Moderator: Happy New Year to everyone from the Asia-Pacific Regional Media Hub in Manila. I’d like to welcome all of our participants dialling in from across Asia and thank all of you for joining this discussion. Today, we’re pleased to be joined from Washington, by Mr. Brian Hook, the Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State and Director of the Secretary’s Policy Planning staff.

Mr. Hook will discuss the United States policy towards Asia, including the recently released U.S. National Security Strategy and the U.S. commitment in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific Region. We thank you Mr. Hook for taking the time to speak with us today.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Mr. Hook, and then we will turn it over to your questions. We’ll try to get in as many questions as we can during the time we have, which is approximately 30 minutes. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, but the contact is embargoed until the completion of this call. At the end of the call, the embargo is lifted, and with that I would like to turn it over to Mr. Brian Hook.

Mr. Brian Hook: Well, thank you, very much. Greetings from Washington and good morning to all of you and thanks for joining this call. I was very pleased to accept an invitation to do this and to speak with so many journalists representing media outlets around the region. I think as you know, now that we’re almost a year into the administration, working with countries in the Indo-Pacific Region is a central aspect of this administration’s foreign policy. And we are increasing our focus to deepen our alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, restraining North Korea’s nuclear missile programs, promoting fair and reciprocal trade, and also protecting the free flow of commerce in the region and throughout the world. It’s also important for us to be promoting the shared principles that that we share with so many countries in the Indo-Pacific Region.

We are particularly focused on the Indo-Pacific because we believe it to be the most consequential part of the globe this century. It’s home to more than 3 billion people. It has thriving and dynamic markets. We have five U.S. treaty allies in the region. It’s also the focal point of the world’s energy and trade routes, and that makes it vital to U.S. national security.

This region – I’m just sharing with you some of our thinking — as you hear more and more about the free an open Indo-Pacific, I just want to share with you some of our thinking and some of the rationales that inform our focus on this.

The region has the world’s largest democracy in India and the largest Muslim-majority country in Indonesia. Five of our top ten trading partners are in this region – Japan, Korea (Republic of Korea), India, Taiwan and China. It is unquestionably in our national interest to work with allies, partners, and regional institutions, as we have on the most recent trip that the President took to Asia meeting with the regional institutions. It’s in our national interest to work with all of these allies and partners to ensure that the Indo-Pacific remains a place of peace, stability and growing prosperity. It cannot become a region of disorder and conflict.

We firmly believe that sustained U.S. leadership is needed to uphold the sovereignty of states and push back against actions that undermine a fair and open rules-based order. The President’s National Security Strategy, which was recently released, underscored our commitment to the region, and it shows also our intent to deepen our cooperation with allies and partners there. Moving forward, strengthening partnerships in this region is key.

During the President’s recent trip, which I was pleased to accompany him on, senior officials from the United States, Japan, Australia, and India met together for the first time since 2008 on the margins of the ASEAN meetings in Manila. This quad of four democracies examined ways to achieve shared goals and address common challenges in the region and to promote shared principles, including the need to uphold a rules-based order and to strengthen cooperation to curtail North Korea’s nuclear missile programs.

One thing that I would stress is that we want to work with all nations in the area to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.

I’ll just conclude by saying a few words about North Korea, which I know has been in the news a great deal over the last week or two. As you know, officials from the North and the South are scheduled to meet later today, and it’s our understanding that they intend to talk about the possibility of North Korea’s participation in the Olympics, and we will wait and see what the outcome of the talks are.

We are in close contact with the Republic of Korea about our unified response to the North. As you saw, President Trump spoke with President Moon just last week, and Secretary Tillerson also spoke with his South Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Kang. As President Moon has said the improvement of relations between North and South Korea cannot advance separately from resolving North Korea’s nuclear program, and so we remain focused on our global pressure campaign. That campaign is designed to bring Kim Jong Un to the table for meaningful negotiations. Because of the Secretary’s low profile and patient diplomacy, together with our allies and partners around the world, we are succeeding in increasing pressure on the DPRK to new and unprecedented levels. Our policy, our end state, the pressure campaign, remains the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

And to this very end, these ends, Secretary Tillerson will be heading to Vancouver a week from today, Monday. We leave this coming Monday. For you, it would be this Monday. We leave next week for a Sending States Ministerial that is co-hosted by the United States and Canada. Our purpose at that meeting is to assess the pressure campaign and to see how we can further boost its effectiveness. And so with that, I’m happy to take your questions.

Reporter: Hi, my name is Sarah Kim from the Korean Joongang Daily in Seoul. Thank you for your remarks about your policy. And what is the State’s Department expectations from inter-Korean talks that you mentioned, that is yet to happen or happening or — and under this current circumstance, is the deferred extension of joint military [indiscernible] a possible consideration, if it could lead to some sort of continued talks toward nuclearization with the North?

Mr. Hook: Could – could you repeat your first question again so I could — I didn’t quite hear the first question.

Reporter: Okay, um, the joint inter-Korean talks, um, scheduled for later today as you mentioned earlier. So, can you mention a little bit about what sort of expectations the State Department might have?

Mr. Hook: The expectations for the talks, right. The expectations that –- that we have for the talk, I mean, one of the questions that we get is that is the beginning of something? And the Secretary believes it’s premature to judge whether it’s the beginning of something. What we don’t know is what North Korea is going to bring to these discussions. Do they just want to talk about the Olympics or do they want to talk about something else.

President Trump, when he and Secretary Tillerson were in Camp David together over the weekend, and you may have seen that he hopes a positive development results from talks between the North and the South. And the way we look at it is that it’s a start. We believe that if something can come out of those talks that would be a good thing, but we expect that it’s going to be mostly focused around the Olympics. It could be meaningful. It could be important, but it could also just be a meeting about the Olympics and nothing else happens. We enjoy excellent relations with President Moon and the Foreign Minister, and I’m sure we’ll be getting a readout from them after the talks.

Reporter: My question is about can you tell about how the U. S. will promote the relationship with Vietnam in this year because in the National Security Strategy of the U.S., the U.S. mentions Vietnam as a security asset. Thank you.

Mr. Hook: Yes, I would say that I was on the President’s trip when I went to Da Nang and Hanoi and that visit to Vietnam, unquestionably deepened and also expanded a very important relationship to the United States. I think as you may know, the United States Coast Guard transferred the first cutter to Vietnam and that for us, we view as another milestone that is only going to get deepen our relationship with Vietnam. And we want to help Vietnam enhance maritime domain awareness and increase their capabilities.

We also signed $12 billion worth of commercial deals during the President’s visit to Vietnam. And we also identified land where we can start building our new embassy compound that would -– an embassy that would really reflect our deepening ties. We do talk about…In the National Security Strategy, Vietnam is specifically identified as the country where we want to re-energize our alliance with Vietnam. Vietnam is mentioned a couple of times both around security and also deepening economic cooperation. And so we are very pleased with, I think, our policy shift on Vietnam to give it more focus and give more attention. The President visited two; he visited Hanoi and Da Nang on that trip. And I hope that everyone understood that presidential time is a very scarce commodity and when the President visits two cities in the same country it’s a symbol of just how important the bilateral relationship is to us.

Reporter: Uh, thank you for doing this. Thank you Brian for your briefing. My question is about the peace and stability in the region as you mentioned. We have seen China send air force [indiscernible] Taiwan, flying into Japan Sea and into…close to the Korean ADIZ recently and they also sent an aircraft carrier sailing through the Taiwan Strait several times. And the moreover they just announced the commercial flights zones N503 recently. It’s close to the [indiscernible] line in the Taiwan Strait. I’m just wondering that do you have any concern in terms of the peace and stability in the region, and how will you protect America’s interest in the region. Thank you.

Mr. Hook: Yes, we are concerned. We are concerned about reports that Beijing has modified the use of civil aviation flight routes in the Taiwan Strait without consulting the Taiwan authorities. We oppose these kinds of unilateral actions, and we oppose them by either side to alter the status quo across the Strait. And we encourage authorities in Beijing and Taipei to engage in a constructive dialogue. Issues related to civil aviation and safety in the Strait should be decided through dialogue between both sides.

As you know, the United States has a deep and abiding interest in cross-Strait peace and stability. We have a very solid framework, foundational documents that give the framework for our unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan. That has been maintained for eight administrations, and it has allowed for very robust engagement with Taiwan. And so, yes, we are concerned about the reports, the civil aviation flight routes, and, um, leave it at that.

Reporter: [Indiscernible] by China as the new normal in the South China Sea. If not, what will the U.S. to do stop China from its build-up of [indiscernible]?

Mr. Hook: I think I heard you say South China Sea?

Reporter: Correct.

Mr. Hook: Okay. Let me first say something broadly about China, and then I’ll answer your specific question about the South China Sea. We very strongly believe that China’s rise cannot come at the expense of the values and rules-based order. And that order is the foundation of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, and it’s also around the world. When China’s behavior is out of step with these values and these rules, we will stand up and defend the rule of law.

China’s provocative militarization of the South China Sea is one area where China is contesting international law. They’re pushing around smaller states in ways that put strains on the global system, and their actions also undermine core principles of sovereignty, which are very dear to us.

What we –- the actions that we take as the leading proponent of a rules-based system… so then what we do is freedom of navigation and overflight to the freedoms of assembly and expression online. These are all the things that we will enforce. And so we fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits, and so that is what I would say just about the South China Sea aspect.

The other things I would, I mean, we obviously have a longstanding and abiding interest in the South China Sea. China has a different view than we do on the South China Sea issues. Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis co-chair the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue. And I’ve attended all of those meetings, and the South China Sea is raised at every one of those meetings at very high levels. In those meetings we are very clear about what our interests are, and then we back that up through freedom of navigation operations, and we let them know that we will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. And we’ve also been very clear with China that we don’t accept unilateral actions by claimants aimed at changing the status quo while issues of sovereignty remain unresolved. And that is kind of what I would say about South China Sea.

Reporter: Hi there, Brian. Thank you for taking this call. I just wanted to ask, um, and I’m trying to get a sense of your idea of the motivation behind the timing of the talks from North Korea’s side, beyond, obviously, the Olympics. Do you think pressure from the President is taking a role, are the feeling the sanctions or is there something else at work here?

Mr. Hook: I think that the pressure campaign is -–we would like to think, we believe that – our pressure campaign could be what brought North Korea to start talking with the South. And the President had said, you know, it’s a start but the President believes that if we didn’t have the pressure campaign, they wouldn’t be talking at all right now. And he is pleased that they are. When Secretary Tillerson came into office, the President identified North Korea as his Number 1 national security priority that he wanted the Secretary to focus on. And from the very beginning, that was I think the first strategy, uh, one of the first strategies that we worked on and then deployed -when the Secretary travelled to Japan and Korea and China – is deploying this North Korea strategy. It’s a campaign of gradual and escalating pressure. In every bilat – in almost every bilat that the Secretary participates in, he asks countries to sever or limit diplomatic ties, to expel any guest workers, to deny visas to any guest workers from North Korea, to make sure that their financial system is not being gamed by the North Koreans. So, as a consequence of this very patient diplomacy, we now have succeeded in putting into place the toughest sanctions of all time on North Korea.

There’s still a long way to go. When you compare the Iran sanctions regime to the North Korea’s sanctions regime, they’re very, very different. But we’ve been able to, you know, through the UN Security Council resolutions, we’ve been able to ban $2.7 billion of their exports. And when you look at what we’ve done around textiles, of banning textiles and overseas workers and seafood and lead, and closing loopholes, there’s a range for things. We know that they are, that the pressure campaign is being felt. And it is our policy that the pressure campaign will continue in some form or another until we achieve our policy goals. So that’s, as I said I think earlier, it’s a start. It’s hard -– it’s hard for us to know what to make of it, but we will get a very early readout, I think, from the –- from the Koreans after the meeting.

Moderator: Thank you. I think we have time for just one last question and turn it back to Mr. Hook for some final remarks.

Reporter: Hi Brian, thank you so much for taking our calls. Um, I just have a parochial question to ask about Australia. Does the U.S. department expect Prime Minister Turnbull to visit the U.S. in February? And secondly, a former Australian -– a prominent Australian politician has suggested the U.S. has downgraded its relations with Canberra by leaving the ambassador post vacant since 2016. Is that the case and if not, when will it be post be filled and by whom? Thank you.

Mr. Hook: I handle policy, and so I don’t handle personnel. Nominations for ambassadors are announced by the White House and so I can’t answer your specific question on personnel. What I will say is we -– Australia is…I work closely here with Ambassador Hockey, and I also worked with his predecessor when I was out of office, and you know, when you look at Australia has fought alongside the United States in every significant conflict since World War I. They are a pillar in reinforcing economic and security arrangements. We have shared interests. We have shared values. We help, I mean, working together, we help promote and defend democratic values across the region.

And so I’m disappointed to hear that anybody would think that there’s been any kind of downgrading of the bilateral relationship. I think it’s quite the opposite. They are, as I said we had a quad meeting. We’re in regular discussions. I see the Australian Ambassador regularly. The Secretary – Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis travelled to Australia together. That was their only joint trip that they’ve done in all of the travels that they both separately have to do, but they went together. And so I just see nothing but positive aspects to our bilateral relationship, and we intend to vigorously expand and promote it.

Moderator: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Hook. I’m just going to give you a moment to, uh, provide some closing remarks, and I also say I know there’s a high demand for other questions still in the queue, but hopefully after this call, we can convince Mr. Hook to do this a little bit more regularly and come back on in a month or two. And so with that, I’ll turn it back to you, Brian.

Mr. Hook: Well, I would just that, one of the things to look for – and I think you’ve already seen this now in early in the administration. You’ve heard the President and the Secretary and the Vice President and Secretary of Defense, have all talked about a free and open in Indo-Pacific region. You know we have an interest in a free Indo-Pacific that goes back to the earliest days or our republic, but, this is, I think, going to be a legacy piece of this administration. We have talked thematically about a free and open Indo-Pacific, and we are in the process of building out a number of lines of effort that fall under the free and Indo-Pacific thematic. And some of them have already taken place, where we have been able to execute a number of policy objectives on the President’s trip to Asia. The Secretary has been over to Asia a few times. He is going to be going back to Asia this year as will much of the Cabinet. I would just say – stay tuned.

We have a lot of work to do to deepen our ties around economics, diplomacy and security, and very importantly the promotion of the principles that so many countries in that region share with the United States. And so as the Secretary’s Senior Advisor of Policy Planning, this free and open Indo-Pacific is one of our absolute highest priorities, and it’s one of the Secretary’s highest priorities. We look forward to doing a great deal of work in the coming years to build out all the different aspects and all of the kind of the benefits that we see near at hand in the region.

U.S. Department of State

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