Cynthia Gire: Thank you, and greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Media Engagement. I would like to welcome our journalists who have dialed in from throughout Southeast Asia. Today we are joined by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Patrick Murphy here at the U.S. Department of State. Deputy Assistant Secretary Murphy will discuss U.S.-ASEAN relationships and give a readout of Secretary of State Tillerson’s meetings this with his foreign minister counterparts from Southeast Asia. He will be speaking to us today from Washington, D.C. Just a note on ground rules: this briefing is on the record, but embargoed until the conclusion of the call. He will give opening remarks and then we will open it up to your questions. And with that, I will turn it over to the Deputy Assistant Secretary.
MR MURPHY: Good morning Southeast Asia! And happy Friday as you begin your weekend! Delighted to talk to you from Washington, D.C. this Thursday evening on our end. I’m pleased to share with you that Secretary of State Tillerson hosted today here at the Department of State the ASEAN foreign ministers. All of the ten member countries of ASEAN were represented. Eight of them were foreign ministers; two were very senior officials. We also had the ASEAN Deputy Secretary General join.
Also today, separately, Secretary of State Tillerson had bilateral meetings. He had one with Indonesian Foreign Minister [Marsudi] and a separate one with Thailand Foreign Minister Don. These were very similar in format to recent bilateral meetings he’s had in past weeks including with the Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam, the Foreign Minister of Singapore, and the Foreign Minister of Malaysia. The foreign ministers are in Washington – most of them – for a couple of days. They will also see other members of the U.S. government including tomorrow, Friday, with our National Security Advisor McMaster. This evening they met with business and think tanks and individually they are seeing others and making their time in Washington very productive.
Yesterday in Washington, which was Wednesday, the United States and ASEAN held a senior officials dialogue. This was at the Assistant Secretary of State level, and the ASEAN Countries were all represented as was the Secretariat of ASEAN. This was our 30th annual dialogue which rotates between Washington and Southeast Asia each year. This was Washington’s turn to host, and we were very pleased to have our counterparts and have very substantive discussions on the calendar ahead for U.S.-ASEAN engagement. I’ll note that in the evening we tried to be as hospitable as we could and we took many members of the delegation that were available to see an American baseball game. The home team Washington Nationals were playing against the Arizona Diamondbacks and we enjoyed America’s favorite pastime.
The Secretary of State, in meeting with the foreign ministers today, emphasized how important our engagement is with Southeast Asia. This year we are celebrating our 40th anniversary of ties between the United States and ASEAN. This, of course, in parallel to the 50th anniversary of ASEAN itself. The Secretary used the opportunity to reemphasize indications of our engagement including the fact that President Trump has made a commitment to go to the Philippines and to Vietnam in November, where he will attend, respectively, the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia Summits and the APEC leaders meeting.
The Secretary of State emphasized that the region is a very important partner of the United States. ASEAN has not only had 40 years of ties with U.S. but for the past two years we have been a strategic partner, an elevation that took place in 2015. During the meeting, the Secretary discussed with his counterparts a whole range of opportunities for deepening and strengthening our cooperation. For example: on trade, on trafficking issues, on tackling crime, and working together to the betterment of citizens of all of our countries. And also, the Secretary with his counterparts discussed challenges in the region, most specifically the situation with North Korea and the disputed South China Sea.
With that introduction, I would be pleased to take questions from those who are joining us this morning.
MS GIRE: Thank you. We will now begin with the question and answer portion of today’s event. For those asking questions, please state your name, affiliation, and limit yourself to one question related to today’s topic: U.S.-ASEAN relationships. And with that, we’ll start with our first question from Vietnam, [Inaudible Name] News. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: [5:55 to 6:55 inaudible]
MR MURPHY: Good morning, Vietnam! Thank you for your questions. I have to admit, it was a little bit difficult to hear over the line but I believe you asked about the South China Sea in your first question, and your second question referenced Vietnam and perhaps the relationship with Vietnam. Let me take a stab at what you’re getting at and first say that the South China Sea issue figured very prominently today in the discussions between Secretary of State Tillerson and his ASEAN counterparts. He noted after hearing all of the views from the countries, both currently today and views that have been expressed in recent times that we are very much aligned together.
We share common objectives in wanting the air and maritime transit through the South China Sea to be free and open to all in accordance with international law. He gave his counterparts and Southeast Asia assurances that they could count on the US to assert our rights for the benefit of unimpeded commerce and trade and regional and regional and global security and peace. In accordance with international law, we will assert those rights. He also noted that the United States strongly—emphatically—encourages all relevant parties to stop any activities associated with militarizing, constructing, or reclaiming land in the disputed areas while talks are going on…while there is a peaceful effort for all of the concerned parties in the region to talk about enduring solutions. He thought that it would be beneficial for all if such activities of militarization, construction, and reclamation would stop. Let’s ensure that the environment is conducive for good talks to find a solution.
With regards to Vietnam—and again I apologize, it was hard to hear the specific question—but the United States and Vietnam enjoy a very strong relationship and one that has grown tremendously over the last quarter of a century. A real model to demonstrate how former adversaries can become friends and partners. The United States and Vietnam work closely together on a host of opportunities and challenges including security matters, and as evidenced over the past few years by very high level engagements both in Hanoi and here in Washington, the relationship is strong and solidified at the very top level. We look forward to a visit this year from the Prime Minister of Vietnam who will be coming to Washington to continue our discussions on these opportunities and challenges. Thank you.
MS GIRE: Thank you. Our next question comes from The Nation in Thailand. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: My question is regarding the bilateral meeting between Secretary Tillerson and Minister [Dhan]. Would you please give me what they discussed, and whether human rights and [inaudible] remained in the topics?
MR MURPHY: Good morning, Thailand! Let me emphasize that we have had a number of engagements with Thailand over the last couple of days. Of course, Thailand participated in the senior officials meeting yesterday, and today there was a bilateral meeting between Foreign Minister Don and Secretary Tillerson. Also, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Busaya had a meeting here at the Dep. of State with our Undersecretary for Political Affairs, Tom Shannon. In the bilateral engagements, we and specifically Sec. Tillerson offered condolences to the Kingdom of Thailand and its citizens and people on the passing last October of His Majesty the late King Rama IX, and also that we look forward to continuing our historic relations with Thailand. Over 184 years of ties—our most enduring relationship in the region—and we are treaty allies. Thailand is one of only five treaty allies across the Asia-Pacific and it is a relationship that is very important to us. So we talked about opportunities, we talked about improvements, and more engagements that are underway, and Secretary Tillerson did use the opportunity to encourage further progress on the return to elected government and democracy in Thailand. He heard from the Foreign Minister that progress has been achieved over the last couple of years and that Thailand is committed to this process going forward. We were very pleased to have the Thailand representative here in Washington to solidify the alliance and work together in tackling regional challenges. Thank you.
MS GIRE: Thank you. Our next question comes from Tempo in Indonesia. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: What is the significant role of the U.S. to stop the South China Sea conflict? Thank you.
MR MURPHY: Good morning, Indonesia! The very specific goal that we have in the South China Sea is that all parties can work together to find an enduring solution and that no single country should be in a position to coerce or bully others in its own interest. We would like to see adherence to a rules-based order; there are international standards, there are international means to guide all of the interested parties. The United States is not a claimant and I want to be certain that that is understood. But we are an interested party. As an Asia-Pacific nation ourselves, it is in our interest, much like it is in the interests of the region that the South China Sea enjoy unimpeded travel and transit for purposes of navigation, overflight, and commerce. We believe it is possible to resolve these issues through dialogue. Dialogue is important as long as it is inclusive and adheres to the principles of a rules-based order. The opportunities today with the counterparts from Southeast Asia for the Secretary of State was an opportunity to express appreciation and support for dialogue, but also encourage a cessation of any militarization, construction, or reclamation so that the environment can be conducive to successful talks and dialogue. Thank you.
MS GIRE: Thank you. Our next question comes from The Straits Times in Singapore. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Good morning Mr. Murphy. Could you elaborate on what kind of trade engagement wants to have with ASEAN including countries the U.S. has a trade imbalance with?
MR MURPHY: Thank you for your question from The Straits Times and good morning to you in Singapore. Let me first point to how the Secretary of State characterized trade and economic engagement with Southeast Asia. He emphasized that ASEAN plays a very important economic role, including for the United States. The United States is ready to engage, to build a way forward, and grow this economic relationship, and he also noted to his counterparts that in the near future they will see increased and specific U.S. government engagement on the related issues, economic and commercial ties. With regards to imbalances, the administration of our new president has made it clear that we have very significant imbalances with over a dozen countries and some of them are in the region. These imbalances exceed $10 billion and that’s why we have elected to launch a dialogue so that we can correct these imbalances. Because the United States and this administration emphasizes that we very much are in favor of trade. We want to increase and strengthen trade, but it’s not just free trade—it’s fair trade. It’s very important for U.S. companies and investors to be able to have equal and fair access to markets. Much like the U.S. market is a free and fair and open market for many coming from outside our country. The Secretary, on imbalances, was very specific. He said that we would like to have a dialogue. We want to talk about these imbalances and work together to find solutions. The United States is not looking to impose solutions, because we think that the results of correcting these imbalances will have the net impact of increasing overall trade for the benefit of all parties. And I think he heard encouragement for U.S. engagement on the trade front from all of the foreign ministers. Thank you.
MS GIRE: Thank you. Our next question is from Voice of America in Cambodia. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: This week in Cambodia, a North Korean [inaudible] talked to a local newspaper saying they want Cambodia to play a role in helping to reduce tension in the Korean Peninsula. Did Cambodia’s foreign minister offer any mediator role during the meetings with Secretary Tillerson? Thank you.
MR MURPHY: Thank you for your question. It was a very nice pleasure to welcome Senior Minister Sokhonn to Washington from Cambodia. I will note here, personally, that I had the opportunity to see him myself last week when I was in Cambodia. I was in Phnom Penh last Tuesday and we had a very lengthy discussion and covered a range of opportunities and issues and mutual concerns. It was very nice to see him again here in Washington, and he was a very robust partner in joining his counterparts from ASEAN with the Secretary of State. I will be a good diplomat, here, and not speak for any of the other participants from Southeast Asia. I will speak for the Secretary of State, of course, and I will let the foreign ministers speak for themselves. But I do note that North Korea was discussed at great length during the discussions today.
The United States and the ASEAN foreign ministers agree that there’s a very urgent need for full implementation of all UN Security Council Resolutions and for North Korea to comply with those resolutions. The Secretary of State shared his perspective that there has been a challenge in recent times with implementation of the sanctions. Therefore, we really need to double down and bring the Security Council Resolutions into full force. Why? Because North Korea is continuing incessantly its provocations and its pursuit of a nuclear program and testing of ballistic missiles, and efforts to combine those technologies which net a result that is a threat not only to the Asia-Pacific but to the United States, Australia, Europe, indeed the entire globe. So, the goal that the Secretary of State emphasized is a denuclearized Peninsula, and he encouraged ASEAN to play a constructive role and shared his view that that role can be most constructive when ASEAN is unified. We would all like to see tensions lowered and conflict avoided, but what is needed urgently is full implementation of these Security Council Resolutions which, if implemented, deny North Korea the revenue streams that it survives on to perpetuate its nuclear and missile ambitions. Thank you.
MS GIRE: Thank you. Our next question comes from ABS-CBN News in the Philippines. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Good morning. In case the militarization continues in the South China Sea despite the ongoing talks, what tangible assistance or level of commitment can we expect from the U.S. in accordance with the treaty signed between the two countries?
MR MURPHY: Good morning, Philippines! Thank you for you call. I note that I will be visiting the Philippines myself later this month for senior official meetings and I look forward to being with you all. With regard to militarization, the Sec. of State has emphasized our desire to see non-militarization, cessation of activities associated with militarizing the disputed land features, and indeed I think it could be said that there is a need to demilitarize what’s already been put in place because collectively this is increasing tensions. What the United States is committed to doing is bolstering, in accordance with international law, our rights to navigate, to fly freely through these areas. These areas are of great importance to us, to the region, to the globe, for an enormous volume of trade and commerce.
It’s a staggering amount of trade and commerce that transits through the South China Sea and it is critical to all of our countries and the livelihoods of our citizens that commerce be unimpeded. So, the United States will assert these rights, as we have done in the past, and we will do so going forward. That includes with freedom of navigation operations, with diplomatic efforts and engagement, and that will be sustained. With regards to our bilateral relationship with the Philippines, you have mentioned that this is a treaty relationship. This is the other Southeast Asian country, joining Thailand, that has a treaty alliance with the United States. We are very committed to that alliance. Our two countries have cooperated on many, many issues together, and over many decades sacrificed. World War II is one example of the sacrifice of our citizens for the cause of liberty and freedom, peace, and stability. Our commitment to that treaty alliance remains unchanged and very firm going forward. Thank you.
MS GIRE: Thank you. Our next question comes from CNBC Asia. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: I have a question about North Korea and also the South China Sea. You were talking about implementation of the sanctions against North Korea. What kind of specific assurances Secretary of State Tillerson received from certain countries such as Malaysia? Any assurances from Malaysian companies or banks about financing North Korea? And then on the South China Sea issue, from the Philippines point of view, some of the commentary from President Duterte gives the impression that he has sort of given up on pressuring China. For example, last week he said, “It’s useless to pressure China regarding the South China Sea because they’ve already built the islands and they’ve already built the runways and such.” He hasn’t really used the UN Tribunal ruling effectively, many would argue, in terms of pressuring China. So, how much pressure is the U.S. putting on the Philippines to try to push back against China on the South China Sea issue?
MR MURPHY: With regard to these two issues, North Korea and the South China Sea, the message from the Secretary of State to his counterparts today was one of partnership. Not pressure, but cooperation and collaboration. Working together we can achieve a lot, and he emphasized the benefits specifically of ASEAN unity on many issues within the region and across the greater East Asia-Pacific. On the case of North Korea, we are encouraging all the countries to implement the resolutions and what that means specifically is denying North Korea the revenue streams, it also means taking a much closer look at diplomatic relations and the diplomatic footprint that North Korea maintains in all of the ASEAN countries. So, the message is one of encouragement to Southeast Asia to take the necessary steps, and I think they are steps that all of the countries could take. A number of countries have taken increased steps recently while others talk about future steps to take, but I think the common theme is that we can all do more working together.
With regards to the South China Sea situation, the United States very much took note of the arbitration ruling last year and consistently notes that it is a binding ruling on the two parties involved—the Philippines and China. But there is a much bigger story here, and that is bringing about a solution to the disputes that applies to all of the claimants and then the rest of the international community that has the rights and the needs to access the South China Sea area. We don’t want to put pressure because what we heard from the partner countries, what the Secretary heard from his counterparts, is a common understanding of the need for navigation, for overflight, and for commerce. It’s a complicated issue, and I think ASEAN is itself a very good example of that. There are claimants, there are non-claimants… The good news is that ASEAN has demonstrated unity on this issue in the past and ASEAN leaders themselves have referred to the Sunnylands Principles which deal with things like militarization, and reclamation, and construction. And we have heard in recent days references to those principles as being enduring, and that’s what we would encourage: unified voice. Dialogue is good, but dialogue needs to result in a binding arrangement that applies to all countries. That’s what we encourage as an interested party. Thank you.
MS GIRE: Thank you. Our final question comes from Joe Freeman in Burma. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Good morning, I’m an American freelance journalist based here. Compared to the Obama administration, there is relatively little high level engagement with Myanmar under President Trump. [Inaudible…] did not attend the meeting this week with visiting foreign ministers. Is there any concern about this lack of contact with one of the US’ important regional allies? And what message it is sending to the new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi? And just as an addendum, did the Secretary or other officials share any concern about Myanmar and its crackdown on the Rohingya Muslims in Rahkine State? Thank you.
MR MURPHY: Good morning, Joe and thank you for your question. I want to emphasize that the U.S. and Myanmar/Burma enjoy a very good relationship. We established last year a U.S.-Myanmar partnership. In fact, I joined our Ambassador to Burma, Ambassador Scot Marciel in launching that dialogue in Naypyidaw in November. That partnership remains enduring. Burma has been very well represented this week here, both at the senior officials dialogue and at the foreign ministers meeting today. In fact, Myanmar was represented by new National Security Advisor U Thaung Tun, a longtime friend of the United States. He knows us well, having served here in Washington. He came with an explanation that State Councilor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi unfortunately had a previous commitment to international travel. She’s been in Europe this week, and that commitment was made before the meeting with the foreign ministers here in Washington was arranged. She very much wanted to be here.
What she did do is send a letter to Secretary Tillerson that the National Security Advisor delivered. So, there’s absolutely no concern about Burma’s representation these past few days here in Washington. We have a new relationship that has been brought about by the historic transition that’s taken place in recent years, culminating in the 2015 election and the assumption of authorities in 2016 by the new NLD-led civilian government—democratically elected government—for the first time in more than half of a century. This is a multidimensional relationship. As partners, we are keen to help Burma succeed with the transition and further consolidation of democracy, and the pressing challenges the country faces which are enormous with regards to national peace and unity, ending conflicts, particularly those that exist in Kachin and Shan States, the tensions in Rakhine State that have erupted into violence.
We have these discussions privately and publicly with regards to the situation in Burma and we have made known publicly our concerns about the treatment of Rohingya and our hopes that Burma can find a way to resolve the situation, and its steps are encouraging. In terms of adopting the recommendations of the Kofi Annan commission, launching its own investigative commission into allegations of abuses that have taken place since last October in Northern Rakhine State, and we will also encourage Burma to cooperate with the factfinding mission that was a result of a resolution at the Human Rights Council in Geneva recently. I would say our engagements will continue. We will be seeing Burma at the regional meetings upcoming, and I am quite certain that there will be senior level engagements as a part of that process. Thank you.
MS GIRE: Thank you Deputy Assistant Secretary Murphy. I know we don’t have much time left, I’d like to thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today and ask if you have any final words before we close the call.
MR MURPHY: I appreciate the opportunity very much this morning to talk to all of you. Thank you for participating! It is very clear that for the new administration here in Washington, Southeast Asia is a very important region. The collection of ten countries has a population that exceeds 625 Million people. This is a big market. The United States looks toward ASEAN as our fourth largest trading partner in the world and the fourth largest source of foreign direct investment from the United States. We see opportunities to grow that relationship and it is a relationship that has many dimensions.
We’ve talked today about our cooperation on security matters and economic matters, but I also want to point to substantial people-to-people ties. We work very closely with the youth of Southeast Asia. Through our Young Southeast Asia Leadership Initiative we welcome many citizens of Southeast Asia here in the United States for study, business, and tourism, and many Americans do the same in return going to Southeast Asia. We cooperate together on the environment, on trafficking, on a whole host of issues that affect the region and the globe.
And we have seen from the new administration a very early commitment to the region, and I want to stress from my own personal experience as a career diplomat that the President’s announcement of his commitment that he will be at the East Asia Summit, the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, and the APEC Leaders Meeting is an emphatic commitment and it comes very early. It comes six months before the fact, which is probably unprecedented for our engagement in the region. And with the Vice President having recently visited there and many Southeast Asian leaders coming to Washington, these relations are only getting stronger. I personally am very grateful for the opportunity to represent my country in engaging all of the countries in Southeast Asia. As I noted earlier, I’ll be soon returning to the Philippines and also, perhaps a future member of ASEAN, Timor-Leste, I will make a visit there too. So, thank you for the opportunity today, and the United States remains a firm and committed partner of Southeast Asia.
MS GIRE: Thank you very much and thanks to all of our callers for participating in today’s briefing. If you have any questions about the call, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and that concludes today’s call.