Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Participation in ASEAN

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official
Naypyitaw, Burma
August 10, 2014

MODERATOR: Okay, so this is a background briefing-readout with [Senior State Department Official] and [Senior Administration Official] and they will be known – do you want to be Senior Administration Official?


MODERATOR: Senior Administration Official Number One, Senior State Department Official Number One, to do a little readout of yesterday and this morning and preview today. So with that, I’ll turn it over to [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, thank you very much. Secretary Kerry has a busy couple of days. He’s had and by the end of today will have had five ministerial meetings with the ASEANs and others focused on everything from economics to the environment to maritime security to the future of regional architecture.

Let me start with Northeast Asia. He met yesterday separately with the foreign ministers of Japan and Korea. And today, as you know, he met jointly in a trilateral forum with the two of them. This is indicative of the close consultation among allies and is a clear manifestation of our unity. They consulted both in their bilateral and in the trilateral meeting on North Korea, but they also discussed a number of regional and a number of global issues.

The fact of the matter is that the significance, in part, of the trilateral meeting that the Secretary had today, as well as the other forms of trilateral cooperation, for example the meeting hosted by the President in March with the Korean and the Japanese leaders, is that this kind of trilateral cooperation, in addition to the benefits with respect to policy on the Korean Peninsula, has had a significant effect in ameliorating tensions between Japan and Korea and promoting of various forms of bilateral cooperation between the two of them – something that we value and consider to be important.

Yesterday, Secretary Kerry also had a substantive bilateral meeting with the foreign minister of China. It is the regular practice of the U.S. and China to try to meet on the margins of multilateral meetings to exchange views, to discuss the respective positions that we’re taking on the issues, and to talk through our positions and our approaches. Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the Secretary did just that. The Secretary raised the South China Sea, described what our strategy is, what our recommendations are; talked about our freeze, responded to some of the Chinese questions and concerns. They also discussed a number of pressing global hotspots.

The effect of this particular meeting as well as the practice of U.S.-China consultation in these contexts shows that we’re not here for some sort of contest between Japan and – excuse me, between China and the United States. This is not a showdown at the ASEAN ministerial. This is a serious discussion of the pressing issues.

The Secretary yesterday also met with the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers in the regular U.S.-ASEAN meeting. They talked about – and we will issue or have issued a fact sheet – as a result of the U.S.-ASEAN meeting, as well as eventually a statement, a communique. They discussed a range of issues regarding climate and the environment, regarding economic cooperation, people-to-people and educational exchanges, but very importantly, they talked about the South China Sea, which I’ll come back to.

The Secretary also co-chaired with the Burmese foreign minister a meeting of the Lower Mekong Initiative. That’s the five countries in the Mekong area. This initiative is now marking its fifth anniversary, and the ministers made a few announcements and discussed how they can streamline the effectiveness of the Lower Mekong Initiative to promote development, particularly sustainable and responsible development on hydropower projects relating to the Mekong.

They followed that with a broader meeting that includes the Friends of the Lower Mekong, some of the external countries that have cooperative programs along with us on these issues. There was a number of announcements there, including the first-ever conference hosted by Laos on sustainable development on the Mekong.

QUESTION: Sorry. Who is in the Friends of the LMI?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It is Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and some of the international financial institutions – ADB and World Bank.

QUESTION: But not --


QUESTION: But the Chinese aren’t?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, the Chinese are not there.

QUESTION: Wouldn’t that make much more sense (inaudible), since they’re the ones who are paying for all these dams that are going in?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s not factually accurate. But the question of adding more friends to the Lower Mekong Initiative did not come up in this meeting, but it is something that is under discussion.

The Secretary today will be participating in the East Asia Summit ministerial. There’s a broad range of issues to be discussed, including an important focus on approaches to regional architecture. We believe that the East Asia Summit is and should be the premier forum for the 18 member-states to discuss issues of security and political questions that are not taken up at APEC or at other regional issues. We also believe that the EAS, particularly the leaders meeting in November, is an important platform for providing guidance to the other multilateral meetings associated with it, including the ARF and the defense ministerial.

Then later, subsequent to that, the Secretary will participate in the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is a much bigger group that meets only once a year at ministerial level that includes 27 countries, including from South Asia. In both of these fora, in addition to longstanding agenda items on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, other forms of regional cooperation, the issue of the South China Sea and maritime security will feature prominently, so let me talk about that a little bit.

The press reports notwithstanding, the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting two days ago did take up the various proposals offered for de-escalation on the South China Sea. And one of the extent proposals obviously is the U.S. suggestion of a voluntary freeze. The ASEAN foreign ministers have now issued a communique and so you can see very extensive language there characterizing the discussion and the views of the foreign ministers, who describe themselves as seriously concerned over recent developments in the region.

They point very directly to the declaration of conduct that ASEAN and the China adopted in 2002, and the communique includes verbatim descriptions of some of the key passages. It’s explicit in emphasizing the need for self-restraint. It’s explicit in asserting that the parties need to avoid actions that could complicate the situation or undermine peace and security. They explicitly endorsed measures and mechanisms to implement the elements that they want to see in a code of conduct. They called for the negotiations to speed up, to intensify, and in their communique they stressed the importance of spelling out the substance of concrete elements that would go into that code.

The way to think of this is that we’re now seeing a significant shift in the way that the ASEAN countries are approaching their diplomacy with China as pertains to the South China Sea. They have decided that it is no longer enough to simply accentuate the positive. Now, they made clear that they are increasingly concerned about the escalatory pattern of behavior, and that focus on behavior as opposed to process is at the heart of the U.S. calculation in putting forward the idea of a voluntary freeze.

Now, we have been very clear in our press engagement as well as in speeches to talk about this issue that we are not seeking to impose on the claimants or the countries in the region any particular formula. We have offered the concept of a freeze as a helpful, illustrative example of our belief that, number one, the proximate issue of how claimants behave in the South China Sea is what needs to be addressed in the first instance; and secondly, that there is no reason or rationale or necessity for waiting until a long-term diplomatic process finally culminates in a code of conduct before identifying concrete steps that claimants can either take or can renounce, agree not to take, in order to prevent tensions from occurring.

Clearly, we have succeeded in our mission, which is to try to seed the clouds of conversation so that the discussions this weekend among the ASEANS, between ASEAN and China, and at the ARF and the EAS, will, as I said, focus on behavior, not merely on process. And I think that the actual language of the ASEAN communique bears that out.

Now, it is a good thing that others such as the Philippines have picked up on our suggestion and are formulating it in their own terms, and that also is being discussed and was explicitly mentioned in the ASEAN communique. As I said, it’s for the claimants themselves on a voluntary basis and on the premise that nothing is agreed unless everyone agrees, because we’re not suggesting unilateral concessions by individual claimants, but it is for the claimants to decide what makes sense, what is doable, and how to go about doing it.

Why don’t I stop there and ask [Senior Administration Official].

QUESTION: Can I just – so basically, the foreign ministers of all (inaudible) on – we’ll call it the U.S. proposal – but they have agreed that they, as ASEAN, will voluntarily stop, or they’ve agreed that it’s a good idea and they’ll figure out (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The conversations are still ongoing, but the ASEAN foreign ministers as 10 in their communique explicitly pointed to their concerns about behavior and their belief that there is a need to focus on concrete measures and steps that would constitute the exercise of self-restraint and through which the claimants would avoid actions that could complicate the situation and undermine security.

QUESTION: Right. But --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That is precisely what we are talking about.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We are not asking or anticipating that the claimant countries will sign onto a Made in the USA freeze. That’s not what we have proposed.

QUESTION: But that’s not really what my question is. My question is: Have they agreed that they’re going to do this and they – and they’re going to stop everything, or have they agreed that it’s a good idea and they want to further explore it and you’re going to figure out exactly a list of Dos and Don’ts or something like that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the ASEANs have agreed that they should focus with China on a list of Dos and Don’ts and that the claimants themselves should exercise restraint and should consider a variety of mechanisms for identifying that concrete list of Dos and Don’ts.

QUESTION: But is that concrete – is that for the code of conduct, or is that for this – the voluntary?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We will see how they – how the claimants themselves proceed. And as I said, the discussions are still underway. But the principle that delineating concrete actions that constitute restraint and avoid raising tensions on the South China Sea does not need to wait until the code of conduct is concluded. So there is a post-correlation between what ultimately would be in a formal code of conduct and what the claimants on a voluntary and informal basis can agree to do as part of implementing the 2002 declaration of conduct.

QUESTION: Is it – and my last one. I mean, it doesn’t really mean anything if the 10 agree and the Chinese don’t, right? I mean, because is all of this null and void if the Chinese just go ahead and start throwing oil rigs around the Paracels?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, this is a diplomatic effort that has been underway for a considerable amount of time. The Chinese came to Naypyitaw, as they have come to previous ARFs and EASs, hoping that they can change the subject and encouraging their counterparts to avoid discussing the South China Sea. The ASEAN foreign ministers have, by their communique, made clear that won’t happen.

Secondly, the Chinese also came with some concessions. And these are, I think, valuable, at least potentially valuable, offers to accelerate the pace of discussions between China and ASEAN.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, Matt, I’d put it this way: This language represents a significant setback for China’s efforts to play for time and to sort of draw – and change the subject. So what this document represents is a significant heightened level of concern by ASEAN about Chinese behavior. It’s a criticism of Chinese behavior and it puts an enormous amount of pressure on the Chinese and signals to them that its relations with countries in the region are deteriorating because of a succession of unilateral assertions by China to advance its claim.

When we put forward the freeze proposal, the whole point was to use a proposal like that to shape and change the conversation at the meetings. And based on that document and based on the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting, I would say that’s a success.

QUESTION: So if I could just follow on that, if this puts pressure on China – it was predictable pressure, right? It was actually coming out the way you all in many respects hoped it would. Do you see any signs at all either from the Secretary’s meeting with the Chinese foreign minister yesterday or elsewhere that they feel that heat and are – and will do anything about it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s sort of too early to tell. And reading Chinese intentions, especially its reactions to this before the event is actually over, it’s premature at this point to make that kind of judgment. What I do know is looking at the history of China’s engagement in the region and the U.S.-China relationship, the Chinese pay a lot of attention to this. I mean, this goes back to the fundamental principles that Deng Xiaoping articulated that China needs a stable regional security environment for its – for the government’s top goals of reform and development. And when China is taking actions that are alienating countries in the region in which they are publicly expressing the level of concern that they are about Chinese behavior and actually highlighting the need for greater restraint, that’s a significant setback.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I agree. And I would add that when you look at the trend line of the Chinese position and the Chinese approach to ASEAN over discussions on the South China Sea in general and on a code of conduct specifically, you can see a very significant movement. It’s reasonable to conclude that indicates that the Chinese are indeed feeling the heat. And the movement is away from diversionary topics, the happy talk issues between China and ASEAN in the direction of significant engagement on the South China Sea itself. More specifically, instead of formulas that we are familiar with from Chinese interventions in the past, like the time is not ripe for a code of conduct, or first an environment needs to be created before we can discuss the code of conduct, the Chinese this year came with a position that indicates they are willing to work towards an early conclusion of a code of conduct.

Now, I’m not suggesting that a single adverb constitutes the solution to the South China Sea. I’m not even saying that this is sort of the first robin of spring. But the way to answer the question as to what effect the galvanizing position of both the ASEAN claimants and the ASEAN 10 is having on the Chinese, you can look at the adjustment of their diplomatic position.

MODERATOR: Any more questions?

QUESTION: So coming back to what Matt was pressing on the freeze, I mean, that’s not going to be agreed this time.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I think that you want to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That was never the expectation.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. So the whole purpose was to shape the conversation, focus the conversation in the region on the behavior and the assertions that are occurring, and making sure that the pressure stays on those people making – those countries asserting their behavior. And so we feel that as reflected in the ASEAN communique that was issued last night, in light of the conversations yesterday and then the conversations today, that we have succeeded in shifting the conversation, focusing on the provocative behavior, and generating an extraordinary degree of ASEAN consensus on those questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If I could just add, it’s important not to fall in the trap of thinking of this concept of a freeze as a formal diplomatic proposal that the United States is asking ASEAN or China to adopt or embrace. This is not a 10-point peace plan. This is not the Treaty of Versailles. What we have done by putting forward these ideas, as my colleague said, is to reshape the discussion. What that does is create space for a serious diplomatic effort to culminate in concrete measures, in practical steps. And right now the discussion underway has shifted to practical steps that will have a measurable and a meaningful impact in the South China Sea in de-escalating tensions.

QUESTION: Okay. I never thought that it was going to – I just want to make sure there’s not any surprises later. The other thing was also that – how do you – I mean, it looks from all the discussions and from briefings we’ve had from all the other countries is they’re still kind of tiptoeing a bit around China. They don’t want to isolate China in any way. What is your reading on – I know you think that – you’re saying that China has got a more serious message from this conference, but there still seems to be a kind of nervousness to really go for China.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn’t say it’s a nervousness. What I would say is --

QUESTION: It’s flat-out fear.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, it’s publicly countries in the region all want to strike a balance. They want the U.S. there; they want us to play a constructive role. And China simply is there. So when they talk to you, it’s obvious that they’re going to be striking a balance. Privately with us, the concern about Chinese behavior is at an all-time high, and I think that that’s reflected in documents like the ASEAN communique, the fact that they are very, very focused on highlighting assertive behavior that they think has undermined regional peace and security.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No one wants a confrontational, bad relationship with China. And in fact, it is their strategy to try to show China that it is China’s behavior that is creating tensions in their bilateral relationship, in the ASEAN-China relationship, in the region. So I think the countries can be commended for trying to strike that balance.

QUESTION: So this foreign ministers statement, does that now need to go to the leaders for some kind of an executive endorsement?


QUESTION: Or is it just --


QUESTION: So what’s the next step here?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, first of all, look at it in the continuum of increasing clarity in the expressions by ASEAN of what they are aiming for and what they are asking from China. So the ASEANs a year or so issued six principles that they said should govern behavior in the South China Sea. Earlier this year at a foreign ministerial retreat, they issued an unprecedented standalone statement on the South China Sea. And now here in Naypyitaw at the ARF in 2014, they included in their ASEAN communique new and quite direct for ASEAN language about exercising restraint and developing mechanisms.

QUESTION: All of which is --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So this diplomatic messaging is meant to influence the substance and the pace of discussions directly between China and the 10 ASEANs. Those discussions have been occurring at working level, at senior official level, and of course, in the ASEAN-China ministerial that was held there they examined the progress that is being made to date by their senior officials on a binding code of conduct. What they’re adding to the equation is a push on the claimants themselves to begin exploring concrete and practical measures to de-escalate.

QUESTION: So whether or not this was your – the U.S. idea or initiative, you regard it as a successful outcome because it has united the 10 – not necessarily against China, but united them in making demands of China?


QUESTION: So it’s a win?


QUESTION: At least --


QUESTION: -- on the way to a win.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We think that we have been successful in galvanizing and serving as a catalyst that has shifted the focus from the abstractive process to --

QUESTION: Okay. So if that’s the case, can I please make a plea that you not come in and say this is not about U.S. versus China and this is not a showdown between superpowers, because what you described is exactly that, what you agree you think that you have won, and you’ve got the Chinese at least backed into a corner here because the ASEANs are united and pushing something that the Chinese don’t want.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think you’re wrong. And I can tell you that this is not a showdown between the U.S. and China.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me put it this way: If it was a showdown, if it was a confrontation, our posture toward China and other countries in the region coming into this would be very different. Why would Kerry even meet with the Chinese foreign minister if that was our strategy? We don’t have a containment strategy. We don’t want to confront China. But we have a series of interests and principles --


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- that drive our approach to the region. Where they diverge with China, we’re going to pursue our interests and concerns. Those are most apparent on the South China Sea, and we think that the ASEAN foreign ministers’ statement, the conversation that our freeze proposal sort of started up, represents a significant step forward.

QUESTION: Right. I understand that you say you don’t want a showdown and you say you don’t want to contain China, but everything you do is exactly that. And just denying it makes it more ridiculous that –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, Matt, you went to the – you weren’t at the S&ED. I mean, the conversations that we had at the S&ED, you don’t have those conversations, you don’t pursue diplomatic initiatives like that.

QUESTION: I understand. It all takes place in the context of the diplomacy --

MODERATOR: We need to wrap this up, also.

QUESTION: What about North Korea? We haven’t touched on that.

MODERATOR: Okay, we can do one question on North Korea.

QUESTION: Yeah. What do you expect to come from today’s discussion on that topic? What is the (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the North Korean foreign minister participates only in the ASEAN Regional Forum each year. This is a new North Korean foreign minister, although he’s been around for a long time serving for decades in Europe as the banker to the Kim family.

QUESTION: As the banker?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. I expect that there will be consistency in the messaging from the preponderance of the countries in the ARF calling on North Korea to exercise restraint, to live up to its commitments and its obligations under Security Council resolution, and to work towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. There will be expressions of concern about North Korea’s recent behavior, particularly the multiple firing and launching of short-range missiles and of rockets, and consistent exhortation for North Korea to choose the path of genuine negotiations and compliance with international law as a way of getting out of their isolation.

The prevailing view in the international community that I’m sure will be expressed is that North Korea can’t have both guns and butter; North Korea can’t pursue a nuclear missile – ballistic missile program and at the same time hope that the international community will either assist it in economic terms or will give up and accept North Korea as a nuclear state. That isn’t going to happen.

MODERATOR: Okay, one more but we’ve got to go after that.

QUESTION: What do you feel about Japan talking to the North Koreans in the context of the abductee issue? Do you find that it’s constructive and it’s a way to get the message across to the North Koreans?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Look, all countries, and certainly Korea and the United States, speak to the North Koreans on humanitarian issues affecting – directly affecting our citizens. That’s natural and it’s understandable. The Japanese speak for themselves, but when they speak they make clear that they are not going to sacrifice their consistent position on the nuclear and missile issue for the humanitarian abductee issue. They are – because they say that they are looking for a comprehensive solution, and that must include North Korea coming into line with its international obligations.

So we understand the desire of the Japanese to get an accounting for their kidnapped citizens, and the Japanese have been transparent with us, with the ROK, and with others about what they are doing.

MODERATOR: All right. Thanks, everyone.

QUESTION: Thank you.