Roundtable With Malaysian Media

Press Availability
Daniel R. Russel
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
January 24, 2015

Date: 01/24/2015 Description: Assistant Secretary Russel's roundtable with Malaysian media in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. - State Dept Image

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Thanks for coming. I'm very happy to be back in Malaysia. I visited many times in my previous job working for President Obama and in my current job as the Assistant Secretary of State. I was here in April when the President visited and I’m coming back in November. Secretary Kerry will be here for some ASEAN meetings and President Obama of course will be here for the ASEAN leaders meetings and East Asia Summit. I came to Malaysia very early in my diplomatic career so I have very fond memories here. And I also work closely with Malaysian diplomats on a wide range of bilateral and regional issues. My particular focus this week is driven by two things. Number one, the fact that Malaysia now chairs ASEAN – that’s very important to the United States. And second, that Malaysia has taken a seat on the UN Security Council. So 2015 is a very important year for a number of reasons and the objective of reaching the ASEAN Economic Community by the end of the year is one of those important reasons. Most of my time was spent meeting with my Foreign Ministry counterparts. And the Secretary General of the Foreign Minister, Othman, who is the former Malaysian ambassador to the United States, is playing a central role in coordinating the ASEAN program. And so it was important for us to consult and to understand Malaysia’s objective and priorities for ASEAN 2015 and to try to identify ways that the U.S. can continue to build a strong relationship of cooperation within ASEAN. I also was received by several ministers. The Foreign Minister of course was traveling with the Prime Minister. But I met with Defense Minister Hishammuddin. That’s very important because U.S.-Malaysia defense cooperation is a priority for both countries. This is particularly true given the tensions in the South China Sea. And it’s particularly true given the threat caused by radical violent extremism and ISIL. I met in that same regard with the Home Minister, Minister Zahid, who I have known for a while, and had a good in-depth discussion about the challenges posed by terrorism and how the U.S. can cooperate in preventing violent extremism from threatening or damaging our countries or peoples. I also met with the Minister of Youth and Sports, Minister Khairy, who I’ve also met before. One of the reasons is that, as President Obama made so clear when he visited KL, engagement with youth in Southeast Asia and Malaysia – which is a very youthful country where the middle class is growing so fast – is an investment in America’s economic future as well. So we exchanged views on things that the U.S. can do in support of the youth focus of the ASEAN agenda of this year. We talked about things like the 100 English Teaching Assistants, the ETAs, who just arrived in Malaysia and is something we’re proud of. I’m particularly proud that some of the ETAs have gone out to Kelantan to help with the recovery from the terrible flooding. In each of the meetings I extended, on behalf of the United States, our deep condolences and said we were proud to have been able to contribute, along with others in the international community, to the relief effort there. I also had meetings with representatives of civil society and members of parliament. It’s important to us, to the United States, to hear directly from citizens about their views on universal principles of human rights and civil rights, their views on the U.S.-Malaysia relationship, and their views on the economy. One of the big developments in 2015 of course will be the conclusion of the TPP, the Trans Pacific Partnership. That’s an agreement that will bring very significant benefits to Malaysia and to the U.S. and other partner countries. So that was among the many things we discussed. I’ll stop here but before I do, the last thing I’ll mention is that we have a Comprehensive Partnership between Malaysia and the United States and the emphasis is both on “partnership” but also on “comprehensive”. It means that we meet with all segments of society. It means that we work with the government on the range of issues that matter to people in Malaysia and people in the United States. That means political and diplomatic issues, it means trade and investment, it means educational exchange and science and technology. It means people-to-people exchanges, including promotion of tourism and overseas study. It includes climate and energy and the environment. And very importantly, it includes security and defense. In each of my major meetings and in each of my stops I’ve posted something, either a photo or brief comment, on our bureau’s new Twitter account. It’s @USAsiaPacific. If you’re interested in what we’re doing, I hope you’ll look at it and encourage your readers to look at it also. I’ll stop there.

QUESTION: My question is about the conclusion of TPP in 2015. Are you confident you can reach a conclusion by 2015? Because our Prime Minister Najib spoke, during the last weeks, that there are certain terms and conditions that we cannot accept in TPPA. Will there be a delay until after the presidency of President Obama?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: I am and have always been an optimist when it comes to TPP for a very simple reason: this trade agreement benefits all 12 of the countries involved. The United States wants it and I believe that the other partners, including Malaysia, should and do want it. Now, we all want it to be a good agreement. We all want it to be a high-standard, high-quality trade agreement that opens markets and lowers or eliminates tariffs and other barriers. We all want it to work to our advantage. Now, I am not the trade negotiator. I am not the expert. But I do know from watching trade negotiations that it always looks most difficult at the end game. That’s natural in deal making. I think our negotiators have made very substantial progress and the outstanding issues, the remaining issues, are ones that the political leaders will have to decide. But among the 12 countries, studies have shown that Malaysia is near the top of the list in terms of direct benefits from TPP because Malaysia will gain access to 40 percent of the world’s GDP – markets of that size. That’s huge. I think the conservative estimate is that Malaysia’s exports would grow over the first 10 years by something like 40 billion dollars. That’s pretty encouraging. So, on that basis I do feel confident that it is within the power of the leaders and the negotiators to come to closure soon.

QUESTION: Prime Minister Najib did mention we have issues with TPPA. He mentioned that "we want TPP but a TPP that based on our terms and conditions.” We wish to know how the U.S. and Malaysia will compromise [unclear] on this TPPA.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Well that is the job of our trade negotiators; they are working hard at this. And I believe that they are working with determination and good faith.

QUESTION: So you’re confident that it will be concluded this year?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: As I said, this is not science. But I have a great deal of optimism that the agreement will conclude soon. Certainly this year, because – not because I am privy to any of the secrets of the negotiations – but because the logic is so strong. The benefits of TPP to Malaysia and the United States and the other 10 countries are so great that it provides a powerful incentive to come to closure.

QUESTION: Is it because the presidency of President Obama is ended [unclear]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: The presidency of President Obama is getting stronger and stronger. It’s got a long way to go and support for free trade is very strong in both houses of Congress. So this is not tied to the timeline of U.S. presidential politics. Other questions?

QUESTION: You met with the Defense and Home Ministers on terrorism. Can you tell us a little about U.S. involvement in that? Especially the concerns that Malaysia might be used as a transit point for want-to-be terrorists.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: There is a considerable amount of important and practical cooperation under way between the governments of the United States and Malaysia. We share a common interest in safeguarding our people, our ports and facilities, from the threat of terrorism. We also have a common interest in pushing back against the attempts to exploit or recruit or radicalize our citizens. This is not limited to Malaysia or the United States, this is a global concern. Now, Malaysia as a Muslim-majority country that is founded with a constitution that is committed to pluralism and balance, has, in our view, a lot to teach in terms of dealing with the threat from radical ideology and violent extremism. On a technical level, we are exploring ways that our laws and our law enforcement agencies can strengthen the defense against potential terrorist activities. And in the broader society, we also see a role for community leaders and religious leaders in pushing back against false ideology that distorts religious teaching for bad political goals. We have a lot to learn from Malaysia and from other Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia. And so maintaining close cooperation, maintaining dialogue to deal with that global threat of violent extremism and jihadism, is a high priority for the United States.

QUESTION: What kind of cooperation? Any special programs or any special achievements that you are working on?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: I don’t have anything to announce today, but I would describe them as falling into several categories. There is bilateral cooperation between the governments of Malaysia and the United States on the exchanging of information, safeguarding our travel facilities, etcetera. There is regional cooperation and that includes, importantly, the work that is being done within ASEAN and at ASEAN forums including the East Asia Summit, which has clearly and vigorously denounced ISIL and its radical ideology. There is international cooperation and Malaysia, as a new member of the UN Security Council, is obligated and committed to work on implementing the UN Security Council resolution against foreign terrorist fighters which was adopted late last year. So on the country-to-country, on the regional, and on the global side we are working multiple lines of practical cooperation. In addition to the non-government dialogue which I alluded to.

QUESTION: Maybe you can discuss our program in Southeast Asia, especially [unclear] maritime [unclear] in the South China Sea. So how are [unclear] help solve our maritime issues?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Thank you. Well I held in-depth discussions with government counterparts during my visit in Kuala Lumpur about the issues of maritime security. Particularly the issues of the South China Sea. Now, there are many dimensions to our maritime security agenda. There is a very positive agenda in terms of our cooperation within ASEAN on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as maritime safety and the preservation of the marine ecosystem, including the management of fisheries and wildlife. But at the same time as there is this positive agenda there are also significant tensions driven by the behavior of parties and the inability of the claimants to resolve disputes and differences over their territorial claims. Malaysia is both a claimant in the South China Sea, a founding member of ASEAN, and the chair of ASEAN in 2015 so its interest and stake in the issue is a big one. The United State is not a claimant to any territory in the South China Sea. And as a matter of policy worldwide we never – we don’t take a position on the ultimate resolution of sovereignty disputes between other countries. That is a place where we remain neutral. We’re not taking Msia’s side against China or the Philippines or China’s side against Malaysia. Where we are not neutral, where we are very strong and outspoken, is in defending universal principles, universal law, and accepted norms. That includes our defense of the principle of freedom of navigation and overflight as well as the right to unimpeded lawful commerce in the oceans. It also includes our very strong view that differences and disputes must be resolved peacefully. Where possible, we hope they will be resolved through diplomacy. But we also accept and respect the right of any claimant to use international legal mechanisms, like the Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, or others, such as the International Court of Justice, to address and to resolve outstanding issues. What we oppose is the use or the threat to use force. We oppose coercion or retaliation by economic or other means. And as President Obama said in his State of the Union address the other day, we oppose any bullying by bigger countries against smaller countries. That undermines both the universal rule of law and the stability of this important region, which is economically critical to the future of the United States. So it’s our hope that, number one, Malaysia will be a model for the responsible behavior of all claimants. What I mean by that is that we want to see every claimant showing real restraint and avoiding action that unilaterally changes the status quo in the South China Sea and avoiding actions that are threatening to neighbors and destabilizing to the region. It also means favoring real and measurable progress in establishing a code of conduct between the 10 ASEAN countries and China that will be binding and that will govern the behavior of all parties and all claimants. We very much hope that can be concluded in 2015 under Malaysia’s chairmanship of ASEAN.

QUESTION: If Your Excellency can touch on the Rohingya issue? [unclear]

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Well I didn’t come to Malaysia to give a press conference about Myanmar. President Obama, when I accompanied him to Myanmar last year, spoke very directly and I think very eloquently on that issue. The broader point is that we strongly believe that pluralistic and tolerant societies are stable and thriving societies. The motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum, is Latin for “One from out of many.” We think that the diversity of our population in ethnic terms, in religious terms, and in political terms is our greatest strength and we think that principle applies not only in Malaysia, not only in Myanmar, but throughout the world. So creating a tolerant and inclusive political environment that gives a voice to all groups, that shows respect for all groups – ethnic groups and religious groups – is not just consistent with universal human rights and democratic principles, it’s a smart strategy.