Background Briefing Previewing Secretary Kerry's Visit to Vientiane and Manila

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Paris, France
July 23, 2016

MODERATOR: Thanks so much, and thanks to everyone for joining us on what looks like a beautiful morning in Paris. We are joined this morning by [Senior State Department Official] who’s going to walk us through the next portion of this trip, the Secretary’s trip to Vientiane, Laos and Manila, Philippines, where Secretary Kerry will be participating in the ASEAN Regional Forum and related ASEAN meetings, also meetings of the Lower Mekong Initiative as well as bilateral meetings on the margins of the ASEAN meetings as well – or meeting rather, as well as ultimately a bilateral visit to Manila.

So without further ado, I will hand it over to [Senior State Department Official], who will be known for the purposes of this call as Senior State Department Official. And just a reminder that this call is on background. So without further ado, [Senior State Department Official], if you want to take the mike and go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Very good. Well, thanks, [Moderator], and hello to everybody. This has been a very active year in U.S.-ASEAN relations and particularly for Secretary Kerry, who at the beginning of the year visited both Cambodia and Laos, Laos being the chair of ASEAN for 2016. He visited in preparation for and in the run-up to the Sunnylands Summit hosted by President Obama, where Secretary Kerry also engaged actively with the foreign ministers and with the other leaders.

The Secretary has been a strong supporter of ASEAN as an institution and believes that the focus the U.S has placed on Southeast Asia as a dynamic driver of growth has benefitted the U.S. in any number of ways and will continue so in the future.

So there are four multilateral meetings that Secretary Kerry will again participate in during the two days or so that he will be in Vientiane, Laos. The first is the U.S.-ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting. This occurs at – once or twice a year and these are counterparts that by and large the Secretary knows well and has developed an important relationship with. And it is a precursor to the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting that President Obama will host in September.

Similarly, he will participate in the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers Meeting. What that means for those of you who have forgotten, basically it’s the ten ASEAN nations plus eight important regional partners, the U.S. and Japan, the ROK, India, China, Australia, New Zealand. I lost count on my fingers in case I’ve left anybody off.

In addition to those two meetings, there’s also a larger meeting of the ARF, the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is a longstanding annual one-off ministerial event. It does not meet at either higher or leaders level or lower level. It’s a one-time meeting that includes a number of partners from South Asia, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka; from the Pacific region Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, Canada, the EU; and also in Asia, Northeast Asia, Mongolia and, interestingly, the DPRK. So this is one of the very few meetings in which the DPRK and the United States as well as Japan, China, Russia, are represented, Russia being eighth, the eighth partner that I forgot to mention.

The fourth meeting is what’s called the Lower Mekong Initiative. This is a meeting that occurs at multiple levels on an ongoing basis through the year of the five Mekong River countries and the U.S. in which we coordinate and set objectives for our development coordination and development assistance and managing that incredibly important and life-giving water.

In addition to the multilateral meetings, the Secretary, of course, will take advantage of the assemblage here to hold a range of bilaterals, first and foremost with some of the key ASEAN ministers, the Lao foreign minister, who is the chair of ASEA this year, the Malaysian foreign minister because Malaysia served as the ASEAN country coordinator, the ASEAN member that’s – that takes turns working directly with the United States as a partner country. And obviously, he will engage with and be able to talk and sit down with various other leaders through the course of the two days.

He will also hold what we call a Trilateral Security Dialogue, or the TSD, with Australia and Japan. The TSD is something that has been underway among our three countries for many years. It takes back at least two administrations. We meet at a variety of levels, including at the leaders level last year at the G20. It’s a great vehicle for coordination among great allies and great democracies.

He’ll meet, I’m sure, with the foreign minister of the Republic of Korea in light of the very close coordination between us and the need for consultations both on implementing the UN Security Council Resolution 2270 but also in our continued effort to advance our joint strategy for both deterring North Korean provocation and for encouraging North Korean compliance with its obligations and ultimately negotiations to eliminate its nuclear program.

And the Secretary will sit down and meet with the Chinese foreign minister. This will be their first opportunity to confer in the aftermath of the decision by the tribunal in The Hague on the case brought by the Philippines against China over the maritime space in the South China Sea. It also comes in the wake of continued missile launches and threats from the DPRK. I’d add that it’s an opportunity as well for the Secretary to consult with the Chinese foreign minister on the upcoming trip to China for the G20 that President Obama will make in early September, and lastly, that it builds on the high-level engagement that we just had barely a month ago in Beijing at the Strategic & the Economic Dialogue.

In terms of issues, in the multilateral meetings I won’t go through the complicated agenda. But obviously, big issues include the South China Sea and maritime security in general; the DPRK, as I mentioned, and nonproliferation more broadly; counterterrorism and countering violent extremism, including the efforts by ISIL to radicalize and to infiltrate Southeast Asia; refugees, both a global challenge and the issues of regional migration as well as our cooperation against trafficking in persons; climate, with each of the countries are engaged on to complete the ratification of COP21 by the end of the year on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief cooperation in a region that’s so violently affected by climate change and natural disasters; and more broadly the environment and sustainable development, everything from management of the riparian resources in the Mekong to protecting against illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing more broadly; and lastly, economics and trade, including progress in the initiative that President Obama announced at Sunnylands, the ASEAN Connect Framework, as well as, of course, their interest in TPP.

From there, the Secretary will travel to Manila, the Philippines, on July 26-27. This will be the first visit to the Philippines by a U.S. cabinet secretary since the change of administration, and it provides an opportunity for the Secretary to meet not only with his counterpart, Foreign Secretary Yasay, who actually will be in Laos, but also with President Duterte. There is a lot for the two allies to talk about. We are cooperating intensively not only in regional and global issues but also in very practical issues such as law enforcement and maritime capacity building, implementation of our EDCA, our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

And I would just throw on top of that the fact that President Duterte and the Philippines will be taking over as ASEAN chairman in January of 2017 following on Laos, so there’s a lot to talk about in terms of their leadership of the regional agenda.

So let me stop there and turn it back over.

MODERATOR: Thanks for that. And we’ll now turn it over to any questions you may have.

QUESTION: Well, I may as well start. Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. Good morning. As you said, the South China Sea is one of the big issues, and you’re meeting specifically as it comes as Susan Rice is in Beijing at the moment. How do you see those two visits kind of being coordinated, and what do you see the messages on especially from the Secretary not only to the ASEAN partners but also to China during these meetings?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, there’s a tremendous amount of very close coordination between the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor, both of whom are implementing the policy that has been set out by President Obama. So there is coherence and a unity to the message.

We are engaging at every level in a very serious effort to discuss with China the implications of the recent decision by the tribunal and the path ahead toward a de-escalation of tensions. We convey to China fundamentally if not the same message a message that’s fully consistent with what we convey to all of the claimants, which is our expectation that they will act in a way that is consistent with international law, including the Law of the Sea; that they will exercise restraint and respect for the rights of others; that they will protect and abide by principles such as freedom of navigation and unimpeded lawful commerce; and that we stand for and support the peaceful resolution or the peaceful management of differences and of disputes.

We’ve said publicly and the Secretary will reinforce our hope that the legal process having been complete, the parties will now turn to constructively engaging in a effort to find diplomatic ways to peacefully interact in the South China Sea and to use the decision and the clarity that it provides in terms of certain maritime entitlements to shift gears towards a constructive set of discussions that can lead to modus vivendi in the South China Sea consistent with international law.


QUESTION: Can you see anything happening during the meeting as far as trying to get that diplomatic track going?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There’s no on-and-off switch in international diplomacy. Secretary Kerry has been very actively engaged with the principal claimants – obviously with China, with Vietnam, with the Philippines, with Malaysia, with Brunei – and he’s been actively engaged in helping and encouraging ASEAN to play a constructive overall role in its quest to find ways to help build up rules of the road and rules of conduct that contribute to regional peace and regional stability.


MODERATOR: Thanks for that. Any other questions?

QUESTION: If I may. Yes, if I may, can I follow up a question?


QUESTION: Yes, hi. Yes, hi. This is – can I – [Senior State Department Official] – I’m sorry. You just mentioned the modus vivendi. Is that going to be the new term to this replace a binding code of conduct that the U.S. has been advocate for? And separately, should we be expecting a statement if not a communique out of ASEAN meetings regarding the South China Sea? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Don’t, please focus on any label or any construct. There is consistency in our advocacy for international law and for military norms. Whatever you call it, our goal is to assist the claimants and assist the countries in the region to find formulas consistent with the law to interact peacefully and to responsibly manage the phenomenal but vulnerable resources of the South China Sea.

I mean, one dimension, of course, is preserving and securing these important waterways through which one-half of global commerce moves. One important priority is preserving the delicate marine ecosystem that has been so badly stressed and damaged by natural disaster on the one hand including global warming, and man-made predations and destruction like large-scale reclamation on the other.

But in terms of regional security, what’s important to all of us is that the parties concerned find responsible legal diplomatic channels for exchanging their views and for, to the maximum extent, reconciling differences. One early step that we have called on all the parties to take is to clarify their own claims in the South China Sea consistent with international law. Another step that we’ve called on all the parties to take is to show maximum restraint and to refrain from militarization or reclamation or actions that contribute to tension and making resolution more difficult.

The question of whether the ASEANs and China can fully implement their 2002 declaration of conduct or whether they can more quickly reach closure on a code of conduct, those are issues for the parties themselves to work out, although we wish them well and we think that reaching practical agreements on how the countries will interact peacefully in the region, particularly in the aftermath of the tribunal’s decision on maritime entitlements, is a high priority and the United States is always is willing and able to help.

Thank you.

QUESTION: How about a statement? Should we be expecting one?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, the pattern is that the ASEAN foreign ministers when they meet typically issue a joint communique and that the chair of ASEAN ordinarily issues a statement, a communique wrapping up the East Asia Summit and the ARF ministerials. I mean, there is a precedent in 2012 for no communique at the leaders level, but I think the expectation is that, as normal, the chair will oversee the production of the relevant public statements.


QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official] --


MODERATOR: No, go ahead. One more. Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: Again, you earlier mentioned that DPRK’s representative will be in ARF. After North Korea decide to close the channel in New York, is there any meeting or interaction between the two in the ARF forum?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, other than the ordinary milling around and passing in the hall, there are no plans for a meeting between the Secretary and the North Korean foreign minister. However, the ARFs in the past, and I’m absolutely certain this year, creates an opportunity for the North Korean foreign minister to come face-to-face with the solidarity of the international community behind the principle that the obligations levied by the UN Security Council on North Korea should be obeyed.

I think that the North Korean foreign minister will again hear from not only the Secretary of State but from others in the room that the world is not prepared to accept North Korea as a nuclear state and that the things that North Korea professes to want – security, economic development, international respect – are all attainable, but (inaudible) respect for international law, for a willingness to engage in serious and authentic negotiations on denuclearization, but not if North Korea continues to threaten and to willfully flout its international obligations and, frankly, its own commitments.

So the opportunity for the North Korean foreign minister to come face-to-face with the stark reality that the DPRK’s strategy of pursuing both nuclear weapons and economic assistance from the international community is an abject failure constitutes one of the important contributions of the ARF process.


QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Hey, [Senior State Department Official].

MODERATOR: Yeah. Any other questions?

QUESTION: Yeah. Can you hear me?


QUESTION: Yes. All right.


QUESTION: Nice – nice, [Senior State Department Official], with “abject failure.” That’s something right out of the KCNA, right? Abject?


QUESTION: My question is about the Philippines, actually. How concerned are you guys that Duterte and his administration are not going to be as – or appear not to be not going to – appear not to be as forceful as the previous Filipino administrations on the South China Sea?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t think that we can make sweeping judgments about the thinking, attitude, and plans of the Duterte government. And one of the virtues of the upcoming visit by the Secretary is that it creates an opportunity to both hear directly from President Duterte and his team but also to confer on our common interests and our respective priorities.

The expressed willingness of the new Philippine president to hold a direct dialogue with the Chinese, the signals that he sent indicating that he’s open to various forms of diplomatic dialogue including bilateral talks, the I think dignified and prudent way that he responded initially to the crushing victory that the Philippines was handed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, by the legal body constituted under Law of the Sea to make those certain determinations, namely his statement that the Philippines would not flaunt or – what was it? Well, I’ll leave it to the editor to fill (inaudible) the other half – (laughter) – but I think are encouraging.

The United States is supportive of engagement and supportive of dialogue, and it’s never been our position that claimant countries shouldn’t talk to each other; far from that. Ultimately, direct negotiations between or in the many cases where there are multiple cases among the actual claimants is how these – the underlying issues of sovereignty get resolved.

So let’s be clear. We’ve never objected to diplomatic engagement to the country. However, we have insisted that, number one, there are multiple mechanisms legitimately available to claimants in support of dispute resolution under the law, and that any country has the right to avail themselves of that mechanism if they choose to and certainly if they feel that they have exhausted the alternatives.

So the prospect of direct engagement by the government in Manila and the government in Beijing on areas of difference with regard to either maritime issues or sovereignty of land features is not concerning to us. Our focus is on ensuring that all countries are respectful of the rights of others, specifically that the international laws and rules that pertain to actions on the sea are adhered to; that stability and security in the region not be compromised by threatening or coercive action; and that the integrity and the centrality of ASEAN as the regional platform also be respected.

So all (inaudible) have a good opportunity to discuss this set of issues with the new president, but also a very broad agenda including economic issues, including security, law enforcement, people-to-people issues, and as I mentioned earlier, including the Philippines’ engagement in regional affairs such as the upcoming chairmanship of ASEAN but also in other multilateral and global areas of interest including the Our Oceans Conference that Secretary Kerry will host later this summer, APEC, and any other number of common priorities.


MODERATOR: Thanks so much. (Inaudible) time to do one more question. We’ve taken (inaudible) official’s time. Go ahead.



QUESTION: Yes, this is Nicolas with AFP. Just to follow up on the – hello?


QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Just to follow up on Nike’s question on the joint statement, are you concerned that ASEAN would not be able to reach such a joint statement, even the opposition or the reluctance of the so-called pro-Chinese Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, or even Thailand? And does the Secretary plan to meet face-to-face with his Thai and Burmese counterparts?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Look, the – it’s for the ASEANs themselves to work out a statement, and we, the U.S., will certainly will be an active editor in the process of helping the chair to develop a joint statement coming out of the EAS ministerial and the ARF ministerial.

I’ll be honest that I put a little more value on the conversation that happens among the ministers themselves than I do in the often lengthy and torturous prose that is pulled together by the – by the staffs afterwards. But in fairness, yeah, it is important that the ASEAN foreign ministers speak out and represent what common ground they found on issues that are important.

But at another level, look, the ASEAN foreign ministers have already spoken. They met in February here in Vientiane and issued a very clear statement specifically on the South China Sea in which they expressed their concern about reclamation and militarization, and they reaffirmed what their leaders had said when they visited the United States in February and earlier, namely their strong support for respecting diplomatic and legal mechanism. And of course, that included UNCLOS and the tribunal.

Now that the decision is behind them, it’s up to them to find common ground in figuring out how exactly they are going to articulate it. But there’s an opportunity for the ministers to really talk through and exchange views on what the significance is, what comes next, where our common and shared interests are.

So in the U.S.-ASEAN meeting, in the EAS meeting, in the ARF meeting, yes indeed the Secretary engages at the table with all of the ASEAN foreign ministers including the Thai foreign minister and certainly including the Burmese foreign minister. In fact, I think everyone is looking forward eagerly to this meeting because Burma, Myanmar, after all of these years, is going to be represented at the table by a new foreign minister, Aung San Suu Kyi, who holds that title as well as other important portfolios in her government.

So the short answer is that yes, the – this is part of the Secretary’s ongoing engagement with each and every ASEAN foreign minister and it is a reflection of the importance that the Administration has placed on preserving and enhancing U.S. interests in this important region.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Hey, again, sorry. I just want – the lengthy and torturous prose, does that refer only to ASEAN statements or to pretty much all diplomatic (inaudible)? (Laugher.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, that’s going to be inscribed on my tombstone, Matt, I’m sure, as a career Foreign Service officer.

QUESTION: Author of lengthy and torturous prose (inaudible). (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Not something that a wire service reporter can really do.

QUESTION: It’s going to be my (inaudible).

[Moderator], I just want to – I sent an email. Are you still there?

MODERATOR: Can’t hear you, Matt.


QUESTION: Good Lord.

MODERATOR: Somebody’s got a (inaudible).

QUESTION: So the transcript of this call is embargoed until we get to Vientiane? Is that right? I emailed about this (inaudible).

MODERATOR: Yeah, yeah (inaudible) transcript.

QUESTION: Okay, all right.

QUESTION: And then when is this embargoed, or is it embargoed for us as well as when we land, or can one write beforehand?

MODERATOR: No, you can write beforehand. Once you land in Vientiane.


MODERATOR: Okay. All right, guys. Thanks, everyone, for joining (inaudible). Thank you, Senior State Department Official, for taking time out of your busy schedule. Appreciate it all, and have a good day, everyone.