Preview of Secretary Kerry's Travel to Vientiane, Phnom Penh, and Beijing

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
January 24, 2016


MODERATOR: We’re happy to have – for the sake of your reporting, it’s [Senior State Department Official], someone all of you know well. [Senior State Department Official] is going to walk us through the next phase of this trip – Secretary’s trip, rather – to Vientiane and Laos, and then on to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and then ending in Beijing, China.

So for the purposes of this call, [Senior State Department Official] will be a senior State Department official, and this is on background. And without further ado, I’ll hand it over to you, senior State Department official.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you, [Moderator]. I’m speaking to you all from beautiful downtown Vientiane and look forward to seeing you here in about 24 hours. The quick overview on this leg of Secretary Kerry’s trip to Asia is that he is both laying the groundwork for the important summit that President Obama will be hosting in Sunnylands with the 10 ASEAN leaders and working some of the most pressing issues that the U.S. faces in the Asia Pacific region. So he’ll start in Laos. He is only the second Secretary of State to visit Laos – if my history, not my memory, serves me right – since John Foster Dulles was here in about 1955. And it is indicative of the fact that after decades of a very difficult relationship between Laos and the U.S. – a period of estrangement, a period of mutual suspicion – there has been increasingly a real transformation in the bilateral relationship.

For our part, the U.S. over the past few years has offered helping hands in a number of areas. We have large-scale programs helping the Lao to deal with the problem of unexploded ordnance – a problem, of course, that resulted from our actions in the Vietnam War in the ’70s – programs on health, programs on energy, education, governance. And for their part, the Lao have been reaching out to us – their government, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, has demonstrated a real interest in diversifying their diplomacy as well as their economy.

Laos is a country like Cambodia, where China has been the dominant player both in economic terms and in political terms. So it’s significant that the Lao have – particularly in the last few years and certainly in 2015 have shown so much interest in strengthening and building relations with the United States. It is driven by a couple of things, but certainly one of them is the growing strength of ASEAN unity, and another is the widespread trend within Southeast Asia to ensure that the U.S. is actively engaged and is a partner in diplomatic, political, economic, and other arenas.

And what makes the visit particularly significant and timely, of course, is that Laos has just taken over as the chairman of ASEAN, and there’s quite a bit that we’re doing by way of consultation. There’s also a fair amount that we’re doing to support the country in its chairmanship here. So with one eye on the mid-February leaders summit, Secretary Kerry will be talking about what it is that the U.S. and ASEAN can get done this year, the first year on the ASEAN economic community, and how we can make the most of the strategic partnership that we’ve built with ASEAN.

After his meetings in Vientiane with the prime minister and deputy prime minister – who is also the foreign minister in similar activities – will go on to Cambodia, another Mekong country, another ASEAN country. The Secretary will have a chance to spend some time with Hun Sen, the prime minister, as well as see the foreign minister, and of course, the discussion about Sunnylands will be part of it. And economic issues will be part of the discussion as well because the U.S. and Cambodia have a strong economic relationship, and Cambodia’s consistently been one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia.

But at the same time, we have concerns about political developments. Although there has been some powerful indicators of progress over the last two years, the elections that were held resulted in a very significant number of seats in parliament by the opposition. However, there have been some setbacks. The relationship between the ruling party and the opposition party is fraught right now. The leader of the opposition party is out of the country, so Secretary Kerry will meet with not only the government but also the opposition. He’ll also meet with members of civil society to underscore both U.S. support for democracy in Cambodia but also, importantly, U.S. support for human rights, for civil rights, and for political space.

The Secretary then will travel to Beijing, and on Wednesday he’ll have a range of meetings with senior Chinese diplomats and Chinese leaders. It almost goes without saying that the issue of the DPRK and its recent nuclear test will be on the top of the agenda. The continuing tensions and problematic behavior by China in the South China Sea is very much on the Secretary’s mind and something that he will certainly discuss in depth. He is also going to have a chance to talk to the Chinese on what we see as a very significant tightening of political space for civil society and for NGOs. The Secretary will be able to explain our concerns and the impact that that has on the supporters of the U.S.-China relationship and on the relationship itself.

But there are also many areas where the U.S. and China have made progress, some of which Secretary Kerry’s personally responsible for. Climate is high on that list, as is Iran and Afghanistan, work on addressing the threat posed by ISIL both regionally and globally, global health and other issues. So there’s a very full agenda and a lot of work.

Now, the groundwork for the Secretary’s visit has been deftly laid by a very productive visit last week by Deputy Secretary Tony Blinken, who held what we call the Strategic Security Dialogue with his vice foreign minister counterpart. They covered a lot of this ground. Tony Blinken was accompanied by an interagency team. These are very substantive, in-depth consultations reflecting the breadth and the depth of our overall relationship. And the Secretary, of course, will build on those discussions to address the issues that I’ve mentioned with a view towards the busy agenda in U.S.-China relations over the course of 2016.

So why don’t I stop there and see if you have any questions about the trip.

MODERATOR: Thank you, senior State Department official. And Jonathan, I’d ask if you could just kind of work around the various questions in the room in Riyadh.

STAFF: Sure.

QUESTION: Sure. Hi, this is Carol Morello from The Washington Post. I think several of us want to know if the Secretary’s going to be discussing the UVA student who was arrested there recently, and if you think you can make any progress on getting him freed.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the – first of all, the welfare of American citizens is a absolute top priority for Secretary Kerry, and the Secretary and the State Department team leave no stone unturned. The fact that American citizens are detained in North Korea is, of course, troubling. The principal vehicle for our efforts to ascertain the well-being of the American citizens and to secure their early release is through our protecting power, the Swedes, in Pyongyang. We also convey our concerns directly to the North Koreans. But certainly, we would relish help from all quarters.

I think that the preeminent issue, of course, to discuss with the Chinese vis-a-vis the DPRK is the question of how China, in tandem with international partners and on a bilateral basis – or I should say perhaps a unilateral basis – can convince the DPRK to reverse course, to come on into compliance with its international obligations and its own commitments, and to be in the process of rolling back its nuclear and its missile program.

The Secretary has made no secret either to the Chinese or to you, the media, of his conviction that there is much more that China can do by way of applying leverage, building on the discussions that Tony Blinken had. I know that he’s going to be looking for practical and effective steps on the part of the Chinese.

QUESTION: Hi, it’s Elise Labott, thanks for doing – hi, it’s Elise Labott. Can you hear me?

STAFF: Go ahead.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

QUESTION: Hi, it’s Elise Labott from CNN. Thanks for doing the call. Just to follow up on that, given you said – given Tony Blinken’s meetings over there and the fact that you have had, as you say, very substantive discussions by this team, I’m wondering – the Secretary’s going to be looking for practical ways. But what is your impression of what the Chinese are prepared to do? Do you have a sense that you’re going into these meetings with a united front about how to tackle it, or do you still think that the Secretary is going to need to do some more convincing on China to put some serious pressure on North Korea?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, you broke up there a little bit, Elise, but I think I got the gist of your question.

It’s still early days in terms of the discussions and negotiations in New York among the Security Council members as to what the suite of sanctions and other measures in a UN Security Council resolution will look like, and I expect that set of negotiations to play out for a little longer. The Secretary and his Chinese counterparts will compare notes on where that stands and what we can do by the Security Council.

But there is also the issue of what China on a unilateral basis, as North Korea’s lifeline, as North Korea’s patron, will choose to do, both to cut off avenues of proliferation and retard North Korea’s ability to gain the wherewithal to advance its nuclear and its missile programs. But also, and perhaps most importantly, to send an unmistakable message to Kim Jong-un that his strategy is meeting with real resistance from China.

In the past, the Chinese have often quietly found ways to send a message that a North Korean leader simply couldn’t afford to overlook. The fact that despite China’s friendly overtures to the DPRK, Kim Jong-un turned around and did the thing that he knew the Chinese most objected to – a nuclear test – certainly tells me that that message hasn’t yet gotten through.

Now, it is very important to present a united front to the DPRK, but that united front has to be a firm one, not a flaccid one. Now, the Secretary, of course, based on his consultations with his Japanese and Korean foreign minister counterparts, based on the conversations that President Obama has had with Prime Minister Abe and President Park, and very importantly, the in-depth, substantive discussions that Deputy Secretary Blinken led with his Japanese and Korean counterparts in the trilateral consultations that he held a week ago in Tokyo. We come into the conversation with the Chinese with a united front from that perspective. We want the Chinese to line up with Seoul, with Washington, with Tokyo in convincing the DPRK that there is a peaceful way forward which comes with compliance with the – to the international Security Council resolutions, but that continuing down the road of provocations is a dead-end street.

Over. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Hi [Senior State Department Official], this is David Brunnstrom from Reuters. I wanted – I could just ask you to expand a bit on when you talked about the need to cut off avenues of proliferation. Do you think that those avenues are still open via China? And on Laos and Cambodia, how concerned are you about ASEAN unity on the South China Sea? And is there any concern that the Lao presidency could be as problematic on that issue as the Cambodian one was?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, on the first point, I take the Chinese at their word in – when they say that they are doing a great deal to prevent illegal activities and proliferation from the DPRK via Chinese soil, Chinese ports, Chinese banks, and Chinese companies. Nevertheless, North Korea is still engaged in illicit and proliferation activities. They have very few avenues for conducting business with the international community that don’t in some fashion involve transiting China. And so despite the determination and efforts of the Chinese Government, clearly there is more that they can do. And I certainly hope that in the aftermath of this latest nuclear test that the Chinese are examining those conduits and avenues and looking for ways to intercept and restrict North Korean proliferation activities.

On the subject of the Laos – the Lao chairmanship, virtually every ASEAN country tells me that the problems of the Cambodian chairmanship left a black mark on ASEAN and are not to be repeated. Now, the Lao, I think, are off to a very good start. They have overseen some joint statements by ASEAN foreign ministers in response to world events. I and my colleagues have held consultations with the Lao – preparation for the agenda this year – at the summit this fall. I think that the resolve that was shown by the ASEAN leaders in 2015 on the South China Sea, which is reflected in the foreign minister and the leaders’ statement that were issued with Lao support in the course of the year, are an indicator that, number one, the level of concern about the tensions in the South China Sea is very high among ASEAN; but number two, that all 10 of the members place a premium on the unity and the coherence of ASEAN. And I think it is going to be very difficult for an external power to manipulate individual members in a way that paralyzes the group as a whole.

Over. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: I think we have time for just one or two more questions, folks in the room.

QUESTION: Oh. Hi, it’s Felicia Schwartz from The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for doing this. I had a quick question. I might have misheard you, but just going back to the student – the UVA student, you said – did you say that you raised his case directly with the North Koreans or the Chinese did or --

QUESTION: The Swedes?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, what I said is the primary vehicle for us to engage the DPRK on the topic of any American citizen’s welfare is through the Swedes, who maintain an embassy in Pyongyang and who are our protecting power. But I’m not going to get into the specifics of any particular American citizen case. The U.S. does also have the ability to communicate directly with the North Koreans, and typically, we do so in an effort to ensure that our citizens are being well treated and to encourage their prompt release.

QUESTION: Thanks.

QUESTION: Are you saying you did that in this case? Are you saying you did --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I don’t want to be specific about – I don’t want to be specific about a particular case. I’m giving you a glimpse into how we deal with these kinds of problems.

QUESTION: Hey [Senior State Department Official], it’s Matt.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This would be – and – go ahead.

QUESTION: It’s Matt Lee.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Go ahead, Matt.

QUESTION: Hey. Listen, a couple things. One, on David’s question about the Lao chairmanship and the disaster that was Cambodia --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can’t hear you.

QUESTION: Sorry? Just following David’s question on Lao chairmanship. You still there? Hello?

MODERATOR: Sorry. I’m here, Matt.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MODERATOR: I’m – give me a second here. [Senior State Department Official], are you there? We may have lost him.

QUESTION: Can we get him back?

STAFF: John’s reaching out now to see if he can dial back in.

QUESTION: Hello?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hello?

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official]?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, [Senior State Department Official] back here.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. So sorry, but – it’s Matt Lee. Listen, following – I have a couple but they’re brief. Following up on David’s question about the Lao chairmanship, they’re – Laos is the only member of ASEAN that’s landlocked, and do you really sense that they are less susceptible to Chinese pressure than the Cambodians were on this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, all ASEAN members are susceptible to Chinese pressure whether they are landlocked or not. The Lao are the neighbor --

QUESTION: Yeah, but that means that Laos has less interest in it than --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They share a border with – they share a border with China, as do a number of other ASEAN countries. They have – they have a very significant percentage of their trade with China, and they are on the receiving end of a very considerable amount of investment and assistance as – from China, as others are.

Look, it is not inconsistent to have a robust economic and political relationship with China and be first and foremost a devoted member of ASEAN. The role of the ASEAN chair is, according to the ASEANs themselves, to try to find the center of gravity among the 10 members and reflect that in their dealings with partner countries, of which China is one and the closest.

So, yes, China has a lot of leverage, but after now decades of growth, ASEAN has formed an economic community, has developed a pattern of cooperation, puts an emphasis on unity, and it’s my expectation that the Lao will be a responsible chair for 2016.

QUESTION: Okay. And then really, really briefly, you mentioned about the assistance to Laos on dealing with the UXO. Is there anything new we can expect along that way?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.

QUESTION: I’m trying to find a – I’m trying – I want you to get some news out of this visit in Laos, and I’m afraid that unless there’s some kind of announcement, that it’s going to – that there won’t be any.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On – I think that there will be announcements and sort of upgrades or expansions of U.S. support for programs in Laos, including the UXO, the unexploded ordnance, and help, but I suspect that most of those will come when President Obama is here later in the year. Look, this visit --

QUESTION: Okay. Well, might they be previewed --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This visit will certainly put a lot of focus on the work that we’re doing in Laos, but we’re not going to preview any possible announcements.

QUESTION: All right. And then the last one is: Is the Secretary bringing back some artifacts to Cambodia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t have anything on that, but I know that that’s an ongoing discussion between us and the Cambodians.

QUESTION: When you say you don’t have anything on that, that means that you don’t want to – you want it to be a surprise? Because it isn’t one for the Cambodians. They know they’re coming.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: (Laughter.) Yeah, I don’t – I just don’t have an answer for you on that.

MODERATOR: Okay, guys. Well, I think on that note, we’ll let our State Department official --

QUESTION: Wait, can we --

QUESTION: Wait, wait.

QUESTION: [Moderator].

MODERATOR: Go ahead, sorry.

QUESTION: [Moderator], can we just ask one more question, please?

MODERATOR: Yes. Who? I’m sorry, what? I can’t hear you guys. Sorry.

QUESTION: Hi, it’s Elise. I was just wondering, when you talk about all the things you and China are going to talk about on North Korea, I mean, that’s – a lot of that seems like kind of more punitive and pressure, but the Chinese have always maintained that the North Koreans are looking for you to get back to the table. And I’m just wondering, is there any thought to some kind of new approach at North Korea that you’ll be discussing in China in terms of trying to get talks together – the Six-Party Talks or whatever you want to call them?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we’re looking – yeah. I mean, what we’re looking for is negotiations under the Six-Party framework and based on the Six-Party joint statement of 2005. That’s what we’ve been pursuing consistently through the entire Obama Administration. The – it’s the North Koreans who have walked away, it’s the North Koreans who have shut the door, and it’s the North Koreans who keep saying no to proposals from all quarters that we negotiate, as they committed to, to eliminate their nuclear missile program. Because that’s what opens the door to our ability to work with them to normalize relations, to provide economic assistance, to replace the armistice with a successor peace arrangement.

We’ve – we had the negotiations to reach an agreement on how to proceed, and the North Koreans have walked away from it. We want them to walk back, and it’s both pressure and incontrovertible evidence that the international community isn’t going to change its mind and decide that we’re good with a nuclear North Korea. That’s not going to happen and the Chinese don’t want it either.

Now, we don’t think that talking about other topics is a soporific that pacifies North Korea and keeps them calm. We believe that unless and until we’re dealing directly with the problem itself – North Korea’s illegal pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles – that we’re not making headway. We want to make headway. We want to make headway through negotiations. And the sooner that North Korea’s disabused of the view that it can change the subject and get away with sustaining a nuclear program, the sooner and the safer Northeast Asia will be.

MODERATOR: Okay, great. Thanks so much, Senior State Department Official. And those who joined us in Riyadh, wishing you all the best on the next stage of this trip, and we’ll sign off with that. Thanks so much, everyone.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, see you in 24 hours.