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Moderator: Good day, everyone, from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I am Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in for this briefing.
Today, we are pleased to be joined from Bangkok, Thailand, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from the Deputy Secretary. We’ll try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes. Please note that due to the very high number of journalists on this call, we ask that you please limit your questions to just the one question so others can participate.
Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Deputy Secretary Sherman.
Deputy Secretary Sherman: Thank you very much, and it’s good to be with everyone this afternoon. Good morning, good evening, good afternoon wherever you are. Delighted to have a chance to speak with you about my trip to Southeast Asia.
On my first trip abroad, I specifically chose to travel to this incredibly important part of the Indo-Pacific. The ten ASEAN countries combined represent 650 million people, the third-largest population in the world, and 60 percent of that population is under the age of 35.
So, it is this part of the world that will increasingly play a pivotal role in shaping the global course of events for generations to come. And that is something the United States welcomes. The United States is proud to have partnered with this region for the past 70 years to create and foster the rules-based international order that gave rise to the unprecedented growth in peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.
During my stops in Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand I made it a point to meet with governments, multilateral organizations, civil society groups, as well as young leaders – who represent the future of the region.
In all of my meetings, I reaffirmed the United States’ deep commitment to the region, to the rules-based international order, to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and to human rights and democracy.
I also continued to urge immediate action to end the humanitarian crisis in Burma and underscored the need to push the military regime to end violence, release those unjustly detained, and restore Burma to its path to democracy.
In my interactions with young leaders from across Southeast Asia, who participate in the State Department’s Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative known as YSEALI, I heard about the importance they place on combating climate change and protecting the environment. I was pleased to tell them that the Biden-Harris administration shares their concerns and is listening to what they have been saying: we cannot delay action on climate any longer.
Within the first 100 days of his administration, President Biden has taken immediate actions to follow through on his pledge to make climate change a top foreign policy priority, including: returning the United States to the Paris Agreement on his first day in office; appointing former Secretary John Kerry as Special Presidential Envoy on Climate; and convening 40 heads of state at the Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22nd – Earth Day.
On this trip, in Indonesia, I thanked Foreign Minister Marsudi and Vice Foreign Minister Siregar for Indonesia’s commitment to democracy and plurality, as well as their efforts aimed at putting Burma back on a path to a civilian-led and democratic future.
Also in Indonesia, I participated in a roundtable with the ASEAN Secretariat and all ten ASEAN permanent representatives. I reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to ASEAN centrality, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, the international rules-based order, as well as the urgent need to address the crisis in Burma.
In Cambodia, I had candid conversations with Prime Minister Hun Sen about the direction the country is headed, including the PRC presence at Ream naval base as well as Cambodia’s human rights and anti-democratic record. I urged the Cambodian Government to protect and respect the freedoms of expression and association and to reopen the Kingdom’s civic and political space in the lead-up to the 2022 local elections and 2023 national elections.
And today in Bangkok, I met with Prime Minister Prayut and Deputy Prime Minister Don of Thailand – our longtime ally and partner. We discussed the importance of working together to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values across the free and open Indo-Pacific region. We also talked about key shared issues, including the U.S.-Thai alliance, addressing economic and security challenges, and democracy and human rights.
Lastly, or perhaps I should say firstly, at all my stops I discussed the COVID-19 pandemic, which has challenged the United States and is seeing a resurgence in Southeast Asia. The United States knows that to stop this pandemic, as well as to prevent the next one, no nation can act alone. As President Biden has said: No one is safe until everyone is safe.
As part of this, the United States is proud to be the largest contributor to COVAX – the multilateral vaccine distribution facility – that has already shipped more than 77 million vaccines to 127 participants. And as U.S. vaccine production continues to ramp up, the United States will be donating tens of millions of doses globally. President Biden has already committed to sharing 80 million doses – five times more than any other country.
As the President has noted, the United States will not share these doses in exchange for political favors, but as a continuation of the United States’ decades-long commitment to global public health.
With that, I look forward to answering any questions you might have, and thank you for joining me this afternoon.
Moderator: Thank you, Deputy Secretary. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question will go to Wasamon Audjarint from the Voice of America Thai Service in Bangkok.
Moderator: Okay. If not, let’s go ahead and go to the next person. Could you please go ahead and connect us to Qingting Zheng from 21st Century Business Herald in Beijing, China?
Question: This is Qingting from 21st Century Business Herald. With regard to the recent phone call between China and U.S. high-level officials, do you have any comments on what this signals for China-U.S. trade relations as well as the trade war? Are we likely to see any rollbacks of tariffs? Thank you.
Deputy Secretary Sherman: The U.S. and China obviously talk with each other. It is an important relationship. As President Biden and Secretary Blinken have said, we have a multifaceted relationship with China. We will compete with China for the 21st century. We will challenge China where we must around issues of human rights and the South China Sea, among others. And we will find areas of cooperation, whether that is perhaps in arms control, global health, and of course climate.
In terms of trade, we are assessing where the policy was left at the end of the last administration, and we’ll have views ahead about how we’re going to proceed. We expect there to be an ongoing relationship, but a very complex one.
Moderator: Thank you. Next, we’ll go to Song Sang-ho from Yonhap News Agency in Seoul, South Korea.
Question: Thank you for the opportunity to ask you a question. Last week, Mr. Kurt Campbell of the White House said that the door is open for other countries to join the Quad when he was talking about the Quad forum. But in an earlier interview with our Yonhap News Agency, he said that the U.S. has no plans to expand the Quad. So can you clarify the U.S. stance, especially whether or not the U.S. wants South Korea to join the Quad as an official Quad member? Has the U.S. ever made an indirect or direct offer to South Korea about participation in the Quad forum?
Deputy Secretary Sherman: We see the Quad as an important regional organization, but it does not replace ASEAN. It is complementary to ASEAN and it is a cooperative set of relationships to work on a variety of issues. I’m sure that we will develop partnerships all over the world in a variety of formats. What is important is what we are all trying to do, and what we are all trying to do is to make sure that there is economic, political, and military security for all within the rules-based order that we have all developed together. That is our ambition and our commitment that is in keeping, obviously, with our values in the United States of openness, freedom of expression and assembly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a hope that all people can live in freedom.
Moderator: Thank you. Next, we will go to Zaw Hlaing from Voice of America – Burmese Service.
Question: What can you tell us about the American journalist being detained in Burma? What is the State Department currently doing? And any responses that you get from Burmese military so far?
Deputy Secretary Sherman: Thank you very much for that question. The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the U.S. Government. We’ve obviously very deeply concerned over the detentions of U.S. citizen Daniel Fenster and Nathan Maung, both of whom were working as journalists in Burma. We have pressed the military regime to release them both immediately and will continue to do so until they are allowed to return home safely to their families. I have also raised our concern about them with the governments with whom I’ve met in the region in hopes that they might use their good offices to be of assistance.
A free and independent media is indispensable to building prosperous, resilient, and free societies. The detention of Daniel and Nathan, as well as arrests and use of violence by the Burmese military against other journalists, constitutes an unacceptable attack on the freedom of expression in Burma. Our consular officers from U.S. Embassy Rangoon most recently conducted a virtual visit with Nathan on May 24th. We have sought to visit Daniel but have thus far not been afforded access to him by regime officials.
I thank you for this opportunity to publicly urge the Burmese regime to grant consular access – as required by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations – without delay and to ensure proper treatment of both Nathan and Daniel while they remain detained, hopefully for a very short period of time, and we ask for their immediate release.
Moderator: Thank you. Next, if we could, let’s go to Philip Heijmans, Bloomberg News in Singapore.
Question: Thank you very much for this briefing. Regarding ASEAN, perhaps you’ve seen recent news about nine countries asking the UN to lift arms embargo language on Burma. And so I wondered what your reaction to that is, and given that ASEAN has yet to appoint an envoy for Myanmar. That meeting was weeks and weeks ago. I wonder what your take on that is as well. Thank you.
Deputy Secretary Sherman: Yes, so one of the reasons for my trip was to affirm ASEAN centrality to what we do here in Southeast Asia, and I was very glad with the opportunity to meet with all the permanent representatives at ASEAN, at the secretariat, in person, which was a first for many to be able to meet with folks who were properly masked and distanced and careful, but nonetheless it’s very hard to substitute for that in-person set of relationships. We support ASEAN’s five-point consensus plan. We know that ASEAN is consulting with all in the region as they proceed, wanting to be successful in their engagement. The plan calls for them to be in contact with the military leaders in Burma as well as all parties, including democratic parties in Burma. We hope, of course, that that happens as soon as possible. There is no time to wait as we all face a brutal humanitarian crisis for the people of Burma.
In all of the discussions the governments always have, we always have to keep in mind that people’s day-to-day lives have changed dramatically in Burma. Not only are they facing the COVID-19 crisis that most of the rest of the region is now facing, but they are also facing attacks by the military regime on civilians; they are facing threats and intimidation; and there is a great humanitarian crisis unfolding, indeed, on the way to a failed state, and that means the most for the people of Burma who wish to live their lives in freedom. We have seen in their own organizing and resistance what the people of Burma want for themselves, and I thank ASEAN and the international community for the stalwart support that the Burmese people have the democratic future they have worked so hard for.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we will go to Bhavan Jaipragas from South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Bhavan, please go ahead.
Question: Deputy Secretary, thank you for making the time to speak with us. I want to continue on Myanmar. Firstly, on the question that was posed earlier about ASEAN nations purportedly not supporting an arms embargo on Myanmar — what is the U.S. take on that? I mean, would you in your consultations with the principals in the region be asking them to support the UN General Assembly resolution, including an arms embargo?
And secondly, you’ve spoken about ASEAN’s role, ASEAN centrality, but it’s been a month since – more than a month since they had that meeting in Jakarta and came up with the five-point consensus. It seems from reports that the bloc is deeply split. So could it be that the solution for Myanmar does not lie with ASEAN taking the lead, and is the U.S. considering other kinds of options diplomatically, having a more direct approach in dealing with the issue?
Deputy Secretary Sherman: As I noted, we believe in ASEAN centrality, and the action that ASEAN took in unanimously agreeing to a five-point consensus plan is really quite unusual in ASEAN’s history. Because it is a consensus organization, it is very difficult to get unanimity. But in this instance, that unanimity came and is being acted on with the discussions about an envoy going to — or a group of envoys going to — Myanmar.
There are talks in New York, as one would expect in any international crisis. The UN Security Council is going to consider and undertake consideration of what actions they should take. My understanding is that talks are ongoing on a resolution draft, and so I’m not going to get in front of any action that might be taken at the UN as those consultations continue. We will see where we get. And I think that with ASEAN centrality, you have an entire world in support of the people of Burma and wanting them to have the future that they’ve worked so hard for.
So yes, we all wish results would take place yesterday. There’s no question about our impatience on behalf of the Burmese people who are facing – or not facing, they’re in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. So we want results immediately. All of us do. But we also understand that sometimes diplomacy needs to take the time to make sure that all the ducks are in a row, that we can proceed forward and reach success. So, we are confident that things will proceed forward, and we are confident that the international community supports the work of ASEAN and will work with each other to bring whatever is necessary to bear to get the military regime to come to the table and acknowledge that Burma needs to get back on the path to the democratic future that its people have chosen.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll take a question from Thailand, from Thitapa Siripipat from The Nation Thailand online. Thitapa, please go ahead.
Question: In the past few years, the Chinese and ASEAN bond has been more solidified in contrast to the American and ASEAN one. Could you please share with us how the United States plans to strengthen this almost two century friendship, especially in Thailand?
Deputy Secretary Sherman: The United States and Thailand have a relationship that is 188 years old. I would say that is a pretty good bond to have between countries. Thailand is an ally of the United States. We have had a commercial relationship since 1895 – also some years. We work very well together in the realms of security, economy, people-to-people, from our Fulbright exchanges to the YSEALI program. Thailand is obviously a tremendous destination for American tourists. It has an enormously important healthcare industry that is not only important here in Thailand, but around the world. So we see a very strong relationship here.
The United States does not ask any country to choose one country over another. What we look for is balance, a fair playing field – that everyone works under the rules-based order. The United States, as President Biden has said, is happy to compete with anyone and everyone. We’re confident in our ability to do so as long as we all have a level playing field. So, we understand that the PRC has a relationship with Thailand. We do not ask Thailand to choose. We just want to make sure that Thailand has a balanced relationship. And quite frankly, our ties to Thailand are deep and wide and vibrant. They include work together, strong economic ties, security ties, and the ability to talk frankly with each other about areas in which we disagree as well. That’s part of having values where democracy calls for people to be direct with each other in difficult times.
Moderator: Thank you. We only have just a few minutes left. If we could next go to Ryohei Takagi from Kyodo News in Tokyo, Japan. Ryohei, please go ahead.
Question: Hi, this is Ryohei Takagi from Kyodo News. Thanks for the briefing. Regarding DPRK, the Biden administration recently announced that it had completed its North Korea policy review. The White House said it will take a calibrated, practical approach with the North Koreans. Could you elaborate for us a bit more detail, and have you had any interaction with DPRK so far? Thank you.
Deputy Secretary Sherman: Thank you. As you know, we had a policy review in the Biden-Harris administration on our policy towards the DPRK. It was done in very close consultation with Japan and with the Republic of Korea and with other partners around the world. We indeed agreed that we wanted to engage with the DPRK, if they so choose, that it would be a calibrated response, and we would work to make progress towards an ultimate goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
We have made our policy known to the DPRK. President Biden just announced when President Moon was in Washington a few days ago that he has named as a special representative or special envoy for DPRK talks, should they get underway, Ambassador Sung Kim, who is currently our ambassador to Indonesia and has been the Acting Assistant Secretary for the East Asia and Pacific region, but will be returning to Indonesia full-time. And this was another signal that we are ready and prepared to have dialogue with the DPRK, and we hope they will take us up on that possibility.
Moderator: Thank you. We probably only have time for just a couple more. Next if we could go to Kimseng Men from Voice of America Khmer Service in Washington. Kimseng, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you, sir. Thank you, Madam Deputy Secretary, for the opportunity. I just want to get reaction from the Cambodian Government when you talked to them. Have they given any assurance that the opposition party will be able to take part in the upcoming commune and national elections? Thank you.
Deputy Secretary Sherman: Thank you very much. As was said in the statement that was released after my meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen, I emphasized the importance of human rights and the protection of fundamental freedoms as integral to our bilateral relationship. I urged the government to abide by its international and domestic human rights commitments and to ensure protection of workers. I called on the prime minister to promptly drop the politically motivated charges against the political opposition, journalists, and activists. As you know, I pressed them to reopen civic and political space in advance of the 2022 commune and 2023 national elections. I also held meetings with representatives of civil society as well as the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party Kem Sokha to discuss issues of shared importance with the United States, including ensuring a peaceful, prosperous, sovereign, and democratic future for Cambodia.
So, my message was clear from the United States, and I hope that the prime minister listened carefully. He certainly seemed to. We had a long and detailed meeting, and I was very honored to have the privilege of meeting with civil society and with Kem Sokha.
Moderator: Thank you. We’ll try to take one more, which is Quang Tue Le from Zing News in Vietnam.
Question: So first of all, I wanted to echo Biden’s statement that no one is safe until everyone is safe. So how the U.S. is currently implementing the vaccine-sharing with developing countries, including my country, Vietnam?
Second, I want to ask you about the concern of Asian nations. So, as we all know that the USS Ronald Reagan may leave for Middle East in the upcoming months and moreover, the Secretary of State, Blinken, was absent in a meeting with Asian counterparts on May 25th. So, the action really popped the question on the U.S. claim that Asia is the centrality of [inaudible]. So how will the U.S. balance between the pivot to Asia, while dealing with the situation in the Middle East? Thank you.
Deputy Secretary Sherman: Thank you. One of the things that has been very impactful on myself and my delegation in our travels in Southeast Asia is to be reminded in very stark terms how profound the surge of COVID-19 is in this part of the world. The United States, which went through a very difficult time with huge numbers of deaths and hospitalizations, as you all know, is fortunate to be in a better position today. But as President Biden has said, no one is safe until everyone is safe. That is why the United States is the single largest donor to COVAX – $2 billion already and another $2 billion by 2022. That has meant, as I said in my opening statement, vaccine distribution throughout the world to many, many countries and support for all of the supplies that come with the need for vaccinations.
The President has also announced that we will share 80 million doses with the world, and as production ramps up, we hope to increase that number considerably.
I really appreciate, particularly on this trip, that the lag time between facing COVID and getting vaccines every day is very painful for people. I have seen that. I have felt that. I have heard that in every country. And it has been very hard to sit and not be able to say to people, “Tomorrow we are sending you x number of vaccines.” The Biden-Harris administration is deciding how best to distribute this. We do not distribute vaccines for political favors. We distribute them on the basis of need, and I suspect that a good portion will go through COVAX because COVAX tries to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines.
So, we are doing everything that we can as fast as we can, in complete recognition that no one is safe – including the United States – until everyone is safe.
On your second question, on Secretary Blinken’s first trip as Secretary of State, he went to Asia. First. On my first trip as Deputy Secretary of State, I came to Asia, to Southeast Asia. I think there is no question when you think of all of the places in the world that each of us could have gone, that we came first to Asia. We always have to deal with urgent issues. The Secretary of State had to go to the Middle East in the midst of a violent conflict to ensure a ceasefire that another country in the region, Egypt, had led to get to a ceasefire, but was helped by many phone calls and many interventions by the United States. Nonetheless, he was incredibly committed and said to everyone on his team, “I will not miss the video conference, virtually, with ASEAN. I will do it from my airplane.” And we all have the technology to do many things in these months of COVID.
I was on that video screen back in Washington and heard the Secretary try again and again and again to overcome the technical difficulty of joining that meeting. And I greatly appreciated the chair of ASEAN saying, “Let’s try to reschedule.” After 45 minutes of trying and everyone’s tremendous patience, which the Secretary was very grateful for, it was decided that it ought to be rescheduled. People are working dates now; some of the dates suggested don’t work; ASEAN is suggesting other dates. We will find a date. The Secretary is committed to this. And I’m not a substitute for the Secretary of State, but nonetheless, I came to Southeast Asia and met in person with all of the permanent representatives at ASEAN.
We are very committed to the Indo-Pacific and we are very committed to where the world is heading, and [inaudible] cares about every place, but we are headed to Asia.
Moderator: Thank you, Deputy Secretary. That is all the time we have. Do you have any final remarks for the group?
Deputy Secretary Sherman: I just want to thank you all for what you do every day. Freedom of expression – journalism – is at risk all around the world, not just in this part of the world but everywhere, even in my own country. And President Biden, Vice President Harris, Secretary Blinken all stand for freedom of expression, and we stand behind journalists and work for you – even when we are annoyed by things you write – for you to have that freedom to report as you see it. It is fundamental to the universal freedoms that we all want for everyone in this world. So thank you for what you do every day, and know that we support your right to do it. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. I also want to thank all of you for participating in this briefing, and I sincerely apologize if we were not able to get to your questions today. I’m afraid we received quite a few that we weren’t able to get to.
Please stay on the line for information regarding access to an audio recording of the call. Also, please be aware that a transcript of the call will be posted to our social media platforms and sent out to all of you within a day. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Asia-Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thank you.