Remarks at a Press Roundtable

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Vientiane, Laos
January 25, 2016

MR KIRBY: Okay, folks, same rules as applied in Davos. We’ve got 30 minutes for this. The Secretary’s just going to kick it off with a few opening thoughts for you and then we’ll go around to you guys. As before – you were great in Davos, but keep – limit the follow-ups and – so that everybody gets a shot, and then if we get a chance to go around again, we’ll go around again, okay?

With that, Mr. Secretary, over to you, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Great. Well, so first of all, I can’t believe how cold it is here in Laos. I’ve never, ever felt this part of the world this cool.

So why we’re here, obviously – we’re here because this relationship is growing in importance, particularly this year with the chair of ASEAN. We are working with all of our ASEAN partners for clarity and particularly unity going forward. But also, the relationship between Laos and the United States has really begun to mature a bit in the last 10, 15 years as we move away from the tensions that existed in the 1960s, ‘70s, and soon thereafter.

So while we don’t agree on everything, obviously – and we talked about that very openly today – we also do agree on a lot of things and on the way the world is changing. And it’s changing here too. We still have concerns about human rights and freedom of expression and other issues, and I raised those, but it is also – we’re partnering on a wide range of issues. We have the nutrition initiatives, we’re partnering on the environment. We have a major initiative I’ll talk about in a few minutes on the Mekong itself. We have energy, education, law enforcement, trade, investment, wildlife trafficking, human trafficking, legal sector reforms – it’s a bunch of issues that we’re working on. And they’re all important.

We are going to address directly this challenge of hunger. There’s a serious problem of kids who are stunted here because of the nutrition challenges. So we are establishing the Lao-American Nutrition Institute and USAID jointly will be implementing a new $6 million program, and US Department of Agriculture and AID are going to help provide meals in schools across the country to try to encourage children to continue their education and be in a position physically to lead productive and healthy lives and learn, which is critical.

We’re also – on the Mekong, which some of you were with me when we went down to the Lower Mekong – which, by the way, I hope to go back to later in the year when we go back to Vietnam, somewhere around the time of the President’s visit or otherwise. But I want go back down there to revisit where we were, and we can go into that a little bit later. But we have a thing called the Smart Infrastructure for the Mekong, which is a USAID-funded project, and it’s implemented by Department of Interior, Department of Energy to improve their access to technology, to information, to technical expertise and decision-making tools to empower them to increase the capacity of the Lower Mekong governments to mitigate against the adverse impact of dams, of which there are many sort of from here to the north. And we’re deeply concerned – we have the Corps of Engineers and others engaged in working with them, with our embassy. So they’re looking at dam safety, flood control, dam sediment flushing, and fish biology information, fish-friendly hydropower guidelines, et cetera, because this is such an enormously important river. It’s one of the great rivers of the world, and it touches – I think seven countries it is, if I recall: China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam – who’d I leave out, anybody? There’s somebody else in there.


SECRETARY KERRY: Burma. So anyway, we also have a hydropower fish-friendly turbine initiative. There’s a smart, sustainable hydropower project – DOE is running that working with the Oak Ridge National Lab. So there’s a lot of effort going on to build out the Lower Mekong Initiative, which I’ve put particular effort into.

And then there’s the additional issue of our help to undo the impacts of – the residual impacts of the war. We are still very engaged here. It’s initiative – this is what first brought me to Laos years ago, back in the ‘90s. I remember flying in a helicopter over triple canopy jungle going to sites of potential POW, MIA, missing people. In fact, I’m going to meet with Bill Gowdry, who’s testified several times before the Senate on this subject. He testified before my committee. I’m going to meet with him after this. You should meet him. He’s an interesting fellow who has worked for years on this issue, completely dedicated to it, and he flew in that helicopter with me way back when, when we were going to these sites.

And the Lao – beginning way back when, we built a relationship with them sufficient to get their help to go do this, to be able to fly over the country. We had a terrible relationship then. Just to give you an example, USAID during the time when there was a different kind of struggle taking place here – the building we went into, which is the foreign – ministry of foreign relations today, used to be a USAID building, just to give you the sense of change in story. And then there’s another building just down the street from that that was also USAID. So we had a big operation, lot of stuff going on here.

We’re grateful to the Lao for their continued efforts on POW, MIA. We’re also deeply engaged in trying to de-mine and deal with the unexploded ordnance issue. A few years ago, the annual average of people killed or hurt badly was more than 300 a year. We’re now down to about 50 a year, and 50 a year is still too many – 50 – by 50. But we talked to them today about how to continue this effort. We’ve gone from $5 million of commitment to it to $9 million to $12 million, now $15 million this year, and I know that we’re looking at whether or not that could be plussed up even more. And I hope that when the President returns, we will have done our – completed the task to go from 15 to still even a greater effort. But that decision has to be completed. But we’re on a scale upwards, which is very, very clear, in answer to your question earlier, Phillip – from 5 to 9 to 12 to 15. Fifteen for this year is an increase.

QUESTION: You don’t happen to know when the five was?

QUESTION: Thought it was (inaudible).

SECRETARY KERRY: The five was --

QUESTION: Nineteen – I thought it was (inaudible).

MR KIRBY: Danny, when was the figure of five?

SECRETARY KERRY: When were we doing 5 million?

STAFF: (Inaudible.)


SECRETARY KERRY: In ‘09 – it might’ve been somewhere back there. It was around there. Anyway, we’re on an upward trend.

So – and then those are all – but here – but the heart – the most important thing today – all of these are important. Everything I’ve just discussed is important in the developing relationship with Laos. But it is particularly important that Laos this year finds itself playing a critical role within ASEAN, and ASEAN itself is critical to upholding the rules-based system in Asia Pacific and ensuring that every country big and small have a say in addressing the matters of shared concern. And this is what you have heard me say at various meetings over the course of the last couple of years: We want everybody to have a voice within the region without regard to size and power and clout. They all have interests in what is going to happen to the region.

And the United States, as an Asia Pacific nation – and we have been pointing this out again and again – is here because this is all part of our continued efforts in the rebalance to make it clear that we’re here and deeply engaged and involved. Tony Blinken was here last week, had meetings. He was also in Japan and Korea, as well as China, laying the groundwork for some of what I’m going to discuss when I get there in two days.

So we’re – our economic relationships are growing as – today they talked to me about their application for WTO, for GSP, and how to get there. And they have a letter from Ambassador Froman laying out some requirements. They actually expressed discussion today about TPP. So this is what happens when you start getting something cooking, which is what we did with TPP and what we’ve done with the rebalance. And it’s important for us to be here and be following through.

We’re strengthening our people-to-people ties through President Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, and today I’m going to meet with a bunch of members later. So the bottom line to the ASEAN/strengthening of our relationship is that we want to strengthen the capacity for peace and stability in the region as a whole, and this is part of it. And I will be back here later in July with the President when we come for the summit.

QUESTION: July, and September is when the President comes?

SECRETARY KERRY: And the President comes in September. I’ll be here in July because we have a ministerial, and then we have a later meeting in September, and then again, who knows? I suspect I’ll be back here even after that.

So that’s where we are, folks. That’s sort of an intro to what we’re doing here, and – now, I know many of you are – if I don’t address this, you’re going to ask the question, so just give you a little update on where we are in Geneva. I talked last night to Staffan de Mistura, who is working through a couple of issues. I talked also with Foreign Minister Fabius and Cavusoglu of Turkey. So we’re talking to make sure everybody’s on the same page. There is no – there’s no – what’s the word? We’re going to have the meetings and they’re going to start, but what we’re trying to do is make absolutely certain that when they start everybody is clear about roles and what’s happening so that you don’t go there and wind up with a question mark or a failure. I mean, you don’t want to start day one by not being able to make progress.

So we’re talking about the modalities of ceasefire; we’re talking about the modalities of humanitarian or other confidence-building measures. And we’re just – it’s all constructive and I feel positive about it, and we will get in the next day or so clarity, I think. I’m talking to Foreign Minister Lavrov later this afternoon. We’ll have clarity, I hope, within 24 hours, somewhere like that – 48, something – pretty soon. I also talked to Adel al-Jubeir. So there are a lot of conversations.

And by the way, Jubeir, Attiyah, Fabius, myself – all of us – we’re all on the same page. There’s no disagreement. But we have to make sure that the other parties – the negotiating parties – are also clear, on the same page. That’s it.

MR KIRBY: Matt, you want to kick us off?

QUESTION: Well, yeah, and then just briefly – just to go on that before people jump into the Laos thing. You’ve seen these comments from the Syrian officials saying they’re not going to give anything – the government – the regime side.


QUESTION: And then from – these complaints from the opposition that you in particular are trying to ram this kind of Geneva modality, whatever you want to call it, down their throats and that they don’t like it. Can you respond to both of those things, the government saying they’re not going to give an inch and --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t know who said it in the government. It’s not new. They’ve said that previously. But the Russians --

QUESTION: They’re referring specifically to their military gains that they’ve achieved with the Russians, saying, “We’re winning now,” basically, “so why should we give up? Why should we give in?”

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t know what winning – what does it mean, they’re winning? They control a tiny portion of the country. Most of it’s controlled by ISIL or by Kurds or by somebody else. I mean, that doesn’t make sense. The war does not end as long – if that’s their attitude, the war doesn’t end.

So – that’s not the Russian attitude, I’ll tell you that. The Russians say that they’re going to go and they’re going to negotiate. And I have said from day one – you’ve heard me say it publicly; I repeat it today – we are going to know very quickly, in a month or two or three, whether these guys are serious. The Russians and Iranians are at the table and they’ve signed on to a ceasefire, to an election, to a new constitution, and to what they call a unity government but everybody else calls a transitional government under the Geneva process. And the Geneva is what they’ve signed up to. So we will learn whether or not these major nations who have signed up to a UN Security Council resolution, giving it force of international law, are serious or not. I’ve always said that is what this is going to show. And Assad or some spokesperson in the Syrian whatever may have some expressed attitude, but that is not what we have heard from either the Iranians or the people at the table.

Now, we’re not – we don’t have any – look, I don’t know what the – whoever said that is talking about, because we’re completely in agreement with the Arab community and our European friends and the other members of the ISSG exactly what is expected in terms of the negotiations and who’s negotiating. We’re not trying to change any – there’s no change. We – the HNC is the primary negotiating entity according to what was decided in New York and elsewhere, but Staffan de Mistura has the final say with respect to who he invites. We’ve all agreed with that, and we’re not trying to do anything except start.

And we hope that they will fully understand we support getting a ceasefire, we support getting humanitarian access, we support Assad – again, we’ve said 100,000 times Assad cannot be part of the long-term future of Syria because you can’t end the war if he is. It’s very simple. Nothing has changed.


SECRETARY KERRY: I think these are just tensions. These are things you hear as people are worried and concerned, but as the communication takes place, I think people will get confidence that nothing’s – there’s no change.

QUESTION: Sir, there are reports coming out of Saudi Arabia about your meeting with Riyad Hijab the other day. And some of the things that are coming out – that you told the opposition if they don’t go to Geneva, the U.S. will stop all support for --

SECRETARY KERRY: No, that’s not – I never said --

QUESTION: -- rebels; government of national unity, not transitional; no timetable for Assad leaving and he has the right to renominate himself; and the U.S. will not help support the opposition further despite Russian bombing.

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s incomplete and total – its just not what was said.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what was said?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, because it’s a private conversation, but I can tell you this: The position of the United States is and hasn’t changed; that we are still supporting the opposition politically, financially, and militarily; and we will – I forget one of the things you said, but we – it’s up to the Syrians to decide what happens to Assad. That’s in the UN resolution. And they are the negotiators, so they will decide the future. And I will tell you that what I did say to them is, look, it’s by mutual consent. You have a veto and so does he. So you’re going to have to decide how to go forward here. And we made it very clear that we presume that if Assad is sitting there saying, “Well, I’m going to continue on and not give any” – that you’re going to say no and there’ll be – it’s not going to happen. So we completely empowered them, and I don’t know where this is coming from. Maybe it’s a pressure thing or maybe it’s an internal political thing. Maybe it’s a – I don’t know, but that is not the situation.

MR KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead, Elise.

QUESTION: Can we – does anyone have any more on Syria, because I want to move on to --

QUESTION: Just – actually, one more to clarify. You said you’d like to have clarity within 24 to 48 hours. You mean on when the talks are going to take place --

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I think the talks are going to take place soon. I think hopefully – hopefully – hopefully I’m saying this – I’m not in charge of that part of it. Staffan de Mistura has to make the decision. We’re not conducting the negotiation, he is. He has to make the decision, but I agree with him that you shouldn’t issue the invitation or get it going until you’ve got the pieces lined up, which is what everybody’s trying to do. But the – I hope it is possible – I would express it that way – to resolve whatever rumors are being circulated by one – there are a lot of factions here, folks, and when – lot of different interests at play too. So I just don’t buy into this public back-and-forth. It doesn’t serve any purpose.

And it won’t get – it’s not going to change the basics here, which are: we have to get to the negotiation without preconditions and get into the discussion of a ceasefire and a humanitarian access and other things that can build some confidence, and lay down the road ahead with a transition discussion itself and put to test whether or not they’re serious. And as I have said again and again, this is not in our hands whether they’re – they have to be serious. If they’re not serious, war will continue. You’ve heard that refrain from me for months. Up to them. You can lead a horse to water, you can’t make it drink. You’ve got to give people an opportunity here to sit down and negotiate. We have created a framework. Syrians have the ability to decide the future of Syria, with countries that are involved and engaged backing one group or another on the sidelines, advising and pushing and cajoling and encouraging. That’s where we are, and we’ll have to see what decision Staffan makes as to exactly how he’s going to begin.

MR KIRBY: Elise, go ahead.

SECRETARY KERRY: But you don’t want to start and have it sort of crumble on day – you just don’t want to do that. So it’s worth taking a day or two or three or whatever. I’m all for that.

And by the way, we have another meeting of the ISSG tentatively called for the 11th of February. And if something is unresolved, that is an opportunity for us to be able to resolve it. So enough said on that, okay?

QUESTION: Can I move on to North Korea, Mr. Secretary? Can you talk a little bit about how you’re going to approach the Chinese on – in terms of North Korea? When Tony Blinken was in Seoul, he made some comments about that you’re talking about new types of sanctions and in terms of the U.S. defense posture in the region with --


QUESTION: And he basically said, “I think what we’ll be talking to China” – and he said some of the steps that the U.S. is going to take won’t be directed at China, but China won’t like them. It seems like a little bit of a firmer, tougher line with China. And how are you going to balance that with some of the other things that you need to talk to them, and particularly on human rights? The Europeans have kind of been a little bit more muted on that issue, so if you could set up the China piece a little bit, that would be good.

SECRETARY KERRY: The only thing I’m going to say about China is I look forward to having solid conversations – serious conversations – about one of the most serious issues on the planet today, which is a clearly reckless and dangerous, evolving security threat in the hands of somebody who is questionable in terms of judgment and has proven thus to China. But I think the conversations need to be very private, and I don’t want to be telling the Chinese what they ought to hear privately and personally from me or predetermining the talks. We need to have the talks. That’s why I’m going there: to hear their point of view, to share thoughts, to share ideas about how we can proceed – all of us together – in a smart and thoughtful way that could get a result. And I’m not going to get into the what ifs or things we may or may not do one way or the other. I think that deserves to be talked with them privately and carefully.

MR KIRBY: We’ve got time for just a couple quick ones. Just a couple quick ones.

QUESTION: Can you just – the human rights --

SECRETARY KERRY: What about it?

QUESTION: Well, I mean, it seems as if there’s been some concern that the Europeans have been a little bit more muted on human rights. And given all the important issues you have to discuss with China, I’m wondering how much you’re able to push the human rights agenda.

SECRETARY KERRY: We’ve never been muted. We’ve never stopped talking about human rights in any conversation or visit that any high official has had in China. And we name names, we talk about people, we’ve had a lot of conversations.

MR KIRBY: Just two more. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I ask about Laos real quick? How do you think the leadership change here – does that play in at all in terms of being better for your ASEAN goals, South China Sea, things like that?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there are new Politburo members. I mean, there are six new members. I think there are five of the old group. Laos is like most countries. I mean, 70 percent of Laos is under the age of 30 – 70 percent. Fifty percent is under the age of 18 or 20 – I guess 20. That’s gigantic. And there are a lot of young people in Laos coming up the ranks of everything who, like young people everywhere – we’re going to meet with some of them today – have a view of the world. So I can’t predict yet because the new positions haven’t been announced. There’s speculation about what the pecking order will be, but it isn’t announced yet. So as we go to Sunnylands, we will have the current lineup. And I think the Lao Government ought to announce – I mean, when they announce and when they put their people in place, we’ll react, obviously. But I anticipate all the programs we’ve just talked about are just taking root and will take root even more, and I think they’ll blossom. I think there is change in the air all around the world.

That’s part of the upheaval of the Middle East, by the way, which I talked about in Davos – that different places react differently to these – to the modern possibilities, and we’ll see what happens. But that’s why we have to really be engaged and work with them, try to help them.

MR KIRBY: Okay, last one, guys. Felicia?

QUESTION: And on the three American contractors kidnapped in Iraq, have you talked to Zarif at all since the weekend? Sorry.

QUESTION: Can we get another one? Because we know that you’re not going to answer that question. A South China Sea question would be nice.

QUESTION: I could ask a South China Sea question.

SECRETARY KERRY: We – I can’t tell you any more than I have already, that we are – I told you I raised it with appropriate people and we’re gathering the facts, and I don’t have any further facts to make public at this point in time.

MR KIRBY: All right, Matt, go ahead real quick on South --

QUESTION: Well, I just wanted to know, are you hopeful – in relation to his question – that the Lao will – the Lao Government will take a much stronger line at – in supporting the Philippines and --

SECRETARY KERRY: I asked the --

QUESTION: -- inside ASEAN?

SECRETARY KERRY: I asked the prime minister that because of their chairmanship, and he was very clear that he wants a unified ASEAN and he wants maritime rights protected, and he wants to avoid militarization and avoid the conflict. And that will develop as we go into Sunnylands, and there’ll be a greater, I’m sure, articulation of that unity going forward.

Danny, did I miss anything on that? Was there anything else he said? The prime minister. I think that’s what he said.

STAFF: No, you’re good. You’re good.


MR KIRBY: That’s good.

SECRETARY KERRY: He was supportive.

MR KIRBY: Okay. Thanks, guys. Appreciate it.

QUESTION: Thank you.