An audio file of this Briefing is available here.
Moderator: Thank you. 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 very pleased to be joined from Washington DC, by David R. Stilwell, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from Assistant Secretary Stilwell. 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 Assistant Secretary Stilwell.
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: Thanks for that introduction and thank you for your interest to all who have joined. I will try to make this worth the time that you’re investing in this. Good evening from Washington. It’s 9 o’clock at night. Good morning to all of you out there in Asia, where it’s earlier. Appreciate your interest in learning more about all of the things we discussed in the last week dealing with Indo-Pacific countries and specifically ASEAN.
Now, I’ll note that with corona, the inability to travel has – it’s double-edged. On the one hand, you get more opportunities like this where you get to interact virtually; but on the other hand, it really makes for long days in that we would start these meetings very early U.S. time and late in ASEAN time, work a full day, and then we would do the other morning meetings for ASEAN, late in the evening here in D.C. The Secretary was very happy to do them. I know he appreciated all of the interactions, especially the U.S.-ASEAN bilateral that was a very productive event.
So, in addition to the East Asia Summit ministerial, the Secretary also met with the 10 countries of ASEAN in the fifth U.S.-ASEAN foreign ministers meeting – the one I just mentioned. Deputy Secretary of State Biegun stood in for the Secretary at the ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial, or the ARF.
I’m also happy to report that we launched the Mekong-U.S. Partnership last week with the five countries of mainland Southeast Asia.
In all of these meetings, the U.S. reaffirmed our commitment to ASEAN and to our Indo-Pacific allies and partners. Secretary Pompeo and his foreign minister counterparts noted that job number one is combating coronavirus, COVID-19, and energizing economic recovery. The United States is moving quickly to develop a vaccine and make that vaccine available in the United States, in the Indo-Pacific, and around the world.
Secretary Pompeo also spoke about Beijing’s pattern of aggressive bullying in the South China Sea, in the Mekong region, and Hong Kong. He shared U.S. and global concerns with the Chinese Communist Party’s assault on the sovereignty of its neighbors and on the rules-based system that has underpinned global prosperity and peace for decades.
So, I’ll give you some details on these initiatives.
On the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, the countries of the Mekong – the five are Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. These countries are important to the United States and also to our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
Mekong countries are growing fast, and their populations are young and dynamic. Our trade with the region exceeded $133 billion in 2019. Vietnam is among our top 10 trading partners, and Thailand is in the top 20.
American companies have operated in the region for a long time. U.S. foreign direct investment in 2019 was over $20 billion, continuing a history of creating shared prosperity for Americans and for the people of the Mekong region.
I also want to note that over three million U.S. citizens and residents trace their ancestries to Mekong countries. That is a very powerful link that we share.
So, to strengthen these bonds, last Friday the United States and the Mekong foreign ministers launched the new Mekong-U.S. Partnership. The partnership builds on the work of the last 11 years under the Lower Mekong Initiative, or LMI, and it spans economic, security, governance, health, and environmental cooperation.
We’re committing over $150 million initially to support expanded regional cooperation in the Mekong-U.S. Partnership. Some key programs include $52 million so far to battle COVID-19, $33 million to support energy systems and trade through our Asia EDGE program, and $55 million to counter transnational crime, to include drug trafficking.
We’ll also continue to support transboundary resource governance, including the work of the Mekong River Commission in managing the resources of the Mekong River. The Mekong foreign ministers all singled out the U.S.-supported Mekong Water Data Initiative as a key effort to help monitor and manage water resource challenges.
This is especially important because Beijing has long refused to act transparently in operating its vast network of upstream dams. This has harmed the livelihoods of tens of millions of people in Southeast Asian communities up and down the Mekong River basin. We called on China to make good on its promise to share its water data from the Upper Mekong River, and to do it through mechanisms developed by the Mekong region – the Mekong River Commission in particular.
We were candid with our Mekong partners. We encouraged them to hold China accountable. We shared our concerns over not just water, but infrastructure-linked debt and trafficking in persons, timber, and wildlife, all of which have worrisome links to the Chinese Communist Party. We are also concerned by the persistent reports of Chinese weapons ending up in the hands of various armed groups in Myanmar, a further contribution to regional instability.
Now, there were other meetings last week, so let me describe those briefly for you. At the U.S.-ASEAN ministerial, the East Asia Summit ministerial, and the ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial, we emphasized that the United States is growing our cooperation with the Indo-Pacific in health and maritime security, connectivity, sustainable development, and economic growth.
Secretary Pompeo announced a number of initiatives to strengthen our engagement with the region. As part of our work to respond to COVID-19 and improve public health, the Secretary explained how the U.S.-ASEAN Health Futures initiative will expand public health cooperation in Southeast Asia, building on over $3.5 billion in U.S. public health assistance to ASEAN countries over the last 20 years. Secretary Pompeo noted that we have so far provided over $87 million for emergency health and humanitarian assistance to ASEAN countries to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
He mentioned that USAID is supporting the ASEAN Public Health Emergency Coordinating System with $1.5 million in planned funding. This robust public health network supports coordination between existing national systems as well as data transparency and legal measures so that ASEAN countries can respond as a region to emerging public health crises and help prevent the next pandemic.
The Secretary made clear that the United States will continue to lead in developing human capital. To that end, he announced that the State Department is launching a YSEALI Academy at Fulbright University Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City, building on years of success in our Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, or YSEALI. The academy will offer executive-level seminars for professionals aged 25 to 40 from across Southeast Asia around the themes of technology and innovation, public policy, and entrepreneurship.
Secretary Pompeo also announced that we are working with Vietnam to co-host the third Indo-Pacific Business Forum this October. The Indo-Pacific Business Forum fosters billions of dollars in corporate deals and builds stronger connections across the United States and Indo-Pacific private sectors.
Finally, the Secretary noted new developments in the U.S.-ASEAN Smart Cities Partnership – specifically, new pairings on transportation initiatives between Las Vegas and Phuket, Thailand, Dallas and Kuala Lumpur, Portland and Johor Bahru, Boston and Phnom Penh, and Los Angeles and Jakarta.
With all these new initiatives and partnerships, we are making good on our commitment to deepen our Indo-Pacific cooperation. We are also building on the shared values reflected in the U.S. free and open Indo-Pacific vision and ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
In discussions around COVID, the Secretary praised ASEAN unity and transparency in response to the pandemic. He also outlined U.S. efforts to leverage all available resources to develop safe, effective, affordable, and widely available vaccines and therapeutics to fight against the virus.
Secretary Pompeo joined several ASEAN countries and many other partners in raising concerns over the PRC’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. He reiterated that the United States, in line with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Award, regards Beijing’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea as unlawful.
Secretary Pompeo also joined several countries in raising concerns over the imposition of sweeping national security legislation on Hong Kong, the arrests of pro-democracy students, the year-long postponement of elections, and disqualification of pro-democracy electoral candidates.
Finally, Secretary Pompeo, along with other ministers, called for a cessation of violence and a negotiated solution to the escalating violence in Rakhine State, and for the DPRK to abandon its WMD and ballistic missile programs, as required by UN Security Council resolutions.
And with that, I would like to invite your questions. Thanks.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Our first question will go to Chia Wen Chen from SET News in Taiwan. Chia Wen, please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Assistant Secretary Stilwell, this is media from Taiwan, SET News. My name is Chen. I would like to ask, China keeps harassing the region and Taiwan, and we are so terrified, and we’d like to ask: What can the United States do to help maintain peace in the region, and even Taiwan? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: Well, thanks for that great question. We have lots of things that we can do, but there are things that we are doing in that regard. I will note on the – and I’ll let DOD speak to the greater security issues, but you will note that the United States has maintained its presence in the region and demonstrated our resolve to prevent unwelcome and certainly unhelpful military adventurism. And so I know Taiwan and others – South China Sea, ASEAN folks are also very concerned about militarization of their economic zones, these areas that are in the Law of the Sea defined as their exclusive economic areas that they can exploit fishing, that they can explore for resources like oil and the rest.
And so, the U.S. has been very vocal. As I am sure you have seen, the Secretary has been extremely vocal in identifying this as a significant U.S. interest and concern, and we are, both in physical presence from the military and the diplomatic sense, and in all of the things that I just mentioned just now, through economic support and otherwise, demonstrating U.S. resolve.
All of these issues can be resolved through dialogue and in a peaceful manner, and we are going to insist that’s the case. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next if we could go to Hugh Riminton from Channel 10 in Sydney. Hugh, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you so much and thank you, Assistant Secretary. Hugh Riminton from Channel 10 in Sydney. My question is, in terms of U.S. strategic thinking in the Western Pacific both north and south of the Equator, how much does the United States factor in Australia as an active military partner?
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: Thank you. That’s a great question. Let me talk more broadly, again, as a defense guy in my past life. I can always point to the 2,500 Marines in northern Australia, in Darwin, and the cooperative training that we do there. But I think even more important than that, recently, and certainly in the last few years, is Australia’s increasing leadership in the region in pushing back against these things. And I’ll point to Clive Hamilton, John Garnaut, previous Prime Minister Turnbull, and current Prime Minister Morrison and all the rest. Australia’s example and leadership in this has been very helpful. It’s not a lone U.S. voice; in fact, we’ve been joining a chorus led by Australia here for a while now.
And so, whether it’s in the security realm and the Australian military, I’ll let them speak to their interest in this. But the amount of cooperation between the U.S. Department of Defense and Australian military has been significant and, I think, welcome in the region. Australia’s knowledge of the area, to ASEAN as well as the Pacific, has also been very helpful and again, we’ve joined with Australia in these areas to demonstrate our, again, resolve and our partnership.
Moderator: Thank you. Next if we could go to Nhu Nguyen from OEC in Vietnam. Nhu, are you there?
Question: Yes, I’m here, and thank you, sir. I have a question. Recently the spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs slammed your comment on the cause of China’s lack of data sharing of hydro power in the Mekong River system. So, and meanwhile, some independent scientific research from [inaudible] and the Mekong Commission said that the data collection and the scientific research submitted by the Eyes on Earth organization is not scientifically correct. Do you have any comment on this?
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: I do. In the most broad terms, in the biggest picture, I think the information that comes from an open, transparent, and verifiable source is preferable to information that comes from two Chinese scientific outlets that you can’t verify, that you can’t talk to, and whose information is not readily accessible. And the – again, and the larger picture here is the information environment in the PRC being so closed and with the Great Firewall and all of those things, it has demonstrated the reason why you have a free media, and why you answer questions like this to regional Media Hubs like this and all the rest, because the media has a very important role in terms of transparency.
And so, if the media chose to check the facts on whether one source of data is accurate or not, the Eyes on Earth data is, it’s readily available and easily checked, whereas I don’t think you’ll have that same luck with the data the Chinese put out from their two supposedly independent sources. You need transparency. And that’s a big part of this message, is — these waterflows and the restriction of water into the region. In Vietnam, it’s having devastating effects in the Mekong Delta both on the fertility of the land and on fisheries and all the rest. Upstream – I mean downstream water rights is an issue that absolutely needs to be addressed and has to be addressed in a way that’s respectful of the rights of those downstream.
Moderator: Thank you. Next if we can go to Motoko Rich from The New York Times in Tokyo. Motoko, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, hello, can you hear me?
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: Yes.
Question: Hello? Hi, Assistant Secretary. Thank you so much for taking our calls and questions. I just wondered, you talked about how Secretary Pompeo had said that the Beijing massive or expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea are unlawful. Do you have concerns about some of their incursions into contiguous territorial waters in the Senkakus? They sort of seem to have gone on for more consecutive days than they have in years. The Japanese have had to scramble. The defense minister has talked more strongly about defending the Senkakus and doing it in concert with the United States. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that.
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: Absolutely. I think the South China Sea is probably the best demonstration of this because of the island-building campaign, the commitment in 2015 not to militarize those artificial islands, and then the subsequent militarization, and it goes to this disconnect between words and deeds. We have seen what things like the Law of the Sea, the commitment to not militarize islands, peaceful resolution, and most recently the Hong Kong national security law — this unfortunate inability to act on lots and lots of words, lots of happy language about ‘we’re going to work together and cooperate,’ but failure to follow through on those things.
The same thing goes with the Senkakus. The U.S. and Japan have been very clear on our position on the Senkakus, and we’ve reinforced that. And yet you still have these long-term incursions. Again, this is an opportunity for Japan and the U.S. to work together and to let Beijing know that we stand – this is the beautiful thing about an alliance, is that we make commitments and the U.S. lives up to them. We don’t simply offer words without subsequent actions.
We can talk more about those things. I’m a veteran of Misawa Air Base, two tours, six total years up there flying F-16s. And the cooperation between the Jieitai, the Self-Defense Force, and the DOD has been long-term, consistent, and increasingly productive. We’ll continue to do that, continue to work with Japan. And in the end, the desire here is for peaceful resolution. The administration of the Senkakus is clear, and these things can be resolved through dialogue. Putting ships, quasi-military ships, in close proximity with others on an increasing basis is not the way to get to this solution.
Moderator: Thank you. We have about 10 minutes left. Next if we could go Tommy Kurnia from Liputan in Indonesia, Liputan6. Tommy, can you please go ahead?
Question: Okay, can you hear me?
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: Loud and clear.
Question: Hello. I’m Tommy from Liputan in Jakarta. Mr. Stilwell, I’d like to ask about the South China Sea. So, last week, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo met with his Chinese counterpart. They had dialogue about the South China Sea to maintain peace and stability in that region. And Mr. Prabowo said that the Indonesian military is willing to strengthen cooperation with the Chinese side. That includes joint training and exchange of visits, and about equipment, technology, to promote the development of relationship between the two armies. Do you have any comment on that? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: Thank you for that. Appreciate the question. I am not aware of that conversation. Was that in the open media, that announcement?
Question: Yes. It’s on Chinese website and on Indonesian too.
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: Okay. I’ll speak to this. The broader issue here is we often hear from our ASEAN friends and others this desire to ‘don’t make us choose.’ And the U.S., I don’t think, has ever forced a choice. We are, though, insisting that countries be allowed to choose their own sovereignty, things that allow them to continue in ways that they see fit. And if you look at the record, if you look at the bullying behavior we’ve seen in the South China Sea and elsewhere – we just mentioned the Senkakus – the Chinese are forcing a choice.
In a speech I gave last week, I noted a friend from Singapore – we were colleagues in Beijing — and he said his Chinese counterpart asked him, “Are you pro-China or are you pro-U.S.?” And my friend from Singapore says, ‘Well, I’m pro-Singapore, and I will make decisions [for] the Singapore Government,’ and the Indonesian Government will make decisions that support their sovereign interests, the will of their people, and all the rest.
So, if that cooperation brings stability and it brings positive outcomes and it respects the sovereignty of ASEAN partners and Indonesia, then we have no objection. But the track record’s not good, and again, we can give you lots of examples of where those sovereign decisions have not been respected. Vietnam is a great one to start with.
Moderator: Thank you. We only have time for just a couple more here. If we could go to Jaeduk Seo from Radio Free Asia in South Korea. Jaeduk, please go ahead.
Question: Yes. I’d like to ask a question about North Korea. North Korea is currently suffering from floods and coronavirus. The State Department regarding this matter announced that it will allow humanitarian aid workers to travel to North Korea with multiple-entry special validation passports. So how do you assess the current situation in North Korea? And I’m wondering if you’ve contacted North Korea through the ARF meetings. Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: A very good question. I will start off by noting that the Deputy Secretary has maintained his job as the special representative for North Korea, along with Alex Wong. So, for any details on that question, I would refer you to them.
In the ARF, the North Korean representative was there and he gave his presentation. You can ask them about the details on that, but they definitely were there.
Regarding the flooding, the typhoons, the situation in North Korea — again, I’d go back to the need to denuclearize. All these things could be addressed if we simply had a follow-through on the Singapore agreement to begin talks on – sincere conversation on denuclearization. This would make the ROK’s position much better, Japan, the region, and the world. And so, for North Korea, we need to go back to the original agreement. We need to insist that they follow through with that agreement. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Next if we could go to Sofia Tomacruz from Rappler in the Philippines. Sofia, please go ahead.
Question: Hi. Good evening. Thank you, Assistant Secretary. I’d just like to ask, in the last few weeks we’ve been seeing what might be viewed as mixed signals from the Philippines from our Foreign Secretary Locsin saying that he would take the cue of the U.S., and also see subcontracts with Chinese firms that were blacklisted by the U.S., and then President Duterte kind of reversing on that. And at the same time, President Duterte recently granted a pardon to U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton. And so, over the last few months, we’ve been seeing these mixed signals from the Philippines. What do you make of this? And also, in regards to the South China Sea, where we see President Duterte saying one thing, but another thing happening on the ground with the military and important exercises. So yes, we’d just like to get your comments on that, how you view these things, and where you see relations are right now.
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: Hi, Sofia. Thanks for that question. I’ll take you back to my previous question, two questions back, on sovereignty. The U.S. and the Philippines are allies. We’ve been allies for very long time. We’ve had long-term [cooperation] — both security and diplomatic, and economic interactions. So, the decisions, the sovereign decisions, by the Philippine Government are yours to make, and you’re not going to see the U.S. getting involved. But, from the past and from the Philippines bringing to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, a complaint about PRC aggressive activity in the South China Sea, I think we understand where Philippine actions have been consistent on this, in this regard, as far as insisting on the sovereignty of your economic exclusion zones and the rest. And we fully support that. And cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines continues – and it’s going quite well.
So nothing more to say on that — the president is free to decide as he chooses. And we just ask that those choices are made in ways that support Philippine sovereignty.
Moderator: Thank you. Next if we could go to Yusuke Ota from NHK, I believe based in the U.S. Yusuke, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you very much. I would like to ask about Japan. So, as you know, Mr. Suga, Yoshihide Suga, has been elected as the new LDP leader in Japan. So, I’d like to ask, what would you expect from him and the Japanese new administration? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: This is a question that’s on everyone’s mind. Because Prime Minister Abe has been there so long, and from my perspective has done a very good job in navigating a number of very difficult issues, so I’d like to – and I know the U.S. is very complimentary of Prime Minister Abe’s work over the longest prime ministerial stint on record.
I can’t speak to Mr. Suga, per se. I met him once, briefly. But I would say that the process that brings Suga to the leadership position in Japan is where we should be focusing. It’s a transparent process. It’s a process that involves the will of the Japanese people. It’s a democratic process. And it ensures stability in transitions. And we have seen examples in the region, where we have sort of ignored the voices of the people, where we’ve walked away from a leadership system that had worked fairly well, fairly consistently, and brought stability. And I’ll just point to, in this instance, the Chinese case, where you have a leader, the General Secretary Xi Jinping, who has not named a successor and has walked away from their – what was a mature system of leadership.
So, I think if you contrast what you see in the PRC with what you see in Japan, you see a very stable form of government. It’s a flexible and resilient form of government, and the outcomes are, as expected, a very good choice for Japan. And we look forward to working with the next prime minister. Thanks.
Moderator: I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for questions. Would you like to make any final remarks?
Assistant Secretary Stilwell: This sort of interaction is what makes democracies accountable and makes them healthy. And so, I thank you for the opportunity to share thoughts and to answer your questions, and we look forward to doing it again very soon.
Moderator: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Assistant Secretary David Stilwell, and I also thank all of our journalists on the line for participating. And I apologize as I know there are quite a few journalists on the line who were trying to ask questions, but we weren’t able to get to all of you.
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.