Moderator: Greetings everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I’m Zia Syed, the Asia Pacific Media Hub Director, and I’d like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and the United States.
Today we are very pleased to be joined from Honolulu by U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, or PDAS, for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Patrick Murphy. PDAS Murphy is concluding his March 18-22 trip in Hawaii, which earlier took him to Bangkok and Jakarta. In Bangkok, PDAS Murphy met with Royal Thai government interlocutors and others to discuss Thailand’s 2019 ASEAN Chairmanship and the U.S.-Thailand alliance. In Jakarta, Murphy led the U.S. delegation at the high-level dialogue with Indonesia on Indo-Pacific cooperation. He also held bilateral consultations and discussed efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Indonesia strategic partnership in this, the 70th year of diplomatic ties. Finally, in Honolulu, PDAS Murphy is meeting senior officials at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and locally based entities and experts.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from PDAS Murphy, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.
With that, I’ll turn it over to PDAS Murphy.
PDAS Murphy: Thank you very much Zia, and good day to everyone. It’s a pleasure to join you.
As Zia noted, I’m wrapping up a regional trip that included Thailand, Indonesia and the U.S. government entities here in Honolulu. Earlier in the month, I was also in the Philippines with Secretary of State Pompeo and made my own separate trips after that to New Zealand and Fiji. So just this month alone, I’ve been out to, and engaged with, two of our treaty allies, three strategic partners, and engaged with leaders from dozens of regional countries.
I’ll talk a little bit in a moment about the regional gathering on Wednesday in Jakarta. But while I was there, I had the opportunity to meet bilaterally on the margins of that meeting with a number of leaders including New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Peters, Indonesia Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Australian Foreign Minister Payne, and senior officials from the Republic of Korea, Vietnam and Myanmar.
Obviously I used my opportunity in meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Peters to reaffirm strong solidarity from the United States with all of the people of New Zealand as they continue to work through the terrorist attacks and impact on the population there.
The objective of my travels have been primarily to address our Indo-Pacific strategy. Our aspirations to see a region of sovereign, strong, prosperous countries. A chance to reaffirm our embrace of ASEAN centrality. And to talk more about key United States initiatives on infrastructure, energy, digital connectivity, cyber security, and more.
Naturally, wherever I go with our partners and allies and friends, we address regional and global challenges like North Korea, the South China Sea, terrorism, to name a few.
I also use these engagements to explain the work of our partners in the U.S. Congress who have produced over the last year the BUILD Act and the ARIA Act, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, and how that’s helping us in the Indo-Pacific.
This particular set of trips was a chance to address the importance of democratic governance as well, and a number of countries are going through, or preparing for, important national elections including Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines which will have local elections, and even Australia anticipates elections later this year.
Let me just finish here by noting the meeting in Jakarta on Wednesday was a gathering of 18 countries that Indonesia invited to consider respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific, and I can share with you our perspective, that this was a very successful day. The vast majority of the countries there committed very strong support to a region that is free, open, and rules-based, and communicated shared principles of transparency, good governance, and peaceful resolution of disputes.
The United States is not the only country with a vision, and we welcome and embrace the fact that many countries have their own vision and their own national interest for the region, but there is great common ground, and that was certainly revealed at the meeting on Wednesday in Jakarta.
With that I’m delighted to take your questions.
Moderator: Our first question comes from the line of Thuan Nguyen [from Zing News in Vietnam].
Question: Hi Mr. Murphy. I have two questions for you. Number one, with regard to the freedom of navigation operations, the U.S. has conducted these operations on a routine basis since 2017, but all China could do was to protest in a diplomatic statement and then reiterate that claim, then over the next month or two, the U.S. would conduct another freedom of navigation operation. China continues to build islands in the disputed sea and this has become the status quo.
So my question is, if both sides keep these courses of action, what do you think this status quo will lead to? And are other measures needed to challenge Beijing’s aggression?
My second question is related to Vietnam. So, the U.S. policy in the South China Sea is to strengthen maritime security for partner countries including Vietnam. So far, U.S. assistance to Vietnam has included vessels for Vietnamese Coast Guard.
So my question is, in your vision, does U.S. assistance to Vietnam security need to be strengthened and pushed further? And will this happen in the future, given Vietnam’s strategic location in the South China Sea? Why hasn’t there been more delivery of weapons to Vietnam a few years after Obama lifted the weapons sales ban to Vietnam? Thank you very much.
PDAS Murphy: Thank you. I appreciate your questions.
On freedom of navigation operations, it’s important at the outset to note that we conduct these kind of operations globally, including on coastal claims that are made by friends, partners, and allies in the United States. Last year alone we had nearly 30 freedom of navigation operations.
I note that you’re asking specifically about the South China Sea. We will, as a matter of policy, continue to sail, to fly, to operate wherever international law operates. We don’t make any claims. We don’t take a position on the various claims that are made, but the South China Sea is an important global common, where there is a great deal of world commerce and navigation that takes place. And it’s in the interest of all countries in the world — not just in the region, but all countries — to see open sea lanes, uninhibited navigation and commerce, and that’s part of the objectives with our freedom of navigation operations, and we will continue to conduct those.
In Vietnam, you have cited a strong and growing security partnership with the United States. Next year, we will celebrate 25 years of normalized diplomatic relations. And Vietnam will be the chair of ASEAN, and we look forward to working very closely with Vietnam on regional issues and our bilateral relationship.
Of course, our President was recently in Hanoi, had an excellent visit. Not just for the Hanoi Summit with North Korea, but also bilateral engagement with Vietnamese leadership, and those engagements produced new commercial agreements with double figure millions of dollars of commercial trade. That’s very good for the relationship.
Yes, Vietnam now has a Coast Guard vessel that is the largest vessel in their Coast Guard fleet. We were very pleased to be able to provide that. We will continue to take additional efforts to increase Vietnam’s maritime capabilities. It’s important for Vietnam, It’s important for the region. They have a lot they can contribute.
You asked about weapons. Since the removal of the longstanding ban on lethal weapons, Vietnam is now free to consider broader procurement from the United States. But I’d have to refer you to the government of Vietnam about their acquisition plans and needs. We see opportunities there, much as we see opportunities [to] continue to cooperate with Vietnam in this realm [and] across the board. And [also] to talk frankly about the differences that we sometimes have between our countries, including in the area of human rights. We have an important human rights dialogue that will be convening soon, and we will address our differences through that platform. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you.
Our next question comes from the line of Phal Niseiy Sao from Cambodia [from Thmey Thmey Media].
Question: Thank you. I have two questions for you today. The first question is regarding your nomination as Ambassador to Cambodia. And how is that process going [inaudible]?
And a second question is how do you see the upcoming Thai elections? Are you optimistic? What is your feeling toward it? Thank you.
PDAS Murphy: It’s a great honor for me personally to be nominated as an Ambassador. I don’t have much to offer for you. I was re-nominated in January and the process now resides with the U.S. Senate, and we look forward to their further consideration of that nomination as well as other nominations that are active for envoys to the region and of positions in Washington.
I was in Thailand on Monday, and had an opportunity to engage with government representatives, civil society, and other partners. In fact, although the national election is scheduled for March 24th, it has already begun. Last weekend, there was advance voting, and we’re very pleased to see so many Thais who have been quite hungry to exercise their rights and go to the balloting places. This is the first election in quite some time. The process of democracy is underway.
I won’t offer you any predictions. That’s for Thai stakeholders and citizens to address, but we’re very keen, of course, to see a strong partner and ally like Thailand return to elected government. It’s been nearly five years of non-democratic government, and the people deserve this opportunity to restore elected government and enjoy the kind of freedoms — and seeing the public will expressed in a government — that they’ve had in the past.
We are very hopeful that Thailand’s institutions and organizations and political parties and civil society and citizens can all participate in this process, and produce a result that does indeed express the will of the people.
We hope that Thais will avail themselves of the opportunity and if the pre-voting is any indication, turnout looks quite high, which is good for Thailand.
This will be good for our relationship, of course, as well. Thailand has been under democratically elected government in the past. That’s good for the alliance, good for Thailand. Most importantly, it’s good for the population and people of Thailand. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you.
Our next question comes from the line of Iain Marlow from Bloomberg News in New Delhi. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi there, two quick questions. I’m wondering maybe if I can get your opinion on the allegations of Chinese interference in the 1MDB case, and whether that’s something you discussed with stakeholders on this visit.
The other, there’s also been pushback to the term “Indo-Pacific” as you alluded to, as it’s a sort of veiled term for pushback against China. There’s also been some lack of progress maybe on the Quad, the security dialogue there. Especially given India’s participation. I’m wondering if you could maybe go into a little bit more detail than your opening statement on how you see the Indo-Pacific and the term, and the sort of allies that you’ve made going forward, and what the current situation might be like. Thanks.
PDAS Murphy: Specifically regarding the 1MDB case, I have to defer to our Department of Justice on one hand, and to the government of Malaysia on the other, for addressing decisions in the case and where it is going.
In broader terms, we have been concerned about Chinese interference in countries around the region, particularly with the state supporting companies from China in ways that lack transparency, that lack local economic gain, leave countries feeling debt-saddled, and clouding out the competitiveness of other companies being able to compete, other companies that abide by international laws and national laws with regards to transparency and corruption. So, that broad concern is valid across the region, and we do have those discussions with other countries.
On the Indo-Pacific, I can share with you frankly the experience we had on Wednesday with 18 countries gathered. The vast majority appear to be very comfortable using the term Indo-Pacific and don’t have any particular concerns about anything behind the term. From a U.S. perspective it’s a term that allows us to address a broader region than, say, just the East Asia Pacific or the Asia Pacific because it’s inclusive of India, the world’s largest democracy, and India’s desire to share similar values and principles and engage in this broader region.
What the Indo-Pacific terminology does not do — it does not exclude any country or any sub-region. A core principle for the United States, and we heard this from other countries as well, is ASEAN centrality. They are not looking to create new architecture, new multilateral structures. We’re working with the existing structures in all of these — whether it’s the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and many others. At the very heart is ASEAN and Southeast Asia, and that centrality is a core principle going forward.
After all, Southeast Asia is strategically located with roughly 630 million people, and — as a collective body — one of the world’s largest economies. It’s an important region.
So, on Wednesday I think we heard many, many countries using the term, and they’re very comfortable with the fact that the principles and values are far more important than the vocabulary or the terminology, and it appears that ASEAN itself to some degree is comfortable using the Indo-Pacific in context with using ASEAN as well.
Let me follow up, because you did refer to the Quad. The so-called Quad. This grouping of four key democracies — the United States, Japan, Australia and India — is not a security arrangement. This is a diplomatic grouping. And since it’s been reinvigorated, it has convened three times at my level, and I’m frequently joined by my counterpart at the Department of State, Ambassador Alice Wells, who heads the South and Central Asia Bureau which comprises India and other countries. And we meet with our counterparts, and we’ll be doing so again at some point this year.
It’s proving to be successful for its intent. It’s a venue, a mechanism to compare notes, to find areas to cooperate, and it’s incredibly relevant in the context of this broader Indo-Pacific vision that so many countries have, including each of the four participants in this Quad arrangement. They have a vision with considerable overlap on principles and values.
Moderator: Thank you.
Next question is from Nike Ching, from Voice of America in the U.S.
Question: Thank you so much. Good evening PDAS Murphy. Thanks so much for the briefing.
Earlier, you mentioned that your visit to Asia, Southeast Asia, and also talked about infrastructure. Italy is expected to become the first G7 nation, to join China on the so-called One Belt One Road Initiative to boost trade. Can you share with us your thoughts on this? That’s number one.
Number two, you are in Hawaii. A week from now, Taiwan President Tsao Ing-wen will transit Hawaii after a diplomatic visit to three Pacific nations. Do you have anything on this? How do you respond to Chinese assertions that Washington is sending the wrong message by allowing Tsai to transit?
Finally, do you support the United States to continue arms sales to Taiwan? Thank you very much.
PDAS Murphy: The infrastructure needs around the world are enormous. Here in the Indo-Pacific, there are almost two trillion dollars worth of infrastructure needs. This is the same, more broadly, round the world.
With regards to Italy, Italy is a sovereign, independent country. It will make decisions in its own national interest. We take note that inside Italy, there are many voices discussing engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative, and many of those voices are beginning to vocalize concerns with the lack of transparency, the questionable sustainability of dealings, and contracts under the Belt and Road Initiative rubric.
We’ve seen around the world when there is state-directed investment, it can often be accompanied by challenges with corruption, and results that don’t match national priorities of respective countries. And that’s primarily because the Belt and Road Initiative operates with a different set of standards and principles.
Countries can make their choices, and indeed, engaging and cooperating with China is a choice and a valid choice. We have our own relationship with China. But countries do need to be aware of the challenges associated with these projects. We’re watching the various voices and stakeholders in Italy debate those aspects.
You asked about Taiwan. I don’t have anything to share with you about a transit. I do want to reaffirm a couple of important principles. We continue to recognize and operate with a One China Policy. This is built on history and historical documents including the three communiques and our own Taiwan Relations Act. This framework has served us, Taiwan, and China well for the past 40 years now.
But I do take this opportunity to point to the fact that China has been busy changing the status quo on this arrangement that has produced prosperity and stability and peace, even with some of the unusual aspects. And what I mean by changing the status quo is, we have heard voices in Beijing threaten the use of violence directed at Taiwan; we have seen China aggressively try to reduce the number of diplomatic partners that Taiwan enjoys around the world. China has been busy trying to crowd Taiwan out of the international space and international organizations where Taiwan has made important contributions to public health, to civil aviation, and many more global concerns that affect all around the world.
So our primary desire is to see a strong commitment to the status quo. As I say, that has brought about peace, stability, and prosperity for all concerned.
I don’t have any announcements on arms sales. Arms sales to Taiwan from the United States are, there is a precedent for that and they are allowed under the framework that I described, including the three communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act, and it’s a matter of policy in the United States that Taiwan’s defensive needs are American. So the United States has been a helpful partner in that regard.
Moderator: Thank you. We’re quickly running out of time [though] we have a few questions still left, so if you can limit your questions to just one please.
Next we have Meaghan Tobin from the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
Question: Thanks PDAS Murphy for taking the call. If you can speak at all to any possible outcomes and impacts on the U.S. and Thailand defense and security relationship that may come from the upcoming election, I’m really curious to know how you’re looking at that. Thanks.
PDAS Murphy: We have a very enduring treaty alliance with Thailand. In fact it’s our oldest such relationship in the region and we’ve had 200 years of contact and almost that many years of official diplomatic relations. It’s an alliance that has served the interest of both countries for a long time and the region. And even the globe when it comes to the efforts to combat terrorism and other international crimes.
As I noted earlier, we are very keen to see Thailand return to elected government. Democracy has served Thailand and the Thai people well in the past, and served the relationship and the region. And we’re hopeful that the current process, the culmination of many months, and even years, of effort does produce those kind of results.
I think it would be a hypothetical to address the nature of our defense relationship post-election. Let’s see how the process goes. I don’t think it begins and ends on March 24th. My understanding is it will take some time to form a new government and implement the results of the election. We hope to see all Thai people avail themselves of their rights and responsibility as citizens. And we hope the institutions that support an electoral process will contribute in positive ways such that all voices can be heard and can participate, and Thailand sees a government that reflects the will of the people.
I am confident that the ties between the United States and Thailand will persist. There have been many challenges over the years of a governance nature or sometimes even economic, and we’ve been able to, in almost every circumstance, overcome those obstacles to keep the alliance strong.
So, for the time being we will watch and look to see how Thailand navigates this process and express our desire to see a good outcome.
Moderator: Thank you. Sir, if you have time for one more?
PDAS Murphy: One more, please.
Moderator: We have time for just one more question and that will go to Joshua Melvin, the Manila Bureau Chief for AFP. Please go ahead.
Question: Mr. Murphy this is Joshua Melvin with AFP News agency in Manila.
I would like to ask you about the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines. The Philippines has expressed a desire to renegotiate the treaty, however when Secretary Pompeo was in Manila recently, he said basically, as the local press said, “the United States had the Philippines’ back.” Those weren’t his words, but that’s how it was reported. In any South China Sea issues.
Now, that to me doesn’t seem to have closed the issue. Will the United States still engage in a renegotiation, or a renegotiation process, with the Philippines over the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two nations? Thank you.
PDAS Murphy: Thank you, Josh. The Mutual Defense Treaty is an important component in a strong relationship and a historic relationship between the United States and the Philippines. And the MDT as it’s known, dates back to 1951 and has served both countries well for these many decades, seven decades and growing.
You were there in Manila when Secretary Pompeo made his visit a couple of weeks ago. I was there with him. He made an important clarification to the Philippines, and made that known publicly, that our view of the MDT is that the South China Sea, for the purposes of the treaty, is part of the Pacific. And therefore, any attack on U.S. or Phillipine assets, personnel, in that region would trigger the responsibilities and opportunities that the MDT provides.
We heard from the Philippine government appreciation for that clarification. We have heard from Filipino authorities, the Philippines’ own commitment to the treaty, a recognition that it serves both countries well.
There is no request from either side to renegotiate the treaty. That said, we have frequent discussions and talks in appropriate channels with appropriate mechanisms on a regular basis about the treaty. And both sides remain open at any time if there’s a mutual conclusion that the treaty needs to have some adjustments or further clarifications.
But for the time being, the treaty serves that longstanding purpose of mutual defense for each country, and the extending cooperation that comes from it.
I think I will leave it there. There are many voices in the Philippines these days who are making observations about the treaty, but I share with you the official view that there’s no request to renegotiate, and there’s appreciation for the clarifications that have been shared. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you.
PDAS Murphy: Zia, I think we’ve come to the conclusion and if you’d like, I can just make a concluding observation to wrap up our discussion today.
Moderator: Yes, please go ahead.
PDAS Murphy: I appreciate the opportunity again, and thank you friends from the media for joining me today and for your interest in these issues.
I just simply wanted to note that for the United States going forward, the Indo-Pacific as a region remains a top priority for the U.S. government. Among all of the global priorities, the Indo-Pacific is a top tier priority. We are continuing to work on garnering additional resources. Those resources have been identified in the most recent budget request, for example, for Indo-Pacific priorities. And we’re doing more diplomatically as well with an increase in some of our diplomatic positions in the region.
The region contains five of the United States’ seven treaty allies around the world. That speaks for itself on the importance of those relationships. But this is also a part of the world with half of the world’s population, more than half of the world’s gross domestic product, so we are engaging across the board, not just on the security needs in the region, but the economic and governance needs as well.
I noted there are many visions within the region, and we welcome that, we embrace that, but we’re very encouraged to see such commonality among these visions in a free, open, and rules-based Indo-Pacific.
Next week on my calendar is our next Indo-Pacific milestone, and that is in Washington, we’ll be hosting the U.S.-ASEAN Senior Officials Dialogue. This is an annual undertaking that rotates between Washington and Southeast Asia each year. We’re doing it this year in Washington. This allows us to work with our ten ASEAN partner nations on the agenda ahead for the big summits that will take place and culminate the year in Thailand in November.
We’ll also, next week, conduct the bilateral dialogue with Laos. Laos is ASEAN’s current country coordinator for the United States, and will be for the next couple of years.
So next week will continue to be busy for us on the Indo-Pacific.
Thank you again, a real pleasure to talk with you all. Have a good day.
Moderator: Thank you very much.
That concludes today’s call. I want to thank the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Patrick Murphy for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating.