Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Matthews on Secretary Tillerson's Trip to Australia and New Zealand

Special Briefing
Matthew J. Matthews
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Via Teleconference
June 1, 2017

MS. NAUERT: Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining us today. We have a call to preview the Secretary’s travel to Australia and New Zealand. We are joined by Matt Matthews, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

As we previously announced, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be in Sydney, Australia June 5th and 6th with Defense Secretary James Mattis. They will be participating in the 2017 Australia-U.S. ministerial consultations that will be hosted by the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne. Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis, and their counterparts will talk about a full range of U.S.-Australian cooperation on bilateral, regional, and global issues. The secretaries will coordinate our policies and identify ways to further strengthen the alliance and also deepen our cooperation between the two governments.

The Secretary will then travel to New Zealand to reaffirm our strong ties and discuss coordination on shared strategic interests with Prime Minister English and Foreign Minister Brownlee.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the call will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call. With that, I’ll turn it over to our speaker, Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthews, and thank you so much, sir.

MR. MATTHEWS: Thank you. So good afternoon to everybody and thanks for joining the call. We’re looking forward to engagements by the Secretary with one of our closest, most capable partners in Australia on June 5th, followed by meetings with our longstanding partner New Zealand on June 6th.

In Australia, as the spokesperson just said, Secretary Tillerson will be joining Defense Secretary Mattis for AUSMIN. That’s our annual ministerial meeting. And this ministerial meeting brings us together with Foreign Minister Bishop and Defense Minister Payne. We’ve been doing these meetings regularly since 1985. It’s basically a chance to sit down and coordinate on how we are addressing critical challenges in our relationships regionally and globally. From pushing back to North Korea’s reckless behavior to engaging China and encouraging it to play a more constructive role in the Asia Pacific and to our efforts to defeat ISIS, we are working closely with Australia to promote peace and stability around the globe.

We’ll make sure that these efforts are synced up in AUSMIN and find new ways that we can work together effectively. We’ll also discuss joint training and improved interoperability of our militaries to increase their effectiveness.

The Secretary, after that, will be traveling to New Zealand on the 6th, where he will meet with Prime Minister English and Foreign Minister Brownlee. This will be the Secretary’s first time meeting both of these leaders. New Zealand is a crucial friend and partner to the United States, helping us to tackle international security challenges, push boundaries on scientific understanding, and promoting democracy, commerce, and economic growth in the Asia Pacific Region.

So this visit is really an opportunity to have face-to-face discussions on how to jointly address pressing regional and global issues.

With that, I would open it up to questions.

MS. NAUERT: Okay, let’s take our first question, please.

OPERATOR: Our first question comes from the line of Nike Ching of Voice of America. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much for this question. You just mentioned that to counter the threat from North Korea is high on the agenda. I wonder if you have anything on the South Korean President Moon’s envoy coming today to – on the T-H-A-A-D, THAAD deployment matter. Thank you.

MR. MATTHEWS: So the question was on THAAD? No.

QUESTION: No, on the South Korean new president’s envoy coming today to Washington to discuss serious matters regarding how to effectively counter the threat to – on North Korea. Thank you.

MR. MATTHEWS: Okay. Well, the U.S.-ROK alliance will continue to be a lynchpin in our regional stability and security, and we will continue to meet our alliance commitments, especially with respect to defending against the threat from North Korea. So actually, that’s going to be part of the discussions that he will be having while here in Washington. But those same kind of concerns will be reflected in the discussions we have at AUSMIN in Australia with Foreign Minister Bishop and Defense Minister Payne. We’ll be looking at ways in which we can more effectively counter the provocations that the North Koreans are making, find more effective ways of increasing pressure on them to get them back on to a constructive path of denuclearization.

MS. NAUERT: Okay, thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: And just as a reminder, ladies and gentlemen, please press *1 now if you’d like to queue up here for a question.

Our next question comes from the line of Nicole Gaouette of CNN.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me? Hello?

MS. NAUERT: Hi, Nicole. Yes, go right ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, hi. Thanks for the call. I’m wondering if you can address something that Secretary Tillerson talked about a couple of weeks ago about the creation of sort of – of a coalition similar to the one that was brought together to form the Iran deal, but to deal with North Korea. Can you give us any updates on this? Is it going to be on the agenda at the AUSMIN? Has there been more outreach about it to other countries?

MR. MATTHEWS: Sure. Without responding to that specific idea that the Secretary might have been broaching, what I can just reiterate quite clearly is that we will be looking for ways in which we can coordinate with Australia more effectively to increase pressure on North Korea to cease its provocations and to move on to a denuclearization path. And that includes ways in which we can find to work more effectively with China and to get China to increase pressure on North Korea as well.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. NAUERT: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Josh Lederman, Associated Press. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, guys. Thanks for doing this. I was wondering if you could give us an update on those 1,200 or so asylum seekers that were going to be resettled under that refugee deal with Australia. Is that still proceeding, and where do we stand with that?

MR. MATTHEWS: Sure. I’d be happy to kind of give you a little clarification. First and foremost, the agreement between the United States and Australia that would have us review refugee claims through the UN High Commission will be met. We will follow through on that. The President in no uncertain terms confirmed to Prime Minister Turnbull on May 4th in New York during their bilateral meeting that we would follow through on our commitment.

But just so you’re quite clear, what the United States has undertaken to do is to review applications submitted through the UN High Commission and go through our own very independent and very strict vetting process to determine whether or not referred potential refugees would meet our standards for admittance into the United States. If they do so, then they have that option to proceed and do that. But we’re not – there is no inherent obligation to take refugees unless they actually meet our strict standards.

MS. NAUERT: Okay, thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Brooke Wylie, with Australian broadcast. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for taking this call. I just had two questions. One was: Are you expecting to discuss the increased troop – well, discuss any potential increased troop deployment to Afghanistan? And do you expect to request any further assistance from Australia in that regard?

And then a second question just on the refugee issue. Do you have a timeline for when you will start reviewing those applications? And the same for those incoming refugees that would be receiving from Costa Rica. Thanks.

MR. MATTHEWS: Right. So as for issues specific to possible adjustments and troop deployment in Afghanistan, that may very well in fact come up during the discussions at AUSMIN, but I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for any real specifics on that. I would also just say that you will certainly be getting a readout post-AUSMIN, and that’s an issue you can kind of query at during the presser on the 5th.

On the issue of the status of pre-screening, initial pre-screening has already been underway for some time from the Department of State’s Resettlement Support Center, and that process will continue.

MS. NAUERT: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Go to Michelle Kosinski with CNN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. On this same subject of those refugees, if the current vetting process for refugees from, say, Syria, takes – could take two years, and with vetting procedures now being beefed up, are you expecting vetting these refugees to also take potentially that amount of time? Or what’s your estimate? Thanks.

MR. MATTHEWS: Yeah, I don’t have a specific timeline on what will be required. What I can tell you is that there will be no shortcuts in the process. They will go through a full vetting process, but these refugees have been vetted in depth in Australia, and they are in a process of being vetted in depth now by DHS. So I just can’t answer you on the exact timeline, but I can guarantee you that the process will be robust and effective.

MS. NAUERT: Okay, thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And just a reminder, ladies and gentlemen, to hit *1 if you’d like to queue up. Next we have Joanne Black with New Zealand Listener. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity. One of President Trump’s early acts was to pull out of the TPP proposed trade agreement. A country like New Zealand which is small, and there are a lot of countries in the Pacific that are even smaller, rely on these kind of forums for diplomatic and – we don’t have a lot of diplomatic or economic strengths and so forth, defense and trade and other influence. We rely on these multilateral forums. What assurance can you give New Zealand that the U.S.’s sort of putting America first is not going to be at the cost of small nations who need the strength of these forums?

MR. MATTHEWS: You’re speaking specifically of TPP. Is that correct?

QUESTION: Well, yes, but we’ve seen President Trump be doubtful about NATO. And now, obviously, that doesn’t affect New Zealand directly, but generally there is this kind of pulling back, it seems to be, from international groupings that small countries absolutely depend on.

MR. MATTHEWS: Well, first of all, there’s absolutely no pulling back out of NATO. I think the President has made quite clear the commitment to NATO is unqualified and it continues apace. The President has spoken about the need for NATO members to pay a fair share, and that has been defined for some time as committing 2 percent of GDP to a common defense. I think most members of NATO find that a reasonable request, so we’ll be working on that.

In the case of TPP, which you mentioned earlier, the President did announce that we were not going to move forward with ratification of TPP. However, the President is committed very strongly to economic engagement in the East Asia Pacific region, and there are many ways in which you can – our economic engagement continues apace both in APEC, which is a regional collection of 21 economies across the Asia Pacific, and in our bilateral discussions.

We’ve already launched a bilateral dialogue with Japan. We are in bilateral discussions with China. That’s a 100-day program which will be followed by a series of other programs for specific issues. And I think you’ll find the administration is in the process of lining up a series of potential bilateral engagements and negotiations with partners in the region.

So you’re going to find us economically active and very proactive from a government level, as well as continuing on as economically very engaged from our private sector.

MS. NAUERT: All right, thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll go the line of Kim Baker Wilson with NewstalkZB. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Good morning from Auckland. There have been various ways to describe the state of the relationship between the U.S. and New Zealand in the past, and my questions are: How does the U.S. view the current state of the relationship with New Zealand? Is the Secretary looking to improve that relationship or smooth out any problems that there may be at the moment? And should we be expecting any announcements of any kind?

MR. MATTHEWS: Well, we’ve described the relationship between the United States and New Zealand as excellent. It’s a very strong partnership. It’s founded on shared values, a shared commitment to democracy, rule of law, open markets. We are working with Australia[1] across the board in a wide range of areas, whether it be military training, whether it be intelligence sharing, whether it be economic policy discussions. We have – or scientific research, et cetera. It’s a very broad and deep relationship.

It’s got a broad people-to-people connection as well. I think there’s over 3,500 U.S. students studying in New Zealand. There’s well over a thousand New Zealand students studying in the United States. So the amount of interaction that takes place is extensive, and we look forward to maintaining momentum in the relationship and keeping it going from strength to strength.

MS. NAUERT: Okay, thank you. Last – next question, please.

OPERATOR: At this point, we actually have no further questions here in queue.

MS. NAUERT: Okay, thank you. Mr. Matthews.

MR. MATTHEWS: So let me just close with everyone by again saying how excited the Secretary of State is to be traveling to Australia and New Zealand. He’s looking forward to having very robust discussions in both Sydney and in Wellington, and we look forward to seeing these relationships continue apace, to grow strongly, and to keep that very tight coordination between our senior leaders. Thank you very much.

MS. NAUERT: All right. Matt Matthews, deputy assistant secretary for Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. He’s in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Sir, thank you so much. Appreciate your expertise.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. The call will now be – will no longer be embargoed now. And thank you so much for joining us, everyone. Have a good day.

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[1] New Zealand