Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to Beijing, Seoul, and Seattle

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
May 13, 2015


MODERATOR: Thank you very much, operator. And welcome to all the participants. I’d also like to thank our speakers. So we will be doing this call today on background. So you will have with you Senior State Department Officials One and Two, but just so you are aware, the people we have with us today are [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two]. So this is a discussion of the Secretary’s trip to Beijing, Seoul, and Seattle. It will be on background. And with that, I will hand it over to our first speaker to give us some introductory remarks and context, then speaker two, and then we’ll take some questions.

Go ahead, please.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Thank you very much, [Moderator]. And thanks to you all in the press for joining us. The Secretary launches Thursday night for a very important trip to Northeast Asia. His program starts in Beijing on Saturday, where he will meet with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and the two of them will have time for both a meeting and a working lunch, but also a press avail.

Secretary Kerry will also meet with China’s top uniformed military officer, General Fan – F-A-N – General Fan Changlong. This is an important element of the U.S.-China relationship and follows on the progress made in the run-up to and at President Obama’s November visit to China on mil-mil relations.

The Secretary will then sit down with the prime minister[1] of China, Li Keqiang. The Chinese prime minister[2] is the senior official directly responsible for managing the Chinese economy, and in that context also has responsibilities that pertain to energy, the environment, and climate change. And so that will be a very important discussion.

The Secretary will then meet and have a working dinner with his counterpart, the state councilor, Yang Jiechi. And then on Sunday, the Secretary has a meeting planned with President Xi Jinping. And it’s worth noting that beginning at the Sunnylands retreat back in 2013, the Secretary has forged an important, direct relationship with President Xi.

So in a nutshell, I’d say that in Beijing the Secretary’s visit is aimed at really establishing the groundwork both for productive outcomes at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that he and the Treasury Secretary will host in mid-June with their Chinese counterparts and a cast of many, many senior Chinese officials, but also and importantly for the planned state visit by President Xi Jinping in the fall. And specifically what you can expect is for the Secretary to seek ways to expand areas of practical cooperation with the Chinese on a number of regional issues in the Asia Pacific, global issues, and also international hotspot areas, but at the same time to look for ways to make progress on problem areas or friction areas in the relationship – such as cyber or such as human rights and journalist freedom, civil society – and also problem areas in the region, such as the South China Sea, which is very much on our minds.

From there on Sunday the Secretary will fly to Seoul, South Korea and begin his program with a working dinner with Foreign Minister Yun. I mentioned that this will be the first chance for the Secretary to meet in person with Ambassador Mark Lippert since the terrible attack he suffered, although they have been in contact, of course, by telephone.

Then on Monday, the Secretary will meet with President Park. And he will also give a speech later on Monday at a major university in Korea on the topic of cyber issues and on the role of a free and open internet, which is highly appropriate given Korea’s status as one of the most wired societies, and similarly important because of the role that the internet and IT plays in Korea’s creative economy.

More broadly, I’d say that in Seoul the Secretary’s going to want to first of all encourage the Republic of Korea to continue and to expand its efforts to partner with us in tackling not only peninsular and Asian issues, but also global challenges. We see in preparing for the mid-June visit to Washington by President Park an opportunity to lift up our cooperation not only on global issues generally but to collaborate in what I’d call new frontiers in areas such as cyber, areas such as space and so on where the U.S. and Korea by collaborating have a lot to offer.

Secondly, the Secretary very clearly will reiterate the United States ironclad commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea. This is especially important in light of the recent threatening behavior and provocations by North Korea.

And thirdly, I think he is going to want to work on and strengthen the bilateral partnership issues, including on economic, commercial side as well as diplomatic, people to people, and defense and security issues as a way to prepare the ground for President Park’s visit.

And then on to Seattle. He will be in Seattle, Washington on Tuesday. The Secretary plans to give an important speech while he’s on the West Coast in which he will make the very strong case for trade, for open markets, for high standards, for a rules-based economic and trade arrangement in the Asia Pacific region, and that obviously is built around the Transpacific Partnership, TPP. It’s highly appropriate for him to have that conversation on the west coast in Washington State in the Pacific Northwest, in Seattle – a gateway for the continental United States to the Pacific, a gateway for the Pacific into the United States, and certainly a part of the U.S. that will benefit immensely in terms of increased jobs as a result of TPP.

So let me stop there and turn it over to my colleague, [Senior State Department Official Two].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you, [Senior State Department Official One]. Yes, as the speaker number one just said, we’re going to use the speech on the 19th to expand upon some of the themes that the Secretary laid out in his Atlantic Council speech two weeks ago, because we care deeply at the State Department because there are clear foreign policy linkages between negotiating these trade agreements and strengthening our credibility and the closeness of the ties between our economies and our societies that is a win-win both on the economic side and on the foreign policy side, and I would expect him to make some of those points.

I was also asked to comment on the status of the TPP negotiations. It’s a little hard to talk about that in detail right now. We essentially have our negotiating team, which is led by USTR and made up from other folks in the interagency community, including a number of members from the State Department, are on their way now to Guam for chief negotiator level meetings the 15th through the 24th. They’re close and getting closer, but have not yet concluded the negotiations.

We’re very excited about this for a number of reasons. As I said, obviously there’s the foreign policy concerns. But just on the economic side, TPP represents 40 percent of total global GDP, right now 800 million consumers, and nearly a third of global trade. Together with TTIP, we think this will place American business and American workers in the middle of a free trade zone that covers nearly two-thirds of global activity. We’re very excited about a number of the chapters in the TPP which, again, aren’t quite finished but are getting very close. This will be the bluest and greenest trade agreement we’ve ever negotiated. We’re working to get commitments on labor and environment. They go beyond anything we’ve done in a previous negotiation, and unlike NAFTA they will be core to the agreements and fully subject to dispute settlements and possible trade sanctions if governments don’t live up to the obligations they’re undertaking in this area.

On the labor side, we are working most closely with Vietnam to work with them to increase the protection of worker rights there, labor – increase labor standards, and put in for the first time a minimum wage there. And so that is a very, very positive development by itself.

Similarly on the environment side, if we just did the environment chapter as a standalone agreement, it would be a big, honking deal. We’ve been trying for years to get traction with Asian countries to talk about ways to limit subsidies that lead to overfishing of the oceans. And now in TPP, we are getting that traction and we are getting agreements to cooperate on ways to limit overfishing and to limit the most harmful forms of fish subsidies. We’re also getting agreement to work together at a law enforcement level to fight trafficking in endangered species, things like rhino horns and elephant tusks, which will have a significant environmental impact.

Other new features of the TPP that we’re very excited about is that this will be the first time ever that there was a chapter on small and medium-sized enterprises, and we are specifically targeting several of the elements of TPP to make this the simplest, most user-friendly agreement that we’ve negotiated to date to help small and medium-sized enterprises take advantage of the opportunities that will come out of it. And so in the SME chapter, there is already general agreement that, among other things, that all of the governments involved will establish and maintain a website talking about the opportunities that are available, the training, the seminars, the best practices that are available to try to make sure that SMEs do benefit from this and that it’s not just for big corporations.

And then finally, I’d note that we’re making progress on rules to discuss how to require that state-owned enterprises act like commercial entities. This is an area of concern that we hope will become a best practice that will spread out to other trade agreements going forward, and we’re making significant progress in that area.

So why don’t I stop there and see what sorts of questions folks might have.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your phone keypad. You will hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the pound key. Once again, if you have a question, press * then 1.

We’ll go to the line of David Brunnstrom with Reuters News Agency. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hello, and thank you very much for doing this. I have a question for [Senior State Department Official One] about the South China Sea. China has demanded clarification of comments from U.S. officials that the Pentagon is planning to send ships and planes around reefs that China has reclaimed. Can we expect any such clarification?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, David. The Secretary has the opportunity in Beijing to pick up the ongoing conversation with the Chinese about the South China Sea. Specifically, he is going to reinforce to them the very negative consequences on China’s image, on China’s relationship with its neighbors, on regional stability, and potentially on the U.S.-China relationship, from their large-scale reclamation efforts and their behavior generally in the South China Sea. That behavior risks exacerbating the dispute and is raising great uncertainty among China’s neighbors about its intent.

Now the question of what the U.S. Navy does or doesn’t do is one that the Chinese are free to pose to the Secretary, and I’m sure that as our other officials from the Pacific Command and from the Pentagon do when they meet with their counterparts, he will leave his Chinese interlocutors in absolutely no doubt that the United States remains committed to maintain freedom of navigation and to exercise our legitimate rights as pertain to overflight and movement on the high seas. That won’t change, and not only for us, but – and not only in the South China Sea, but internationally and as a global matter, that’s a principle that we are determined to uphold.

Now, where exactly U.S. Navy ships go is not the issue. It is the right for all ships and all states to utilize the seas freely. The South China Sea is a very rich fishing ground and has a long tradition of access by fishermen from all of the coastal states. It’s important for the food security of the region, and the ability of countries to move and to operate freely in international waters is also directly relevant to stability and maintaining the kind of open rules-based order in the Asia Pacific that benefits all of us.

David, the last point I would make is this: That ultimately, no matter how much sand China piles on top of a submerged reef or shoal, it is not affecting its territorial claim. It’s not enhancing its territorial claim. You can’t build sovereignty. You can’t, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, create an island, and that land feature, that land mass, all that landfill that is dredged up with – at great environmental cost to the ecosystem, simply doesn’t accrue territorial seas or entitle the dredger to any sovereignty rights whatsoever. And although the Chinese know this perfectly well, that will be among the points that Secretary Kerry will convey when he’s in Beijing.

MODERATOR: Okay, thank you. I think we’re ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Carol Morello with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you for doing this. Could you talk a little bit about what impact the vote in the Senate on the trade bill might have on the Secretary’s talks? And also if you could talk a little bit about what role the Iran nuclear talks may play in the Secretary’s visit, since China’s one of the P5+1. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I’ll start, if I may, Carol, by saying that the topic of Iran will of course be an important feature of the conversations the Secretary has, first of all, in Beijing, because as you pointed out, the Chinese are a very important and active participant in those negotiations, but also in Seoul where the Koreans have fully supported sanctions against Iran that most people believe brought the Iranians to the table and made them serious about attempting to reach a deal. The Koreans, of course, also have a huge interest in global nonproliferation, in as much as they – that they are sharing the peninsula with the DPRK, which is actively pursuing a nuclear and a missile capability in direct violation of its international norms.

So the Secretary, I think, can be counted on to share with both partners his sense of where things stand, thank them for their respective support and encourage them to maintain solidarity as we are in the real home stretch of the negotiations. I’ll defer to my colleague on the TPP – TPA cloture vote question, other than to say that the Secretary surely will convey his belief that the TPP agreement is so dramatically in the best interests of the United States, and contributes so directly to job creation and economic growth in the United States, that he believes that as members of Congress look more carefully at the terms of the agreement, support for that agreement will continue to grow.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, and on the substantive side, work goes forward. Obviously, we would have preferred an outcome where TPA was passed last night, but the vote last night was not the end of the story. After that vote, the President met with 10 Senate Democrats, they had a constructive discussion and agreed to continue working together to try to find a way forward. So I don’t want to try to get ahead of where the White House is going on that, and I would urge you to talk to them. But our understanding is that there are ongoing discussions about trying to find a compromise that would allow another hopefully more successful vote, but if asked, we would always prefer to get TPA sooner than later, but that we could continue doing meaningful discussions in the meantime until we get it.

I would also note that the department continues to do aggressive outreach and briefing to the Congress on this topic, and in fact, tomorrow morning Assistant Secretary Rivkin and Assistant Secretary Russel are going up and testifying in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee on this topic, so our ongoing educational and information exchanges with the Hill continue apace without any reduction.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you. We’re ready for the next question, operator.

OPERATOR: (Inaudible) question comes from Sangwon Yoon with Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. I want to go back on the issue of the South China Sea. Considering the updates made last month to the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, how serious is the Administration about Japan possibly getting involved in patrol activity in the South China Sea? Obviously, there are domestic, legislative moves happening in Japan, but if that were to proceed as the Abe government hopes it will, what’s the U.S. stance on that, and how will you convey this to China during the upcoming visit? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hi, Sangwon. Well, we briefed and the Japanese briefed the Chinese directly through diplomatic channels on the revised defense guidelines and explained in detail what the alliance, under the new guidelines, aims to do and will be able to do. And I think we saw from the Chinese an expression of understanding with regard to the defense guidelines and the arrangement.

The press has carried stories about the potential for greater Japanese presence and activism in the South China Sea. That’s not a direct function of any changes made by the U.S. and Japan in terms of our alliance cooperation, per se. It is instead a reflection of the greater demand signal on the part of the countries of Southeast Asia for active and visible engagement by major powers – not only the United States, but also Japan, also Australia. And it seems likely that that demand signal is driven in part by anxiety generated by the land reclamation and other behavior on the part of China which clearly is creating tension and generating anxiety in the region, anxiety that is to no one’s benefit.

Now taking a step back, what we have seen over the course of the last two years under the Abe government is a significantly enhanced degree of active engagement in the economic and the security life of Southeast Asia. Prime Minister Abe has hosted the leaders of ASEAN more than once. He has traveled throughout the region. And the strengthening of ties between ASEAN and Japan is clearly something that we welcome both because of the contributions that Japan makes in terms of helping to build partner capacity in these countries; partly because of the strong economic and commercial ties that have lifted so many millions of people in Southeast Asia out of poverty; but also because Japan embraces the same democratic values and commitment to clean government and to open markets and fair trade that are important to the United States, and they’re increasingly becoming a feature of the Southeast Asia region as well. Over.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much. I think that concludes our questions for this session, so let me remind everyone this conversation has been on background, attributable to senior State Department officials. There is no embargo on the information. And thanks, everyone, for your participation, for your questions, and thanks to our speakers and we look forward to the trip. Thanks a lot.

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[1] Premier

[2] Premier