An audio file of this briefing is available here.
Moderator: Good afternoon everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia-Pacific Media Hub in Manila. We apologize for the delay. I am Zia Syed, the Hub Director. I’d like to welcome the participants dialing in for this briefing.
Today we are very pleased to be joined from Danang, Vietnam, by U.S. Navy Admiral and Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet John C. Aquilino and by U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel J. Kritenbrink.
We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from Admiral Aquilino and Ambassador Kritenbrink. We will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have. Please note that due to the high number of journalists on the call, we ask that you 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 our speakers. Please go ahead.
Admiral Aquilino: Thank you very much. My name is Chris Aquilino. I am the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and I’d like to thank all the journalists for allowing me to participate in this conversation as well as the U.S. Ambassador. Thank you all very much.
I was privileged to be able to come to Danang in conjunction with the visit of the U.S. Aircraft Carrier Strike Group Theodore Roosevelt to recognize the 25th anniversary of our relations with the Vietnamese. They are trusted partners and our friendship is grounded in mutual respect.
We were honored to receive such a wonderful and warm welcome from the people of Vietnam, and the sailors in the strike group look forward to participating in professional engagements while experiencing some liberty in the vibrant culture of Vietnam.
This port call marks another significant milestone in our bilateral relationship, and it highlights our continued cooperation and strong support for Vietnam. The United States stands by Vietnam as it upholds its sovereignty and independence, while it exercises legitimate claims, in accordance with international law. Our commitment to each other, including this week’s visits, will help ensure a stable, predictable, and durable relationship – again, based on mutual interests, values, and trust.
Additionally, I’d like to congratulate our Vietnamese partners as they exercise their chairmanship of the ASEAN organization this year. Their leadership is critical to its success.
Overall, the United States’ free and open Indo-Pacific strategy is the foundational approach to ensure all nations in the region can execute their rights. And specifically for Vietnam, the United States supports a strong, sovereign, prosperous Vietnam. Thank you very much.
Ambassador Kritenbrink: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Dan Kritenbrink, the American Ambassador to Vietnam. It’s a true pleasure to join you all today.
The visit of the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group demonstrates U.S. support for a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam, and it clearly demonstrates our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Through hard work, mutual respect, and continuing to address the past while we work toward a better future, the United States and Vietnam have grown a partnership grounded in trust and mutual respect.
As our two countries celebrate the 25th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations this year, this visit is a powerful symbol of the strength of our comprehensive partnership.
The breadth and depth of cooperation between our two great countries is stunning. In areas as diverse as trade, development, education, health care, energy, and security, the United States and a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam are working together with a shared commitment to peace and prosperity.
Our defense relationship promotes shared security interests, including the freedom of navigation in the East Sea, respect for international law, and peaceful resolution of disputes.
Our economic relationship relies on commercial freedom of navigation and the flow of trade in the Indo-Pacific sea-lanes, which are vital to our shared prosperity. The United States is, again, committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific, where all nations advance responsible commerce.
Finally, our relationship with Vietnam is also built on strong people-to-people ties and it relies on our ability to engage one-on-one in professional and humanitarian activities. This ship visit offers the opportunity for Americans and Vietnamese to share skills related to, for example, the control of infectious disease, and language capabilities, to enjoy concerts and sporting events together, and to engage in community activities throughout Danang.
This, of course, is the second time a U.S. Carrier Strike Group has visited Vietnam. Visits like these not only strengthen the United States’ partnership with Vietnam, but they also continue to ensure peace and stability and freedom of commerce across the region. This visit is just one more step forward in strengthening our friendship and partnership with Vietnam, and I could not be more optimistic about our shared future together. Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Thank you, Ambassador. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Our first question, appropriately enough as you’re in Vietnam, we’ll first go to Danh Lê, Danh Lê Thanh from Zing News, if you can please go ahead, Danh.
Question: Yes, thank you. My name is Danh Lê Thanh from Zing News, Vietnam. My question is: Is the U.S. looking forward to holding carrier visits or friendly port calls on an annual basis, and what would that mean for the bilateral relationships between the two nations? Thank you.
Admiral Aquilino: Thank you very much for the question. This is Admiral Aquilino. The United States has been executing port calls to Vietnam since 2003, and while this is the second aircraft carrier visit, we look to continue to support and build, develop, and strengthen our bilateral relationships and port calls – a critical aspect of that. I’d like to thank my Vietnamese partners for allowing our ships to come in. I want to thank them for the amazing hospitality, for sharing their culture with my sailors, and we look forward to more events like this in the future. Thank you.
Ambassador Kritenbrink: This is Dan Kritenbrink. Could I just add that we believe that the visit of the USS Theodore Roosevelt to Vietnam demonstrates just how far our partnership with Vietnam has come over the last 25 years. I think the visit also signifies the strength of our security relationship. It’s one of the most important aspects of our partnership with Vietnam, and I think it’s grounded in our shared views and shared values regarding the kind of region that we want to see – again, a region based on respect for international law and peaceful resolution of disputes.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go to Philip Heijmans from Bloomberg News in Singapore. Philip, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you. I wonder if the coronavirus fears are leading forces to pull off any – put off any military-to-military cooperation efforts, either informal meetings or actual exercises. And also I wanted to ask, now that the ASEAN-U.S. summit is off in Vegas, whether the U.S. has any plans to send any high-ranking delegates to Vietnam for the upcoming leaders meeting. Thank you.
Admiral Aquilino: If I could go first – this is Admiral Aquilino again – and I will speak to the Navy approach. We certainly are taking all actions that we can to ensure three things: number one, that U.S. sailors and their families remain healthy and we support them in every way possible; number two, taking all actions to ensure that the U.S. Navy does not transmit the disease either back to the U.S. homeland or to any of our allies, partners, and friends in the region; and then number three, to maintain warfighting readiness. So, we have executed procedures to do all of those, and every event that is scheduled or planned is reviewed on a case-by-case basis through those lenses to ensure we achieve those objectives.
Ambassador Kritenbrink: Dan Kritenbrink, if I could just add we have been impressed by the Government of Vietnam’s response to the COVID-19 situation. We think that Vietnam has been proactive in taking steps to counter the spread of the virus, and we’re pleased with the close cooperation they have engaged in with the United States, including the Centers for Disease Control, and we look forward to staying in close touch and to assisting our Vietnamese partners in any way possible.
On the U.S.-ASEAN summit, as you’re well aware, the President made the difficult decision to postpone the summit, but we have made very clear to the 10 leaders of ASEAN that America’s strong commitment to this region and to ASEAN’s centrality remains, and we look forward to continuing our longstanding engagement with the region and with our 10 partners in ASEAN. And from our perspective here in Vietnam, particularly during Vietnam’s chairmanship here, we look forward to working very closely with our Vietnamese partners to advance our shared interests in ASEAN.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go to Chiara Zambrano from ABS-CBN in the Philippines. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello. My question is for the Admiral. This is the – this is not so much about Vietnam, but about the Philippines. I understand that you will continue your freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, but I’d like to know what possible adverse effects there will be if the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement does push through, between the U.S. and the Philippines.
Admiral Aquilino: Well, thank you very much for that question. First, let me just say that I won’t comment on any operations that the U.S. Navy will do. We are executing our normal events with our friends from the Philippines. And with regard to the VFA, you have to ask questions to the State Department for where they currently sit. It’s a little disappointing that a – at this point we value our alliance with the Philippines, we continue to operate together with the Philippine navy, and we’ll see where this current narrative goes. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, Admiral. Next we’ll go to Thi Vietanh Phan, from VnExpress in Hanoi. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, hi.
Moderator: Hi, please go ahead.
Question: My question is how the U.S. expects to be in [cooperation] with Vietnam in maritime security after the visit of the ship, with the aircraft carrier. Thank you.
Admiral Aquilino: Thank you for that question. So, the United States works with our Vietnamese partners in many ways: maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, search and rescue, undersea medicine. There are many areas of cooperation in which we both benefit from each other’s expertise. There are a couple of key events. Pacific Partnership – as you are aware, last year we came to Vietnam, and this year in July we will come back, we will share medical expertise, we will support each other for disaster relief efforts — and those operations and events are fairly regular.
As a part of the Theodore Roosevelt visit right now, we’re doing a medical exchange where doctors from Vietnam and doctors from the Theodore Roosevelt are sharing best practices together. All those types of events will continue, and we look forward to supporting and working with Vietnam in a variety of ways as they desire.
The last point I would make is we are transferring our second Coast Guard cutter to the Vietnamese this year to help build their capacity for maritime security, and we look forward to providing other critical capabilities such as the Shark boats and other requested items from the Vietnamese. Thank you.
Ambassador Kritenbrink: Dan Kritenbrink, if I could just add in addition to all of the important capacity development work that the Admiral just mentioned, of course, we remain very closely engaged with our Vietnamese partners and other friends in ASEAN diplomatically to advance our shared interests in the kind of region that we want to see – a rules-based region where freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, and unimpeded commerce are respected, and disputes are resolved peacefully. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next if we can go to Dong Hyun Kim from Voice of America Korea services. Mr. Kim, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you. This is – yes, thank you. This is Dong Hyun Kim from Voice of America Korean Service. I have a question to the Ambassador. Sir, Your Excellency, early this year 13 North Koreans escapees were detained in Vietnam who were deemed to be expelled and eventually sent back to the DPRK, but later on, rescued. As Vietnam is considered as a key route for the escapees, do you have any concern with this action and what role is the U.S. taking to address this issue? Thank you.
Ambassador Kritenbrink: Well, I appreciate your question. I’m not in a position to comment on the specific issue that you’ve raised. I would just say in general, of course, we encourage all partner nations not to refoule refugees back to countries from which they’ve escaped, whether they be North Korea or elsewhere. Speaking more broadly, of course, as you saw through the Hanoi Summit in February of 2019, Vietnam has been a crucial and close partner on the broader issues related to North Korea, including the North Korean denuclearization issue. But I don’t have a comment – I’m not in a position to comment on the specific incident that you raised.
Moderator: Thank you. If we could go back to Philip Heijmans from Bloomberg News. Philip, please go ahead.
Question: Thanks for having me again. It appears that last year there were more FONOPs than in prior years, nine total for 2019. I wonder if there are plans to either meet that figure or to do even more exercises for 2020. And also, if the – whether the U.S. and Vietnam navies are planning any official military maneuvers to monitor the South China Sea against the Chinese encroachments. Thank you.
Admiral Aquilino: Again, thanks for that question. Again, at the top, I won’t comment on upcoming operations, whether U.S. or bilateral. I guess what I would say is the U.S. – as a previous secretary of defense has stated and the policy is – the U.S. will sail, steam, or fly anywhere international law allows, anytime.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We don’t have that much time remaining, but if we can, we’ll try to do one or two more questions. If we could next go to Dzirhan Mahadzir from USNI News in Malaysia. Dzirhan.
Question: Yes, thank you. Admiral, a question for the Admiral. Can you tell us where the U.S. Pacific Fleet is at in preparation for the Rim of the Pacific Exercise this year, and is there anything substantially different there from previous RIMPAC exercises? Thank you.
Admiral Aquilino: Thank you for that question. RIMPAC is currently in planning. The final planning conference occurs, I believe, next month in Hawaii. I think the latest count was 26 nations — maybe more than that participating. The [inaudible] events will be in alignment with last year, and as always, we welcome new partners to take leadership roles for Rim of the Pacific. So, I won’t comment on which nations are leading which events, but I can tell you that the events become more complex, they become more challenging, and that is based on the request of all of those partner nations. While there are ships involved, there are special operations forces, there are land forces, there are diving forces, there are air forces. It is the largest, most amazing, multilateral maritime exercise in the world. It continues to get better. It continues to get grow – it continues to grow. And again, all nations – all invited nations are welcome to contribute to the design and the future of the exercise.
Moderator: Thank you. If we could, if we could just take perhaps just one more question, and we’ll go back to Chiara Zambrano from ABS-CBN in Manila. Chiara, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, this is – hello. Yes, this is for the Admiral again. I’d like to know if it’s realistic to expect that because the relationship between the Philippines and the United States in terms of the VFA is still quite up in the air, is it logical that you would rely more heavily on the other Southeast Asian nations instead of the Philippines? Or is it – would it be a more aggressive effort to gain the kind of relationship that has been lost?
Admiral Aquilino: So, I’d like to first highlight that from the United States Navy position, we don’t believe the relationship has been lost. We work with all of the nations throughout the region to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. All of those likeminded nations with common values share some very similar bonds, those of sovereignty, freedom to govern, adherence to international rules-based laws that exist, and as all nations work through their political systems, that the navies will continue to work together to adhere to those common goals.
Moderator: Thank you. And actually, Admiral, Ambassador, it looks like we’re just about out of time, unless there’s any closing remarks that you’d like to make.
Ambassador Kritenbrink: No, thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed our exchange today.
Moderator: Great. Well, thank you very much. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank U.S. Navy Admiral and Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet John C. Aquilino and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel J. Kritenbrink, and I also thank all of our journalists on the line for participating. And again, I apologize for the delay in the start of the call.
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 very much.
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