Press Briefing by Ben Rhodes and Evan Medeiros
St. Petersburg, Russia
12:30 P.M. MSK
MR. RHODES: Hey, everybody, I have with me a special guest star, Evan Medeiros, who’s our Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the NSC. He can take some additional questions on the China bilat. But I'll just start by giving a brief readout of last night’s dinner and then the bilat today, and then we'll take your questions.
First of all, the dinner last night focused on the subject of Syria. As you saw, it went very late. At the dinner each of the leaders was able to express their perspective on the situation in Syria. And the President found it to be a very broad and substantive discussion characterized by I think the seriousness with which people take the issue of chemical weapons.
As for the President, he once again underscored the very high confidence that we have that the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attack on August 21st. He reinforced the importance of upholding international norms to which all of the nations here are party to through the Chemical Weapons Convention. He noted the importance of continuing to work through the U.N., but also the paralysis that has existed in the Security Council on the issue of Syria, and therefore, underscored the importance of ensuring that there is enforcement of a norm that is so fundamental to global peace and security.
Beyond that, there was also discussion on the importance of a broader political resolution to the challenge in Syria through the Geneva II process. As we've said repeatedly, our military action is limited and focused on the issue of chemical weapons; it is not intended to resolve the underlying political crisis within Syria. That is an issue that we seek to address through the Geneva II track. And so the President was able to reinforce that message again last night.
I think we updated you last night that he spoke with -- met with President Dilma Rousseff in between the G20 session and the dinner. He also met with two other leaders on the margins of the dinner last night -- President Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey.
With President Peña Nieto, as with President Rousseff, President Obama underscored that we'll continue to work with the governments of Brazil and Mexico to address concerns that they have about the disclosures that have been made regarding the NSA. This is an ongoing process that we'll work through with the Brazilian and Mexican governments. Of course, we also have a very strong bilateral relationship with each of those countries.
With respect to Mexico, we continue to work together on economic and security issues. And the President, of course, continues to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, which is profoundly in the interest of the United States and the American people, but also, of course, includes respect for the very deep familial ties between so many Americans and Mexicans as well.
Prime Minister Erdogan and the President focused on the subject of Syria. As you've seen, Turkey has been a very strong supporter for the notion that the Assad regime must be held accountable for its use of chemical weapons. Similarly, we've coordinated very closely with Turkey in our support for the opposition within Syria, and we'll continue to do so going forward. So they had a good discussion on Syria, and we feel quite aligned with Turkey in our approach to the issue.
Moving to China today, the two leaders were able to build on the relationship that they forged at Sunnylands in addressing a very comprehensive agenda, noting that, of course, as you heard the President say, we're going to cooperate on issues of common interest but be very clear about our differences as well. I'll just briefly go through the issues they discussed. And Evan can take any questions you have in greater depth.
They discussed the issue of North Korea. China has been a cooperative partner in underscoring the importance of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. And we've worked closely with them since the Sunnylands summit as we've sought to pressure North Korea to enforce existing sanctions, and also make clear that we're open to a dialogue provided that North Korea meets its obligations with respect to denuclearization.
They discussed the global economy. I think there's a shared view that we need to continue to promote growth and job creation. And the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy, as the two largest in the world, are fundamental to that effort.
The President raised a number of the issues that we've had concerns with in terms of China -- for instance, the need for greater reform of state-owned enterprises, our continued concerns about intellectual property rights. There was a discussion of cyber. And once again the President underscored that we view this not simply through a security prism, but what we're focused on is concerns about the potential theft of trade secrets emanating from China. And the two leaders agreed that the cyber working group that was established at Sunnylands should continue to address those issues.
They also touched on the issue of climate change. We, of course, reached an important agreement with China to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons -- HFCs -- in Sunnylands. And today, they agreed to move forward under the basis of the Montreal Protocol to phase out HFCs and to work to make progress on a multilateral basis. President Obama also underscored that with his new Climate Action Plan there's an even greater opportunity for the U.S. and China to work together in support of an international effort and accord on combating climate change, given the necessity of China playing a role in any potential global solution to the challenge.
They also touched on issues related to the upcoming East Asia Summit. I'd just note the issue of maritime security. The President reinforced his position that we want to see maritime disputes settled through cooperation, not through coercion. With respect to the South China Sea, that includes the importance of negotiating a code of conduct between ASEAN and China. With respect to the Senkakus, we reinforced the importance of there being diplomacy and dialogue to resolve the issue, not any efforts made at coercion.
And then they addressed the issue of Syria. Of course, that had been discussed the night before, but, again, the President reinforced the importance of upholding fundamental international norms that are important not just to the United States, but to China and the entire world.
We’ve obviously had a difference with China on this issue. But, again, I think the President reinforced the importance of taking action in the face of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, and also agreed that we would continue to cooperate through the Geneva II process on the political track.
And with that, we’ll take your questions.
Q Ben, can you tell us if you're planning to seek any kind of resolution on Syria of any sort today? And has the NSA issues that came up with Brazil, Mexico -- has that complicated your efforts to bring people together on that? And also, do you have any reaction to the Russians trying to talk to Boehner and Reid about Syria?
MR. RHODES: On the issue of Syria, generally, here at the at summit, I don’t think that there’s been any interconnection with the NSA issues. These are very particular concerns that the Brazilian and Mexican governments have irrespective of what else is on our bilateral agenda. They’re related to recent disclosures in the Brazilian and Mexican media, and we’re going to continue to work it through intelligence and diplomatic channels.
In terms of the summit, what we’re looking for is expressions of support and strong statements from those countries that believe that chemical weapons are prohibited under international law, and that there needs to be a response when there’s an attack like we saw on August 21st. We don’t expect every country here to agree with that position, starting with the fact that Russia has repeatedly refused to hold the Assad regime accountable for any of its actions over the course of the last few years. But we do believe that there’s a strong number of U.S. allies and international partners who are supportive of the notion that there needs to be an international response that holds the Assad regime accountable.
I think at the dinner last night there was broad agreement that chemical weapons were used. That’s not a question that’s in doubt. We also, frankly, believe that a majority of these countries here accept the basic facts that the Assad regime is responsible for the use of those chemical weapons.
Again, so what we’ll look for today and coming out of the summit is for countries to step forward and make clear that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, that the Assad regime is responsible, and that there needs to be an international response that enforces the norm that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.
Q And Boehner and Reid?
MR. RHODES: I’d just say that what we’ve repeatedly seen is Russia refusing to take action to hold the Assad regime accountable and seeking to work through different processes to avoid the core issues. We can’t have an endless process at the U.N. Security Council that doesn’t lead to anything. Similarly, I don’t know that the Russians have anything to add to the debate in the United States given that we know where Russia stands on this issue. They have continually supported Assad no matter what the facts show, no matter what the regime does.
So we don’t think -- on the issue of chemical weapons, we don’t expect to have Russian cooperation. We do, however, believe that we’ll have to work with Russia through the Geneva II process. And, again, the Russians have expressed concern about the direction of the conflict in Syria. The way to resolve that is to bring the parties to a table to have a transition to a new government.
Q At the summit dinner last night -- which went on for quite a while -- what, if any, progress was made on either narrowing or resolving the differences, especially between -- the distance between President Obama and President Putin? And was there any kind of pull-aside -- has there been any kind of pull-aside discussion, one-on-one, between President Obama and President Putin?
MR. RHODES: On the second question -- no. The only pull-asides that he had were the ones that I referenced, in addition to the bilats with China and Japan, Turkey, Brazil and Mexico.
The President did note that this was a substantive debate that was respectful, that everybody was able to express their view. Again, I think there is broad agreement here that chemical weapons were used and that that’s a significant challenge for the international community. Similarly, we believe a majority of the countries accept the basic premise that Assad was responsible, so therefore he and his regime are the accountable actors in this instance. We don’t expect President Putin to move to that view given what he’s expressed not just in recent days, but throughout the conflict in Syria.
There is a question of the role of the U.N. Many countries, of course, prefer that action is taken through the U.N. Security Council. But the fact of the matter is the U.N. Security Council has been completely unable to act on Syria. So I think the point that the President expressed is that we’ll continue to work through the United Nations on many aspects of our Syria policy, including the humanitarian relief that we’ve been a leader on, including the Geneva II process that involves the U.N., and on the issue of chemical weapons. The U.N. inspectors will be reporting their findings; that will add more information to the record as to what happened on August 21st. We’re also open to addressing the issue of chemical weapons through the Security Council. But we just don’t see a likelihood that that will lead anywhere.
So we’re seeking to create the broadest possible political and diplomatic support for the notion that an international norm has been violated, that a response is merited, and that the Assad regime has to be held accountable.
Q But is it also fair to say that at the dinner the President did not achieve a consensus among the leaders on the need for military action?
MR. RHODES: I don’t think the President ever anticipated that we’d achieve consensus on military action if Russia, for instance, is at the table. So I think --
Q Or a majority of leaders?
MR. RHODES: Well, yes, I think that’s the goal -- look, I’ll let other countries characterize their view -- the goal is to speak to the broadest number of countries that can be supportive of a strong international response. And the U.S. has made clear that that would be a military response from the United States as we pursue a Congressional authorization.
We believe that there are a majority of countries here who understand the importance of the issue, understand who is accountable for the use of chemical weapons, and appreciate that there needs to be international response.
Q Can you clarify a little bit on China? Because I know neither leader spoke about Syria at the top. I’m just trying to catch up with what you were saying. It sounded like they did talk about it and the President did make the case, but could you go over that again? And are you expecting that there would be some kind of a G20 statement on Syria before we go home? And can you give us the outlines of what it would say, and any kind of count besides of Australia and France of who is now saying --
MR. RHODES: On the China question, they touched on Syria. It was not a significant portion of the discussion, frankly, in part because it was addressed at the dinner last night. The fact of the matter is China, too, has been unwilling to support action through the Security Council. But to be candid, this is one of those issues where Russia really is in the lead in terms of its support for the Assad regime.
So I think it has not been the principal issue in the U.S.-China relationship by any measure. For instance, North Korea was a much more extended discussion today given our close cooperation on that issue.
We would not contemplate having a G20 communiqué statement on Syria because this is an international organization that’s focused on economic issues, unlike the G8, where you bring in political and security issues. So that’s a not a precedent we’re looking to set to bring in political and security issues to the kind of working sessions and communiqué at the G20.
What we would look for today is the question you asked, which is which of those countries will express support for the fundamental importance of enforcing the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. And I don’t want to speak for other countries, I think they’ll speak for themselves today, but we believe that there is a solid number of U.S. allies and partners who are supportive of that notion, and we’ll continue to work with them throughout today.
Q Do you expect that the U.S. will be able to read out for us at the end of G20 who those groups are, or are we just going to scurry around and --
MR. RHODES: Yes, we'll have a better sense at the end of the day. We'll let the sessions conclude first.
Q Ben, speaking of Geneva II, is there any progress towards talks or momentum in that direction? And if not, why do you believe that that is still a viable path forward? And a lot of these countries that you're seeking support from have said -- suggested they might be supportive of that, but they're waiting to see what Congress does. So has the President's decision to go to Congress made it more difficult to get other countries on board?
MR. RHODES: At the end of the day I think the President's decision to go to Congress will strengthen our ability to build international support because people will see that the President is acting with the backing of the U.S. Congress. And that inherently puts him in a stronger position internationally and it also grounds what we're doing in a very firm legitimacy at home.
On Geneva II, I think, frankly, all the discussion around the use of chemical weapons has actually only heightened the focus on Geneva II, because what we've seen on August 21st, no matter how you look at it, was an outrageous use of chemical weapons. We're focused on enforcing the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. But, clearly, it also is a further destabilizing factor in Syria. And to the extent that countries are concerned about the direction of the conflict, to the extent that countries are concerned about the potential of U.S. military action -- and I'm thinking of Russia here -- I think that further incentivizes solving the underlying problem, which is Syria's civil war and the continuing brutality of the Assad regime and the risk that an ongoing civil war provides safe haven for extremism over time.
We should see a reinvestment in the Geneva process as a way to get at that underlying problem. And I think you actually sense a greater deal of urgency around that solution, given what's happened in the last couple of weeks.
Q Any chance the ban on Russian adoptions will be brought up at any time during the President's time here?
MR. RHODES: I'm not aware that we brought it up to date. I can check. And the fact of the matter is, of course, this is an issue that is very important to many American families, so it's one we regularly raise with Russia. But since we haven't had a bilateral meeting, I'm not aware that that's come up.
Q Ben, you stressed that in the bilateral with China that North Korea was a major issue talked about. Was there any concern expressed about the way that the international community responds to Syria could have some sort of example for either emboldening or helping to curtail the North Korea regime?
MR. RHODES: I think we've made clear that if you essentially undermined the international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, that doesn't just embolden Assad, it emboldens other dictators, other regimes, potentially terrorist groups to feel like these weapons can be used with impunity.
North Korea, of course, is another country that has stockpiles of chemical weapons. And the last thing we want to do is send a signal that these weapons are fair game, that they're being reintroduced into the 21st century battlefield. That would only pose a greater threat to South Korea and to the American servicemembers there.
But in the bilateral itself, there was not that direct connection drawn.
Q About an economic issue, how did President Obama explain about the tapering of QE? And was there any quantitative easing? And was there any complaints or concerns expressed by emerging market countries?
MR. RHODES: I think that this has been an issue discussed at the G20 broadly. In the bilateral meeting, I will tell you that this is not a source of tension between the United States and China in any significant way. I think we remain committed to growth. And the important thing for China and the world economy is a growing American economy. And we're going to continue to take steps that we can in the short and medium term to promote growth even as we are dealing with our deficits.
More generally, what we've said is that emerging economies can't simply look to the United States for demand; that part of having a balanced, sustainable path to growth is going to have to include a greater demand generated from within emerging economies. In fact, China is aiming to do that in some of their economic reforms. And we believe that's a trend that other emerging economies should take, because while the U.S. economy can be an engine for global growth, it can't be the only source. And that's been the focus of the President's comments at the G20.
Q Did the President describe last night at the dinner what kind of military response he was thinking of? Does he still call it a “shot across Syria's bow”? Is it true that he has asked for a much more aggressive list of targets of chemical weapons, not just -- of facilities that might support chemical weapons use?
MR. RHODES: I think what the President said here is the same thing he said at home, which is that this would be a limited military action, would not involve U.S. boots on the ground, it would not be open-ended. It would not have the aim of accomplishing regime change through military force. What we want to do is to deter the further use of chemical weapons, to degrade the Assad regime’s capabilities as it relates to chemical weapons. And there’s a broad spectrum of military options available to the President to accomplish those goals.
On the particular reports you reference, I think it would be an overstatement to suggest that we are changing the nature of this mission through the process of the debate on Congress. We've always made very clear what our goals are. And the military will put forward options that best achieve those goals. But, again, it’s a limited and focused military intervention that the President has taken to Congress.
Q The phrase, “shot across the bow” still applies?
MR. RHODES: Well, it still applies insofar as it references deterrence, and that’s what we want to do. We want to deter the further use of chemical weapons, given the risk it poses to the Syrian people but also to the broader international prohibition on chemical weapons.
Q Can the U.S. do a strike without any additional funds from Congress?
MR. RHODES: Without what?
Q Any additional funds from Congress.
MR. RHODES: I think the Pentagon has spoken to this, so they’d be best to answer the question. My understanding is, yes, that this is something that can be dealt with within the existing budget. But, again, I believe it’s been spoken to in testimony and that's probably the most complete source for this.
Q That would involve a reprogramming of funds, then, right?
MR. RHODES: Well, that's what the Pentagon can speak to better than me. I'm not sure that it would involve any additional funding.
Q And is there a cost estimate?
MR. RHODES: Again, not that I have. That would be for the Pentagon. What I would say is what we're contemplating is nowhere near the magnitude of what the -- it’s a fraction of the magnitude of what Iraq and Afghanistan cost. And even Libya, which was a more sustained intervention with a no-fly zone that was enforced.
So, again, the limited nature of the strike applies to the cost as well as to the fact that there are no boots on the ground.
Q The State Department said that Glyn Davies will travel to China and South Korea next week. Any expected timeframe for the resumption of talks on denuclearization? And also, Ben, I think this is the third summit meeting between President Obama and President Xi, and you were present most of the times. How would you describe the personal relationship between the two Presidents and their chemistry? Good chemistry between them, or no chemistry, or what? Thanks.
MR. MEDEIROS: Let me take the second question first. Based on the President’s meeting with Xi at Sunnylands, when they had extensive and extended interactions, I’d say they’ve got a very cordial, very professional relationship. They spent quite a bit of time at Sunnylands talking about a broad range of issues, both domestic and international priorities, which allowed them to understand each other’s perspectives on their responsibilities.
And so I can say that they’ve got a very professional relationship that allows them to talk very directly to one another in a constructive way that allows them to determine where we can best cooperate on the major regional and international challenges facing both countries.
On your first statement -- on your first question about Glyn Davies’s travel, there is no expectation. We don’t support resumption of talks simply for the sake of a resumption of talks. Our policy on this issue is very, very clear that until North Korea demonstrates that it’s serious about denuclearization, until it recommits to denuclearization, until it signals that it’s serious about some kind of dialogue or negotiation process, we’re really not interested in --
Q And the U.S.-China cyber working group -- how has it progressed so far since its establishment? Any protocols or agreement that have been achieved yet?
MR. MEDEIROS: There’s been one meeting with the cyber working group so far. We’re working on setting up another one. I’d say the first meeting was quite productive. It was really about setting the agenda for what the cyber working group is going to work on. The aim of this particular effort is to develop rules and norms that help guide the interactions of both countries and others, eventually, on issues related to cybersecurity.
Q On the issue of Brazil, did the President and President Rousseff talk about a state visit? Was there any -- did she cancel? Did she not cancel?
MR. RHODES: I think that we believe that it’s an important signal of the progression in the U.S.-Brazil relationship for there to be a state visit. I don’t have specific details of their discussion on that issue. They were, frankly, really just talking one-on-one for most of the time.
But my understanding is what the President made clear is that we have intelligence collection that is focused principally on national security threats like counterterrorism and weapons of mass destruction that I think are broadly accepted as threats to the world. But we respect the very strong views that Brazil has about its concerns related to the NSA disclosures and we want to address those concerns. And we’re going to continue to work with them to provide information about what we do and don’t do in terms of intelligence gathering, what type of understanding we can come to related to our intelligence gathering and the concerns that Brazil has expressed.
And we think we can work those issues through on a bilateral basis to try to address their concerns, but keep the relationship moving forward more broadly, because we cooperate on energy issues, economic issues, hemispheric issues with Brazil, and we want to see continued progress.
Q In terms of other meetings about Syria, what kind of meetings have you had that haven’t involved the President? What kind of meetings has Susan Rice had? How are those conversations progressing at those levels?
MR. RHODES: I had six hours of meetings here at the international filing center yesterday with members of the international press, so I haven’t had that many meetings with counterparts. Susan I think has been speaking very regularly with her counterparts here at the G20. I think she'll have some additional meetings today. So we can get you the specifics on that. But while the President has been in the summit sessions, Susan and other officials who are here have been able to talk on the margins with just about probably all the representatives -- representatives of all the countries here on Syria and other issues.
Q One more thing. Has the President had any conversations with members of Congress since he’s been here about Syria?
MR. RHODES: Yesterday, we updated you that he had spoken to five senators, a bipartisan group. We didn't read out individual names. Yesterday, I think he was in meetings all day, so I'm not aware that he made any calls yesterday. But we'll keep you updated if he makes any additional calls.
Q Has President Obama had any personal interaction with President Putin so far?
MR. RHODES: Not that I'm aware of beyond participation in the multilateral summits. They obviously greeted each other, but they didn't have a kind of pull-aside discussion that I'm aware of at this point --
Q -- U.S. military action, have they said that?
MR. RHODES: Well, David Cameron -- when the President made his statement in the Rose Garden, I think David Cameron immediately said he supported President Obama's position.
Q I know we'll have a more updated list by the end of the day, but right now is it France, Australia and the UK, and is that it?
MR. RHODES: No, I think we've -- I know there's a lot of discussion on this from Washington. I'll let other countries speak for themselves. I don't want to start making lists here, because then you leave somebody off.
Q That's okay. (Laughter.)
Q Oh, go ahead.
MR. RHODES: Look, I think what you see is -- I'll just speak generally about I think a number of our European allies understand the need for a response. I think a number of Arab countries understand the need for a response. We've been discussing this with countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE and Qatar. Turkey, of course, has been outspoken on this issue. And we're discussing this with our Asian allies here, too.
I don't want to start running a tally here because that risks speaking for another country that should speak for themselves, or leaving somebody off. But I think we'll continue to look for what countries say throughout the day here and in the days to come while Secretary Kerry travels to meet some of his European and Arab counterparts.
Q Ben, when you say that these countries understand the need for a response, does that mean that they support a military response by the U.S.? And how is that support kind of taking shape?
MR. RHODES: I think a number of countries support the notion that there needs to be a military response to what took place in Syria. In terms of participation, we're not contemplating a military operation that necessitates a significant number of countries coming onboard, as we did in Libya where you had a no-fly zone that had to be enforced over time. Some countries have indicated some interest in participation. The French, of course, have been quite outspoken on this, for instance.
But we believe that even without participation it's important for countries to speak up for the international norm prohibiting these chemical weapons. And so we can look for that type of political and diplomatic support for our efforts, and that's what we're going to continue to do going forward. We still, of course, want to see an authorization from Congress. I think as the U.N. process goes forward, as the U.N. inspectors report back their findings, that may inform the decision-making of additional countries.
So this is an evolving process. But our goal is to seek support from the U.S. Congress, and to seek the broadest possible international support for the notion of a response, which, of course, we've made clear is a military response. So there's no illusion as to what the U.S. is contemplating.
1:04 P.M. MSK