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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Perspectives on U.S. Policy Toward the Asia-Pacific

Daniel R. Russel
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

Washington, DC
November 3, 2016


MODERATOR: Okay, good afternoon. Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. Thank you for joining us. Today we have with us Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel. He will make an opening statement and then we’ll do Q&A for about half an hour, which I will moderate. As always, please identify yourself and your outlet when you have a question, and we’ll call on New York as appropriate. With that, I introduce Assistant Secretary Russel.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Thanks very much. Hi, everybody.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: I’m just back from a trip to Southeast Asia. It’s part of a series of productive engagements that we’ve had with our Asia-Pacific partners over the last month or two, and so I thought I would give you an update. I visited the Philippines with my counterpart from the Department of Defense. We met with the secretary of foreign affairs, Jun Yasay; with the secretary of defense, Del Lorenzana; with a wide range of other Philippine friends from the policy and the community and the private sector. I was able to reaffirm America’s strong bond of friendship and our deep commitment to the Philippines. I held very useful and very direct discussions about the mutual benefits that we each derive from the alliance and the partnership, and about the new government’s policies, including the ones that generate some concerns.

While I’m on the subject of the Philippines, let me mention that I am just now coming directly from the swearing-in ceremony of our new ambassador to Manila, my good friend and one of America’s best diplomats, Ambassador Sung Kim. And Secretary Kerry’s remarks, the overflow crowd, and the presence of so many distinguished Filipino-Americans, I think, were all testaments to the very warm and the very special relations between our two countries. We love the Philippines, and I think that, based on what I felt in that room, the feeling is mutual.

Now, on my trip, I also visited Thailand, where I was able to express in person and on behalf of Secretary Kerry and the U.S. Government our deep condolences on the passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol, who was a very special friend of the United States. I had a chance there to engage appropriately with my friends and counterparts in the foreign ministry. This is a very important relationship for the United States, and there’s a lot of work to do on both sides.

From Thailand I went to Cambodia. While I was there I was able to meet with the foreign minister, I was able to meet with the deputy prime minister. I also spent some time visiting and speaking with the acting leader of the opposition. And I met, as I do whenever I visit Cambodia, with a broad cross section of civil society. It was a chance to discuss the preparations for the upcoming elections and it was a chance to stress the importance that the U.S. places on ensuring that the opposition party and its leaders are allowed to freely and actively compete and campaign in the run-up to the 2017 local elections.

And in Cambodia, as I try to do throughout the region, I had a chance to spend some time with a large group of young people, most of whom are participants in the YSEALI program, the Young Southeast Asia Leadership Initiative that President Obama started. Something on the order of two-thirds or more of Cambodians are under the age of 30, and that demographic is common to Southeast Asia generally. These are the leaders of the region. These are the people that are going to carry their nations forward. And they’re engaged in very important and, frankly, inspiring work to make their own communities better. They’re also very keen to engage with the United States, and they want what we have: open societies, inclusive societies, strong economies, a system that rewards innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, equal opportunity, the chance to have their voices heard, the certainty that their vote is going to count.

And speaking of votes, obviously, we’re less than a week away from our own elections here, and of course, on my trip there was and I know there is– frankly, a tremendous amount of interest and, as there always is, a certain amount of apprehension about political change in the United States and the implications for our policy towards the Asia-Pacific, towards a Rebalance. What I’ve told the interlocutors I speak with is this: The simple truth is that we are handing the next administration a success story in Asia. Our strategic engagement in the Asia-Pacific benefits Americans, and nothing succeeds like success.

Moreover, the Rebalance has always been rooted in a clear-eyed assessment of America’s national interest. America’s future in economic terms, in security terms, in many other ways is inextricably linked to this dynamic and growing region. So regardless of who becomes our next president, the United States has a huge interest in supporting and being an active participant that benefits from the prosperity and the stability of the Asia-Pacific. Our national interests aren’t going to change on January 20th, although our president will. The U.S. will still need to work with our Asian partners on nearly every global challenge that affects our interests. So the powerful logic that drove the Rebalance should be as compelling to the next administration as it has been to this one.

And in that connection, I would underscore President Obama’s strong determination to persuade the U.S. Congress to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP. This is a good deal for the United States. I think Singapore’s prime minister made a hugely important point, as well, when he visited Washington a few months ago; and he said, apart from the economic benefits, TPP is vital from a strategic point of view. It’s a strong signal of U.S. commitment to continue deep engagement in the region.

Let me say a few more words about that engagement, what I’ve called the new normal. Now, I’ll be traveling again soon, this time to Singapore and to Burma – to Myanmar – to launch the partnership dialogue that our leaders announced when Aung San Suu Kyi was in Washington in September. But my own travel in the region is just one thread in a very strong rope of engagement. My deputy, Patrick Murphy, is just back from visits to Indonesia, to Brunei, to Malaysia. Another deputy and special representative, now, for North Korea, Joe Yun, is in Beijing today engaging on North Korea.

And speaking of North Korea, Secretary Kerry, Defense Secretary Carter, Ambassador Samantha Power, Ambassador Susan Rice, Deputy Secretary Tony Blinken – all of these senior officials in recent weeks have either traveled to the region or here in the United States met with top Korean and Japanese and Chinese counterparts to discuss North Korea. It’s part of the collaborative effort to end North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, to implement the UN Security Council Resolution 2270, and to take further steps to deny North Korea the resources to continue those illicit programs.

We’ve also engaged very actively on our economic interests well beyond TPP. We’ve got a robust agenda for President Obama, for Ambassador Mike Froman, for the Secretary of State, all of whom will travel to APEC later this month. We’re implementing the U.S.-ASEAN Connect initiative with our embassies in the region to promote – support economic growth. We’re continuing our important work on a bilateral investment treaty with China. On another front, one of Vietnam’s top leaders was just in Washington for talks a week ago. Vietnam has recently opened its new international port at Cam Ranh Bay, and the U.S. Navy just made a port visit there.

Speaking of port visits, New Zealand is welcoming the first U.S. Navy port visit there in over three decades. Plus we’re coming off of the extraordinary fall, the engagements by the President, Vice President, the Secretary, including in China at the G20, in Laos the East Asia Summit, the great work that they were able to do with Asian partners at the UN General Assembly some weeks ago. I could go on and on, but I won’t.

What I’ll say is that this is normal. This is the new normal. It is a pace that was unthinkable before President Obama came into office. It was unprecedented at that time; and perhaps you’ve become more accustomed to it by now, but it is still extraordinary. I am convinced that the United States has never been a more valued or engaged partner to countries in the Asia-Pacific region than we are today. And I am also convinced that the value that we derive from this engagement is exactly what is going to sustain the momentum of the Rebalance going forward.

Let me end just by making one plug. Many of you, I know, have been following our Twitter feed @USAsiaPacific. But in just about 10 days, on November the 14th, we will be launching a bureau – an Asia-Pacific Facebook page. So we’ll see you there. (Laughter.)

Let me stop there and ask you to open it up to questions.

MODERATOR: Let’s please remember to identify yourself and your outlet. And we will call on New York as they come forward. Let’s start in the corner, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Assistant Secretary. We know Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi was visiting New York several days ago and met with Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Rice. I’m wondering what they were talking about Taiwan issues, particularly in the context of the coming U.S. election and the “Double Ten” speech made by Tsai Ing-wen and also the Xiong meeting in Beijing. So what were they talked about the Taiwan issue?

And secondly, it was reported by Wall Street Journal today that the Vatican and China have reached a major deal that will be a major step toward the normalizing their relationship. So do you welcome this new development? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Thanks. Well, as was announced, Secretary Kerry and the national security advisor, along with representatives of relevant agencies, had a meeting in New York this week with the visiting Chinese delegation headed by State Councilor Yang. This is part of a very, very rich, ongoing set of high-level consultations between the U.S. and China, and reflects the importance that we place both on expanding areas of cooperation and on addressing areas of difference and friction points in the relationship. You won’t be surprised that North Korea featured prominently in conversations, including because of the work underway by our UN representatives in the Security Council to reach agreement on a follow-on resolution to 2270.

But the two sides, as we always do, covered the gamut of issues of concern from the most positive end of the spectrum to the most divisive and difficult. As always, the Chinese side raised the issue of Taiwan. As always, the United States underscored that as we have maintained for eight U.S. administrations, the United States is committed to abiding by our “one China” policy based on the Three Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. And we, as we always do, encouraged the kind of patience, flexibility, and creativity that’s needed to ensure that cross-strait relations are on a steady and even keel.

I am not entirely up to date on the latest denouement between the Vatican and Beijing, so let me hold off comment until I know more. But I’ll take advantage of your question to take a step back, using as an example the meeting that Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Rice just held with the Chinese state councilor.

There’s an important election approaching in the United States, to be followed by a transition and the assumption of power by a new president, a new administration. This happens regularly in our system. There is a party congress planned in China at the end of 2017, and both countries have politics. But both countries have an abiding interest in ensuring stability in our relationship, continued cooperation on the areas where there is an overlap of interest, to build on the strong foundation we’ve created over the last eight years, and to hand off to the next administration a U.S.-China relationship that is stable and that is producing results and that is addressing in a constructive way areas of difference and disagreement.

The notion that the U.S. and China in the Asia-Pacific region are engaged in some sort of strategic rivalry, some sort of Great Game – which is a common conceit within the Beltway – is wrong. The World Series was a competitive sport; U.S.-China relations is not. This is not a zero-sum game, and we’ve made this point from the very beginning of the Rebalance strategy. The entire premise of our Rebalance strategy has been that robust engagement by the United States with China goes hand in hand with our efforts to strengthen the region’s institutions. It goes hand in hand with strong alliances, with our support for emerging powers, with inclusive and sustainable economic growth, and with the promotion of the rule of law and universal rights.

So the key tenet of our Rebalance strategy has always been to avoid a situation in which countries have to choose between China and the United States, but instead ensure that countries in the region have choices, that they are able to make their own choices freely without coercion on the basis of their own assessment of their own interests.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Rita in the center and then we’ll go to New York.

QUESTION: Thank you. Rita Cheng from the Central News Agency, Taiwan. Assistant Secretary of State, did you just come up from the Manila?


QUESTION: I wondered if you feel the same way, that Philippines loves the U.S. back as U.S. loves the Philippines, too?

And then my second question is about the APEC. How will the President Obama show that U.S. still being the leader in the – committed to being the leader in the region, since there are some arguments saying that – like Malaysia, they also seeking the closer military relationship after the Philippines. How will you comment on that?

And then the third question is about APEC, as well. Will Secretary plan to meet Taiwan’s envoy James Soong already? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Okay. Thanks. So, obviously I can speak for the United States but not for the Philippines. But, yeah, I felt a lot of love in Manila but not everywhere. (Laughter.) So, look, I mean, let’s be honest. Our bilateral relationship with the new government in the Philippines is going through a bit of a rough patch, some growing pains. There’s been some name-calling coming out of Manila. There’s been some questions raised about what the future holds.

But the fact of the matter is that the deep, deep roots between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines, between the Filipino people and the American people will, over the long term ensure stability in the relationship. This is what holds us together. We’re family. And I’d add that the United States will continue to be a reliable ally and I hope and believe a trusted partner to the Philippines. There’s no change in what we stand for. There’s no change in our commitments. There’s no change in the enduring bonds of friendship and respect and shared values that connect our two countries. And there’s no change in the interests that argue so strongly for continued cooperation between us.

Now, of course the Philippine Government will continue to make its own decisions. We respect that. That’s the kind of relationship that we have. I said when I was in Manila that an independent foreign policy is no more, no less than what we expect from any partner. It doesn’t mean that we’re at odds. It means that we consult and that we respect each other’s interests and prerogatives.

But this goes back to the issue, in part, of kind of who’s winning and to your question on Malaysia. Look, before the President of the United States visited Kuala Lumpur in 2014, it had been 50 – count them, 50 – years since a U.S. president had gone to Malaysia. We established a comprehensive partnership and the President came back the next year. We cooperated with Malaysia on countering violent extremism, on maritime security. Malaysia is a claimant, as is the Philippines. We cooperated on ASEAN. They’re, like the Philippines, a founder of ASEAN. And we’re cooperating on TPP. We’ve got a $50 billion trade relationship with Malaysia. It’s a pluralistic and a tolerant, a multicultural society, a democracy.

So yeah, I read something of – attributed to the prime minister in the People’s Daily that sounded a little bit more like former Prime Minister Mahathir than current Prime Minister Najib, but okay. There may be some special circumstances in that case. And as far as Malaysian purchases from China, look, that’s not tilting to China. That’s making a deal, making a commercial deal. Everybody does it.

And the very idea that third country cooperation with China is somehow a bad thing, is adverse to our interests is ridiculous. Balancing, hedging – what you’re really talking about is integrating, integration, and an integrated region is exactly what we want. When President Obama took office he made clear that we want to see a rising China integrate into the Asia-Pacific system of rules and of international law. Whether it’s Burma or Vietnam or Laos or India or ASEAN, the tremendous gains that we have made in our engagement in the Asia-Pacific region has never been framed by the President or by the former or current Secretary of State in zero-sum terms. As I said, we don’t want countries to have to choose between us. So if the Malaysians can improve their relationship with Beijing, if the Philippines can improve their relationship with the Philippines – hey, look, strong, constructive productive bilateral relations with China are an important part of our strategy. Why wouldn’t it be an important part of the strategy of China’s own neighbors?

And in terms of APEC and particularly the Secretary’s – the question of whether the Secretary will meet with James Soong, I’m not in a position to make announcements about the Secretary’s schedule or his bilateral meetings. But it has always been the practice of the Secretary of State, certainly in this Administration, to ensure that we had an opportunity to engage in person with the representative who came to APEC from Taipei, and I hope this year will be no different.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to New York, please. Then we’ll go to the back of this room.

QUESTION: Hi. This is Manik Mehta, New York. I’m a syndicated journalist. My question goes back to the Philippines and its alliance with the U.S. You briefly touched on the current situation. But how do you see the current flirt between the Philippines and China? And would you say it’s going to affect the alliance? I read a column in a Filipino paper saying that the future of Subic Bay is very uncertain. Also, would you say that the advantage gained by the Philippines through The Hague Tribunal on the claims of islands on the South China Sea is lost? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Well, thank you. As far as Subic Bay is concerned, I think that the significant development there occurred in 1992, and so I’m not sure what interest there is that’s in question. But more broadly, as I said, we value our alliance with the Philippines. We will continue to honor it. Secretary Kerry today in the swearing-in ceremony for Ambassador Sung Kim made that crystal clear and spoke very eloquently to our commitments.

The relationship is based on mutual respect and mutual interest. And we believe that the Government of the Philippines, as the governments that preceded this one, will continue to find that a strong, balanced partnership with the United States is desirable and advantageous in terms of protecting the sovereignty and the territorial integrity and, frankly, the broader interests of the Republic of the Philippines, including and particularly with respect to the capacity to respond to disasters, something that Secretary Kerry also described in vivid and firsthand terms today in the swearing-in ceremony.

President Duterte has made crystal clear that he has every intention, as he puts it, to stay within the four corners of the arbitral tribunal decision that was rendered in the Hague and that is binding both on the Philippines and on China. At the same time, he has approached this set of issues and the Chinese with a view to restoring dialogues that had been suspended by the Chinese over the past few years with a view to, as he put it, breaking the ice and with a view to creating an atmosphere where he believes, as he said, that it will – an atmosphere that will be conducive to compromise and cooperation further down the road.

Now, there is a lot of press attention appropriately focused on the situation in the Scarborough Shoal. As far as I know, the Chinese coast guard vessels, maritime militia vessels, and PLA Navy vessels continue to be stationed nearby. As far as I know, the – some of the Filipino fishing vessels – barcas I think they’re called – have been able to fish in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal. I’m of course hopeful that this is one of a series of steps in the direction of respect for the tribunal decision. There’s a long way yet to go on that score, but I see no evidence that President Duterte is backing away from the important legal decision rendered by the tribunal, nor would I expect any Philippine leader to find it in their own best interests to do so.

But if you look at the issue of South China Sea, again, not framed as a tug of war, not framed as a win-lose proposition, you can recall what the important principles at stake continue to be. For our part, it is the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion or violence or the threat of force; it’s freedom of navigation and overflight not only for the United States – we’re big and strong – but for the little guy, for everyone; the protection of lawful commerce; the respect for the rights of others; respect for international law. And above all these principles, of course, is our interest in seeing better relations between China and its neighbors, development of ASEAN centrality and ASEAN unity.

So for our part, the United States will always respond to actions that we find troubling, but we will, by the same token, be supportive of steps that move the claimants and move the situation closer to these principles, closer to peaceful and lawful resolution.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Justin in the middle, please.

QUESTION: Hi. Justin Arnold, Yomiuri Shimbun. Thanks for doing this. I have a couple questions real quick. In your talks with your Philippine counterparts, have you seen some sort of disconnect between what the president says and what people who work for him believe? He says one thing; it seems like his people walk it back a few days later. And I was wondering if you saw that disconnect in your talks.

And secondly, if Congress does not pass the TPP, does that blunt the notion of success in Asia for the next administration?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: It’s not for me to handicap the internal dynamics of the Philippine Government. I’m less focused on what gets said and more focused on what gets done. And for our part, we seek to get things done with the Philippines that are of value to them.

I’m proud of the degree to which the DEA – the U.S. Drug Enforcement [Administration] – has been able to support legitimate counternarcotics activities by the – in the Philippines. That’s a top priority for President Duterte and for the government.

There are innumerable areas where the U.S. is helpful, can be helpful, where we can do more things together. And a big part of my engagement, my Defense Department counterpart’s engagement in our recent trip was aimed at ensuring that the things that we do together continue.

With respect to TPP, among my many weaknesses is an inability to plan for defeat. I know President Obama a bit having worked as his special assistant and handled Asia policy in a variety of capacities under him for the last eight years, and this is a President who knows how to get things done, who knows what he’s doing, and who is determined to ensure that the agreement which so serves U.S. interests, an agreement that has been successfully negotiated and concluded with 11 other partners, is not set aside. And to that end, Secretary Kerry, Ambassador Froman, other members of the Cabinet, Vice President Biden, and President Obama himself have been tireless in working to – toward the goal of achieving congressional ratification of the agreement by the end of the Obama Administration.

I think I quoted Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, underscoring the strategic importance. Frankly, he said things even more direct than that. And he’s not alone in observing that if the United States doesn’t follow through with its commitments on an agreement that we not only helped design but that is so palpably in our own interests, can other governments be faulted for wondering if the United States is going to follow through on commitments in other areas that are actually quite difficult? I think that there is powerful logic behind TPP. And it is my devout hope that when the politics of the election are behind us, that the members of Congress will make a sober and objective assessment of U.S. interests and vote their conscience.

MODERATOR: We’ll have time for two more questions. Let’s go here, please.

QUESTION: Hi. Chen Weihua, China Daily. Can you confirm the report actually a while ago that the Administration actually instructed Pentagon and others not to describe U.S.-China relation as great power rivalry or competition, thinking it’s like inflammatory language? I mean, if that is true, can we expect President Obama not to repeat that China should not write the rule, we should – I mean, arguing for TPP during the lame duck session?

I mean, on TPP, what’s the likelihood you will see – I mean, 10 percent or 20 percent it do get passed? Because most experts are thinking it’s a longshot. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: I cannot confirm that rumor. And I certainly did not get that memo. (Laughter.) However, I do know that it is not the policy of the United States and it is not the belief of President Obama that we should treat China as a Cold War adversary. Now, I’ve made this very clear. There are important areas of profound difference and disagreement between Washington and Beijing. There are differences in terms of our strategic objectives and our perspective on hugely important issues ranging from the application of universal human rights to questions involving North Korea and the tactics for achieving what we do agree on, which is peaceful denuclearization. We have real differences.

At the heart of the strategy that President Obama has pursued has been the determined effort to engage in a direct, open, candid, honest dialogue with the Chinese that gets at these areas of difference, that solves problems where we can solve problems, that narrows differences where we can’t solve them, and that manages differences where we can’t narrow them. And I think that that sustained effort has put a strong foundation under the relationship that can absorb a great deal of stress, and does. And that’s a good thing.

Now, with respect to TPP, my view is that we should be guided in the first instance by what is in the best interests of the United States. With respect to the economic and commercial elements of the agreement, I believe the record shows convincingly that this agreement serves our interests. With respect to the environmental aspects and the labor provisions of the agreement, the intellectual property protections and the digital economy safeguards, this agreement protects U.S. interests and advantages the United States in innumerable ways.

It’s also true that nature abhors a vacuum. And if this unprecedented high-standard agreement gets set aside, you can be sure that that gap will be filled by agreements and deals that don’t begin to approach the benefits to the United States or to the other TPP members of this agreement. But again, the focus should be not on China. This is not an anti-China deal. This is a pro-U.S., pro-Asia-Pacific, trade deal that does so much to set high standards that we can’t afford not to ratify it.

MODERATOR: Okay, let’s take the last question from Jen, please, in the pink.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Jennifer Chen with Shenzhen Media Group. You just mentioned your four-day trips to Manila to seek clarification on Duterte’s recent remarks regarding Washington. And how do you make sense of his statement about military alliance with U.S., and will the U.S. and Philippines end the defense pact in the near future? And also we know Mr. Tony Blinken just visit South Korea to discuss the North Korea issues, and how do you think the recent political scandal in South Korea going to have the – any impact on the deployment of THAAD system? Thank you very much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Okay, thank you. During my meetings with the secretary of defense in Manila and all my conversations with senior Philippine officials, I heard that they saw value in continuation of military-to-military cooperation between the United States and the Philippines. And I am unaware of any action to date taken at the direction of President Duterte that has significantly affected our ability to operate. I’m not saying that that can’t happen, but I hope it doesn’t because the value that both sides derive from security cooperation is so significant.

The cooperation that we have with the Philippines, as I said, is for the long term. And whether it is training or whether it’s systems, whether it’s disaster response, whether it is medical aid in a crisis, whether it’s capacity building, or whether it is the maritime domain awareness that helps the Philippines address not only their territorial concerns but also to combat the very real scourge of illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing, there’s value to be had on both sides.

With respect to Deputy Secretary Blinken’s recent trip to Seoul, where he had good trilateral meetings and very good bilateral meetings as well, I think the timing of his visit was such that it was not affected by the political developments that you are alluding to. But his visit not only reaffirmed but is illustrative of the extraordinarily close and good relationship that the Park Administration and the Obama Administration have developed. I’m not aware of any change, at least to date, in the national security team in Seoul, and I don’t see any change to any of the important priorities in the U.S.-ROK’s alliance, including with respect to the timeline for the deployment of the THAAD system.

If I could just take a moment though to mention this system, there’s a tendency to regard this as some sort of political gesture; whereas, in fact, it is a straight-up defensive system that serves the function of protecting a finite area in the southern part of the Republic of Korea where the U.S. military has important assets, has our U.S. forces, and which has – which is under threat by North Korea’s missile program. This is a necessary and a common-sense defensive measure. It is not a political pawn and is not intended as a signal to others, particularly not as a signal to China.

More broadly in the U.S.-ROK relationship, we have every confidence that notwithstanding any political development in Seoul that the alliance will continue to function effectively, as it has for more than six decades, and will continue to definitively deter and to further develop the capacity to defend against the significant threat from the DPRK.

All right.

MODERATOR: All right. We thank the assistant secretary. We thank you for joining us during a very busy time. See you next time.