Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Canberra, Australia
3:10 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for joining us on this long flight into the future, rocketing forward with a very forward-looking agenda. (Laughter.)
Q Does that mean when we come home we’re looking backwards? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Well, when we come home we can look back at everything we accomplished for the future. (Laughter.)
I have with me Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, who can take some of your questions about the trip thus far and the trip coming up, and I’m here to take other random questions that you might have. I have no announcements.
Q A domestic one real quick for our friends at home. Could you fill us in on the President’s super committee-related calls? Also, we read that Senator Reid and House Speaker Boehner had spoken. Has the President spoken with either of them? How has he been getting updates and who has he talked to?
MR. CARNEY: Well, that’s a lot of questions. We did, I believe, read out the calls he made at the beginning of the trip to the two co-chairs of the select committee, Senator Murray and Congressman Hensarling. He has not made any other calls to members of Congress related to the super committee’s work since those calls. He is updated regularly, obviously, through staff on a variety of issues and a variety of matters before Congress, including the work of the super committee.
I have not -- I saw the same reports you did about the Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader having a conversation about the super committee, but I don’t have any specific reaction from the President on that.
Q How is he staying in touch? Who is --
MR. CARNEY: Well, Rob Nabors; Bill Daley, who headed back, obviously, to Washington; Pete Rouse; Jack Lew; Treasury officials -- everybody you might expect to be engaged on this issue available to engage on it, and certainly Rob is regularly connecting with leaders and staff on the Hill.
Q On another domestic matter, does the President have any reaction to the way the Occupy Wall Street protesters were removed, how that was handled?
MR. CARNEY: He’s aware of it, obviously, from the reports. And our position and the President’s position is that obviously every municipality has to make its own decisions about how to handle these issues, and we would hope and want, as these decisions are made, that it balances between a long tradition of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in this country and obviously of demonstrating and protesting, and also the very important need to maintain law and order and health and safety standards, which was obviously a concern in this case.
Q Will you preview for us the military announcement in Australia that’s been widely previewed by the Australians?
MR. CARNEY: Over to Mr. Rhodes.
MR. RHODES: Well, I’d just say that on the -- this trip will be an opportunity to mark the 60th anniversary of the alliance on that occasion. And looking forward, the two leaders will be able to announce an increased security cooperation between the United States and Australia, including an increased U.S. presence in Australia. I’ll let the leaders speak to some of the precise details of this in their bilateral meeting today and in their press conference after that bilateral meeting. But I think this will speak to the deepening cooperation between the United States and Australia. It’s in response to Australia’s interest in pursuing that cooperation, and it will enable us to, again -- as you heard Admiral Willard say the other day -- will enable the United States to have greater geographic balance in the Asia Pacific region and will enable us to respond to a range of interests in the Pacific region as well.
Q Ben, will this entail any additional costs, or will there be savings, even?
MR. RHODES: Well, again, I think that this would entail forces that -- I mean, we’re in a context where, of course, a lot of U.S. deployments are being reduced because of the end of the wars, and so therefore there is an ability for the U.S. to draw from global forces that aren’t prepositioned elsewhere for these types of -- for the types of responsibilities that we’ll be talking about later today.
So I couldn’t give you a dollar amount on it, but we can check on that, and as we fill in some of the details of this, I can get some more specifics on the cost.
Q Are you even able to say whether it is a cost or a savings?
MR. RHODES: I’d have to check that for you as to how they’re accounting for it within the DOD context.
Q Ben, could you please directly address the widespread perception that an increased U.S. military presence in Australia is driven by a desire, at least in part, to contain China, to offset China’s strong presence in that region?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think that there’s a range of factors that lead us to want to increase our cooperation with Australia and to ensure that we have an appropriate military posture in the Asia Pacific.
And that runs the gamut. So, for instance, a lot of the things that you heard Admiral Willard talk about involve U.S. military forces being able to respond to natural disasters, as they did after the tsunami -- the Japanese earthquake -- the tsunami in Indonesia and the Japanese earthquake. U.S. forces are engaged in efforts to counter piracy and counter terrorism in parts of Southeast Asia. And U.S. forces provide an anchor of stability and security in the region more generally, and that can provide for maritime security, the free flow of commerce. So simply the U.S. presence and the reassurance that that presence provides is important to the continued peaceful development of the region, the continued free flow of commerce, and the continued ability to deal in a forward-leaning way with the types of challenges that emerge in this part of the world -- again, which run the gamut from terrorism and criminality and piracy to natural disasters in addition to just, again, providing that basis of security.
Q Not really a mention of China at all among those factors. Is that focusing in too narrowly on one country?
MR. RHODES: Again, I think we have a broad -- we have a broad posture in the Asia Pacific, running from Korea to Japan to Australia, partnerships that we engage in with our other allies like the Philippines or Thailand. And what we look at is how does our general force posture allow us to protect U.S. interests, protect our allies, and, again, secure the region broadly.
China is obviously a piece of the Asia Pacific region, an emerging power. What we’d like to do with the Chinese, frankly, as it relates to our military, one of our first orders of business is we’re focused on increasing military-to-military cooperation with the Chinese, precisely because it can facilitate greater dialogue and understanding and ability to resolve issues.
At the same time, again, we want to make sure that the United States is positioned to play its critical role as really the anchor of security and stability in the region in general.
Q Ben, is the East Asia Summit an appropriate place to discuss the territorial disputes of the South China Sea? China says that they should be addressed individually among each party.
MR. RHODES: Well, we believe that the issue of maritime security is an appropriate issue to discuss at the East Asia Summit, and in the context of discussion about maritime security, the South China Sea will clearly be a concern.
It is not -- as we said in I think our set-up briefing, the East Asia Summit is not a tribunal. So the East Asia Summit is not a forum to resolve specific territorial questions, but rather it’s a forum to address the principles with which we approach these issues -- our commitment to freedom of navigation, for instance; our commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes.
So, again, I think we’ll want to have a discussion of maritime security; the South China Sea will be a part of that discussion. I think what we’ll be focused on are the principles that we feel are essential to the continued stability and free flow of commerce in the South China Sea. I think it’s not a tribunal where you have individual countries resolving territorial claims in the context of the summit.
Q So in that sense would you sort of -- do you not support the Philippine initiative that they’re putting forward to try to solve -- discuss some of these issues?
MR. RHODES: We support the ability of all nations to raise their concerns in the context of the East Asia Summit. It’s a forum where, again, political leadership can address issues that are of concern to them. We have supported, for instance, having a leaders retreat at the East Asia Summit where there could be a strategic level of political and security discussion. And in the context of that discussion, different leaders will raise different issues, and that’s entirely appropriate.
We have said -- the United States, for instance -- that we’re focused on the issue of maritime security and the issue of nonproliferation. But, again, so I think there’s an opportunity for leaders to raise issues that are important to them, to reaffirm our principles as it applies to maritime security, even as I think there are continued territorial claims that are going to have to be resolved going forward.
Q Has the President said publicly whether he believes that the nine-dash line* is a legally legitimate line in the South China Sea dispute?
MR. RHODES: I’d have to check what -- the specifics of what we’ve said. I think, again, we have a view of these matters that we want to see them resolved consistent with international norms, international laws. And I think therefore this would have to be dealt with in that context.
Q Did he and Hu not talk about it in depth during their meeting?
MR. RHODES: No, they did not. Again, as we said, that meeting focused primarily on economic matters.
Look, the President is having bilateral meetings in Bali with the Philippines, with a number of countries that in the past have raised these issues. So it’s certainly, in addition to the summit itself, I think it’s something that will likely come up in some of his bilateral meetings as well.
Q So there was no security discussion at all in the Hu and Obama bilat?
MR. RHODES: There was a discussion, as we said the other day, on North Korea, on Iran, on military-to-military ties. But the meeting focused overwhelmingly on economic issues.
Q No discussion as to the South China Sea commercial lanes*?
MR. RHODES: No, they didn’t get into a detailed discussion. I can check if it came up at all, but it certainly wasn’t a focus of the meeting.
Q Could you distinguish between APEC, which we just left, and the East Asia Summit and ASEAN regional forum in terms of the extent to which they overlap or -- because in the past the U.S. has depended more on APEC for economic -- so what do you see as the distinguishing characteristics -- why do two summits with the same countries?
MR. RHODES: Well, first of all, I think, as a general matter, we have felt that the U.S. was underrepresented in these organizations when we came into office. We had not consistently engaged at a high level. We had not even really been a part of the East Asia Summit, for instance.
And so we believe -- as you heard Secretary Clinton say -- we believe that the Asia Pacific region needs the architecture of organizations and institutions that can deal with challenges and that can foster cooperation just as the transatlantic community has those types of arrangements.
Now, when we look at these different organizations, we see APEC as a critical forum for fostering regional economic integration in the Asia Pacific, fostering more open and fair trade among the nations of the region. And so we see APEC as our primary vehicle for advancing economic cooperation in the Asia Pacific.
As it relates to the East Asia Summit, it has highly focused on economic development in the past, but we also believe that the East Asia Summit can be a forum for addressing political and security issues as well.
So, for instance, we have pursued issues such as nonproliferation, maritime security, disaster relief in the context of the East Asia Summit, because we believe it’s an effective forum to have leader-level strategic discussions about political and security issues in addition to the focus on economic development.
ASEAN itself is just -- as a grouping of the Southeast Asian nations, is a multilateral forum that we’re obviously not a member of, but it provides an opportunity for us to engage with a number of key emerging economies and democracies on a regular basis. So we’ve made it a practice of the President to meet on an annual basis with the leaders of the ASEAN nations.
And I think it speaks to the importance of which we see the ASEAN nations. I think, both economically and politically, it’s an emerging block of countries that we want to be deepening our cooperation with.
And I think you’ll see the President raising with our ASEAN partners the political and security issues we’ve talked about, but also is interested in increasing U.S. exports. So I think there will be discussion of that in the bilateral meetings in Bali and in the ASEAN meeting as well.
So, to summarize, APEC is primarily our principal vehicle for advancing economic integration in the region. EAS provides an additional opportunity, we think, to have political and security discussions in addition to the economic focus. And then ASEAN provides an opportunity for us to engage with Southeast Asian nations as a block on all of these issues.
Q On another topic, do you have any further updates on developments in Syria in terms of responses to Syria? Is there anything specific that came from the talks with Medvedev or others that he found effective?
MR. RHODES: Well, first of all, the President -- we have had a strategy, essentially, of trying to work with our European allies principally to impose very strong sanctions on the Assad regime. We’ve called for President Assad to step down from power.
At the same time, we’ve wanted to work closely with the regional countries. Turkey, for instance, we’ve coordinated closely with as they have ratcheted up their pressure on the Assad regime. And the Arab League, we have consulted with a number of Arab states the last several weeks about what they might do.
We saw it as a very important step by the Arab League to, again, reduce its diplomatic ties with the Syrian government, to recall a number of Arab League ambassadors. I think that sent an important signal that the tide is shifting away from President Assad in the international community and in the region, that he cannot look for support to the other countries in the region.
I think Turkey’s comments today further point to the fact that President Assad is isolated. We very much welcome the strong stance that Turkey has taken, and believe that it sends a critical message to President Assad that, again, he cannot crack down and repress the aspirations of his people. And frankly, we think it reinforces the fact that he should step down because that’s in the best interest of the Syrian people.
So we see a growing tide of international opinion against President Assad. We welcome that and have sought to build upon that, to apply pressure on the Assad regime. I think in his meetings at APEC, the President pointed to the fact that you saw this tide turning against Assad. With President Medvedev, for instance, he pointed to the fact of the Arab League’s actions as further indications that there needs to be a continued and stronger international front against Syria. We obviously disagreed with the Russian action at the U.N. -- at the Security Council.
So what we’re going to be focused on is working with all these nations to apply as much pressure on the Assad regime as possible so that they finally stop the crackdown against peaceful protesters and allow for a democratic transition to go forward.
Q Can the two of you preview the address to Parliament and characterize how important that is to this trip?
MR. RHODES: I think it’s an important -- it’s basically the major speech of the trip. We see it as an opportunity, on the one hand, to celebrate the U.S.-Australian alliance, which is among our closest in the world. It’s manifested in the cooperation that we have in Afghanistan, the security cooperation that we’re going to be addressing in the bilateral meeting, as well as in a trade relationship that is very win-win oriented that supports opportunity and jobs in both countries.
So we’ll be addressing the alliance. But then more broadly, the President will be treating this as an opportunity to lay out his vision of the Asia Pacific region going forward. And I think he’ll be addressing three core areas that the United States is committed to in the region -- one being the continued security of the region and the role that the United States will play on behalf of that security; two being a deepened economic integration across the region in a way that sees expanded trade and builds upon measures like the TPP and the APEC Summit to be increasing those trade flows; and third, he’ll be addressing our commitment to democracy and human rights.
A key part of our alliance with Australia is our shared values. The United States is invested in the success of emerging democracies across the region and empowering those democratic models. And we also speak out on issues related to human rights, whether it be, for instance, the situation in Burma, where we have seen some positive movement, but of course we’d like to see a continued change by the -- in the behavior of the government with respect to human rights.
So I think he’ll cover the landscape of our Asia Pacific policy going forward in those three main areas -- security, economics and values -- with the Australian alliance, of course, being a model, frankly, for how partnerships can advance those goals.
Q There won’t be time in Indonesia for the President to go back and look at any of his childhood sites or anything like that, right?
MR. RHODES: We have a very busy official schedule, and so our time is filled up with meetings and summit -- the summit. He did obviously spend time as a child in Jakarta, principally, been to Bali on numerous occasions, finished his first book there. But he’s -- there’s no time on the schedule for him to be able to revisit those sites.
Q Will we get an exact text of the speech in enough advance of the -- and he will stick to it?
MR. RHODES: I think we’re going to have a briefing tonight after the press conference in which we’ll be able to walk through the speech in some greater detail, and we’ll make every effort to at least have some form of excerpts there.
Q A logistical question about that. So we’ll have the news conference, and then you’re going to do that briefing right after, or some time after?
MR. RHODES: Yes, the complication is that some of us have to go to the dinner -- the parliamentary dinner. Or all of us, actually. So we just have to basically do it -- so I don’t know the precise logistics, but we basically have to do it before we go to that dinner, or else it’s going to be really late, and I’m sure you guys aren’t --
Q Is it going to be to the pool, or the whole press corps?
MR. CARNEY: As many as we can -- as many people as we can. I think the intention was the whole press corps, if that’s possible. But, again, we’ll -- I just wanted to add one more thing to the preview. I think he also will be taking head on this question of whether -- the extent to which the U.S. can advance a very aggressive agenda in the region, even in the context of our commitments to cut the budget, obviously. So I think he’ll be taking that context head on in the speech.
Q Will he be making a financial commitment to the region, or will it be -- will it essentially move the ball from what he said the other day at the CEO summit, which was, I know we have fiscal challenges at home but we’re not going to abandon --
MR. RHODES: We can get into some more detail tonight. I just -- I think his view is, again, we are, as a general matter, seeking to send a very clear signal that across a range of areas -- trade, security and others -- we are prioritizing our engagement in the Asia Pacific given its importance going forward, and that will be the gist of the message.
Q Jay, quick question. There’s an audit out about the Federal Housing Administration saying there’s a 50 percent chance that they could run out of money and may need taxpayer dollars. Any reaction to that? And will it affect the “We Can’t Wait” proposal that the President announced in Nevada?
MR. CARNEY: You know, I’m not aware of that, so I’d have to check. Perhaps somebody back in Washington can look into it for you. But I have not seen that.
Could I also just -- before we wrap up, I just wanted to make a point, because I was asked about our engagement with the super committee. And I think it goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway, that this President, at the beginning of the process, delivered to the committee a detailed proposal filled with his ideas of how this process could move forward and what the path is towards a resolution here, a balanced approach that asks for a shared burden, shared responsibility so that no single sector of society has to bear the brunt of balancing our -- or rather getting our fiscal house in order.
So it’s important to remember when some members of Congress say, well, we need the President to engage -- well, they should check their inbox of their emails because they’ve had a detailed plan that’s very balanced, that requires tough choices for everybody, and they’ve had it in their email box since I think September 19, 2011.
Q Thanks, Jay.
3:36 P.M. EST