Background Briefing En Route to Perth, Australia

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official
En Route to Perth, Australia
November 11, 2012

MODERATOR: All right. We are en route from Washington to Perth, Australia for the AUSMIN ministerial. We have with us [Senior State Department Official], hereafter Senior State Department Official, to give us a little bit of a setup for the Secretary’s trip before she links up with the President later in the week.

Take it away, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great, sure. Thank you. Let me give you some context to how to think about this trip.

So in the wake of the successful election, there are a series of high-level visits to Asia. But I think that’s significant, that the first trip in the second administration since the reelection is to Asia. The President obviously going to the East Asia Summit, also to Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma. Secretary Panetta will be with us in Australia and will also be in Thailand and Cambodia, and obviously, the first two steps on this trip for us are in Australia and then on to Singapore.

So it’s meant to be a multifaceted trip that underscores the comprehensive nature of our engagement in Asia with the President obviously focusing at the strategic level, Secretary Panetta talking about defense and security relationships, and the Secretary laying out our diplomatic approach, our people-to-people engagement, and some of the components associated with our economic engagement in Asia as a whole.

Our most important ally in the southern hemisphere in Asia is Australia. The principal means through which we drive policy objectives and strategic goals is the mechanism called the AUSMIN, the Australia Ministerial. And it brings together the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Defense. We rotate every year in the other capital. And it is in a time – it’s a time to take stock, but also to launch a number of specific initiatives that the Secretary and Secretary Panetta will lay out when we are in Perth tomorrow.

The key here is to focus on all the areas that the -- Australia and the United States is working closely together on, whether it’s assistance programs in Afghanistan or Southeast Asia or in the Pacific Islands, where they are a dominant player, or it’s in diplomacy. We work very closely in coordinating our engagement strategy towards China. They offer unique insights to their neighbor just north in Indonesia and work closely together on shared trade objectives, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

We share extraordinarily close relations, very regular interactions. The Secretary has a very close relationship with Prime Minister Gillard. They will have a private meeting when they are together in Perth. And she will also have time to meet not only with her counterparts, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Foreign Secretary of Defense Steve Smith, but also the Shadow Minister, Julie Bishop, as well, because it’s so important to maintain the bipartisan quality of the relationship as a whole.

In Singapore, the Secretary will meet all the key players and the Prime Minister. They have had the most interaction with China, so we’re very interested to hear their perspectives with regard to the leadership transition that’s underway in China and Beijing, and also we’ll want to talk with them about how best to engage on critical issues upcoming at the East Asia Summit, including how to coordinate diplomacy on delicate matters like the South China Sea. The Secretary will give a major address on our economic engagement strategy, and I think you’ll hear a number of the ideas and initiatives that we are seeking to undertake in the second term.

Altogether, this is part of a continuing effort to step up our game in the Asia Pacific region. To do so requires very close coordination with our partners. We’ve long said that at the base of our foundation are our close security partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and particularly Australia, and that’s what the AUSMIN is about as we head in to Perth tomorrow.

QUESTION: Economically, is it a deliberate thing to -- Asia, to emphasize this pivot towards Asia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, look, I think the – I think there is a very clear determination to underscore that this is a significant feature of American foreign policy. This is not a fleeting foray, but it is a manifestation of new directions in American foreign policy. But it’s also the case, as the President and the Secretary have made very clear, it does not mean that we are walking away in any sense from very strong commitments in the Middle East and South Asia. And you will note that one of the things that we had really focused on in the last year is actually working closely with our European friends about the rise of Asia.

In fact, if you look at American foreign policy, everything that we’ve done of consequence for 50 years we’ve done with Europe, whether it’s the Balkans, Middle East, transnational challenges like climate change, we’ve worked closely together, Afghanistan. This is one of the areas where we really need to do more, and that’s why the Secretary rolled out a major initiative to initiate a deeper, broader dialogue between the United States and the EU and also member countries when she met with Lady Ashton at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia this summer.

So I think you’re going to see a very clear determination on the part of the Administration to make clear that this is a permanent feature of American foreign policy.

QUESTION: Why exactly is – why – what is the motivation for the tilt towards Asia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, look. I mean I think many would agree or argue that the lion’s share of the history of the 21st century is going to play out in the Asian Pacific region – enormous rising prosperity, big challenges, big opportunities. The United States wants to play a major role in that unfolding drama, and we’re determined to do so.

QUESTION: And how – what about the Chinese? Are they going to misinterpret this in any way?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, look. An important component of our diplomacy is a very substantial increase in our interactions with Beijing. The Secretary leads the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. We are in extraordinarily regular contact with our Chinese interlocutors. We’ve made clear that the United States has helped provide for peace and stability in Asia for the last 50 years. I would argue that if you look at the last 30 or 40 years, it’s been some of the best, most productive in Chinese history. Much of the credit of that goes to the ingenuity, the hardworking efforts of the Chinese people.

But it is undeniably the case that the peace and stability that the United States has helped underwrite has played a substantial role in that progress. We want to work with China. We recognize the Asia Pacific region is big enough for the both of us. We’re determined to construct a very strong, durable, productive partnership between our two sides. And that’s what I think President Obama and Secretary Clinton have set out to do in a very sustained manner.

QUESTION: Was it a conscious thing to make this trip at a time when we do have the leadership change in China now in place?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would say the dominant feature of this trip is the multilateral engagement at the East Asia Summit which takes place in Cambodia. The timing for that we did not set. The Cambodians, in consultation with ASEAN, had. The Chinese will participate in that meeting. We’ve worked closely with China. So this is not somehow scheduled --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: That meeting happens every year in mid-November, so --


MODERATOR: -- it’s always the case we get the first shot at a newly elected president, reelection --

QUESTION: It sounds like a happy coincidence that you have President Obama in a second term and a new Chinese leadership --


QUESTION: -- and then this meeting?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Look, this is – the President and our team have had a chance to work with Vice President Xi Jinping. He has not been formally anointed yet. They are still in the middle of their leadership process. We will work closely and well with the new Chinese leadership. I’m certain of that. It is the case, however, that at this meeting, the Chinese will be represented by Wen Jiabao, the current Premier. But we are still very closely engaged with China on this, and they, like us, have been preparing for this meeting in Cambodia for months.

MODERATOR: Let’s do one more.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, again, I mean, would you say it’s a happy coincidence that President Obama has got his second term and you’ve got a new Chinese leadership going in and you have this chance to get --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I mean, I can’t write your story for you. I don't know if I’d write it like that because we’re not going to interact with the new leadership on this trip. So it’s not really – it’s not applicable. But we will be in close contact with China. I think – the part of the story that I think is significant is that this is the first really substantial trip out of the blocs with the key players in the Cabinet fanning out to send a signal of the importance of Asia.

QUESTION: One just on Burma.


QUESTION: The significance of the trip to Burma?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think it’s enormously significant. The Obama Administration, with the Secretary as the point person, has led, I think, a major effort to help engage a country, to bring them back into the international arena. I think we’ve seen some real progress. We want to build on that. The President wants to see Aung San Suu Kyi, the President Thein Sein, give a major speech to underscore our commitment to the reform process. I think this clearly stacks up as a major early success of the Obama Administration.

QUESTION: The Rohingya situation, how much of a worry is that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It is a concern to us. It has been for years. It’s one of the hardest problems in global politics. We’re worked closely with the government and with Bangladesh, with ASEAN, with other interested groups like the OIC. We will be having very close consultations and continue to have them with our government interlocutors in Naypyidaw going forward. Thanks.


PRN: 2012/T74-01