Telephonic Media Briefing With Nina Hachigian, U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN

December 2, 2015

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OPERATOR: Welcome to the Department of State conference call. At this time all participants are in a listen-only mode. Later we will conduct a question and answer session. Instructions will be given at that time. If you should require assistance during the call, please press *, followed by 0. As a reminder, today’s call is being recorded. I would now like to turn the conference over to Cynthia Gire. Please go ahead.

MODERATOR: Thank you and greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Media Engagement. I would like to welcome our journalists who have dialed in from throughout the Asia Pacific. Today, we are joined by U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN, Nina Hachigian, who will brief us on the recent U.S. – ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This is a very important discussion, and I appreciate all of you taking your time out of today to participate in the briefing. Ambassador Hachigian will be speaking to us today from Jakarta, Indonesia.

She will begin with opening remarks. We will then open it up to your questions. And with that, I will turn it over to the Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Good morning everyone. Cindy, thanks so much for helping us organize the call and connecting us to talk about the ASEAN US and East Asia Summits last week. The year 2015 as you all know, is a big year for ASEAN. At the Summit, ASEAN marked the launch of its nearly 50-year in the making ASEAN Community with a new set of detailed blueprints and action plans to drive integration in the next 10 years.

This is significant because it shows a very high political level of commitment to the process of greater integration, which is economically and strategically beneficial to both ASEAN and to the United States. This is also a big year for the US relationship with ASEAN. As you know we’ve established a new normal of intense engagement with ASEAN as part of the Asia rebalance where we now have me, a resident ambassador and a dedicated mission and we have the President of the United States coming to the US/ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit each year and that’s not to mention this year we also had visits by Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Carter, USTR Head Mike Froman to ministerial ASEAN meetings.

This year we elevated our relationship with ASEAN through a strategic partnership to strengthen the role our relationship plays in realizing a peaceful, prosperous Southeast Asia that offers security, opportunity and dignity to all of its citizens. This new status is a recognition of the fact that the ASEAN-US relationship is very important to both of us and that we cooperate on vital issues across ASEAN’s three communities, which are political security, economic and sociocultural. I’ll go into a little bit of detail in a minute on our cooperation.

So to commemorate this new status of our relationship at the US-ASEAN Summit, President Obama invited all ten ASEAN leaders to hold a special summit in 2016 in the United States. This will be the first ever stand-alone ASEAN-US Summit in the US and it will take place in the first half of next year. In Kuala Lumpur, US and ASEAN issued a joint statement also to commemorate the new phase in our relationship and I think that despite the fact that it was written by 11 countries, I think it’s a document that someone outside the government should be able to read and understand. But you will all have to be the judge of that. You can find that document on the White House web site and on the US Mission to ASEAN web site.

The statement recognizes that our relationship is grounded in shared principles and I’m just going to quote from here where we say that, quote, “We are committed to a world-based approach in Asia, respect for international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Our partnership is committed to strengthening democracy, enhancing the governance and the rule of law, promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, encouraging the promotion of power in moderation and protecting the environment.”

I’ll give you one more quote from the statement, it says that, quote, “We are dedicated to ASEAN centrality in the evolving rule-based regional architecture of the Asia Pacific. We recognize the important role we have each played and that we have played together in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia Pacific Region.”

The document also provides five priority areas of cooperation with ASEAN, including economic integration, maritime cooperation, transnational challenges including climate change, emerging leaders and women’s opportunity. These are areas where we have focused and will continue to engage in the region. And I’ll just go through each of these very briefly. The first is economic integration. American companies are the largest cumulative investors in Southeast Asia which created millions of jobs in both the US and in ASEAN.

Since 2008, the US has also invested in the ASEAN Single Window to facilitate the free flow of goods across borders and that is a key component of the ASEAN economic community, which will launch in a limited fashion towards the end of this year, early next year. For maritime cooperation, Secretary of State Kerry announced this year a $20 million oceans and fisheries partnership that we have with ASEAN to strengthen regional cooperation to combat illegal unreported and unregulated fishing and to conserve the marine biodiversity in Southeast Asia.

In national challenges, the leaders spent time talking about violent extremism and ISIL and as I’ll talk about in a minute at EAS, the East Asia Summit, the leaders endorsed a statement about that. Also ASEAN just endorsed at the summit, a binding ASEAN convention on trafficking in persons to effectively prevent and combat trafficking, especially of women and children. So this is a hugely positive step and we will continue to assist ASEAN with trafficking in persons in the region.

Climate change was also a focus of discussion at the US-ASEAN meeting and we know that ASEAN member states have committed to addressing climate change as are we and our representatives are all in Paris now. Our engagement with emerging leaders continues to have a prominent place in our work with ASEAN. President Obama’s Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative, we call it YSEALI for short, strengthens leadership development for ASEAN’S young people across the region at workshops and at summits, their exchanges to the US, small grants and digital engagements.

YSEALI now has 57,000 members across all ten ASEAN member states and I loved meeting with these young leaders. They’re extremely impressive and extremely enthusiastic and I’m always grateful for their dedication to improving ASEAN. President Obama also had a terrific town hall with about 500 of them in Kuala Lumpur.

Our last priority area is promoting opportunities for women and the US supports this through a number of ASEAN programs, including the ASEAN Women’s Entrepreneurial Network, our work with the ASEAN Commission on the Protection and Promotion of Rights of Women and Children as well as through the ASEAN-US Science Prize for Women. So I’ll move on now to the East Asia Summit. This is the preeminent strategic forum for political and security issues in the Asia Pacific. And it celebrated its tenth anniversary this year and the 18 leaders endorsed a declaration that will strengthen this institution.

So again, these are the ten ASEAN nations plus eight prominent partners of ASEAN, including us and China and Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and India. So at this summit, the 18 countries agreed for the first time to a maritime cooperation statement which reaffirmed the freedom of navigation and over-flight and the importance of international law. It calls on countries to cooperate to eliminate illegal fishing and promote marine conservation. So this is a jointly-negotiated document of all 18 countries; the United States, China, Australia, New Zealand were co-sponsors. This is an Indonesia-led effort.

As for the South China Sea, there was a robust discussion at the East Asia Summit as there usually is. As you know while the United States is not a claimant and we take no position on the sovereignty of particular features in the South China Sea, President Obama conveyed the United States’ commitment to freedom of navigation and over-flight and other lawful uses of the sea, adherence to international law, unimpeded lawful commerce, peace and stability in the region. The President expressed support for the region’s effort to develop a code of conduct but he also asked parties to take more immediate steps to lower tensions including the halt to land reclamation, the construction of new facilities and further militarization of outposts in the South China Sea.

The President also noted the unanimous decision of the Arbitral Tribunal jurisdiction in the Law of the Sea Convention case between the Philippines and China and expressed support for the rights of states through arbitration. The vast majority of leaders at the EAS Summit spoke about South China Sea and the need to lower tensions and the Chairman’s statement of the East Asia Summit, which was a reflection of the leaders’ discussion, contains an explicit reference to welcoming President Xi’s statement in Washington that China has no intent to militarize the Spratleys. And there are other statements from the summit that also talk about the South China Sea, including the US-ASEAN Chair statement, the ASEAN Summit Chair statement as well as the EAS Maritime Cooperation Statement that I mentioned earlier.

EAS leaders also endorsed the US-sponsored Cyber Security Statement which emphasizes the importance of regional cooperation to improve the security and stability of cyber networks. And finally, the leaders endorsed a statement on countering violent extremism. Obviously critical in today’s world and also a subject of discussion at the East Asia Summit. So we had a very productive few days in Kuala Lumpur and it started a way forward for the years to come. With that, let me hand it back over to Cindy to open up the conversation and I can answer a few of your questions. Thanks very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s event. For those asking questions, please state your name, affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to today’s topic –the recent U.S. – ASEAN and East Asia Summits. With that, I’ll just remind you to press *1 on your phone to join the question queue. You need to press *1 on your phone to join the question queue.

Okay, the first question is from Santi Dewi of Viva News in Indonesia. Can we open her mic?

OPERATOR: Your line is open.

REPORTER: Hello, good morning, Ambassador Hachigian [unintelligible - 12:43] given. I’d like to ask the question to relate on the South China Sea. President Obama’s visit to Manila before he went into Kuala Lumpur for APAC, he already, urged China government was talking about the land reclamation on the disputed areas in South China Sea, which seems to be like ignored by the government of China. So as a country which is not part of the claimant party, how does US play its role to make sure that any provocative action in any given areas will be stopped? Thank you very much. Hello?

MODERATOR: Thank you for that question. Just a moment, I want to make sure the Speaker’s mic is open.


AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Hello, hello, hello? Okay, now you can hear me. Okay. Well thank you for the question. As I said in my opening remarks, you know, we’re not a claimant and we don’t take a position on sovereignty but yet we have strong interest in the South China Sea; in freedom of commerce and in freedom of navigation and over-flight and in the peaceful settlement of disputes. So what we’re doing, first of all we’re consistently encouraging China and ASEAN to establish a code of conduct because we think it will help strengthen the rules-based order in the region and mitigate risks of an escalation.

We’ve been very active in building regional consensus behind principles that undergird the rules-based order. We’ve been standing up for the right of claimants to use international arbitration, these enactments including I am sure you saw in the Philippines the announcements about enhancing the maritime capacity of claimants and others in the region. We’ve increased our military presence, we’ve strengthened our coordination on maritime issues with and among partners and allies. We’ve been urging consistently and publicly and privately in all our diplomacy to say that the claimants have the reciprocal halts to land reclamation, construction and militarization. We’ve been engaging candidly with Beijing to underscore our expectation that China will adhere to assurances that President Xi made in the United States to not militarize outposts as well as upholding freedom of navigation and over-flight and peacefully resolving disputes.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our second question was submitted from Vietnam and I will read that: Does the US need to adjust their policies because ASEAN just created a regional community, the EAC, if yes, what are they?

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Thanks for that. We’ve actually been a big supporter of the ASEAN community and with our programs, so I don’t think we’re going to need to adjust because it’s something that we’ve been anticipating for quite some time. We have been, as I said, since 2008, supporting the ASEAN Single Window. So that’s a customs regime that once it is in place, somebody who wants to import or export to ASEAN only has to fill out paperwork one time and then that paperwork gets shared with everybody. So it really just speeds the flow of goods across borders and also reduces opportunities for corruption. That’s also useful.

We’ve also been, for many years now, helping the small businesses of the region. We have a partnership with the US-ASEAN Business Council and its trained now 3,500 small business owners in various skills and we’re getting a program on e-commerce this year. Many of those, at least half if not more, are women. So those are the two examples of how we’ve supported the ASEAN economic community. And we’ve supported for example our young leaders program is also trying to connect young leaders across ASEAN to create an ASEAN identity so we’ve been -- this is something that ASEAN has been working on a long time and we’ve been working alongside ASEAN to encourage it and we’re very excited that it finally will come into being on December 31st at midnight this year.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Xing News. Can we please open his mic?

OPERATOR: Go ahead, your line is open.

MODERATOR: Operator?

REPORTER: Thank you, thank you. Good morning. My question is after reaching the partnership with ASEAN countries, what is the next cooperating with ASEAN in terms of having these things expect demonstrating freedom of navigation in South China Seas? Thank you.


REPORTER: Yes, I can hear you too.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Okay, great. Thank you for that question. I don’t have more to add to what was announced in the Philippines but it was part of a two-year program of $250 million for increasing the maritime capacity of allies and partners and it follows on the assistance that we’ve been giving for the past number of years as well. And in terms of the freedom of navigation operations, we don’t comment on future operations as a rule. I can say that the recent operation was routine, lawful and consistent with the way we regularly conduct freedom of navigation operations globally and have for many decades.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the Brunei Times. Can we please open his mic?

OPERATOR: Your line is open.

REPORTER: Hi, thanks. My question is what role does the US -- is the US going to play in the 2015 AEC Agenda, specifically in the instance of removal of non-tariff areas which I understand has been one of the biggest challenges for the EAC. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Thank you. That’s an excellent question. So to get to your -- at the broadest level, we are, as I said earlier, our companies are the largest investors in ASEAN and so we have a big stake in how the AEC moves forward. It is a very important year. It’s an important milestone for the AEC but everybody understands that this is an ongoing process.

It’s extremely hopeful, the amounts of progress that ASEAN has made so far on the AEC. I don’t think anyone in the early 90s would have predicted that ASEAN was going to become a tariff free community in terms of tariffs on goods. They’re almost down to zero so that’s impressive. But everybody recognizes there’s lots of work to do including in non-tariff barriers in particular. There’s going to be implemented, next year, a system by which private companies can lodge problems that they’re having in terms of cross-border trade with the ASEAN Secretariat and that those problems will be followed up on. And so that’s a way in which there will be -- ASEAN can find out where the remaining challenges are in terms of non-tariff barriers.

And so that will be a system that I will encourage our companies to use so that will be one way in which we’ll be assisting. But we’ll continue our assistance as well with the ASEAN Single Window and with our work with women entrepreneurs and small business owners and we also do work on standards harmonization across ASEAN and that’s helped especially in the area of medical devices. And so we will continue that work as well in trying to help ASEAN harmonize standards across all ten countries.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Cambodia with Maritime. Will you please open his mic?

OPERATOR: Your line is open.

REPORTER: Hello, good morning Ambassador and thanks for holding this conference. I work for Phnom Penh Newspaper and here in Cambodia some analysts worry that the country, being poorer than its neighbors in the region, will have difficulty competing economically in ASEAN. Is the US doing anything to help level the playing field for poorer nations like Cambodia within ASEAN? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Thank you for that question. We have a whole program called the Lower Mekong Initiative, which is dedicated exactly to that problem or that challenge of lowering the development gap in ASEAN and we have a whole host of programs within that initiative that are designed to raise up the levels of skills in particular for young people in the CMLV countries. So we have a program called Comet for example, which is a partnership with private sector companies, that is working with employers who are looking for certain skills and trying to bring those certain skills to the -- or trying to train in Cambodia and the other Lower Mekong countries in those exact skills. But what we’ve found is that they’re a mismatch. That there are jobs available but that young people don’t have the skills that they need.

And so we’re trying to be the bridge between young people and employment. So that’s just one of the ways. But we in general are focused on trying to engage with ASEAN to ensure that everybody is getting a fair chance. And I would just say that the anxieties about the AEC are not just in the lesser developed countries. That the more developed countries also have concerns about it. But the leadership is committed to it and overall, all the studies suggest that this is going to really raise the growth in the regions overall. It’s a new thing and so it’s understandable that some people are concerned about change. But it’s ultimately going to be very positive for the region.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Vietnam. Can we please open his mic?

OPERATOR: Your line is open. Please go ahead. Your line is open.

REPORTER: Can you hear me?


REPORTER: Hello, thank you so much. This is [unintelligible - 26:40]. What can ASEAN do to play a more active leadership role in global politics and as the US Ambassador to ASEAN, what are your personal priorities as well as next year to help make that happen?

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: That’s an excellent question. And it’s the ambition of ASEAN to play a larger leadership role. I think I would look to -- let’s begin with last year where the US and ASEAN together agreed on a statement having to do with climate change and the explicit idea behind that statement was to help contribute to the momentum going into these Paris talks. Likewise, ASEAN issued a statement about the climate talks -- ASEAN itself issued a statement on climate change at its own summit just a few weeks ago.

So that’s one example. Another is on countering violent extremism. So this is obviously an issue that is important across the world to take a stand against ISIL and its brutal tactics. And ASEAN has shown leadership there. Under ASEAN’S leadership of the East Asia Summit, countries issued a statement on countering violent extremism and will be continuing to work on ways to counter radical messaging and integrating previously radicalized people back into the population. Both of those efforts will continue on in ASEAN and ASEAN’s lessons will be throughout to the globe.

Also on trafficking in persons, which is again a global phenomenon, ASEAN has really taken an important stand in passing, in signing onto its own trafficking in persons convention this year. This was a convention that’s been negotiated for a long time and my understanding is that it meets and even sometimes exceeds international standards on these issues. So that’s another case where ASEAN is really being proactive in addressing a global concern and the United States will be helping to implement that convention in the ten ASEAN countries going forward. So those are two examples.

Let me give you one more, which is illegal fishing. So we, along with ASEAN are working on a program by which you’ll be able to trace seafood caught in Southeast Asia back to its source to note that it was caught legally and that’s another example where ASEAN is showing leadership on a globally important issue.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Cambodia. Can we please open his mic?

OPERATOR: Go ahead, your line is open.

REPORTER: Hello? Hello?

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Hello, I can hear you.

REPORTER: Okay, good morning Ambassador. I have one question regarding the greater relationship between ASEAN and US to the [unintelligible - 30:29] and in great expectation of the ASEAN leaders to the [unintelligible - 30:34] by Obama in ASEAN. So based on your opinion, how does this enrichment help facilitate the policy of US people to Asia in general and to --

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: You’re asking about the invitation to have the summit in the United States? Your mic was a little bit -- I couldn’t quite hear. Is that right?

REPORTER: Yes, yes, yes. And also our relation between Asia and US to the [unintelligible - 31:09] policy.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Yes, okay. Well I think that the upgrade of our relationship to a strategic partnership and the invitation of President Obama for all ten ASEAN leaders to come to the United States this year are perfect examples of how we have increased our engagement in the Asia Pacific pretty dramatically and have set a new -- what we call a new normal. So we set a new base level of intensified activities with Asia. I’ll give you one fact. Over the last five years, we’ve spent about $4 billion in development assistance in ASEAN alone. And ASEAN is our fourth largest trading partner and our trade is increasing.

We have millions of people visiting each other’s shores every year. We have a great number of exchanges, students, between the United States and ASEAN and they are also on the rise. So all of these facts point to the deepening and broadening of our relationship with ASEAN in particular and Asia, the Asia Pacific more broadly.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We have time for two more questions. The next question is from NHK in Japan. Can we please open that mic?

OPERATOR: Go ahead, your mic is open.

REPORTER: Hello. Hi, thank you very much Ambassador. My question is about the special summit which will be held next year in the United States. While you mentioned that President Obama invited the leaders of the ASEAN to participate in the special summit and I’m just wondering when and where this special summit will be held and what will be the agenda? Specifically I’m wondering about the South China Sea issue will be talked about as part of that?

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Thank you for your question. This is what I can say, I don’t have further information to share with you beyond the fact that it will be in the United States in the first half of next year. But you can monitor information coming out of the White House and will hear more in the coming weeks about all the details about it.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Ambassador Hachigian, are you there?


MODERATOR: We have one more question and that is from China Review News, can we please open his mic?

OPERATOR: Your mic is open.

REPORTER: Hello. Hello?

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Yes, I can hear you, yes.

REPORTER: Good morning, good morning Ambassador. I would like to say that 2015 has been a call of arbitration in the Hague to affirm its right. But China insists the creation for [unintelligible - 34:56] as no assistance and no participation. So I wonder what are your suggestions for mitigating the gridlock for the South China Sea? And also in terms of the fellow US relation, do you think the United States Navy’s recent and continuous navigation operation will approach tipping point for the future Sino-US relationship? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Okay, that connection was a little bit unclear but I think you’re asking about the Philippine arbitration case and also the freedom of navigation exercises. So on the Philippines case, as we said before, we support the peaceful resolution of disputes including the use of international legal mechanisms such as arbitration including the arbitration process pursued by the Philippines. In this case, there was an October decision by the Arbitral Tribunal in a unanimous decision, about 149-pages in which they had found that they do have jurisdiction. The Tribunal is now determining whether the Philippines claims are well-founded in fact and law. But in accordance with the terms of the Law of the Sea Convention, to which China is a member, the decision of the Tribunal will be legally binding on the Philippines and China.

As to the freedom of navigation exercises, these are routine exercises that we do on a global scale. They are designed to protect the rights and freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries under international law. These operations don’t assert any special US specific rights. We’ve conducted them for decades in dozens and dozens of locations, including in the past, in the South China Sea. There isn’t any reason why the South China Sea should be an exception to this program and these operations have nothing to do with sovereignty. As you know, we don’t take the position on the sovereignty of specific features in the South China Sea. There’s no reason that these operations which are conducted in accordance with international law, should be viewed as elevating tensions in anyway. We respect China’s international legal right to conduct similar operations elsewhere in the world. When China has operated lawfully in our territorial waters, we have not reacted because they have the legal right under international law to do so.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Hachigian. I know that that is all the time that we have left. I’m sorry we were not able to get to everyone’s questions. I wanted to thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today and ask you if you have any final words before we close the call.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Thank you, Cindy. I would just say that ASEAN is very important to the United States for many reasons but I’m just going to leave you with a quote from President Obama, which describes one of the reasons and he said, quote, “ASEAN plays a vital role in advancing a rules-based order for the Asia Pacific.” And I think that that says very well one of the many reasons why ASEAN is so important to the United States.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. And thank you to all of our callers for participating in today’s call. If you have any questions about the call, please contact me at And that concludes today’s call. I’ll turn it back over to the Operator.