Opening Remarks at ASEAN Regional Forum

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Naypyitaw, Burma
August 10, 2014

As Prepared for Delivery

Let me start by thanking the government of Myanmar for hosting all of us, and congratulating them on a very effective chairmanship to date – and thank you for your generous welcome.

This meeting comes at a time when the world really could not be facing more complex and interconnected challenges. From extremists in Syria and Iraq and Africa, to Iran’s nuclear program, to the conflict in Gaza, peace and stability are being tested in every corner of the globe.

At this time, we’re also reminded how seemingly local challenges can actually reverberate around the globe. The loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 – and the death of 298 innocent people from 11 countries – an outcome clearly linked to separatists and the sophisticated weapons crossing borders to arm them – this local arming became a global tragedy that had a direct impact on lives in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.

Global challenges like these demonstrate our shared stake in a rules-based international order that maintains regional stability and ensures all countries – big and small – are treated fairly.

So today I’d like to focus on two principal issues that jeopardize the kind of regional stability I’m talking about. The first is North Korea’s nuclear program, and the second is the rising tensions of the last year or two in the South China Sea.

The DPRK’s nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation activities present a challenge to every country in the world. This threat extends well beyond the Asia-Pacific.

The DPRK joined the United States and others in the Six Party Talks in committing to the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner. This is a commitment that North Korea must keep.

I want to restate that what the United States does in the region is defensive. The United States remains firmly committed to the defense of the ROK and Japan. And let me be clear: We will take necessary defensive steps to protect our interests and our allies. We will join with the international community in increasing pressure, including by strengthening sanctions, whenever the DPRK chooses confrontation. That is defensive.

But we are not interested in a “hostile policy” towards the DPRK. On the contrary, we want to see peace on the Korean Peninsula. We seek improved relations with the DPRK, but that can only happen if it demonstrates a willingness to fulfill its obligations. We ask that North Korea prove its seriousness by taking meaningful action to meet its denuclearization obligations.

I want to emphasize: We are prepared to help North Korea and its people. So we need to speak openly about the deplorable human rights situation there, as described by the UN Commission of Inquiry’s report released in February. It’s appalling, and it shouldn’t be allowed.

North Korea only has to look around it to see the possibilities. Our relationship with Myanmar is proof of our willingness to adapt our approach to a country that takes positive steps. We’re ready for a new chapter in our relationship. It is time for the DPRK to prove that it’s ready, too. We want to negotiate, but we need to know that the other party will live by its commitments.

Now, let me address the situation in the South China Sea.

No one can deny that lately, the region has seen an uptick in problematic and destabilizing actions. Some claimants have taken provocative steps that are obviously aimed at changing the status quo. Tensions have spiked. It is a fact that trade has suffered. And relations between neighbors have deteriorated. It is a fact that vessels have engaged in dangerous behavior and are challenging each other.

As we’ve made clear many times, the United States doesn’t take a position on who has sovereignty over land features. That’s an issue to be resolved by the claimants through negotiation or legal mechanisms. But we do care deeply about the way countries behave in pursuing their claims. Intimidation, coercion, or use of force by any one of the claimants – these actions by anybody are unacceptable. We continue to urge diplomacy or, if necessary, reliance on international legal mechanisms. We also believe that countries must ensure that their maritime claims comply with the international law of the sea. And we oppose any efforts to restrict – or impede – freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, or other lawful uses of the seas by any party.

That is why we questioned China’s decision to begin drilling operations – accompanied by numerous paramilitary and military vessels – in an area claimed by both Vietnam and China. It’s also why we expressed concern over continued restrictions on access to Scarborough Reef and interference with the Philippines’ activities at Second Thomas Shoal as well as extensive and accelerating land reclamation activities at several features in the South China Sea.

But let me restate that we are not siding with or against any claimant – nor are we assessing whose claim is valid. But we know that the region will benefit if all parties take steps to lower the temperature now.

To do that, we think a simple approach makes sense: Voluntarily and jointly freeze the sorts of activities that “would complicate or escalate disputes,” a principle that everyone agreed to in the 2002 Declaration on Conduct. However, there is no agreed definition of behavior that Declaration refers to, other than the threat or use of force and seizing of unoccupied features.

Ultimately, it is for the claimants themselves to decide which actions they would volunteer to renounce. I know that the Philippines has independently made a valuable proposal that includes the concept of a moratorium. But let me suggest a few practical measures that the parties might consider.

To start, claimants could recommit to refrain from establishing new outposts on unoccupied features, or seizing features that another claimant occupied at the time the Declaration on Conduct was signed in 2002.

Claimants might also clarify what maintenance operations are acceptable and which expand the nature, size, or capabilities of the land features. In recent months, we’ve seen revelations of large-scale land reclamation activities and militarizing of outposts, which simultaneously destabilize the region and do nothing to bolster the legitimacy of their sovereignty claims.

If all of the claimants renounced such actions, it would help create a conducive environment for the CoC negotiations. It would be a pragmatic way to mitigate tensions that are undermining peace and security. That’s why we support the calls already made by some in ASEAN and throughout the region for claimants to exercise this sort of self-restraint.

Mr. Chairman, we are well aware that what happens in this region matters deeply to the United States and the international community. I hope that some of the ideas I presented today will inspire a deeper discussion on addressing the challenges that affect us all. Thank you.