MS ORTAGUS: Apologies, everybody, for the late afternoon notice. Dave Stilwell is still in Hawaii, I’m in California with the Secretary, but we wanted to make sure that you had a chance today to hear directly and on the record from Assistant Secretary Dave Stilwell on Secretary Pompeo’s meeting yesterday with Chinese Communist Party Politburo Member Yang Jiechi.
As you know, Assistant Secretary Stilwell was a part of the Secretary’s delegation in Hawaii for this important exchange of views on U.S.-China relations. Assistant Secretary Stilwell will offer brief opening remarks and answer your questions. Please remember that while this call is on the record, the briefing – the contents of the briefing – is embargoed until the end of the call. And again, please keep your line muted if you’re not called upon. Okay, Dave, go right ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Morgan, thank you for that. And it was a great trip to Hawaii, and I know we did our best to get something out of it. I’m not going to go into specifics on exactly what was discussed, although I note that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has done just that. And I don’t feel the need to argue with Zhao Lijian on that, but I will give you as much as diplomatic decorum allows – the ideas, the back and forth, and the outcomes from what we just accomplished in the last two days in Hawaii.
Overall, given all the current circumstances with the relationship, the PRC side could not be described as really forthcoming in this. The U.S. side went to great effort to provide an environment for candid and productive discussions.
As you know, the U.S. seeks a constructive and results-oriented relationship that is fair and reciprocal, and we’ve been very clear about that. That implies not just conversations, but we have to have actions. The actions that we’ve seen out of the PRC of late – and you all know this as you watch the beat – have been not really constructive as we look at India, the South China Sea, Hong Kong issues, and just go around the perimeter. In the periphery (inaudible) things like trade have not lived up to the billing, unfortunately.
So as we try to deal with these topics of concern, we need to make sure we take advantage of all opportunities to come to an agreement where we can and to work through those issues that we don’t necessarily agree on at the time. So I leave it to you to – I’m not going to go into detail on exactly what was discussed, but whether or not they were productive or not, I will look at what comes up in the next couple of weeks: Do we see a reduction in aggressive behavior or not? That’s not to say that we didn’t try, but as you know, in any relationship both sides get a vote on these things.
So we are working hard. As you know, the President is not pulling punches anymore. He is basically doing what he has to do to protect U.S. interests, starting off with obviously the trade deal and the (inaudible) following through on that. But in areas of mutual concern, such as North Korea, we note the issues going on there right now. We would like to have somewhere we can find cooperation. We also are looking for their positive engagement in trilateral arms talks. China is a nuclear power, as are Russia and the U.S., and it would be good to – we encourage them and we’d like them to participate in these talks that prevent the – an unfortunate outcome.
And obviously corona. We insist on the Chinese disclosing all they know about how this pandemic began, to share all the information that they have that leads to saving lives. This is not about saving face; it’s about saving lives. And we insist that they live up to their agreements with the WHO and with the international health regulations to make open as – show (inaudibe) this is beyond politics.
And so we have to understand and assess that as I talk about a constructive and results-oriented relationship that the words are fine but will be judged by the deeds. And if we have words of peace but we have aggressive actions, then we’re going to have to increase the pressure to manage that.
And the best way we do that is not just the U.S. alone. This is not a U.S.-China event. It’s not a U.S.-China issue. This is China versus lots of others. We just saw a very strong G7 statement on Hong Kong that demonstrates that it’s the world that’s concerned with this behavior. And so the objective of these talks was to help the Chinese Government understand that their actions are actually working against them and that if they come to the table with a reasonable proposal, the U.S. is obviously going to greet it reasonably and look for ways to work toward a positive outcome.
I’ll quit there and look forward to your questions.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay, the first question is from the line of Shaun Tandon. And if I could remind everyone to mute their line if you’re not speaking. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Could I expand just on the last point that you made, to say that if they have reasonable proposals that you’ll treat it reasonably. Were the proposals that were put forward by the Chinese – do you think that there’s anything actually constructive that came out of this? And how much of this do you think was in the election context with the – how Americans are talking about China right now ahead of the elections? Is that something that the Chinese raised? Is that something that was discussed? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Yes, good question. You can’t get away from the – our own domestic politics and the election on this. It clearly is in view in Beijing. They are talking about it. As far as reasonable proposals, again, I can’t get into details, but as I mentioned, some of the main topics that are bubbling with – in the South China Sea. We all know the U.S. position on freedom of navigation and excessive claims. How about a reasonable proposal to go back to an agreement in 1997 that says that China will allow Hong Kong – agreed to have autonomy for 50 years, and that terminating that at 23, that’s unreasonable.
And so we discussed all of that, and as I mentioned that we look for not just words but deeds and follow-up. We are looking forward to reconsideration of the domestic security legislation, national security legislation that they are imposing on Hong Kong. And the results of that are going to be similar to what we saw last summer, I believe, with the attempt to impose an extradition law on Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong have a voice and they will use it, and they till now have had a choice that they could exercise in their two-systems setup that allowed for democratic processes. And so as they see those processes, they see that freedom and that democracy go away, they can’t help but express their concerns. Over.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Next question is from the line of —
MR HARUTUNIAN: I’m sorry, please mute your line if you’re not speaking. The next question is from the line of Will Mauldin, Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much for having this. I was just following up because you mentioned a lack of reasonable proposals from the Chinese side. Does that mean there were no reasonable proposals on any major areas of dispute between the two countries? And if that’s the case, does that mean there was no substantial progress to speak of in any area that’s of major disagreement between the two countries? How would you phrase that? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Well, what I would say is that the U.S. position on these things has been clear to date, and it will – it was made very clear during the meeting – again, things like corona, North Korea, something as important as trilateral arms cooperation, and the like. And there is no misunderstanding of what the U.S. is asking, and as I said earlier, it’s not just the U.S. With the G7 and others, there are others, not just the U.S. – Australia being an obvious one – who are expressing the same concerns, and that should trigger in the minds of the folks in Beijing the need to reassess the direction they’re going.
Our position on this has been consistent, and so any – as you saw – as you may have seen in the MFA statement where they kind of read out a very one-sided proposal – or one-sided readout of what we talked about. We’re going to do our best to leave the diplomatic process to its own devices, but I would expect that you would see the Chinese side taking action that comports with the discussions we had. I’m not saying there was agreement, but we made very clear our position, so we’ll see in the next week or two or however long it takes if they begin to live up to their commitments. Over.
QUESTION: So it’s unclear if there was any significant progress in any of the major areas?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: I would – I mean, I’ll refrain from characterizing it that way. Yeah.
MR HARUTUNIAN: If we could refrain from follow-up questions just to allow everybody to ask a question, I’d appreciate it. Next question from the line of Nike Ching.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for the call. How do you describe the trust level between the U.S. and Chinese top diplomats? And you mentioned South China Sea. At a time when China is intensifying the frequency and sending aircraft carriers in the Indo-Pacific region and a time when Chinese military planes are intensifying the frequency to enter Taiwan’s airspace, in your view, what is the Chinese calculation? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: The relationships between counterparts – my counterparts, the Secretary’s counterparts – are developed. I mean, the U.S. can’t be accused of not investing significant effort in making sure this relationship has the opportunity to be productive.
But again, the other side gets a choice in how they operate, and trust is a function of words and deeds. You have to have – obviously, you say the right things, but the deeds are zero in an equation where words times deeds equals trust, but the deeds, if the follow-through is not there, if, as in 2015, the Chinese leadership says that they don’t – they’re not going to militarize the islands of the South China Sea and they go and do that, I think, again, you don’t have to be a math major to understand that that is not conducive to trust. Subsequent interactions with the Chinese, especially with the Secretary and at my level and others – again, we get commitments and yet – I won’t say always, but frequently those commitments either are not – we don’t see follow-through, or if we do see follow-through, it’s limited and not necessarily of use.
As far as South China Sea militarization, sinking fishing ships and more provocative behavior around Taiwan, hard to say given all that’s going on, given how the world is struggling with corona, why anybody would take advantage of that or try to take advantage of that. Although I would note that Taiwan’s handling of the coronavirus was laudable, it was world-class. In fact, they knew long before anybody that there should be deep concern about any reports of that sort of epidemic inside China. So they were the first to close their borders and then start actively looking for signs of the pandemic.
And so – but meantime, the world is still reeling from this problem, and I don’t see how this would inspire a green light toward more provocative behavior. I mean, India is trying to focus on dealing with the disease. That doesn’t mean, though, that – certainly, it doesn’t mean the U.S. is distracted. You’re seeing activities from INDOPACOM and others that demonstrate that, no, we’re still as capable as we ever were. Over.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Next question is from the line of Nick Schifrin.
Nick, go ahead.
MR BROWN: He might be on mute.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Okay. Let’s skip Nick for the minute. Next question, Matt Lee.
QUESTION: Hi there, thanks. You mentioned that the Chinese readout was very one-sided, and I just got to ask: I mean, what do you expect them to do? I mean, this is your opportunity now to give your side. So what do you think was one-sided about their readout, being as specific as you possibly can? Or are you going to let them drive the narrative on specific?
And then my substantive question is: The Secretary tweeted a couple hours ago that Yang had recommitted to Phase 1 of the trade deal, but then the President just tweeted a little while ago saying that complete decoupling from China is still a possibility. And I’m just wondering, if you can’t reconcile those two or don’t want to take a stab at reconciling those two, just what exactly was the Secretary meaning when he said that the Chinese had recommitted? And do you expect them to actually do that? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: That’s a good question. MFA statement – if you haven’t seen it, take a look at it. Obviously, the time I’m spending with you all is longer than that. But as I opened with, diplomatic conversations are effective when they – the details of those conversations are left soft or quiet, and that it gives everybody room to adjust, right, rather than cornering one side and enforcing them to either take unhelpful or unwanted actions or no action at all.
Again, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. You sit in the State Department press bullpen. But allowing diplomacy to take its course is good, while at the same time, though, I believe in the spirit of openness that I would – I appreciate your chance to share with you the need – or the outcomes of these events so you can generally track what’s happened.
So, however, as I look at the MFA statement, it’s fairly typical with what we’ve been seeing in this wolf warrior environment – very shrill, one-sided, sometimes not realistic, and all the rest. So again, look at the – I will try my best to share as much as I can. I’m not going to go to the level of detail he did.
As far as the difference between what the Secretary and the President are saying, I’ll just note that the trade deal – the Chinese have recommitted to that numerous times, not just in the recent past, but since the last year when it was signed, and they insist that they will follow through. This is a good acid test to see if they will be cooperative partners; if they will, again, use words and deeds to build this trust in the trade realm, which I think is probably the most basic aspect of this relationship, because, as you know, trade, when done properly, benefits both sides equally.
Now, if you put up barriers and those things at – which is what we’re working through that certainly don’t comport with WTO and a global trade system, that’s where you end up having to have these trade talks to reinforce the need for it to be fair and even.
So again, I can’t really speculate on the difference between the S and the POTUS remarks, just note that we have seen a consistent commitment by the Chinese side to live up to its agreement. Over.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Back to Nick Schifrin.
QUESTION: Hey, Dave. Sorry about that, guys. I apologize. And I’m sorry, because I got kicked off, if I ask a question that’s already been asked. But two quick ones, hopefully.
One is: Both sides are saying that the other side asked for the meeting. Assuming that you’re maintaining that the Chinese asked for the meeting, did they have any kind of opening offers at all?
And then two, on the media reports of what we’re all covering right now in terms of Ambassador Bolton, there is a dichotomy between policy on things like Xinjiang and what Bolton quotes the President saying about leaders in Xinjiang. Does that dichotomy hurt your —
MS ORTAGUS: Hey, we’re not going to even hear the – we’re not going to – Nick, we’re not going to get into the Bolton stuff. He’s not going to answer that. So you can ask another question, or we can go to the next person.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, I asked about the origin of the meeting, so are you maintaining that they requested the meeting, and given that, did they have any kind of opening offer at all?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Thanks, Nick, and yeah, always good to hear from you. We did an event like this last August. It was in the media as well. Just a short blurb came out of that, as far as the nature.
Again, and this is not about one-upmanship or – I’m proud to be part of a diplomatic tradition where we don’t really feel the need to kiss and tell and the rest. But I will note that the activities happened here. So as far as who asked who, again, I’d – not going to – I mean, I could offer you in another setting or elsewhere the – how this went down, but the point is that the Secretary traveled and went to great effort to host and to hear their proposals, and you can imagine which side is feeling the pressure more. Over.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Next question, John Hudson.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks a lot. You mentioned that the Chinese were not forthcoming. Could you just talk a little bit about what you – how you were disappointed in their not being forthcoming? And then what were they not forthcoming about?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Well, I would go back to the actions in a results-oriented relationship, and this is one of our – I’m not going to answer the question right now. However, if you watch outcomes over the next couple weeks, you can see for yourself whether U.S. concerns – which have been expressed very publicly, not just this week in Hawaii but over the weeks coming out of D.C. – about this provocative behavior, and then just a long list of things: How about reciprocity? How about journalists who can’t report freely in the PRC and yet complain shrilly when they – or anything is done to Chinese journalists in the U.S.? The relationship needs to be more reciprocal. And we raised quite a few of these issues, and I’ll leave it to you to determine whether or not they are going to comply or not. Just watch the outcomes here in the next couple weeks and see.
I’m hopeful. Again, as I – we leave diplomatic space by not talking about this in detail where they feel like they’re boxed in. We leave them the diplomatic space to make decisions that demonstrate that they understand the need for this relationship to be more reciprocal and “win-win,” to use their term, on both sides. And so I always remain optimistic. I am often disappointed, but again, we’ll see if the presentation – if our interactions this week had the desired effect. Over.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Michele Kelemen, NPR.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. How would you describe the atmosphere of the talks? And did they talk at all about plans for U.S. personnel to return to the embassy in Beijing and to consulates in China? I’ve heard concerns that U.S. Government officials have had to go through quarantine procedures that are – that the Chinese are imposing on them. Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Well, we’ve been out of China for a long time, and the folks that are left there have been really doing a lot of great work to make sure that our diplomatic activities remain the same. And yeah, we are doing our best to get folks back and reconstitute now.
I would note that the – that we’re seeing another bloom of corona in Beijing, and so I’ve got to say I would hope that their numbers and their reporting is more accurate than what we saw in the case of Wuhan and other places in the PRC, but that remains to be seen. Our folks are trained well – like we are all here – as far as maintaining social distance and handwashing and mask wear and all that stuff.
But yep, brave diplomats are going to go back into the fray there and re-establish our presence there as quickly as we can. What was the first part of that?
QUESTION: Oh, sorry, I had my mute on. It was about the atmosphere of the talks in Hawaii.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Yeah. I’ll just simply note that the overall – describe the relationship overall as intense, and it – this is terra incognita for the Chinese. They never had an American government actually stand up and insist that they follow through on their commitments. And so that’s probably a fair characterization, is they’re getting used to a U.S. Government that will, again, insist on defending the interests of the American people.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Nick Wadhams.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much. Can you talk a little bit more about – I understand you don’t want to say who initiated this meeting or who requested it, but there is that fundamental contradiction out there, and can you just give us a sense of how this whole thing —
MS ORTAGUS: No.
QUESTION: — came about?
MS ORTAGUS: It’s asked – no, Nick, that’s asked and answered. Why don’t you try for a different question?
QUESTION: Okay. Did they – did the Chinese give you any indication or any – do you believe now that Chinese coronavirus numbers continue to be underrepresented, both currently and in the past, in terms of number of infections? And did you make any progress or are you feeling more optimistic now about the possibility that you’ll get access to the virus samples, to the labs, and things like that that you’ve requested in the past?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Thanks, that’s a good question. Optimistic or not, we definitely made our position known, again, on what we expect. And not just the U.S., it’s everybody. This is part of a trend of agreeing to things that are in the interest of global security and global health, agreeing to those and yet not finding a way to follow through on them. It’s happened a number of times. So as far as numbers, it would be good to have folks on the ground to do confirmation. Now, you must understand the difficulty in that. You’ve got a raging epidemic and then later pandemic in Wuhan, in Hubei Province, and who knows where else. But that transparency and the relative secretive nature of the Chinese Communist Party did not allow for confirmation. This would have been very important in giving the world all the advance notice it needed to defend itself from what turned out to be a really nasty disease. So we still insist on transparency, sharing samples and all the rest.
But back to your question on numbers. Credibility is important, and once you lose credibility it’s very difficult to get it back. So I believe that any numbers you see after – I mean, you saw some very credible non-politicized assessments coming out of scientific journals and all that noting that the numbers reported out of the PRC were impossible. They were impossibly low and they were impossibly linear, and so – I’ve seen estimates of somewhere around 10 times. It claimed 80,000 infections, initially 3,500 deaths, which they upgraded to 4,200 or whatever – we’re thinking about multiply by 10. So once that credibility is lost, you’re going to have to find a way to re-establish that, and I think the only way you can do that is by bringing in neutral observers to help understand exactly what happened there. And we still insist that that happens. We’d hope the WHO would also take that lead and insist that folks get on the ground to help out.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Joel Gehrke, Washington Examiner.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Looking across the region, we’ve seen China’s moves vis-a-vis Hong Kong, the fighter sorties around Taiwan, and now the border clash on the China-Indian border. Can you assess, especially after this meeting, that there’s a coherent policy uniting all of those different aggressive actions, and what’s the boundary or the limiting principle of those actions from what you can tell? Do you have a sense of how far they’re willing to go in any of those areas? Did you communicate any U.S. warnings regarding those areas, maybe especially regarding India? And on the other hand, did they seek to draw any red lines for the U.S.?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: I’m not going to speculate, but I will point you to several articles that I’ve seen that note that there – one explanation for creating multiple fronts like this is an assessment in Beijing that the world is distracted and is focused entirely on survival, right, recovering from the corona pandemic, which then possibly is seen as an opportunity to take advantage of distraction. And I’m not going to offer an official U.S. Government position on that, but there are some – numerous explanations out there for that.
What we’re doing, we’re obviously watching the India-China border dispute very closely. It – this activity is similar to activity we’ve seen in the past on border disputes with the PRC, and again, I would point you to those – I think it was 2015 when Xi Jinping traveled to India the first time. The PLA invaded this contested area deeper and longer, with more people, than ever before historically. Again, whether that was a negotiating tactic or a – just a punch in the nose to demonstrate their superiority, I don’t know. But then we saw the Doklam issue down near Bhutan, where we saw similar concerns. I wish I knew. Again, we don’t have a lot of visibility and we don’t have a lot of open dialogue with our Chinese counterparts, and honestly I’d like to see more of that if we can. Over.
MR HARUTUNIAN: All right, we’re up at 30 minutes and have time for one more question. Arshad Mohammed, please, go ahead. And I’m sorry that we didn’t get to everybody.
QUESTION: You said at the outset that the Chinese were not very forthcoming, and you’ve said several times that we should watch to see their actions over the next several weeks. My question is: One, did you get any commitments at all from the Chinese that you would expect them to act on in these coming weeks? And secondly, did you discern any concern from China about North Korea’s recent behavior, and do you see any reason that there may be common ground between Washington and Beijing on North Korea?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY STILWELL: Let me answer the second question first. Yes, this increasing – the opportunities for cooperative behavior with PRC of late are – seem to be fewer and fewer. But there are areas of obvious cooperation, and North Korea seems to be the obvious one, and if the U.S. and China can both work together on this, it seems that North Korea would understand the importance and the need to get back to the table and discuss their nuclear program and other (inaudible). So yeah, there are areas where cooperation is entirely possible. It was an area, especially as I mentioned earlier, we’ll see if – we made our points very clear. They made theirs. There wasn’t a lot of dispute. I think it’s going to come down to how it’s executed. And as for the rest, I’ll leave it to the Deputy Secretary Steve Biegun, who is – he owns the North Korea portfolio.
On commitments, I’ll point to trade, as I mentioned earlier, that there was a very clear commitment to following through on the Phase 1 trade agreement. So that seems to be an effort to get that credibility back, where we committed to do it, we actually did it, and therefore the credibility is building. As for the rest, I’m not going to foreclose the possibility that they might actually hear what we have to say and understand our – how serious we are about these other issues of concern. And we remain optimistic as much as we can. The history doesn’t necessarily support that, but eventually I think they’re going to understand that there – there’s got to be give and take in any relationship. It can’t be all take, so to make a truly constructive and reciprocal relationship, the President and this administration’s insisting that China live up to its commitments. Over.
MS ORTAGUS: All right. Thanks so much, everybody. I apologize, I know we had some more people in the queue, but we’re already over 30 minutes, and sorry we had to throw this together last minute, but we have many more briefings scheduled for you tomorrow. Thanks, Dave Stilwell, for doing this. Much appreciated. Bye.