Telephonic Media Briefing With Dan Kritenbrink, NSC Senior Director for Asian Affairs and Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs

February 10, 2016

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OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience in standing by and welcome to the Update on the US ASEAN Relationship. At this time all of you participant lines are in a listen-only mode and later there will be an opportunity for questions. And as a brief reminder, today’s conference is being recorded. But I now would like to turn it to Cynthia Gire with the State Department Office of International Media Engagement.
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 today who have dialed in from throughout the Asia Pacific region. Today, we are joined by NSC Senior Director for Asian Affairs, Dan Kritenbrink and Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs here at the Department of State. Our briefers will be speaking to us today from Washington, DC. Just a brief note on ground rules. Today’s briefing is on the record and is embargoed until the conclusion of the call. If you would like to join the question queue, please press *1 at the start of the question and answer session.
NSC Senior Director Kritenbrink will begin with opening remarks. He will then turn it over to Assistant Secretary Russel. We will then open it up to your questions. And with that, I will turn it over to Mr. Kritenbrink.
MR. KRITENBRINK: Thank you, Cindy. Hi, good morning everyone. I’m Dan Kritenbrink, I’m Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. I’m delighted to be with you today. I wanted to walk you briefly through the agenda and the main objectives for the US-ASEAN Leaders Summit in Sunnylands and then I’ll ask my good friend and colleague, Assistant Secretary Russel to highlight some of our diplomatic priorities for the Summit.
The President is excited and honored to host the 10 ASEAN leaders 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 will be the first time that the President has hosted the leaders of ASEAN for this kind of standalone summit. We believe that the summit represents a significant achievement and demonstrates the United States’ enduring commitment to the Asia Pacific and to ASEAN.
We believe that this summit is an opportunity to build on the momentum of our new strategic partnership with ASEAN that was announced last November and it’s also an opportunity to expand cooperation on key priorities that the United States and ASEAN share, including promoting economic and trade, working on maritime security and combating terrorism as well as other transnational challenges.
The program for the Summit at Sunnylands comprises three main elements. First, a retreat session on economic issues, second, a working dinner and third, a retreat session on political and security issues. The economic session will highlight the strength of the US-ASEAN economic relationship and will identify ways to encourage even more trade and investment. It is also an opportunity to exchange views on the types of policy reforms needed to promote growth and integration by focusing on key themes such as innovation and entrepreneurship.
The political and security session at the Summit is an opportunity to enhance cooperation on the major political security challenges in the region including maritime disputes, terrorism and countering violent extremism, trafficking in persons, global health and climate change. The dinner session at the Summit will be more informal and is designed to give leaders an opportunity to share their perspectives on broader strategic developments in the region.
We expect that the President will take the opportunity of the dinner to stress the United States’ enduring commitment to the region as well as to stress the importance of issues such as good governance, accountable institutions and rule of law. So that’s my summary for the agenda at Sunnylands and if I could just make a few broader comments about the context in which the Sunnylands Summit will take place and how it fits in our overall engagement with the region. It’s very clear that with nearly half the world’s population, one-third of global GDP and some of the world’s most capable militaries that the Asia Pacific is increasingly the world’s political and economic center of gravity.
And that’s why from the very beginning of his administration, President Obama has prioritized engagement with the Asia Pacific region and that’s why he’s hosting this Summit. Furthermore, from the very beginning, the President has emphasized the importance of strengthening relations with ASEAN. It’s been a core focus of the President’s rebalance strategy. ASEAN is at the heart of Asia, which is diplomatically, economically and strategically central to our interests in the 21st Century.
I would also add that I think this Summit continues to demonstrate the vitality of our rebalance strategy. Last year in 2015, the President hosted five Asian leaders here at the White House in Washington. He also visited the Philippines and Malaysia for APEC and the East Asia Summit respectively. Already this year, the President has hosted Australian Prime Minister Turnbull here at the White House. He will now next week convene this special Summit with the leaders of ASEAN. And later this year he looks forward to traveling to Japan for the G7 and also to China and Laos for both the G20 and the East Asia Summits.
So if I can make one final comment in closing, I think this Summit is a tremendous opportunity again to highlight the importance of our ties with Asia, and with ASEAN in particular. Our economic ties are booming. We have a quarter trillion dollar trade relationship with ASEAN. The ASEAN region is now the fourth largest goods export market for the United States and the United States is the largest investor in ASEAN with more than $226 billion in foreign direct investment. ASEAN is also an increasingly important partner in addressing regional and global challenges from maritime disputes to climate change, pandemic disease to violent extremism.
So this Summit I think will demonstrate, again, the importance and the vitality of our relationship with Southeast Asia and ASEAN. I think will also demonstrate that our ties with the region, with ASEAN have never been better. And with that, I’d like to turn it over to Assistant Secretary Danny Russel for his opening comments.
MR. RUSSEL: Thank you very much Dan. This Summit, as you point out is the culmination of seven plus years of significant investment by the Obama Administration in not only the Asia Pacific region in general but in Southeast Asia and ASEAN in particular. I think it ties a lot of threads together, threads in a couple of categories; economic threads now with the TPP agreement signed, with the ASEAN economic community formed, with the Paris Climate Change Agreement concluded. And it ties together threads of private sector engagement, entrepreneurship, innovation, good governance.
But it also ties together security threads in the sense of the profound interest that Southeast Asians have in working with the US and tapping into our expertise and meeting the threat of terrorism from returning foreign fighters or dealing with the false ideology promulgated by ISIL. Also dealing with security threats like those from North Korea and the pressing problem of the maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
But at its essence, this Summit also engages the geo-strategic thread, as you described, Dan, building out a rules-based order in the region, building up institutions, specifically ASEAN based institutions and building on this extraordinary enterprise, ASEAN, which has created an indigenous hub at the center of East Asia. ASEAN is in many respects, the driver of rules in the region and it is striking to remember the fact that these are 10, generally small countries with a history of war, border disputes, colonial trauma, competition for shared resources in the Mekong and elsewhere, ethnic divides, religious divides, different political systems.
They’re surrounded by giants like China and India. Why isn’t this region in a state of turmoil? I think that the big part of the answer is the cohesiveness of ASEAN and we see that as critical to stability that’s built around a common commitment to rules and to fairness, not built around a major power sphere of influence. In other words, ASEAN centrality is a formula for stability, it’s a formula for growth that allows countries like the United States and others to engage with ASEAN as partners.
The other thing I would mention is that what’s different about this Summit from the annual summits that President Obama has held with the 10 ASEAN leaders is in part, the difference between one hour and one day. Sunnylands allocates a very, very significant amount of time for the leaders to engage. There’s also the difference between a formal meticulously scripted and bureaucratically perfected agenda and an open discussion. And Sunnylands creates opportunities for open and interactive discussion. And I think it reflects the President’s approach to foreign policy in that it’s strategic. He’s made a long-term investment in the relationship with ASEAN and it’s personal. He’s made an investment in his relations with each of these leaders. And after all, diplomacy is very much a contact sport.
And it’s rooted in his conviction that the economic interest of the United States and of the global community need to inform our foreign policy. And Dan laid out the economic scene (unintelligible - 11:17) of ASEAN to us. So in sum, I’d say that the 2016 Sunnylands US-ASEAN Special Summit is a milestone in our strategic engagement with Asia and proof positive that the rebalance has reached cruising altitude. I’ll stop there, thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s event. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation, and limit yourself to one question related to today’s topic, the US-ASEAN relationship and upcoming special Summit in California. 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.
And with that, we’ll start with the first question from the Financial Times, if we can please open his mic.
MODERATOR: We can hear you.
REPORTER: Yes, hi, hi, good evening and good morning. I had a question about China and relations with China of the various ASEAN countries. Obviously they are extremely varied from countries that have a close relationship to China to countries that have a much more difficult relationship with China to countries where there is a lot of ambivalence for various historical and contemporary reasons.
How are you going to go about forging a kind of a common approach with a group of 10 countries whose attitudes to China are so diverse?
MODERATOR: Assistant Secretary Russel, can you start with that?
MR. RUSSEL: Sure. Sure, look we are not in the business of forging a common approach or a common view to a third country, China. We are in the business of building consensus on how collectively we can deal with important challenges that we each face. And those fall into the categories of course of the economic challenges, the strategic and security challenges, but also there are political and developmental challenges as well.
The goal isn’t to isolate China or to take a stand against China. The goal is to include China in a collective effort. This Summit, however, is not about China. China is not on the agenda. The global and regional economy is on the agenda. The security issues are on the agenda. Now, will the ASEAN countries raise the impact of China’s economic slow-down? Will they raise the impact of China’s behavior in the South Sea? Probably.
But that doesn’t alter the fact that the focus of the Summit is on the US and ASEAN, what we can do together. And I think China is relevant in the sense that we all know that in order to address the challenges that we each face whether it’s climate change, whether it’s countering violent extremism, whether it’s expanding trade and lowering obstacles to economic growth, China’s role matters. And it’s in our interest to promote it.
The diversity of views and the variety of relationships that exist between the respective ASEAN countries and China I think is a strength of ASEAN, not a problem.
MR. KRITENBRINK: Hi, this is Dan Kritenbrink, I just wanted to underscore a couple of Danny’s points, all of which I definitely agree with. Again I would second what Danny said. This Summit is about the United States and ASEAN, highlighting, lifting up the exchange and the depth of our relations over the last seven years. And through the Summit, we’ll focus on a number of common principles that we share to promote our shared prosperity and security as we together support and sustain a rules-based order in the region.
So the Summit is about the United States and ASEAN, not about China. To the extent that issues related to China would be discussed at the Summit, as Assistant Secretary Russel noted, I think that would be natural and I would expect the President would have an opportunity to share with the 10 leaders of ASEAN, the contours of our China policy, which as you know, are based on promoting the most productive, positive relationship possible in which we promote practical cooperation on a range of shared challenges, even as we’re very candid about managing the many complex differences between us.
MODERATOR: Thank you and just a reminder, to press *1 on your phone if you want to join the question queue, press *1 to join the question queue. I know it’s late but I think we’ll give it a few more minutes before we wrap up. Again, *1 to join the question queue. Okay, our next question is from Tomaki from Nikkei if we can please open his mic.
REPORTER: Okay, can you hear me?
REPORTER: Okay, simple question, can you clarify which Heads of State will attend this Summit among the 10 ASEAN countries?
MODERATOR: Mr. Kritenbrink, can we give that to you to answer?
MR. KRITENBRINK: Yes, I think what I would say -- thank you for the question -- I don’t think I’m in a position right now to read out all the leaders who are scheduled to be there. What I would say is that all 10 countries have told us that they will be represented at Sunnylands at the leadership level. Also the ASEAN General Secretary will be present.
So we’re very gratified by that response in the region which was very rapid and again I think demonstrates the strength of our relations. When the President invited the leaders of ASEAN to come to Sunnylands, he did so last November and again we were quite pleased that all of the countries very rapidly accepted the invitation and agreed to attend at the leader level. And I think as we get just a little bit closer to the Summit, I think we’ll be in a position to announce all those types of details.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Our next question is from David Tweed of Bloomberg, can we please open his mic?
MODERATOR: Please go ahead.
REPORTER: Hello? Hi. Yes, you mentioned maritime security as one of the issues which will be discussed. I suppose that will be discussed in the context of the South China Sea. Is there some sort of consensus that you’re looking for to come out at the end of this Summit in terms of a statement? Will it be a communique? Or how do you intend to communicate the conclusions of the Summit? And on maritime security, are you looking for something in particular on any agreement about the approach to maritime security given the fact that we’ve got the Philippines arbitration case coming up as well mid-2016.
MODERATOR: Can we give that question to you, Assistant Secretary Russel?
MR. RUSSEL: Yes, gladly. So bear in mind that as I mentioned earlier, this is not the annual US-ASEAN formal summit in which the leaders work through an agenda. So there is no obligation whatsoever on the part of the leaders to produce any kind of formal outcomes, deliverables and documents.
Now, they obviously have the flexibility to do so and without a doubt, as the host President Obama and I suspect other national leaders will want to explain to our publics and the world what the discussion covered and what the major points of concern and consensus were. But this isn’t a normal summit. This is an opportunity for the leaders to close the door and have an in-depth conversation.
When it comes to the South China Sea, remember that this is by no means their first conversation. And so it will pick up where their ongoing bilateral and collective engagements have left off and that is based very firmly on a set of commonly held principles; principles about the sanctity of international law, principles of freedom of navigation and overflight, principles like the right to unimpeded lawful commerce, the applicability of diplomacy not force to resolving international disputes, et cetera.
But what the leaders can do that they often are unable to do, partly due to the constraints of time, is to delve a little more deeply into what they see as the realm of the possible in terms of lowering tensions in the South China Sea and setting up a dynamic that can build on, for example, the decision of the tribunal in the Hague, such that efforts from the difficult issues of sovereignty, who is the proper owner of a given land feature.
There can be movement towards a common approach to behavior at sea such as to reduce the risk of incidents, such as to promote the responsible and sustainable use of the resources on the sea. So this is in the first instance, a chance for the leaders to really put their minds together and what the product will be, I suspect, is something that will be revealed more in long-term policy adjustments than in a single announcement at the end of the Summit.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
MR. KRITENBRINK: This is Dan Kritenbrink, I would just add --
MODERATOR: And Mr. Kritenbrink?
MR. KRITENBRINK: -- just one comment to that, Danny. I anticipate that the President and the 10 leaders of ASEAN will pick up their conversation on maritime issues where at the point where they left it last November at the East Asia Summit. And we were quite gratified by the strong consensus among the countries at the East Asia Summit around many of the common principles that Danny enumerated; principles like respecting the freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes, unimpeded lawful commerce and abiding by rules-based solutions to these disputes.
So we’re quite encouraged that there is a strong consensus in the region around those principles and I would expect that would continue to be the focus of the leaders’ conversations on this subject.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the Financial Times.
REPORTER: Hello, thank you again. You mentioned at the start that governance would be one of the things that the President would talk about. Clearly a number of these countries have been criticized over various areas of governance and the case of the one 1MDB in Malaysia has obviously been in the news particularly over the last few weeks.
Do you expect the President to say anything beyond a general call for good governance. In other words, will it be anything more detailed or pointed in what he says?
MODERATOR: Mr. Kritenbrink, can you start with that?
MR. KRITENBRINK: I’d be delighted to. Thank you for the question. The President plans on raising and emphasizing the importance of a range of human rights issues, both during the Summit’s plenary sessions and we anticipate in various pull-asides and other interactions with individual leaders. I think as you pointed out, I think the progress on the human rights front is quite varied in the region. We’ve seen remarkable positive steps forward in places like Indonesia and Burma. And we’ve seen real setbacks in a number of other countries.
And I anticipate that the President will emphasize very strongly our belief in universal values such as democracy, human rights, the importance of respecting civil society and the rule of law because we believe these principles undergird good governments. They contribute to economic growth and social stability in countries and again I think it will be a real focus of the discussions both collectively and individually.
MR. DANIEL RUSSEL: Cindy, could I add one comment to that?
MR. RUSSEL: I think it’s important to remember more broadly that President Obama is not inviting leader X or leader Y to the White House and giving them a heroes’ welcome. He is meeting with the leaders of the ASEAN countries. There are 10 countries in ASEAN, there are 10 leaders in ASEAN and we believe it is important and essential to deal with them as a group. Working with ASEAN as an institution requires us to engage with all of ASEAN’s member states together. That’s the way it is and it’s in no way, shape or form an endorsement of some of the problematic policies in some of the ASEAN countries.
But that said, there has never been a meeting that I’ve been party to, between the Secretary of State or the President and the leader or foreign minister of an ASEAN country in which the issues of universal human rights, good governance, respect for law, the importance of strong institutions and the importance of ensuring space for civil society didn’t come up.
Secretary Kerry made a trip to Cambodia, made a trip to Laos just three weeks ago. He met with Hun Sen, he met with members of the opposition. He met in Laos with civil society as well as with the leaders. In all of his meetings and in the President’s meetings last year with many of the other ASEAN leaders, we underscored these same points and this Summit allows the President and the Secretary to continue that very constructive but very candid dialog.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our final question comes from Nikkei, can we please open the mic?
REPORTER: Hi, it’s Yasoto with Nikkei in Singapore. Secretary Russel briefly mentioned about the possibility to have the topic of TPP because it was signed quite recently. But some critics say in ASEAN that TPP might be the dividing line of ASEAN. At the same time, the Obama Administration is supporting the unity and the center of ASEAN and I just am wondering how President Obama might put the TPP topic through and what context he might raise it in the discussion. And I understand that three nations, I believe three ASEAN member states have indicated their initial intention to join the TPP in the future. Just wondering how this will enter discussion.
MR. RUSSEL: Well I’ll leave it to Dan to speak to what the leaders might hear from the President but we believe that TPP is unifying force, not a divisive force and here’s the reason why. Because it sets out the vision of a region in which trade is enhanced by the elimination of barriers. It sets out the vision of a region with very, very high standards, not just for trade but for environmental protection, for labor rights, for education and for preserving the openness of digital space.
And the proof point that TPP serves a unifying function I believe is the fact that as you mentioned, in addition to the three -- excuse me, in addition to the four ASEAN countries that are indeed TPP partners, several of the other ASEAN larger economies have made clear their interest and their desire to become eligible for negotiating membership in TPP.
Now, there has always been a development gap among the 10 ASEAN countries. This is a focus of ASEAN as an institution and it’s something that the United States, through a wide range of programs, including our bilateral programs and multilateral programs like the Lower Mekong Initiative has undertaken to help narrow. We go to great lengths in the less developed countries like Laos and Burma and Cambodia to support their ability to rise to the economic level of ASEAN partners like Singapore.
That is part of the logic as well behind the formation of the ASEAN economic community. And that’s an initiative that the US strongly supports.
MR. KRITENBRINK: If I could just add to that very briefly, as Danny has laid out, TPP is designed to establish the rules of the road, so to speak among the members of TPP about how we will trade with one another, how we will dramatically increase trade and shared prosperity by removing trade barriers between us. It sets a standard to which all countries both the current members of TPP and others can aspire to and I think that’s what we’ve seen.
As you mentioned beyond the four current ASEAN members of TPP, the four ASEAN members who are also members of TPP, we’ve seen strong interest from a range of other countries and I think it demonstrates that point. And certainly TPP will be described in that way at the Summit but the primary focus of our Summit at Sunnylands again is on unity and connectivity both among the countries of ASEAN with the United States and as I mentioned at the top, we’ll use themes like innovation and entrepreneurship to talk about ways that all of us can take steps and carry out various policy initiatives within our economies to ensure that we promote growth and innovation from which we can all benefit.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Senior Director Kritenbrink and Assistant Secretary Russel. I know that we don’t have much time left. So I would like to thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today and ask if you have any final words before we close the call?
MR. RUSSEL: I’m fine here, Cindy, thank you.
MR. KRITENBRINK: And again I would just add, we think this Summit will be an historic opportunity again to demonstrate the breadth and depth of our relationship with ASEAN. The President very much looks forward to hosting the leaders out there for what I’m sure will be a very successful event.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. And thanks to all of our callers for participating in today’s call. If you have any questions about the call, you can contact me at And that concludes today’s call. I’ll turn it back over to the Operator.