U.S. Priorities in East Asia and the Pacific

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

New York, NY
September 26, 2014

3:00 P.M. EDT

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Hello, everyone. Good afternoon. Thanks for coming here in New York and thanks to our friends at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, D.C. I’m Danny Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. It has been action-packed week of U.S.-Asia engagement here in New York by President Obama, by Vice President Biden, by Secretary Kerry, and on down the chain. And we’ve been working on America’s and the world’s most pressing challenges.

I’ll cover the high points, but in short, this week, which is by no means over yet, shows what the rebalance is all about. With our allies and with partners across the whole region in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, we’ve been addressing issues that matter to all of us, including climate change, including the ISIL threat, including the problem of Ebola, including development and security, economic prosperity. And I think our engagement and the progress that we’re making underscores the strength and the global consequence of our focus on the Asia Pacific region and our focus on what together, across the Pacific, we can get done across the world. I put it this way: The rebalance is going global.

So to give you a snapshot of some of the high points of the week, let me start with Tuesday when the President met with the Chinese Executive Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli to discuss our bilateral cooperation on global climate change. You heard what the President had to say about that issue and about U.S.-China cooperation in the general debate. On Wednesday, the President chaired – co-chaired the Open Government Partnership alongside Indonesian President Yudhoyono, who has been a close partner, and who the President recognized for his leadership and for the example that Indonesia has tried to set as a country that has transitioned from a difficult past to a thriving and full-blown democracy.

Earlier today, the Vice President convened a number of partners, including quite a number of Asia Pacific nations, in his peacekeeping summit. In fact, the Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe was his co-chair in that enterprise. And the Vice President also held a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Abe this morning, and First Lady Michelle Obama met on the 25th, yesterday, with Japan’s first lady. The Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met earlier today with Pacific Island leaders and partners to discuss a range of issues, including climate change, sustainable development, and other matters of ongoing and pressing interest. And later today, Secretary Kerry will close out his extremely busy UNGA week by hosting the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers for periodic U.S.-ASEAN consultation.

Many other of the senior State Department officials came up to New York. Under Secretary Sherman, for example, met with her Australian and Japanese counterparts to work on the Trilateral Security Dialogue. I myself and other of my colleagues have been consulting with dozens of other diplomatic partners across the region from New Zealand to Brunei to Burma to Mongolia to Korea. It’s been a very active week, and this engagement which we think is as timely as it is substantive underscores the importance that we place on our partnerships with Asia and Pacific countries.

The President made that very clear in his General Assembly address when he reiterated that the United States is a Pacific power. We continue to promote peace, stability, and the free flow of commerce among nations. He highlighted all that we share in terms of our views and aspirations with countries across Asia, and he also underscored what’s been an important theme of America’s engagement throughout the region, namely that all nations abide by the rule of law, by the rules of the road; that they resolve disputes, including territorial disputes, peacefully and consistent with international law. That has been a hallmark of the Obama Administration’s approach to the issues of the region as the way to safeguard Asia’s prosperity and progress.

Secretary Kerry, I’m sure you’ve noted, participated in the first ever high level UN event spotlighting North Korean human rights abuses. He built on the commission of inquiry work, particularly the very significant and the meticulous report assembled by a team led by Justice Kirby of Australia. In fact, the foreign minister of Australia joined us, as did the foreign ministers of a number of other countries – Senegal, Botswana, Uruguay – and the panel that spoke at this event included, appropriately, the foreign ministers of the ROK, South Korea, and Japan, along with the new UN human rights commissioner.

The Secretary also met bilaterally with first the Korean foreign minister and also then with his South Korean counterpart to discuss our shared concerns about the DPRK in the first instance, but also our shared objectives and our close cooperation on the range of global issues that I mentioned earlier. In addition, with Korean Foreign Minister Yun, Secretary Kerry updated the Korean side on our adjustment to our landmine policy, which, at its core, reiterates America’s steadfast commitment to defend our allies against the threat from North Korea. And many of our allies and partners contributed to the high level events on Iraq, on foreign fighters, on Ebola, on climate change, on peacekeeping, including a number of announcements of new commitments on these various areas.

On ISIL, I would take a moment to express my admiration and appreciation for the extraordinary contributions being made by Australia, which is deploying troops and combat aircraft as well as humanitarian assistance. Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand all also continue their tradition of providing needed aid to those in crisis. Each of them have announced major contributions to Iraq. And others from all across Asia have denounced ISIL, have opposed the movement of foreign fighters, and have found or are in the process of finding other ways that they can support and contribute to the anti-ISIL coalition.

In addition, the Asia Pacific countries are stepping up to help deal with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa with major new contributions, including not only from the large countries and the industrialized countries but from middle-tier countries as well. I mentioned Malaysia and Singapore, for example.

On another area, we welcomed Indonesia’s contribution to sustainable development by signing a palm oil pledge that will safeguard the fragile ecosystems there. And as I mentioned earlier this afternoon, the Secretary is staying late in New York in order to host a meeting with the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers, honoring our commitment to senior ASEAN engagement. He will also have the pleasure of introducing to them our newly-minted, newly-confirmed ambassador to ASEAN, a good friend of mine and a very, very respected regional expert, Nina Hachigian, who we hope to get out to the mission in Jakarta before long.

In that regard, I’d just underscore that ASEAN is growing from a regionally-focused organization to one that can increasingly speak with relevance on important issues, both regional and global issues, whether it’s on maritime security, whether it’s on foreign fighters, or whether it’s on climate change. This is an important evolution which we support.

So our robust Asia Pacific engagement continues. It will continue beyond the General Assembly itself. I believe some foreign ministers have plans to visit Washington in the weeks ahead. Certainly, we are working toward the important leaders meetings in November: APEC in Beijing, the East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw, Burma, and the G20 in Brisbane.

So with that, let me stop here and ask Hyun to give you all the floor.

MODERATOR: Questions?

QUESTION: Rong Shi with Voice of America. I have a question for my colleague (inaudible) in D.C. Yesterday, Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po published an article describing U.S. as a foreign force behind Josh Wang, a 17-year old Hong Kong student leader. Said that U.S. for three years has cultivated him as a political superstar and the Mr. Wang has already been taken away – reported by Voice of America’s reporter in Hong Kong. And I’m just wondering if you have any comment on that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: We don’t cultivate political superstars outside our own borders. The United States is not backing any person, the United States is not backing any group in Hong Kong, and we are certainly not seeking to disrupt or destabilize the ongoing political discussions within the Hong Kong community on universal suffrage, which is a principle in conformity with the basic law that we strongly support.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Elliot Waldman with Tokyo Broadcasting System. A couple of quick questions, if I may. One on Vietnam. The commander of PACOM said in a recent interview that it might be time to consider lifting the U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam, and there was also an article in Reuters that suggested this might be happening soon. I wonder if you could comment on that.

And then on North Korea, there’s been a lot going on there as well. The – there’s been rumors of Kim Jong-un’s illness – I think KCNA might have even confirmed it – and there’s been a lot of diplomatic activity as well. So if you could perhaps update us on the most recent U.S. thinking on how to tackle the North Korean threat and whether it might be time for engagement again. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Okay, thanks. Well, I’d – I saw a bit of what Admiral Locklear said on the subject of Vietnam, and if I recall correctly he made the point that we have in the past and may in the future look at lifting certain restrictions when it comes to the transfer of arms to Vietnam. And he indicated that he saw potential value in that.

The way to look at this issue in my view is more comprehensively. The U.S. and Vietnam will next year mark important anniversaries – 40 years since the end of the Vietnam conflict and 20 years since our full diplomatic normalization. Over those 20 years or soon to be 20 years, we’ve made considerable progress in our bilateral relations, and I would say over the past few years, particularly with the conclusion of a comprehensive partnership between the U.S. and Vietnam, we’ve accelerated that progress. We made – we’re making progress on a range of issues, on economic and trade issues. Vietnam is now a full partner in the effort to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is huge. We’ve made progress on human rights and rule of law, whether it’s freedom of religion, freedom of the press, or labor rights. But making progress, I don’t for a moment suggest that the problems have been resolved or that we or for that matter the people of Vietnam are yet fully satisfied. But by progress I mean there have been real improvements and things are heading in a better direction.

We are also working on security cooperation, and that’s where restrictions on lethal weapons – the so-called lethal weapon ban – becomes relevant. Now there are precedents for relaxing terms of that policy and it is, in fact, something that is on a routine basis examined within the U.S. Government and discussed between the U.S. and the Vietnamese governments. In the context of answering the question, in what areas does the United States think it is important or valuable to assist Vietnam – and there are such areas – we have already recently made contributions to Vietnam’s ability to manage effectively its own maritime security, its maritime law enforcement, its maritime domain awareness. These are in line with our support for capabilities among the littoral, the sea-going states in Southeast Asia, in part because of the frequency of natural disasters, in part because of the need for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. So the answer to your question is we will continue to work with Vietnam as a partner, including on regional security and examine questions about the lifting of restrictions as that progresses.

On North Korea, the health, welfare, and whereabouts of the Kim leader – whether it’s Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, or Kim Jong-un, has long been something of a parlor game, and it’s not a game that I play – certainly not in public. I don’t know what the status of Kim Jong-un’s health is. And I’m much more interested in the status of the DPRK’s nuclear and missile program, to tell you the truth. I’m much more interested in the status of the rights – the human rights and the welfare of the Korean people who live north of the DMZ, to tell you the truth. And our diplomacy and our focus, working closely with our allies, our partners, and the international community is on resolving these twin sets of problems, and they are related. The notion harbored by some in North Korea that the DPRK can simultaneously pursue nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile capability and hope to achieve economic growth and provide for its people is a fallacy. It is not true. It cannot be done. It will not happen.

North Korea, as President Obama has said repeatedly, has a choice. If North Korea, as we hope and urge, chooses a path of compliance with international law, with its own commitments, and a path that respects the well-being and the future of the Korean people, it will find the United States, along with other countries in the region, full partners in an effort to rebuild the DPRK’s economy. President Obama has made clear that he is willing to help. But only by coming into compliance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, only by freezing, rolling back, and relinquishing its nuclear programs, any nuclear material, and ending the ballistic missile programs which violate those resolutions can North Korea hope to achieve the respect, the security, and the prosperity that its leader claims he is seeking.

MODERATOR: Additional questions in the back here. Go ahead, sir.

QUESTION: Hello. Mr. Li from People’s Daily. I wonder if you can prospect something about the President Obama’s visit to China to participate in the APEC and also the official visit to China. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: I will leave it to the White House to speak to the President’s schedule and to the specifics of his objectives, but I can say with great confidence that President Obama believes that the U.S.-China relationship is important to both countries, to the region, and to the international community, given the size and the scope of our economies, of our capabilities, and of our interests.

The APEC leaders meeting will be in Beijing this year. Not long ago, in 2011, President Obama himself hosted the APEC leaders meeting in Honolulu. And there is a continuum of important issues relating to the environment, relating to good governance, to trade, investment, economic opening, supply chain, et cetera. There’s a range of important initiatives which have been in train that will be discussed and we believe advanced by the leaders under the chairmanship of the Chinese in 2014.

The President, as I mentioned, has had a chance to speak with the Chinese representative participating in the UN General Assembly this week, and the United States at a number of levels is deeply involved with China on a range of issues. That includes the topics that have been the focus of collective efforts here in New York over the past few days, certainly climate change as I’ve mentioned, certainly counterterrorism and the effort to stem the movement of terrorist fighters, the effort to assist countries in the Middle East in maintaining security and dealing with violent extremism. It also includes the international efforts to support the fight in West Africa against the deadly Ebola virus, which is spreading at an alarming rate and, as Secretary Kerry and others have pointed out, is entirely a preventable disease. And I know there have been extensive conversations with the Chinese, who themselves have important interests and citizens in West Africa about what kind of role they can play.

So there are areas of consultation; there are areas of cooperation and collaboration; and then there are other topics that we discuss either on a bilateral basis or in the broader context of the East Asia Summit which will be held just a few days after APEC in Burma that we discuss along with the neighbors and the interested parties. Thank you.

MODERATOR: We will take our next question from Washington. Please go ahead from Washington.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Assistant Secretary. I’m Ching-yi Chang with Shanghai Media Group. I have a question on today’s bilateral meeting between Vice President Biden and Prime Minister Abe. The White House just released a readout saying that U.S. support – that U.S. support the effort of Japan to improve its relations with China. So I’m just curious, how does the U.S. will do to support Japan’s (inaudible)? And also, I’m also curious why it’s the Vice President instead of the President meeting with Mr. Abe? Does this signal any change of the U.S. policy towards Asia rebalance? Thank you.

MR. RUSSEL: I’ll take your second question first. The active involvement by Vice President Biden in bilateral diplomacy with important Asia partners is not a change. It’s something that he has done throughout his tenure. But it is yet another convincing piece of documentary evidence of the importance and the emphasis that the U.S. Government and the Obama Administration place on our engagement in the Asia Pacific region.

The President and the Vice President, particularly the Secretary of State, but frankly, the preponderance of the cabinet is actively and enthusiastically engaged in dealing with partners, partners in Northeast Asia, partners in Southeast Asia, and partners in Australia and New Zealand and the Pacific area. So yes, it’s quite meaningful that the Vice President, as he has before, is meeting with Asian leaders.

Now, in this particular case of President Obama is back in – has departed and Vice President Biden is co-chairing with Prime Minister Abe and others a session on peacekeeping. So it was opportune that the two of them could sit down and talk.

They talked both about our bilateral economic interests and how we can make progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is a high priority for both sides; and they talked about a number of global issues, including Russia-Ukraine, including ISIL, including Ebola; but they discussed also regional issues.

The Vice President, as I think the White House indicated, expressed his strong support and America’s strong support for good relation between Japan and its neighbors: Japan and China, and Japan and the ROK. We’re talking about three of the largest economies in the world. We’re talking about three very important partners for the United States and for the international community; in the case of Japan and the ROK, two treaty allies of the United States.

So for economic reasons, for geostrategic reasons, and for security reasons, good relations between Japan and China, and Japan and the ROK, entirely serve our interests and are warmly welcomed and strongly supported by the U.S.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Assistant Secretary. My name is Atsushi Okudera from Asahi Shimbun. I have two question, first one on Japan. As you know, Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida and the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met last night, and this is the second time in this two months. I’d like to know how do you see these efforts of both countries, and do you expect Prime Minister Abe and President Xi Jinping will meet on November on APEC meeting? If so, what do you expect both leaders talk about the problem between two countries like East China Sea issues or historical issues?

And at the same time, President Park of South Korea will also join that APEC meeting. Does the United States mediate both leaders to meet at the APEC meeting on November?

The second is the U.S.-China relationship. Somebody asked President Obama and President Xi Jinping will meet on the APEC meeting, and after that we’re going to have a bilateral meeting. Will this summit will be held in Beijing or other cities, like Sunnylands summit in the last year? Are you preparing or the Chinese Government preparing for, like, freestyle discussions – free discussion style like the Sunnylands?

And – but at the same time, U.S.-China relationship, the main point is to manage the differences. There’s still lots of differences, like territorial dispute, the South China Sea issues and East China Sea issues, and U.S. aircraft encounter with China’s jet fighter, or cyber issues. So how can you handle these difficulties? Particularly, could you give us a comment on the reclamation of the Spratly Island? How do you see these Chinese movement? Thanks so much.

MR. RUSSEL: Okay. Well, that’s a multipart question if I’ve ever heard one. Thank you. I think I addressed the importance that we place and the rationale for it, why we place importance on Japan’s improving and good relations with neighbors such as China and Korea in the previous question, so I’ll just confine myself to saying that while it is for the leaders and the governments of the countries concerned to decide whether and where and when to hold a summit meeting, as a general principle, we believe that the major economies, the major influential countries in the Asia Pacific region, and in the case of Japan and Korea, of course, two leading democracies, have a lot to talk about. And of course, we see value in those discussions taking place at every level, including at the highest level. But the when and the where and the what is not for us to dictate.

And we’re not in the business of mediating between two peaceful democratic partners like Japan and Korea. However, we have in the past and we can continue at a variety of levels engaged on a trilateral basis precisely because we have so much in common on so many issues to work on.

I’ll leave it to the White House to provide details as they see fit about the planning for the President’s bilateral visit to China and the discussion style involved. What I can say as a veteran of quite a few of President Obama’s meetings with Chinese leaders, and particularly with President Xi Jinping at Sunnylands and elsewhere, is that the importance of the issues and the urgency of the task before the President of the United States and the president of China is such that I believe both leaders feel the need to utilize the time that they have together in bilateral discussions to the best effect and the maximum extent. And I have found these discussions to be substantive and direct.

The U.S. view, and certainly the practice that President Obama has followed, is that we have to identify areas for cooperation with China and focus our efforts on the problems where we believe the U.S. and China working together can make a difference. At the same time, we need candidly but constructively to recognize and to discuss our areas of disagreement and, where possible, work through them, and when those disagreements don’t yield easily to compromise, find effective ways to manage them and prevent them from spilling over.

Now, you asked about the South China Sea. That is not intrinsically a bilateral issue between China and the United States. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. takes no position on the relative merits of sovereignty claims by China or other claimants to particular land features in the South China Sea. We hold this, however, as an important area of conversation both in our bilateral talks with China and in the appropriate regional fora, such as the ASEAN context, because the net effect of problematic behavior by China or by others on the stability and the security of the Asia-Pacific region is hugely germane to U.S. national security, as well as our global responsibilities.

We talk about the importance of asserting and making and clarifying territorial claims in a way that’s fully consistent with accepted international law. And similarly, we talked to the Chinese about the importance of behavior, practical behavior, whether it has to do with the movement of coast guard or military ships, or whether it has to do with the promulgation of unilateral rules that purport to exercise authority over what is regarded by others either as contested space or as international space.

In that context, we have spoken and continue to speak directly to each of the claimants, particularly the Chinese, about our concerns over reclamation work. That means digging up the bottom of the sea, creating landfill to build out what are essentially rocks or shoals into a large enough territory to hold facilities of various types. Now, China is by no means the only country that has undertaken this, but the scale, scope, and pace of China’s reclamation work vastly exceeds that of others and is the source of clear anxiety and instability, neither of which are contributing to the kind of region that we and I think China wants.

These are issues of concern not only to the United States but to the entire region, and although no amount of landfill or reclamation has the slightest effect on the legal status of a rock under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a party, the wholesale reclamation is an example of unilateral action that changes the status quo. And changing the status quo or pursuing actions that make it more difficult to reach a peaceful and diplomatic solution is not only undesirable, but runs directly counter to the commitments that China and the 10 ASEAN countries made back in 2002 in paragraph five of their declaration of conduct.

MODERATOR: We may have time for one more question if it’s a short one.

QUESTION: Thank you. So I have a quick question. My name is Wada. I’m with Japan’s Mainichi newspaper. Thank you very much for doing this. My question is about Japan. Recently, we see a number of reports talking about new cabinet members, high-ranking officials of the ruling party, having some kind of association with, like, neo-Nazi groups or some group which is known for its very harsh rhetoric and action against ethnic Korean residents in Japan. I wanted to know your reaction to those reports and also your reaction to the explanations given by those cabinet members (inaudible). Thank you very much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: My focus is on the policies and the behavior of the Government of Japan as pertains to international relations, international economic programs and practices, the effort to address regional and global problems, and the U.S.-Japan alliance. So I’m not in the business of handicapping the personal politics or the background of politicians or of members of foreign government cabinet. So frankly, this is not an issue on which I have a comment.

However, the behavior and the objectives of the Abe government, the Government of Japan, are very germane to me and to Secretary Kerry and to the U.S. Government. Those were the subject of very substantive discussion earlier in the week between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Kishida. Those were the subject of the discussion I referred to earlier today between Vice President Biden and Prime Minister Abe. And of course, in April, when President Obama visited Japan, he had two days in which to delve deeply into the range of common interests and concerns between the U.S. and Japan.

In that list, of course, is the topic of Japan’s relationship with its neighbors, Japan’s coming to terms with history and the steps that Japan has taken, will take, can take to ameliorate the legacy of the pre-war period. That said, the U.S. is eminently mindful of the fact that the record of the last 70 years is one of a Japan that has contributed hugely to the region and to global stability and security. It’s one in which the Japanese Self-Defense Forces or military have never fired a shot in anger.

The issues that we discuss are the threats of – from violent radical extremism, ISIL; the threat from pandemics and contagious diseases, Ebola; the challenge to the international order and to UN charter principles like sovereignty and territorial integrity, such as the behavior of Russia in the Ukraine; global challenges such as climate change and environmental degradation; global goals such as women’s empowerment and bringing women into the workforce; more broadly, creating opportunities for entrepreneurship, for innovation, for economic growth; our collaboration on the TPP. That’s just a fraction of the long list of areas where the U.S. and Japan, along with a multitude of partners in the Asia Pacific region, are cooperating.

So as much as the headlines may be dominated by the crisis of the week, of the day, of the month, of the hour, the deepening of practical cooperation between the United States and our partners throughout the Asia Pacific region is a force for stability and for prosperity. We have long-term strategic interests that we pursue on an ongoing basis in addition to the very significant and activist crisis management that we are engaged in on at any given moment.

MODERATOR: I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thank you very much.