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Diplomacy in Action

Senior State Department Officials on the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue


Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Beijing, China
July 9, 2014

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MODERATOR: (In progress) with us here to talk about today’s activities at the S&ED. So please, why don’t you start up, [Senior State Department Official One]?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Great. All right. Thank you, all. You had a readout of the dinner from last night which set the predicate for the substantive discussions in the strategic track today. Not to rehash, but the Secretary and State Councilor Yang last night covered a whole spectrum of global, bilateral, regional issues, and they’ve included a discussion of North Korea, prompted by the readout of the visit by President Xi to Seoul which the foreign minister provided to us.

Today, the Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and the Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui began the strategic track session with a readout of the Strategic Security Dialogue that had been held yesterday, which my colleague also briefed to you yesterday. The issues they covered included maritime security, cyberspace, risk reduction, et cetera.

In the first strategic track session, we were joined by some Chinese law enforcement officials, including the official responsible for counter-corruption, which was a first. We talked in the strategic track about maritime issues. The Secretary explained the U.S. approach and the U.S. thinking on the issues in the South and the East China Seas and walked the Chinese side through the logic behind our strong recommendation that not only China, but all of the claimants should apply the golden rule that President Xi invoked this morning in his speech to the opening of the S&ED event – namely, that no country should do unto others as they don’t want to be done on themselves.

That’s the principle that the Secretary explained ought to guide the claimants to land features in the South China Sea, because it would help lower the temperature, reduce the risk of incidents or crises, and create space for diplomatic processes, including discussions between China and ASEAN on code of conduct or, for that matter, bilateral or multilateral discussions of the underlying claims themselves.

The Secretary emphasized that this is not a situation in which countries should or can be permitted simply to act unilaterally to advance their territorial claims or interests. This is a situation in which countries – claimants – should avail themselves of arbitration, of legal mechanisms, of dialogue, and of direct negotiations in order to achieve peaceful solutions.

The strategic track first session also covered various law enforcement issues. And both sides underscored the importance and the value that we derive from law enforcement exchanges. In that context, the Secretary and State Councilor Yang discussed cyber security and talked about the importance of the U.S. and China cooperating to reduce risk overall in cyberspaces – two major targets and two major actors in the cybersphere.

There was some discussion of the upcoming UN negotiations on the application of international law in cyberspace. And the Secretary made the case to the Chinese for the wisdom of getting back to work in the cyber working group. He made clear that we are very much of the view that these issues are sufficiently important to warrant us rolling up our sleeves and tackling them. And that’s a conversation that will continue, but they did discuss not only the process question of the working group, but the substance of some of the cyber issues.

The session also covered the progress that has been made in the mil-mil relationship. There were Department of Defense and uniformed military participants from the U.S. side and a senior Chinese general on their side. We agreed that we have made significant progress in expanding and improving the communication between the two militaries. Secretary Kerry and State Councilor Yang talked a bit about that, why it was important – the significance of China’s participation in the RIMPAC exercise and so on.

The Chinese side raised Taiwan, and there was some discussion about the status of cross-Strait relations, the degree of progress that’s been made in the economic and cultural/social track. The Chinese ran through a number of familiar positions, but it was a relatively brief and straightforward conversation. We also took note of the historic visit to Taiwan by the head of the Chinese-Taiwan Affairs Office, Mr. Zhang Zhijun.

Then the conversation went on to cover a wide-ranging set of issues relating to China’s ethnic policies, to the threat of terrorism, and to human rights. The Secretary and Yang discussed the situation in Xinjiang and the treatment of the Uighur minorities, as well as the situation in Tibet, and China’s policy towards both Tibet and to the Dalai Lama.

The Secretary made clear our positions. We certainly recognize Tibet as a part of the PRC, and we reinforced – the Secretary reinforced our view that it is important for China to respect and protect the religious and cultural and the linguistic rights and characteristics of the ethnic minorities, particularly in Tibet and in Xinjiang.

With regard to terrorism, they discussed the importance of and some of the priorities associated with the upcoming U.S.-China counterterrorism dialogue. They both agreed on the importance of international and bilateral cooperation and coordination in efforts to stem international terrorism. The Secretary underscored the differentiation between terrorism and political activism – or political dissent. He also turned to Under Secretary Sarah Sewall who joined this session. And she talked in greater detail both about counterterrorism specifically, but also the importance of understanding the drivers and the motivations that often lead to radicalization, and provided a brief summary of some of the policies that the U.S. advocates to help prevent that vicious cycle.

With regard to human rights, the Secretary, as he always does, raised our concerns in a very direct, candid, and I think constructive way. He made both general points and raised specific cases, although it’s not our practice to go into detail about any particular case in our readouts. In particular, he described our perception of a trend in China with an increase in arrests, with an increase of harassments of individuals who are expressing political views. He talked about the importance that we place on religious freedom, expressed concern about – as I mentioned earlier – repression in ethnic areas, and strongly encouraged the early resumption of the U.S.-China human rights dialogue.

We then turned in the second session to a variety of regional issues. I should mention that the luncheon today, hosted by the Chinese side, provided an opportunity for the Secretary, who was seated next to State Councilor Yang, to have very direct and candid conversations in which he was able to discuss some of the particular regional issues of concern to us, including maritime disputes in the South and East China Sea, some broad issues regarding the U.S.-China relationship, and also on North Korea.

So in the second session, we picked up on the discussion the Secretary and the State Councilor had at lunch and began with a conversation about the Asia Pacific region. We heard from the Chinese about their view, their approach, their theory of the case with regard to their role in Asia and in the Pacific. And the Secretary in return underscored that the United States, as a Pacific nation, has both a historic role and a huge stake in the region. He explained very forcefully that the U.S. remains deeply committed to our alliance system – which we recognize and I think the world recognizes has contributed immensely to the stability and the prosperity of the region over the last six or seven decades, and our commitment to a rules-based order. He made clear that we believe that a rules-based order in the Asia Pacific region is essential and that we want China to contribute to and participate in that order, not to pull against regional and global norms.

He very directly flagged what we have seen in various fora as Chinese criticism of the U.S.-led alliance system, and pointed out that our alliances are wholly consensual, our alliances are aimed at transnational threats like disasters, at significant regional threats like North Korea, and they are not aimed at China, they are not exclusive, they are inclusive, and that they are broadly supported not only by the populations in the allied countries, but countries and – people, countries, and governments throughout the region. He furthermore underscored that China has benefited immensely and continues to benefit from stability and the predictability that’s provided there.

They discussed North Korea a little further, and clearly both sides believe it is important to coordinate closely on strategies for getting North Korea to negotiate in good faith an end to its nuclear program. That is an ongoing conversation and I suspect that Secretary Kerry and State Councilor Yang will continue to consult on North Korea through tonight and through tomorrow as well.

They touched on, as I mentioned, the South China Sea and the East China Sea. This came up again in the second regional session. The Secretary talked a bit about Iran, Iraq, and Ukraine, and they went on from there to the wildlife trafficking partnership event, which was open press. Tomorrow, as you’re familiar with the schedule, there’ll be a CEO roundtable.

I just flagged for tomorrow that there will also be a plenary session in which the very significant number of subgroups, working groups, and related dialogue leads will come together. We have learned from experience that it’s pretty hard on our principals to provide a full oral readout, but tomorrow’s plenary is the point in which the results of the S&ED and the fruits of the yearlong efforts are harvested and the outcomes are finalize. And while I’m not going to preview, not everything has been nailed down and there’s still more conversations to be held, the sheer breadth of the areas in which the S&ED and the subgroups are working and making measurable headway – in some cases, significant headway – is quite significant and, I think, pretty impressive.

Of course, from the schedule, there will be the consultation on people-to-people events; there will be an EcoPartnership event. But the last thing that’s directly relevant to the S&ED are the leadership meetings in which Secretary Kerry, along with Secretary Lew, have an opportunity to discuss in a focused and distilled manner the top priority issues that we’ve been working on.

QUESTION: That was a really comprehensive rundown. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: Okay. That’s great. Let’s go on and move to questions.

QUESTION: Is there – did you get any sense of whether there’s any convergence on what is a rules-based order in the dealing with the disputed boundaries?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: What I’d say is two things. There is an ongoing conversation that isn’t going to have a quick resolution about the system and structure of rules in the Asia Pacific region and what the right mix is between longstanding venerable regional institutions, between new and emergent institutions and fora, and to what extent there needs to be tweaks and adjustments and updates to reflect changing dynamics in the region and shifts in priorities. That’s an ongoing discussion that’s about the regional architecture.

I think there is continually on the U.S. side an expression of our willingness to facilitate China’s active participation in rulemaking in exchange for China’s willingness to accept that rules bind us all.

The second piece of it pertaining directly to the maritime disputes is the question of whether China is prepared to accept either the judgment and the jurisdiction of the UNCLOS tribunal, the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, not on the substance of the territorial claims, but on the related questions of the nine-dash line, et cetera. Clearly, China rejects that and has shied away from making its legal case. But the ITLOS tribunal has given China an opportunity ‘til mid-December to change its mind. And it’s certainly our view that by clarifying China’s nine-dash line claim, it would eliminate some ambiguity that is clearly quite problematic in the region.

The Secretary was explicit in urging arbitration, mediation, legal mechanisms for Chinese consideration at the same time that he made clear that any peaceful diplomatic vehicle, whether it is bilateral negotiations, which the Chinese say they favor, or multilateral negotiations is acceptable and desirable, but that trying to fix the problem, so to speak, through creating a new status quo at the expense of regional stability and regional harmony is unacceptable. And it is precisely there that, the Secretary pointed out, the U.S. takes a very firm view. We don’t stand to gain if various land features in the South China Sea ultimately are judged to belong to Country X or to Country Y. But we stand to lose, as does the entire region, if Country X or Country Y uses coercive measures, the threat of force, or other non-peaceful, non-diplomatic means to advance its claim or to change the status quo.

MODERATOR: Simon, then Brad.

QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, specifically on – you mentioned the golden rule. I mean, did China give any response to your suggestion that the golden rule could be applied?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’m not in the business of speaking for the Chinese or reading out the Chinese half of a diplomatic conversation. But the Chinese are never shy about asserting that there’s not much to discuss, that their claims are indisputable, and that they, while open to negotiations, discussions, and dialogue, will never cede what they claim to be their historic rights.

That said, the S&ED is, among other things, a vehicle for chipping away at misperceptions, for utilizing persuasion and logic, for explaining our approach and our positions in the first person, for hearing out the other guy, and for identifying pathways forward. And in that respect, I think today has been a hugely productive day. The candor and directness with which the Secretary approached the issues of importance to the United States in his dialogue with State Councilor Yang cannot have gone unnoticed and surely has had some effect.

MODERATOR: Brad.

QUESTION: Could I just ask – I hope the meal proved to be sumptuous, but we can talk about that later. On human rights, you mentioned there was some conversation. But I don’t think there was any reference today, by any U.S. official publicly at least, about human rights or any human rights issues writ large or specifically. Why was that kind of not mentioned? Was that conscious? If so, why?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, the Secretary and, of course, his partner, Secretary Lew, will be speaking to the press tomorrow. And in the context of discussing the S&ED and the relationship, it is reasonable to expect that they will take up all the issues of importance to the United States, and human rights is prominent among them. What I’m reporting is that the Secretary raised human rights not as a catechism or a throwaway talking point, but as an important element in the U.S.-China relationship. He made clear the linkage that we see between human rights and counterterrorism efforts and has consistently underscored the linkage that we see between respect for human rights and economic development.

QUESTION: It’s just that the human rights community is uber-sensitive, as you know, to the notion that they take a backseat to shared economic or shared security concerns. And was there a feeling that – I don’t know, why did you not – why did no one make a reference to kind of shared goals in terms of improving human rights or addressing kind of your own concerns regarding Chinese human rights policies?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, today at the wildlife partnership event, the Secretary talked about wildlife partnership. Today at the opening of the S&ED, the Secretary talked about the S&ED. Tomorrow, when he talks about the outcomes and he talks about – he characterizes in his own words the priorities in the U.S.-China relationship. He’ll talk about the issues.

That said, look, I can’t speak for the Chinese, but I would wager that no one on the Chinese side of the table in our discussions today thought that Secretary Kerry was going easy on human rights. He doesn’t pull punches. He was very direct. He was civil and constructive, but clear, and I think very persuasive.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. I would just add one thing. If – I don’t want to be too flip about this, but if you’re going to judge the importance of an issue by how much time they spent on it, this would be a very high priority for us. I looked at my watch and they spent a significant time – a significant amount of time talking about human rights issues today.

MODERATOR: Lesley.

QUESTION: Just two questions. The one was: Did the Chinese raise with you the issue of the indictments on its officials? Has it asked of you anything specifically on cyber security?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The Chinese have and consistently raise their position – describe their position and their objection to the action taken by the Department of Justice. And in response, we made clear that, number one, the U.S. law enforcement agencies act on the basis of their evidence of crimes committed, and that’s not a political matter and we don’t interfere politically with the administration of justice. And we also, of course, respond by describing our concerns and our hope that the Chinese will themselves take necessary action to put an end to this kind of activity.

QUESTION: But they didn’t ask you for anything specifically, from the U.S.?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The Chinese articulated their position, and their position in private comports closely to their position in public, where they make comments about untying knots and removing obstacles and so on. But I wouldn’t characterize the specifics of the Chinese in private beyond that.

QUESTION: And I had another question: We’ve seen the stories and the articles about the British drug maker, GlaxoSmithKline, and around that is the arrest of the American. There has been concern by the U.S. Embassy here that your officials will not be allowed to go to the trial. Was that – has that at all been raised on the side of the talk? Do you know if, in any way, it has been raised with the Chinese in this discussion?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I can speak to some of our economic track and (inaudible) as well on whether that’s come up, but not as far as I know, no.

QUESTION: And on the arrest of the American woman?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think that the Embassy’s been following the case (inaudible). It hasn’t been an S&ED issue, not this specific one – but it’s a consular matter.

MODERATOR: Okay. One more? Jo.

QUESTION: I have two. (Laughter.) Can I ask about North Korea first?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sure.

QUESTION: You mentioned that this is a conversation to be continued tonight into tomorrow. We also heard talk of the U.S. refining its approach with China in a way to try to bring North Korea to the table or try and persuade it to stop process of denuclearization. Above and beyond, the Chinese always say that they are urging the North Koreans to do this. Do you anticipate that we could see out of these meetings any concrete action or commitment from the Chinese to do something with respect to North Korea?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think that the conversations today will advance the process that has long been underway, which is the narrowing of differences and expansion of U.S.-China cooperation towards what we long agreed is a common goal, namely the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. The issues have always revolved around the recipe that we use to achieve that result, and the U.S. traditionally has wanted it to use more pressure, and the Chinese have typically wanted the recipe to use more accommodation.

Our recipe handed down from generation to generation – (laughter) – is a function of extensive experience with North Korea in which they have made agreements that they had no intention of keeping. And they took everything that they could get by way of concessions and sweeteners and then turned around and started the negotiations all over again. We vowed famously, as Secretary Gates put it, not to buy that same horse again.

The Chinese, on the other hand, throughout their political generations, have focused very heavily on their desire to avoid any instability in their borders. That remains, of course, a priority for China, but it is unmistakably clear from the decision by President Xi Jinping to visit Seoul long before there’s any talk of him visiting Pyongyang or a North Korean leader visiting Beijing that China increasingly recognizes that its old style of deference and accommodation is not sustainable and is not yielding results. So the reason I describe the issue of North Korea as an ongoing conversation is because we are comparing notes. We are refining our respective strategies. We’re expanding the places where we can do more together, and we’re delving down more deeply in the conversation about what may work and at what risk and at what cost.

We’ve always favored negotiations. There’s nothing new in the U.S. interest in negotiations. We make an important distinction, though, between negotiations to verify the rollback and the eventual elimination of North Korea’s nuclear and nuclear missile program, and talks. It’s not hard to get the North Koreans to come to the table, but they come to the table ready to pound it, to demand concessions. That gets no one anywhere.

MODERATOR: Okay. Great.

QUESTION: Can I just sort of squeeze one more? Was there any discussion or talk about Hong Kong given the (inaudible) what’s happening in (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, yes, as a matter of fact. And I’m glad you asked, and I should have mentioned that there was discussion of Hong Kong. In fact, it was on the agenda and the Chinese described their views. And the Secretary underscored our support for the application of the “One Country, Two Systems” principle, the basic law and universal suffrage in connection with the 2017 election of the chief executive. Secretary made clear that the U.S. respects and recognizes the sensitivities of the issue and the importance of the issue. We are not taking positions about what particular formula is right for the people of Hong Kong, but we certainly believe that an approach that is judged credible by the people of Hong Kong will extend credibility to the person who is ultimately selected as the chief executive and contribute to the long-term stability and prosperity of Hong Kong.

MODERATOR: Jane had her hand up from the very start and I overlooked you, my apologies.

QUESTION: I had two questions, (inaudible). (Laughter.) I listened to Yang Jiechi, as you know he’s not a shy man, Yang Jiechi. So what kind of response do you get from State Councilor Yang in your descriptions that the alliance is not designed to contain China? Did you get a response that he and others made in public or did you get something a little different?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Look, I’m not in the business of characterizing the Chinese response.

QUESTION: Do you see (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The consistent Chinese position is that the region and the Pacific is big enough for both of us, that China welcomes constructive engagement by the United States in the Asia Pacific, and that China is not trying to exclude the United States. There are frequent exchanges between the U.S. and China in which we both recognize that the U.S. isn’t trying to contain or couldn’t contain China, and China isn’t trying to and can’t exclude the United States.

That said, the speeches by President Xi at the CICA Conference in May in Shanghai and more recently, as well as State Councilor Yang’s own speech in Beijing at the World Peace Forum contain themes that, at least to my ears, sound very much like the old “Asia for the Asians” concept, and that imply that there is a new idea for security architecture in the Asia Pacific region that is not built around ASEAN, for example, and that is not built on the framework that has provided security and stability to the region for the last six-plus decades.

QUESTION: And on the human rights, did Secretary Kerry bring up recent cases of people who were being arrested and imprisoned in the last three or four months, many of them in connection with pre-June 4th? And did he also bring up longstanding cases like (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We raised cases --

QUESTION: Around those two specific --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. We raised specific cases that fall into both categories, recent and long-term cases.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks very much. Thank you very much to our officials.

QUESTION: They didn’t agree to restart the working group on cyber talks, did they?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No.



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