Remarks at the 8th Lower Mekong Initiative Ministerial Meeting

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Putra World Trade Center
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
August 5, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good morning everybody. And let me begin by thanking my counterparts, my colleagues from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam for coming this morning for the meeting, as well as the secretary general, Secretary General Luong Minh. And I’m really delighted to say thank you to Malaysia for hosting us here today. And thank you for putting up with me. I’m moving a little slow.

I want to tell you a story about this cane, okay? (Laughter.) As you know, I broke my femur, my leg, riding a bike right after the Iran negotiations, when I was going to take a Sunday morning and have a ride. Instead, I spent the last couple of months to recover. But this cane has a history. This cane belonged to Ambassador Joseph B. Kennedy in England during the war. And after the war, President Kennedy, before he became president, used this cane when his back was bad after the war, you remember. And then Teddy Kennedy, who broke his back, used the cane, and I had an operation on my knee – little operations, twice – and he loaned me the cane both times.

So when Vicki Kennedy, his widow, heard that I had broken my leg, she knew I was going to need the cane. She loaned it to me. So here it is. It’s – and the third time I’ve used it – three times is lucky, right? No hard breaks. (Laughter.) So anyway.

And a lot of you know that the – from our prior meetings this is the third time that I’ve had the privilege of hosting the Lower Mekong Initiative. And I learned when I was a young man, when I was in the United States Navy – I was, as many of you know, on a boat that was running around, up and down the rivers of the Mekong, and I came to see what a really extraordinary river, what an extraordinary resource it is. I know the river well; we used to trade our canned sea rations for fresh shrimp. And we thought we got the better part of the deal.

But I saw the aquaculture and the natural beauty and came to understand this is one of the great rivers of the world. And the natural beauty is really only part of the story. This river basin is the economic lifeblood of an entire region. And it helps in sustaining lives, it pays the bills, it provides jobs, it fills the stomachs, it gives the nutrition for children and for families all through the region.

So as we meet this third time, I want to tell you that I’m really impressed by the progress that we have been making. I think we’re way ahead of where I might have dreamed that we would have been. This group is making a tremendous amount of progress in lifting the local economy, but also narrowing the development gap between the Lower Mekong countries and the rest of ASEAN. I think the foreign minister from Vietnam, our friend here, would tell you about the difference that it’s beginning to make.

I’m very grateful for the role that the United States has been able to play to help achieve some of these goals. In the past six years, our government, the United States, has invested over $100 million in this initiative, supporting hundreds of training sessions, workshops, policy dialogues, and all of these are empowering the people in the region to be able to build capacity and to manage shared resources and to tackle the development challenges in a sustainable way.

So over the years we’ve now laid a strong foundation for a shared economic growth. But all of us know that that economic growth is going to have to be accompanied by real stewardship, by people caring for this resource. And you can’t have one; you can’t have the economic growth without properly protecting and caring for the resource. They’re interdependent.

So I’m very pleased that we are coming together today on a statement on Building a Sustainable Future for the Mekong. This declaration outlines the importance of considering social and environmental impacts for infrastructure development along the waterway. It is a very valuable blueprint for safeguarding the Mekong’s fragile ecosystems and preserving the livelihoods of the communities at the same time.

Today we’re going to discuss that effort as well as other initiatives that are making a difference, including our Connecting the Mekong initiative, through Education and Training – COMET, as we call it. COMET is a public-private partnership with companies like Intel and Microsoft that helps train university graduates in Lower Mekong nations in the technical skills that will help to make them more competitive in the 21st century.

So we’re very, very optimistic about the Lower Mekong’s future. And we have very good reason to be because I think we can build on the progress that we’ve made already on this critical initiative. So I thank you very, very much. This is a major step forward on something that only began three years ago. I think we can all be very proud of what we’ve done.

With that, we would ask our friends from the media if they would now leave us, just to be able to have the longer and private, more technical detailed part of our meeting. We’re very appreciative for you being here today. Thank you.