Preview of the 2016 U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands

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Daniel R. Russel
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Washington, DC

2:30 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Okay, good afternoon and welcome back to the Foreign Press Center. Very pleased today to host a preview of the U.S.-ASEAN Summit coming up, and I’m very pleased to introduce our two briefers, both of whom are undoubtedly well known to all of you: Daniel Kritenbrink, National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs; and Daniel Russel, our Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Without further ado, I’d like to welcome Director Kritenbrink.

MR KIRITENBRINK: Great, thank you very much. Good afternoon, everyone. Great to be back here at the Foreign Press Center. I’m Dan Kritenbrink. I’m Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. I’d like to start by briefly walking you through the agenda and main objectives for the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Summit in Sunnylands. And then I’ll ask my good friend and colleague, Assistant Secretary Danny Russel, to highlight some of our important diplomatic priorities for the summit.

So first on the program, President Obama will host the leaders of the 10 ASEAN countries as well as the ASEAN secretary general at the historic Sunnylands Center in Rancho Mirage, California next Monday and Tuesday, February 15 and 16. This is the first time the President has hosted the ASEAN leaders for this kind of a standalone summit. The summit demonstrates our enduring commitment to the Asia Pacific and to ASEAN, and builds on the momentum of the new U.S.-ASEAN Strategic Partnership which we announced last November in Kuala Lumpur and which is designed to expand cooperation on our shared priorities including trade, maritime security, and counterterrorism.

The program for the summit comprises three main elements: first, a retreat session on economic issues; a working dinner; and then a retreat session on political and security issues. The economic session will highlight the strength of U.S.-ASEAN economic relations and identify ways to encourage even more trade and investment by focusing on the themes of innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s also an opportunity to exchange vies on the types of policy reforms that we believe are needed to promote further growth and integration.

The dinner session at Sunnylands is designed to be more informal so as to give the leaders an opportunity to share their perspectives on broader strategic developments. I expect the President will take this opportunity at the dinner to stress the United States enduring commitment to the region as well as to stress the importance of good governance, accountable institutions, and the rule of law.

The political and security session will focus on ways to enhance cooperation on the major strategic and transnational challenges confronting the region including maritime disputes, terrorism, trafficking in persons, pandemic disease, and climate change.

The summit, we believe, will also serve as an opportunity for the United States to strengthen our people-to-people ties with the region, including through the hugely successful Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative or YSEALI.

So those are the points I wanted to make on the agenda. Now let me make just a couple of brief points about where the Sunnylands summit fits in our overall engagement with the region.

First, the Sunnylands summit represents our commitment to the President’s rebalance strategy to the Asia Pacific. With nearly half the Earth’s population, one-third of global GDP, and some of the world’s most capable militaries, the Asia Pacific is increasingly the world’s political and economic center of gravity. The region’s dynamism presents the United States with both extraordinary opportunities and challenges, and that’s why from the beginning the President has prioritized engagement with the region, and that is why he is hosting this summit. Further demonstrating the President’s commitment to the Asia Pacific region, last year President Obama hosted five Asian leaders at the White House here in Washington, and in November he visited the Philippines for APEC and Malaysia for the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia summits.

2016 will be an equally momentous year for our regional engagement. In addition to the Sunnylands summit, the President last month hosted Australian Prime Minister Turnbull at the White House. In May the President will travel to Japan for the G7, and in September he will visit China for the G20 and Laos for the East Asia Summit, becoming the first U.S. President to visit Laos.

Second, the Sunnylands summit highlights the importance of the ASEAN countries to the United States and also highlights the depth and breadth of our relationship. From the very beginning of the Obama Administration, strengthening relations with ASEAN and the countries of Southeast Asia has been a core focus of the President’s rebalance strategy. ASEAN is at the heart of Asia. Our ties with ASEAN have expanded dramatically over the last seven years.

In 2009 we signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. We joined the East Asia Summit. We became the first ASEAN dialogue partner to establish a dedicated mission and appoint a resident ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. In 2009 we created YSEALI, which now has over 60,000 members. The rebalance at its core is about building a network of likeminded states who work together to strengthen and sustain a rules-based order, one in which all countries pursue their interests and prosperity peacefully and on a level playing field.

ASEAN is at the center of Asia’s emerging institutional architecture, making ASEAN a critical partner in our shared objective of building and sustaining a rules-based order in the Asia Pacific. And together, we plan to work not only to pursue peace and security, but also to support prosperity, sustainable development, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Our economic ties with Southeast Asia are booming. We have a quarter-trillion-dollar trade relationship with the countries of ASEAN, and it has increased 55 percent since 2009. The ASEAN region is now the fourth largest goods export market for the United States. The U.S. is the largest investor in ASEAN with more than 226 billion in foreign direct investment. This trade and investment supports more than 370,000 jobs in the United States.

ASEAN is also an increasingly important partner in addressing regional and global challenges from maritime disputes to climate change, pandemic disease, to violent extremism, as well as sustainable development and trafficking in persons. As reflected by our new strategic partnership, U.S.-ASEAN relations have never been better, but we’re not going to rest on our laurels. Cooperating together, we can address shared challenges, take advantage of shared opportunities to ensure peace and prosperity for our children and our grandchildren. I’m confident that the U.S.-ASEAN Summit at Sunnylands will make an historic contribution to that end.

So with that, I’d now like to turn it over to Assistant Secretary Russel for his opening remarks. Danny.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Great, thank you very much, Dan. Thanks to all of you for joining us. And please let me start by, on behalf of the U.S. Government, expressing our deep condolences to the people of Taiwan for those who were lost in a serious earthquake last week. They’re in our hearts and we’re proud to have been able to act quickly to assist. At the government level we’ve been able to contribute significantly to Taiwan’s Red Cross, and at the private level American citizens as volunteers have opened up their hearts and sought to help. We, as Americans, will help friends in need whenever and wherever we can.

Now, I see most of the faces I recognize are from Northeast Asia or people who cover Northeast Asia more than Southeast Asia. So I think it makes sense to spend a few minutes building on the points that Dan made about why Southeast Asia matters, why ASEAN matters to us, to you, to the Administration, and why the U.S. has invested so much in ASEAN over these past years. And I think it can be said really in basically three words: growth, stability, and rules.

Now, I vividly recall the debate in the White House in 2009 over the question of whether we thought it made sense to ask the President to trek all the way across the Pacific every single year to attend these ASEAN-based meetings. I won’t go through the pros and the cons other than to say that the issue was decided without hesitation decisively by none other than the President, and he unhesitatingly chose engagement for these three reasons: number one, that America’s economic future is so closely linked to the growth of this extraordinarily dynamic region; number two, that our own security is directly affected by developments there, and our alliances and our security partnerships are what has served to stabilize the region against a backdrop of uncertainty; and third, because we benefit. We all benefit from a rules-based order that is rooted in principles of fairness, principles of respect for international law and universal rights.

That was 2009. So here we are in 2016. This summit is a culmination of seven years of sustained investment in these goals of growth and stability and rules, and these are still the goals that guide us and goals that will shape the discussions in Sunnylands.

In economic terms, the leaders are building on the great work that has been done in reaching an agreement on TPP, building on the formation this year of the ASEAN Economic Community, building on the landmark COP21 Paris agreement on climate change, building on the many entrepreneurship initiatives that we’ve pursued with ASEAN and in Southeast Asia, building on our good government – governance programs, building on the very extensive private sector engagement and the fantastic people-to-people programs that Dan mentioned, YSEALI being at the top of the list.

In security terms, all of the leaders are contending with the threat posed by ISIL, the threat of returning foreign terrorist fighters; the effort to refute the insidious propaganda of violent extremism and block the recruitment, especially among Southeast Asian youth; dealing with the effects of global warming in terms of disasters and rising sea levels; dealing with the scourge of human trafficking; and, of course, dealing with the very serious challenges to maritime security, particularly in the South China Sea.

And in geostrategic terms, the leaders are working to build out a rules-based order to build up important indigenous institutions that have been created around ASEAN as a hub and building on the remarkable spirit of cooperation, of nonviolence, of common cause that lies really at the heart of ASEAN.

And it’s worth taking a step back and asking, “Why isn’t Southeast Asia mired in antagonism and violence between neighbors like some other parts of the world?” They’re 10 very different countries with a history of war, history of colonial trauma, serious border disputes to this day, competition over increasingly scarce common resources like the Mekong River, like fish stocks – 10 countries with starkly different ethnic mixes and religious divides, differing political systems. They’re surrounded by giants like China and India, creates tension. So why isn’t Southeast Asia a hot, steaming mess?

Well, a big part of the answer, we have found, is ASEAN’s centrality. That’s a formula for stability and for growth. And a cohesive ASEAN helps secure stability and growth that’s built around a common commitment to rules and to fairness. It allows major countries like the United States, other powers, to engage constructively as partners. It prevents Southeast Asia from becoming a sphere of influence or becoming a battlefield.

Now, ASEAN integration has been a hugely important driver of the economic growth in Southeast Asia, and that growth has been spectacular, with a growing workforce, a growing middle class. It’s bringing jobs and opportunities to the U.S. and to other countries as well.

So here are some of the things that I’d suggest that you as reporters might want to bear in mind as you report on the Sunnylands summit next week. First of all, it’s not a formal U.S.-ASEAN summit. It is an informal summit. It is not one hour of meetings sandwiched in between a series of other meetings, which is the norm on the margins of the East Asia Summit hosted in the region. It’s not an hour; it’s a day. That’s pretty significant. It is not a laboriously negotiated, strict, by-the-Roman-numerals agenda; it is an open discussion among the leaders.

It also means that the leaders aren’t wedded to the traditional or the conventional formats when it comes to communiques and outcomes and deliverables and so on. They have some latitude. It’s a personal engagement and it’s built on the personal relationships that have been forged over the last seven-plus years, including and particularly between President Obama and the other leaders, between Secretary Kerry and his counterparts and many of the leaders, and built on the strong foundation of the people-to-people connections that both Dan and I have talked about.

Also – and let me just say this – it’s not about China. (Laughter.) Sure, there are questions on the minds of the ASEAN leaders, of all of the leaders: What are the implications of the economic slowdown in China? Sort of what should we expect, what’s going on in terms of China’s behavior in the South China Sea? But at the same time, each of us – all 11 of us – have tremendously important and multifaceted relationships with China. None of that alters the fact that the focus of this summit is on what the U.S. and ASEAN can achieve together for the benefit of our citizens, as well as the region and the world.

I would add it doesn’t end at Sunnylands. This is not simply a once-off. This is not the end of the road. And literally, it’s not the end of the road, because there is an economic trade road show the day after the leaders conclude in San Francisco that will involve Ambassador Mike Froman and other senior trade officials with their counterparts throughout ASEAN. It includes the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, so it’s both governmental and private sector. This is just the beginning. Of course, in July Secretary Kerry will be attending ASEAN meetings in the region. In September, of course, the leaders’ meeting will be held. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot to come.

But it also didn’t begin at Sunnylands. The discussion the leaders will have is underpinned by a track record of very substantive, robust engagement – of course by the President, but also by Secretary Kerry, who meets regularly with his foreign minister counterparts; Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who has hosted the ASEAN defense ministers himself; Mike Froman and others. It also is built on and underpinned by a lot of practical programs that make a big difference in the region in development, an example being our Lower Mekong Initiative; in building long-term relations, people-to-people – YSEALI and so on.

And I think it’s important to add that this summit is also underpinned by our firm commitment to universal human rights and to the rule of law. Now, among the ASEAN countries, we’ve seen both really inspirational progress towards democracy and human dignity – look no further than the transition in Burma, Myanmar – but we’ve also seen worrisome trends and setbacks, challenges to multiparty democracy, to civic institutions, to religious tolerance.

So the last point I’d make is simply that we are able to lift up our values – and these are universal values, not American values – through our programs with ASEAN – programs on good governance, on press freedom, on education, on human rights – and also through the consistent diplomacy and messaging that the President and Secretary Kerry, that others of us convey at every opportunity and undoubtedly will convey again at Sunnylands. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, gentlemen. I’d like to open for questions, please. Yes, ma’am, you had a question?

QUESTION: Thank you. Liyuan from Voice of America. I have a question for Secretary Russel. You just mentioned this is not about China. I think you said just recently it’s not anti-China. But I’m just wondering, how are you going to convince the Chinese that this is really not about China when you have United States and ASEAN countries talking about these South China Sea territory disputes while China is a major claimant to that and they are not part of the – on the table here? Yeah, so —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: I think it’s safe to say that we have no secrets from China when it comes to our views about the South China Sea and the way forward. We believe that the way forward has to include a mix of restraint, of respect for neighbors, of respect for international law. It has to build on the commitments that have been made already through the declaration of conduct, for example. It has to be rooted in common sense that you can’t insist that something is indisputable if it is the subject of hot dispute with your next door neighbor. It’s built on the recognition that the long-term interests of the region argue for peaceful and collaborative ways to either resolve or to set aside sovereignty disputes and to clarify claims and to proceed in finding ways to share the maritime space that are both consistent with international law and acceptable to the other parties.

So we don’t say anything to one party that we don’t say to the other. We have the advantage of not ourselves being claimants – of not having, so to speak, a dog in the fight of who gets what and who has a superior claim to a particular land feature. That said, unless all countries big and small base their claims, base their arguments, and conduct their pursuit of their interests in ways that are fully consistent with international law, the region will suffer; everyone will suffer.

Now, I had the honor, as did Dan, to join Secretary Kerry in his recent visit to Beijing. He had extensive discussions with the foreign minister, with the state councilor, and with the president of China. These are open, candid, constructive discussions. I think that the simple antidote to concerns about a U.S. – an anti-China quality to a meeting that the President of the United States has with his ASEAN counterparts is simply transparency. And we are entirely transparent on this point.

MR KRITENBRINK: (Inaudible) underscore what Assistant Secretary Russel said. Just to repeat what he said, that this is a summit about —

QUESTION: Do you have a microphone?

MR KRITENBRINK: Is my mike on?

QUESTION: No, it’s not.

MODERATOR: Something happen?

MR KRITENBRINK: It’s on here. Can you hear me now?


MR KRITENBRINK: I just wanted to underscore Assistant Secretary Russel’s message again. This summit is not about China. This summit is about the United States and ASEAN and our increasingly broad and deep strategic partnership. And what we tried to lay out here today are the many reasons why this relationship is so important, from the tremendous trade flows to the amazing people-to-people interactions to our increasing cooperation on a range of strategic issues from counterterrorism to pandemic disease to climate change to maritime issues.

So the maritime issues that you mentioned – they’re representative – for some of these issues, we’ll touch upon China because this is Asia and China is a major player in Asia. But again, this summit is about us and about highlighting what we can do together.

And I also wanted to underscore the fact that we don’t see these issues in black and white, zero-sum terms. I’ve had the honor in this job of seeing President Obama interact on multiple occasions with President Xi Jinping, including during President Xi Jinping’s very successful state visit last fall. This is a relationship where we’ve demonstrated we are committed to building the most constructive, positive relationship with China possible. And I think you could argue that the positive, cooperative agenda we have with our Chinese friends on a range of global issues is as successful and as broad as it’s ever been.

At the same time, we are exceptionally candid in confronting the many differences and tensions that exist between us. But our relationship with China is mature, it’s stable, it’s broad, it’s complex, and we’re very open and transparent about that and we would encourage our other friends in the region to do the same, and we know that they do aim to do the same.

MODERATOR: I see we have a question from New York, and then I’d like to come back here. So New York, could you —

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. This is Manik Mehta. I am a journalist reporting for the Malaysian news service called Bernama. I’m also syndicated all over Asia. My question relates to the TPP, which was signed recently in New Zealand. There is concern, however, within the ASEAN that there is tremendous opposition in the U.S. to ratifying the TPP in Congress. How do you see it?

Secondly, you have currently just three ASEAN members in the TPP.


QUESTION: Will you allow new members? And if so, when? Thank you.

MR KRITENBRINK: I’d be happy to make an initial response and then ask Assistant Secretary Russel.

MODERATOR: Is your microphone on?

MR KRITENBRINK: First, the United States is committed to ratifying the TPP. I think it’s a tremendous accomplishment whereby all the member countries of the TPP have reached this agreement. We think it highlights what the TPP is designed to do: to set out a series of very high, ambitious standards – economic rules of the road, so to speak – to which all of our 12 member-countries can aspire.

The TPP is also designed so that it can serve as an example for other countries to aspire to, and I think we have seen that. And it gets to the second part of your question, where a number of countries in ASEAN and elsewhere in Asia have expressed a desire to join TPP in the future. That is part of the design of TPP, again, to construct a race to the top, whereby all countries are striving so as to enjoy the benefits of TPP, to live up to those high standards.

And I would say two things. We’re going to focus on one thing at a time. The first priority now is for all the member-countries of TPP to focus on ratification and implementation. And then we’ll continue a dialogue going forward about ways that other countries who are interested in joining TPP can meet those high standards so that they can have the opportunity to do so at some future date.

Did you want to add anything to that, Danny?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Thanks, Dan. Two things. One, at every step in this process of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, including from early days, we faced the it-can’t-be-done phenomenon. And at each stage, our immensely talented team has found ways to work through obstacles and challenges, and I think that the signing of the agreement in New Zealand early this month is a testament to that, a major milestone, and of course, the Administration is committed to seeing the TPP agreement through the Congress.

I think it’s also important to flag that the – the net effect of TPP not only on the part of the – the four ASEAN partner countries but for the whole region is to create incentives for trading partners to up their game. And they – the non-TPP countries – can count on us, the United States, to assist them in upping their game. We want a region with lower barriers, greater access, higher standards, more responsible environmental practices, good adherence to international standards for labor rights. We want the free flow of goods and services and ideas, and every country in ASEAN can count on us to help them to up their game.

MODERATOR: Okay, thank you. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you. Donghui Yu with China Review News Agency of Hong Kong. I have a follow-up question on the South China Sea. You have reiterated the principle and position on this issue, but I’m still wondering how the South China Sea issue will be discussed in this summit. Will there be any, like, new statements or new actions that will be announced in the summit?

And secondly, the spokesman of the State Department has said that the U.S. will look forward to working with the new government in Taiwan on this South China Sea issue when Ma Ying-jeou visited Taiping islands. So I’m wondering how the U.S. will work with Taiwan’s administration on the South China Sea issue. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: The summit in Sunnylands provides the leaders an opportunity to do something that they can’t easily otherwise do, which is to spend some time talking through the set of issues that pertain to the question, “What’s at stake here? What are the issues in the South China Sea? What’s relevant to all of us?” We’re not a claimant, as I mentioned. Six of the 10 ASEAN countries are not claimants. What is it that we have in common? What is it that we have at stake? What is it that we’re trying to encourage? What is it that we’re trying to prevent?

This is an opportunity for a real discussion. Unlike a standard summit or an East Asia Summit, there’s no particular pressure to find the precise formula in a communique that’s going to send a signal. The leaders get to have their own discussion and decide what public signals they will put forward through their press conferences or other means.

With regard to Taiwan, we have an important dialogue in Taipei and in Washington about the entire range of economic and security issues of concern to both of us. We have an important unofficial relationship that we greatly value. How we deal with the Tsai Ing-wen administration is a question that will be answered once the transition takes place in May.

MR KRITENBRINK: I just wanted to add one comment if I could, just to underscore again what Assistant Secretary Russel said on the South China Sea statement. I don’t think it would be appropriate now to speculate on what kind of statements may or may not come out of the summit. But the focus, as Danny has said, will be on the principles that we share in common regarding how countries should behave and operate in the region, and how disputes should be settled.

And I think that those discussions at Sunnylands will build directly upon the discussions we had in Kuala Lumpur at the East Asia Summit in November, where I thought there was tremendous consensus in the room behind those principles – principles such as ensuring the freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, unimpeded commerce.

So I think there is a real consensus in the region already. I think those are the issues that the President and the leaders of ASEAN want to focus on and exchange ideas about how we can manage and hopefully resolve these disputes going forward.

MODERATOR: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for this briefing. My name is Tatsuya Mizumoto from Jiji Press. So you gave a lot of compliment to ASEAN leadership in the region, but aren’t you frustrated by ASEAN way, which is the principle of getting consensus? I think that template is used by a giant, which you mentioned, to prevent concrete ASEAN action or agreement to maybe South China Sea. I think the building regional architecture in East Asia is one of the pillars of your rebalance, so why don’t you introduce majority decision instead of a unanimous decision? Do you plan what – don’t you think such things? Thank you very much.

MR KRITENBRINK: Well, what I would say is, again, ASEAN lies at the center of the region’s emerging institutional architecture, and I think, as Assistant Secretary Russel laid out, it’s been quite successful over the past several decades in building a community of shared values and has made, I think, a tremendous contribution to peace and stability in the region. And I think in the last few years, that work, again, on those regional – on that regional institution with ASEAN at the core has accelerated.

I think now, when you see the growth of the East Asia Summit, whereby the East Asia Summit has become the region’s premier institution for discussing political and security matters, I think provides really an invaluable forum for the region’s countries to come together and address the challenges of the day. I think we saw that in November and I think we’re confident that you’ll see that going forward. And I think you can’t underestimate ASEAN’s contribution to the peace and security in the region.

Unlike Europe, Asia lacks the developed institutions that we’ve seen take place in Europe. Yet again, with ASEAN at the core, I think the region is making tremendous progress. We think it’s a fundamental pillar of our rebalance strategy and our effort to build a rules-based order from which all of us will benefit. So again, it will be one of the primary emphases of the Sunnylands summit and I think it’ll be a real focus of American policy going forward.



ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: — I would like to quote from the great American diplomat and philosopher Aretha Franklin. (Laughter.) R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We respect the ASEAN way. We respect the principles that undergird ASEAN as an indigenous hub, as an indigenous organization. We made the decision to join, to participate, to partner with ASEAN through the TAC and through our engagement in the East Asia Summit.

Now, I’m a veteran of more ASEAN meetings than you can count, and sure, there are moments of frustration. But at the heart of ASEAN is a principle, “Consensus, yes, but paralysis, no.” ASEAN has found ways to work through differences and differences in perspective among the members, and that makes ASEAN particularly valuable as a host, whereby the U.S., China, Russia, India, Japan, Australia, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, can engage – engage constructively. It’s what makes the East Asia Summit a high-level forum for meaningful strategic engagement and prevents Southeast Asia from becoming a battlefield.

The ASEANs find ways to reconcile differences, not to bulldoze one another. And efforts by outside parties to split ASEAN, to undermine ASEAN, to hobble ASEAN, I believe ultimately are doomed to fail. It is the policy of the United States to support and promote the unity and the effectiveness of ASEAN, and I’m proud to say that from the President and the Secretary on down, and certainly in the person of our immensely talented ambassador to ASEAN, Nina Hachigian, we feel that we have made a real contribution.

MODERATOR: In the center, the lady.


MODERATOR: We’ll just get a microphone for you, okay?

QUESTION: Okay. Jessica Stone with CCTV America, and just a question about the Asia Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative with respect to many of these countries: Over $150 million to four counterclaimants on these islands. In many ways, China believes that that is militarization of the South China Sea, that the U.S. is responsible for that, and of course, the Americans typically accuse China of that. How is it not militarization of the South China Sea for the U.S. to be helping beef up the militaries of counterclaimants in this region?

And then secondly, on the DPRK, I know you probably – I know you were asked this on the call, Dan Kritenbrink – how much, if at all, do you expect the ASEAN countries to weigh in and express concerns and come up with solutions? It’s not on the agenda, but how much at all do you anticipate conversations around that issue? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: I’ll take the first and you take —

MR KRITENBRINK: That sounds great.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Just a point of clarification: There are no counterclaimants in the South China Sea. There are claimants. They have very – they have different opinions and disputes over the territorial sovereignty issues, but that’s a phenomenon that is seen around the world. The United States, for decades, has kept the peace and maintained stability in the Asia Pacific region in particular through a system of alliances and security partnerships that are marked by their respect for international law, for rules, and aim at creating the conditions that foster democratic institutions and economic growth. That’s something that we’re proud of and that is something that the countries in the region welcome and ask us to sustain. We will sustain it.

In addition to our significant and sustained military presence, which has been largely consistent over the years, we, as other countries do, have programs to assist the nations in Southeast Asia themselves to develop the capacity to enforce their own laws, to secure their own borders, to protect their own citizens, and to maintain stability and peace in the areas that they control. That’s a good thing. That promotes stability. That’s not destabilizing.

You asked about militarization. When President Xi Jinping was in Washington in September, he said very explicitly that China has no intent to militarize its islands in the Spratlys, in the Nansha, or the outposts. He didn’t make a broad point about military activities. China has military activities; the United States has military activities; Japan, Australia, India, and others. Look, warships and planes are free to traverse international space, and in particular, the United States has a number of allies and security partners with access agreements and joint operations exercises – patrols, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance missions. We don’t seek a right for the U.S. military that we don’t believe the Chinese military also should enjoy. But it means something when the president of a country makes a commitment, and it also means something when a country as large and powerful as China chooses to conduct a large-scale construction effort in a tense and disputed area that unsettles and unnerves its neighbors.

We have no claim in the South China Sea to territory, but we, like all other nations, have a claim in every sea to the free operation of our ships and our planes in a manner that’s consistent with international law. And to secure those rights, we use diplomacy and we use our military. We welcome and encourage all countries to operate similarly in a responsible way.

MR KRITENBRINK: And if I could address the second part of your question. Excuse me. I think it’s inevitable that the North Korean issue will be discussed at Sunnylands. As you’ve seen, the United States has made very clear through various public statements our condemnation of North Korea’s latest provocative actions. Its recent launch using ballistic missile technology, following so closely on its January 6th nuclear test, was yet another destabilizing and provocative action, and it’s a flagrant violation of a whole host of UN Security Council resolutions.

I think given the focus of the United States and ASEAN on building a rules-based international order that contributes directly to peace and stability in the region and worldwide, I think it would only be natural that an issue as serious as North Korea would be discussed at Sunnylands. It is not designed to be a central feature of the agenda, but again, for the reasons I’ve outlined here, I’m confident it will be discussed.

MODERATOR: Okay. The last question, please. I’d like to go towards the back. Yes, sir. Right next to Barbara, yes.

QUESTION: Thank you. Jae Sun Chang, Yonhap News Agency. Let me ask one more question about North Korea. South Korea announced the decision to shut down Kaesong complex. What’s your reaction to that? Do you support this decision? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Well, I would say simply that I know that this was not an easy decision for the Government of the Republic of Korea to take, and therefore, the fact that they made this decision is a compelling indicator of the seriousness with which they regard the provocative steps taken by the DPRK. It is a decision that’s consistent with the widespread view in the international community that more steps are needed to convince the DPRK leadership that it is not going to be possible to have access to the international economic system, let alone economic or financial aid, as long as North Korea continues to pursue a nuclear and a missile program in direct contravention of the UN Security Council resolutions.

MODERATOR: Okay. With that —

QUESTION: Follow-up?

MODERATOR: I think that concludes – (laughter) – that’s up to our briefers, but I think that concludes, unless you wanted to follow up anything. But I think that concludes our briefing for the afternoon. Is that correct?

MR KRITENBRINK: I don’t mind.

MODERATOR: You don’t care? All right. He’ll do —

MR KRITENBRINK: We’ll go out on the high wire and do a final follow-up.


QUESTION: I’ll wait for (inaudible). So South Korea announced the suspending of the operation of Kaesong industry, and last night, Japanese Government also announced its unilateral sanction. So my question is: What are you doing to – do to address this issue? So are you – the United States is also taking unilateral sanction against North Korea? It’s my question. Thank you.

MR KRITENBRINK: I think you’ve seen the United States has made clear that it is taking a number of actions to respond to this threat and retains the option of adopting any actions necessary to ensure the security of the United States and the security of our allies in the region. I’m sure – as you’ve seen, President Obama spoke with President Park and President Abe this week – Prime Minister Abe. The primary purpose of those calls, of course, was to reassure our allies of the ironclad security commitment of the United States to both of them. We – the President also spoke with President Xi Jinping last Friday to discuss with President Xi how the United States and China can work together as well to counter this serious threat to peace and security in the region.

One main area of effort right now is in New York at the United Nations, where the United States and China and others are working on a UN Security Council resolution that is designed to impose new costs, new sanctions upon North Korea to show that there are consequences to the destabilizing and provocative actions that North Korea has taken.

We have also demonstrated through other means our commitment to the security of our allies, and we’re also considering other unilateral measures that we may take in the future. So I think the message that I want to underscore is this is a serious provocation and a serious threat, and the United States has tried to make clear there are a variety of actions and statements; that we’re committed, working together with our international partners, to respond appropriately; to ensure that there’s a consequence to these actions; and to make every effort possible to sharpen Pyongyang’s choices so that Pyongyang can turn to a path of denuclearization and live up to its prior commitments related to denuclearization.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KRITENBRINK: Okay. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. That concludes our briefing for the afternoon. And for those who wish to stay, there’ll be another one at 4 o’clock with Alexander Feldman of the US-ASEAN Business Council. Thank you.