of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, noting the enormous strides which they have made in recent times. Notwithstanding that, there is, of course, more to do, but we begin – certainly from Secretary Carter and my engagement, we begin in a very good place in regard to that.
What I believe our discussions yesterday and today have most importantly done is to reinforce the strength of our very contemporary alliance cooperation. I think that we are very well placed to meet the challenges and the opportunities that the future may present to us, and most importantly, we look forward to doing that together in the strongest alliance possible with the United States. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, Marise, very much. And now Admiral Kirby will call on questions. I think we're going to take four questions total.
MR KIRBY: Yes, sir, that's right. The first question will be from Joshua Miller, Boston Globe.
QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary Kerry. First, I'd like to get your reaction to the fact that Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian was reportedly convicted in Iran and your description of what the United States is doing to help free him, and whether you regret not making a more concerted push to get him and others freed as part of the nuclear deal.
And on another topic, I'm curious who you believe bears the most responsibility for this recent outbreak of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, with respect to Jason Rezaian, not a meeting went by – literally, not a meeting – where we did not raise the issue of our citizens who are being held in Iran. And clearly, we are tracking extremely closely the news coming out of Iran regarding the trial and the fact of a conviction. We still don't know and we haven't seen any official confirmation on that verdict whatsoever, and we are continuing a dialogue with the Iranians regarding our citizens, and we will until they come home.
So I'm not going to go backwards except to say that the families themselves of these hostages knew exactly what our strategy was and why it was important not to hold a nuclear agreement hostage to hostages. And in our judgment, it was the right thing to do because it could have complicated both significantly and perhaps have resulted in nothing happening on either. So I think we did – it was the right strategy to pursue. We are continuing, as I say, that dialogue, and we call on the Government of Iran – whether they've had a conviction with a sentence or no sentence, whatever the status is, we call on the Government of Iran to release these individuals, to drop all the charges, and to see them reunited with their families here in the United States. And I can assure you when they do return and people gain full knowledge on the efforts that have been made, nobody will see anything except an extraordinary, continued, highly focused, intensive effort to secure their release.
With respect to the – oh, on Israel. Look, I'm not – I get intelligence and I read the intelligence community's assessments of what's happening, and we read the newspapers and we see what is happening. I am not from thousands of miles away going to get into a tick-tock of what happened when or how it happened. Unfortunately, this is a revolving cycle, and it's one that I believe damages the future for everybody in the region.
So I think it is absolutely critical to see the violence and incitement stop wherever it may be. And I'm not going to point fingers from afar, but when I have knowledge of violence that has taken place that shouldn't have, like the stabbing of three innocent Israelis by nothing more than terrorists, we will condemn it, just as we will condemn violence against any other person in the region where it is the result of – for instance, there was an occasion of settler violence recently against a Palestinian family, and we equally condemned that activity.
So what we need is to have leadership that condemns the tit-for-tat, that is determined to reach out across difficult lines, bring people to the table in order to work out a procedure where the grievances that are now so many years in the building can ultimately be addressed.
MR KIRBY: Our next question will come from Brendan Nicholson from The Australian.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just Secretaries Kerry and Carter: There appears to be a growing expectation that the United States intends to send a naval vessel into the disputed areas around the reclaimed islands in the China Sea. Can you confirm that that's a likely prospect, and when might it happen?
And to all of the ministers: The U.S. Navy has prepared a report, I understand, on the feasibility of extending the range of ports and facilities it uses in Australia. And are you able to give us any details of what might be envisaged – what sort of ships, what sort of infrastructure might be needed to accommodate them? And what sort of cooperation can Australia provide to the United States, or would be willing to provide, in the South or the East China Sea?
SECRETARY CARTER: Well, first of all, just to repeat something I said in the statement at the beginning and we have said repeatedly, we will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits. We'll do that at times and places of our choosing, and there's no exception to that – whether it's the Arctic, or the sea lanes that fuel international commerce widely around the world, or the South China Sea. And moreover, since you asked about the South China Sea, our approach there – and we discussed this with our Australian colleagues – doesn't – has several other features to it that are very important.
First of all, the United States, as Minister Bishop indicates, agrees with Australia: We don't take a position on sovereignty issues. We do take a position – and we've said this for a long time – that these things need to be resolved peacefully. And in the meantime, the United States continues to call for all parties to halt further reclamation and any further militarization of features in the South China Sea.
And, very importantly, we continue our own efforts under the rebalance. And the effect of uncertainty and excessive military activity in the South China Sea is having the effect of increasing our maritime cooperation with many countries in the region. They're asking for more interaction with the United States and the United States Navy, you mentioned. And that extends from Vietnam to India to the Philippines to Japan, which is doing more in general in this part of the world to support the rules-based order in East Asia. So it's having the effect of very much increasing the desire to cooperate with the United States in the Asia Pacific, cooperate with its rebalance, and particularly to work in the maritime domain. And we are committed to meeting that demand.
And I should say that in the case of Australia it's easy because our navies – and this gets to another part of your question – have been working together for decades. We work together in the closest possible fashion, in the most trusted possible fashion. And whether it's amphibious forces or air forces or naval forces or undersea forces or, I need to say in this day and age, as Minister Payne suggested, cyber forces – all those areas we and Australia remain incredibly close. And so that's not a new thing for us and Australia. But for others, we're doing more, and the appetite to do things with the United States is increasing.
FOREIGN MINISTER BISHOP: On the issue of the South China Sea and territorial claims, before I hand over to Minister Payne on the naval resources issue, we are committed to a rules-based international order, and that means adhering to the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. And Australia has a deep national interest in the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea because about two-thirds of our merchandise trade passes through those seas. And we have said consistently and persistently that the reclamation or construction work carried about, notably by China but by any others, should halt, that there should be peaceful negotiations. And while we don't take sides on territorial claims, we urge all parties to resolve it peacefully and in accordance with international norms and norms of behavior.
We do note and we do welcome President Xi's statement when he was here in the United States, in Washington, that the Chinese Government did not intend to militarize the Spratly Islands. And we welcome that statement and we'll certainly hold China to it. And we will continue to work not only with our ally the United States but with the other ASEAN countries in ensuring that any issues in the South China Sea are resolved peacefully and that there be no acknowledgment or no support for any coercive unilateral behavior that escalates tensions in the region. And we call for a de-escalation of all tension in that regard.
DEFENSE MINISTER PAYNE: Let me reinforce Ash's statements in relation to our existing extensive naval cooperation, which is a relationship of very long standing and something which I think we both value enormously. Part of the discussions, as I indicated over the last couple of days, have been in pursuit of further combined training, further exercises as part of that cooperative arrangement between our navies. And we stand, certainly, ready and willing to engage with the United States in relation to visits by their navy, both within the region and within Australia.
MR KIRBY: The next question will be from Jim Michaels, USA Today.
QUESTION: Question for Secretary Carter. Mr. Secretary, the Pentagon has recently adjusted its Syrian train and assist program so it'll now provide support to existing units in Syria. The Russians, meanwhile, are targeting a variety of anti-Assad forces in Syria. Does the U.S. intend to offer any type of protection to these U.S.-supported rebel forces in Syria – protection from, essentially, Russian airstrikes?
SECRETARY CARTER: Let me say something, first of all, about our approach to training and assisting forces in Syria that are willing to combat ISIL. It gets back to the fundamentals of the counter-ISIL strategy. And we've been discussing over the course of today the – deepening that and bringing that to victory, which we need to do. The approach there is, as it has to be, that we from the outside in can enable motivated and capable local forces. We cannot substitute for them, because we can't stay there permanently and displace them. They're the people who live there.
So the key to success against ISIL is to have ISIL defeated by forces that are indigenous but with our strong support. And what we've done in the last few weeks is reconsider the form in which we approach that mission in Syria. And there we had embarked upon a program that took a certain approach last summer and had decided that – and I made clear that I was disappointed with the early results of that – that we needed to have another approach and explore, in fact, several other approaches. One of those is, as you suggest, equipping groups that already exist that are in the fight to ISIL and helping enable them.
Now, with respect to the Russians in Syria, I did say in my statement – and this is important – we're making some progress on the particular issue of professional conduct with respect to Russia in the air. And I expect those discussions to – they're making progress and I expect them to conclude sometime. But they have not concluded yet. We're meeting again shortly and it'll continue. But I expect that to conclude shortly.
We're not able, at this time, to associate ourselves more broadly with Russia's approach in Syria, because it is wrongheaded and strategically shortsighted. And that is because it attempts to fight extremism while not also at the same time working to promote the political transition that Secretary Kerry spoke of in the opening. That is a – that's a fundamental contradiction, because it is the persistence of the civil war that fuels extremism. And we all need to combat extremism and we need to go to the root cause of that, which is, importantly in Syria, the continuing civil war. So that's why we can't associate ourselves more broadly with the Russian mission there.
So we continue to do what we're doing there and we'll continue to do that unchanged. And there may come a time in the future when Russia perceives that its approach isn't going to work. But that time has not arrived yet, so for now our work with them is specifically focused on air safety.
MR KIRBY: Last question today will come from Michael Vincent from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
QUESTION: Secretary Carter and Defense Minister Payne, the Pentagon has described increased Russian involvement in Syria as reckless, irresponsible, and indiscriminate. What assurances have you given allies like Australia and other nations involved in the coalition that their pilots are protected from being shot down, potentially by accident? And also, how long do you expect this commitment to go on for? Do you expect it to go into the next presidential administration?
SECRETARY CARTER: Well, I'll start with the first part of that, having to do with pilot safety, and just go back to what I said already. That is something that – our pilots are now conducting themselves every day – many, many raids – in fact, we are very gratified to have the partnership of Iraq, which has joined other nations in those air operations. And we continue to carry them out in the way we had planned. And we are making progress with Russia in the matter of flight safety. And I expect that to continue. It's an important thing for us. And our talks there are very professional, they're very constructive, and I expect it'll lead – them to lead in very short order to an agreement.
John, on the second part.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, on the second part, I think President Obama made it clear that this fight is going to take some period of time, because it is not just in Iraq and in Syria; it is in a number of other places, and it involves a larger process of coordination, and so it's hard to predict.
But what I can tell you is this, to a certainty: President Obama, Defense Secretary Carter, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, all of us are extremely focused together with all of the members of the 60-plus nations that are part of our coalition, and all of those nations understand we need to do more, we need to press harder, we need to bring more pressure to bear on ISIL, and we are determined to do so. The President has already made certain choices that have been announced which are going to increase that pressure, and a number of other ideas, options are being considered either on the table or in the development stage. But I am positively convinced that there is an opportunity here to increase the pressure on ISIL.
Secondly, if Russia were to make the right choices – and we urge Russia to make those choices with respect to a political process – it is entirely possible for a much greater degree of effort throughout that region to be placed on ISIL, and, I am convinced, to have a profound impact on ISIL in Iraq and Syria in a much shorter period of time. So if Russia is truly, really focused on the issue of extremism and potential terrorists returning to Russia, there is a way to quickly move to deal with that, and it involves Russia making a better choice with respect to the political track. If, on the other hand, Russia is there to mostly shore up Assad rather than to choose to fight ISIL, they will find that they are actually attracting more jihadis to the fight and complicating the potential of a rapid solution.
So, much hangs in the next weeks as to what choices Russia is really prepared to make and is going to make, and we are in the meantime going to continue to pursue the dual tracks that we agreed on in New York with President Putin – a track with respect to the political solution simultaneous with a track that addresses ISIL. And our hope is that the sooner we can arrive at an understanding, which is being worked on now about exactly what the delineation of effort will be, the sooner we're able to move in the right direction.
FOREIGN MINISTER BISHOP: Australia's mission in Iraq and Syria is clearly defined. We are in Iraq at the invitation of and with the consent of Abadi and his government, and our role is to help build the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces so that they can take back the territory that was claimed by Daesh and that they can have the capability to protect their own people from the brutality of this violent terrorist organization. Our involvement in Syria likewise is clearly defined pursuant to Article 51 of the UN Charter – that is, the collective self-defense of Iraq.
So our airstrikes will target Daesh resources that are being used to launch attacks against Iraq. And the reason we are involved is because we estimate about 120 Australian citizens are fighting with Daesh in Iraq and Syria. We anticipate about 150 Australian citizens are, in fact, supporting ISIL or Daesh back in Australia, and we are deeply concerned about the safety and security of the Australian people both at home and abroad. We're also concerned about the proliferation of terrorist activity regionally and globally, and Australia will play its part in supporting the United States-led coalition to deter and ultimately disrupt and defeat this terrorist organization that is unprecedented in its brutality.
And as for the root causes, the conflict in Syria, we again call for military action – coordinated military action with our coalition partners and a political solution that takes into account the concerns of all parties involved.
DEFENSE MINISTER PAYNE: Thank you very much. I want to acknowledge Secretary Carter's words in relation to the leadership that the United States is taking in speaking with Russia and addressing questions around the safety of air crews who are also operating in the same space. Obviously, that's a matter of fundamental importance to Australia, to the United States, and to the number of other partners who are engaged in those activities.
And also to say that your question in relation to length of time for an engagement such as this needs to, I think, be responded to as my colleagues have with an observation in relation to the complexity of what we're dealing with not just here, not just along the key borders in the Middle East and in Iraq and in Syria, but quite frankly, from the streets of cities in Australia. And there is no modern measure, in my view, that will give you a precise calculation for what it will take, how long it will take, when it will take to its, we hope, correct conclusion. And Secretary Kerry has been very strong, very articulate in what he has said today about what more we need to do, what we are already doing, and the commitment of all of the partners to pursue that. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much.
MR KIRBY: That concludes today's press conference, thank you.