Press Call on the U.S.-ASEAN Summit
ON-THE-RECORD PRESS CALL
BY BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS
AND DAN KRITENBRINK, SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR ASIAN AFFAIRS
ON THE U.S.-ASEAN SUMMIT
5:38 P.M. EST
MR. PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining today’s call. We wanted to offer an opportunity to speak to you about next week’s U.S.-ASEAN summit at Sunnylands. First, a bit on attribution for this call -- this will be on the record. We have two senior administration officials. The first is Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor. He is also joined by Dan Kritenbrink, the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Asian Affairs. This call will be on the record, but it will be embargoed until the end of the call, so we would ask that you not use any material from this call until it concludes.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to Ben and go from there.
MR. RHODES: Great, thanks. I’ll just go through the schedule, and then some of the key objectives of the summit in Sunnylands, and then see if Dan has anything to add, and then we’ll take your questions.
So just first on the schedule, the summit events begin on Monday afternoon, February 15th. The President will be greeting each of the leaders as they arrive at the summit, and then they will go into the first working session, which will focus on the economy, specifically promoting regional prosperity through innovation and entrepreneurship. Then, that evening, the leaders will have a working dinner at Sunnylands.
The next morning, they will have another plenary session, this one focused on security issues, specifically protecting peace, prosperity, and security in the Asia Pacific. And then at the conclusion of that session, there will be a family photo with the different leaders, and then the President will hold a press conference.
On the summit itself and the objectives -- oh, and let me just add, before I go into that, that the President will be joined at the summit by Secretary Kerry, Secretary Pritzker, and Ambassador Froman, our trade representative. Again, I think that speaks to the breadth of our government-to-government engagement with the different ASEAN countries. We also expect there to be business leaders who will be able to join the summit and participate in some of the economic discussions on the first day -- again, given the interest that the U.S. business community has in ASEAN and the important of ASEAN to the future of the U.S. economy.
This is a truly unique and historic occurrence with the President hosting these leaders in a standalone U.S.-ASEAN Summit here in the United States. And it’s central to the President’s broader strategy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific region, which he has pursued since he took office.
When we took office, our belief was that the U.S. was underweighted in the Asia Pacific, and that was represented in the way in which we were engaging with the different regional institutions and the regional architecture. Now, ASEAN is of enormous interest to the United States. The 10 ASEAN nations together represent the world’s seventh largest economy. They are at the nexus of critical security issues, whether it’s maritime security, counterterrorism, or counter-piracy. And their efforts are essential to combatting the threat of climate change.
And important, though, we also saw ASEAN as central to our efforts to engage the Asia Pacific architecture. Our alliances with our traditional allies in the Asia-Pacific are the cornerstone of our engagement in the region, but we see ASEAN as the hub of the regional architecture that is emerging. We engage at the head-of-state level through APEC on economic and commercial issues. But increasingly through this administration, we’ve engaged with ASEAN and with the East Asia Summit to address economic and political and security issues, as well.
We want to make very clear that the United States is going to be at the table and a part of setting the agenda in the Asia Pacific in the decades to come. In order to do that, we need to be engaging organizations like ASEAN at the highest levels. And so this summit is meant to send a signal going forward that the U.S. values ASEAN, that we are going to be engaged in Southeast Asia, we’re going to be engaged in working with the nations of the Asia Pacific to set clear rules of the road on the various issues of common interest that we share with them.
One of those, of course, is economic issues in trade and investment. And collectively, ASEAN represents America’s fourth largest trading partner, and our exports to ASEAN support hundreds of thousands of jobs and we are the largest source of foreign direct investment in ASEAN.
Importantly of note, we have several TPP countries in ASEAN to include Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia, and we also see interest in TPP from other members of ASEAN, as well. So this is a region that the President has prioritized in his economic engagement because it’s a growing market that is going to be central to driving American growth and job creation going forward.
ASEAN has been working to integrate their own economies through the ASEAN community, and that creates new opportunities for us to engage the collective of ASEAN in deepening our trade and commercial ties.
Of course there are a number of critical security issues that will be discussed. One of those is maritime security, including the situation in the South China Sea. And so this will be an opportunity for the leaders to discuss some of the recent events that have taken place in the South China Sea, including the test flights at the newly constructed runway in Fiery Cross Reef. The U.S. will be underscoring the importance of resolving any territorial disputes consistent with international norms and international law, and we will continue to underscore the principle that these issues have to be resolved consistent with international norms and not through bigger nations bullying smaller ones.
So there will be a discussion around maritime security. There will also be a discussion around counterterrorism. The recent attack in Jakarta highlights the efforts that ISIL and other extremist groups have made to try to establish a foothold in the region. We work in partnership with ASEAN countries on issues related to counterterrorism and law enforcement cooperation and countering violent extremism, and we’ll want to have the dialogue about the emerging security picture in the region as it relates to the threat of terrorism.
As I mentioned earlier, we have spent a lot of time working with ASEAN countries on issues involving energy and the environment. And the successful agreement in Paris depended in part on our ability to work closely with ASEAN countries as they pursue their own individual climate targets and more environmentally sustainable models of the economic development. So that will continue to be a focus.
Of course, there are varying degrees of democratic governance in the different ASEAN countries. And the U.S., of course, supports universal values related to freedom of expression, freedom of speech, the ability of civil society to organize and be productive in different countries. So, of course, the President will be lifting up the need for good governance, the rule of law, accountable institutions, and not just in ASEAN but around the world.
Again, we’ve seen some good progress in some ASEAN countries in recent years. Burma is in the midst of an historic transition to an NLD-led government with a new parliament that has recently been seated, and the selection of a president in the coming weeks. At the same time, we’re always mindful of the need to make continued progress in supporting the rights of civil society and those seeking to exercise their universal values.
And then, finally, I’d just note that we’ve expanded significantly our people-to-people engagement with Southeast Asia. The President has initiated the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative that has captured significant energy across the region. So we’ll be looking for ways to continue to enhance our people-to-people engagement, our focus on young people, and ways in which we can take these increasing ties between our governments and our business communities, but also see similar growth in the ties between our peoples.
With that, I’ll see if Dan -- if you have anything to add, and then we’ll go to questions.
MR. KRITENBRINK: That was fantastic, Ben. I would just add this is a tremendous opportunity for us to highlight, I think, the breadth and depth of our new strategic partnership with ASEAN. And I’m excited for the discussions that our leaders will be able to have and our ability, again, to shine a bright light on the tremendous cooperation that we have and that we hope to continue going forward with this part of the world.
Q Hi, and thanks for making yourselves available. Ben, I think you might have covered some of this, but I was very interested in how the idea for the summit came about, why the President thought it was important to host the ASEAN leaders in the U.S. for a meeting like this. And is this something that he is hoping that his successor will continue in the years to come? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Yeah, so -- look, the President made this shift early in the administration to begin to engage the ASEAN Summit in Asia at the head-of-state level and to do that on an annual basis. And what that did is that put us at the table with ASEAN in a way that evolved into the strategic partnership we announced last year. It also put us at the table in the East Asia Summit process, which is only a recent innovation in the Asia-Pacific architecture, but which brings together ASEAN countries, but also countries like China, the United States, India, Russia, Japan, Australia, and others.
And the reason that's so important is the Asia-Pacific is the largest emerging market in the world. It’s a place where there are many different security challenges that bear directly on our interests. And frankly, it doesn't have the same type of evolved institutions and arrangements that our transatlantic community has, that we have with Europe. And so really this architecture for how problems are going to be solved in the Asia Pacific is still evolving.
And by engaging at the head-of-state level with ASEAN, we're able to be at the table in shaping that architecture. And frankly, what happens when leaders come together every year is essentially that develops a work plan that governments follow where we're deepening our cooperation in all of these different areas. So how are we developing better counterterrorism cooperation? How are we aligning our positions as it relates to critical security challenges in the region? How are we working together to fight the shared threat of climate change? And importantly, how are we opening the markets and overcoming barriers to trade and investment in ways that serve all of our interests?
So that's been the guiding principle for why we’ve engaged at this level. As we looked to the last year and the things that the President wanted to do, I think he wanted to send a signal that Southeast Asia has to be a key priority for the United States going forward, and that by bringing all of these leaders here to the United States, to Sunnylands, we could both finalize what we want to get done in this last year in office, but also send the message going forward that we do believe there should be this level of engagement with Southeast Asia.
And I think he sent a similar message when he hosted all of the African leaders here at a head-of-state level for the first time in the United States, and went to the African Union last year. These are emerging regions that are going to matter more to us. And part of what he’s been trying to do in our foreign policy is demonstrate that we need to have a truly global focus. And that means engaging at the top level with these countries.
So that's what guided his focus, and we do believe that it’s important that that is a message that is carried forward under future administrations.
Now, the key way that that will take place is by going the ASEAN summits that are in Asia. This is a unique occurrence to host people here in the United States. And I’d note that this begins a year of very sustained engagement in the Asia-Pacific. He’ll have two trips to Asia that we're already aware of -- one anchored around the G7 meeting in Japan in May, and then another with the summits -- the G20 in China and the ASEAN meeting in Laos in September. So this will kick off, I think, a year of significant attention on the Asia-Pacific.
And just the very last thing I’d say is some of the key priorities we're trying to get done this year bear very much on this region. We want to get TPP approved. That involves a number of these countries. We want to have a truly global coalition against ISIL. That involves a number of these countries. And we’d like to leave the United States in a stronger position in the Asia-Pacific, and that certainly involves all of them.
Q My question is, you have a very diverse set of countries here, some very large economies and population; others much smaller. Some are more democracies or heading toward some sort of representative democracy; others are not. And some are very wealthy and others are very much developing. Can you talk about ASEAN as a big bloc, but they all have sort of different levels of development? I’m trying to get a sense of how you can engage them in a group like this, but recognize that they’re at different stages and send maybe nuanced messages to each one.
MR. RHODES: That’s a really good question. Let me just start, and then Dan will certainly want to get in. You’re certainly right -- there’s a huge diversity of size, development, democracy across ASEAN. One point I’d make is that ASEAN has worked over the last several years to try to develop more of a collective identity and develop what they call an ASEAN community. And that is useful for us because it allows us to engage the collective.
So when we’re talking about trade and investment issues, when we’re talking about maritime security issues, when we’re talking about issues around energy cooperation, it’s a way of engaging all 10 countries at once. And so the more that they are working to integrate the ASEAN community, the easier it is for us to engage across a diverse set of countries. And so we’ve encouraged ASEAN integration. That makes it easier for us to harmonize a discussion on these various issues.
I’d just point to two things underneath that. One is, on democracy, which you mentioned, it is absolutely the case that you see a variance of where countries are. But at the same time, I think countries can look to one another to see how the process of democratization moves forward.
So, Indonesia has undergone a democratic transition over the last two decades, from military rule to a civilian, democratically elected government. And they’ve wrestled with difficult challenges -- they’ve wrestled with insurgencies, different types of violence -- but they’ve I think stuck to an impressive democratic transition. You have a country like Burma that is wrestling with some of those same issues as they move from a military-led government to a civilian-elected government, as they deal with the national reconciliation process.
These issues are not exactly the same in different countries, but the point is there are elements that can be drawn from different countries as they wrestle with similar challenges.
And then on an issue like maritime security, you have a circumstance in the South China Sea, for instance, where you have a number of these countries in ASEAN that are claimants and some that aren’t. The point that we’ve made is that the U.S. doesn’t take a particular position with respect to claims, but what everybody should be able to agree upon is that, one, it is better to avoid inadvertent and unnecessary escalation with respect to military action or militarization in the South China Sea. That should be a common interest. Whether you’re a claimant or not a claimant, you want to see stability. You also want to see principles upheld, like freedom of navigation, that benefit everybody -- because people depend on open sea lanes, and people depend upon predictable commerce. And that’s why we’ve underscored that our actions in the South China Sea are about upholding principles like freedom of navigation.
And then lastly, everybody has an interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes consistent with international law. Whether you’re a claimant or not -- that that principle is something that we all benefit from. So our ability to have that discussion with ASEAN as a whole is important and, frankly, a more effective form of dialogue than just going individual claimant to individual claimant, because we think that these are a shared set of interests.
MR. KRITENBRINK: Ben, I would just underscore what you said by making a couple of additional points. I think given the diversity in ASEAN, we think one effective way going forward is focus on the general principles that I think should guide all of us going forward. For example, in the economic and trade sessions, we want to use innovation and entrepreneurship as a vehicle for talking about the effective policy changes that every country can and should make, no matter their size -- whether it’s protecting intellectual property or having an open and transparent investment system and the like.
Secondly, I would say that all countries of ASEAN, together with the United States, we face a number of shared challenges, whether it’s climate, countering violent extremism, or global health.
Third, I think one of the President’s primary emphases in the region has been on building a rules-based order whereby every country, whether large or small, plays by the same rules -- and that gives us our best opportunity for maintaining peace and stability going forward.
And my final point would be -- of course, during this summit and nearly 24 hours on the ground, we anticipate the President will have many opportunities for pull-asides with individual leaders, and in those opportunities he can pass tailored messages to individual leaders.
Q Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. At the end of last month, the U.S. hit another FONOP operation in the South China Sea, which a lot of ASEAN countries have welcomed. I’m wondering if you can give us -- or if President Obama at the summit will give ASEAN leaders a sense of how frequently they can expect that from the U.S. And conversely, is there -- other than settling various claimant disputes through international tribunals, is there more that the U.S. would like to see ASEAN countries doing to combat the Chinese monopoly in the South China Sea? Thanks.
MR. RHODES: Well, I think the President will give the other leaders a very direct sense of his thinking as he approaches the issues in the South China Sea, including the issue of how we’re going to continue to promote the principle of freedom of navigation, how we think about our presence in the region, and the partnerships that we have with different militaries in the region. And we’ve worked to develop not just strong ties with our allies -- and we had a recent step forward with the Philippines in the approval of our access agreement -- but also how we’re working cooperatively with different militaries on upholding important principles, whether it’s on maritime security or counter-piracy and other issues.
On the message with respect to ASEAN and China, again, our point is not to privilege one claim over another, but rather to work with ASEAN to try to find ways to ensure that collectively they’re working to support international principles to resolve disputes consistent with international law and to avoid efforts to resolve those disputes through one bigger nation bullying a smaller one. That's been our guiding set of principles.
But I think they’ll have an ability to discuss the current environment, acknowledge some of the recent tensions, and try to chart a way forward that instills confidence that we are going to be a source of stability and fair and peaceful resolution of these disputes.
MR. KRITENBRINK: I think, again, the President will emphasize that our focus is promoting and sustaining a rules-based order, and that includes -- that applies to the maritime domain, as well.
And specifically, we’d like all countries to recognize the importance of freedom of navigation or freedom of overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, and the use of international law to resolve those disputes. And more specifically, I anticipate that the President will continue to call on claimants to halt land reclamation, construction of new facilities, and to carry out no militarization of outposts in the South China Sea. So I think those will be other messages that the President will promote.
And could I make just one comment on China, as well. Just to emphasize again, this is the summit about the United States and our increasingly broad and deep relationship with ASEAN. Some of these relations will -- some of these issues that will be discussed will have some relation with China. But again, the focus is on our relationship with ASEAN.
And I also anticipate the President will make clear, as he often does, we are committed to building the most constructive, productive relationship with China possible whereby we maximize cooperation and constructively manage differences. And we would expect our friends in ASEAN to do the same.
Q Hey, guys. Thanks for doing the call. I have another South China Sea question. I’m wondering if you expect there to be a joint statement on the South China Sea at the end of the summit. And how you respond to some of the ideas that we’ve heard that China is pressuring some of non-claimant countries like Cambodia and Laos and Thailand, since they don't have claims, to not sign on to whatever statement the U.S. and the rest of the countries, specifically the claimant countries, want to put out on this.
And then secondly, I’m wondering if the issue with North Korea is going to come up and whether or not your efforts to get China to work with you on North Korea could make it more difficult for you to have a strong statement on what they're doing in the South China Sea.
MR. KRITENBRINK: Could I provide an initial response? I would say that I don't want to preview what kind of statements may or may not come out of the summit. What I would say is, as Ben previewed, maritime issues will be one of several topics to be addressed at the summit. I think it’s an important one. And I think our focus will remain I think the common unifying principles that many of us adhere to.
We were quite encouraged last November at the East Asia Summit in which the discussion in the room revealed that there is actually great consensus in the region behind these broader principles, like supporting freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, and basing claims in international law. So I expect that will be the focus of the conversation here at Sunnylands, as well.
On the issue of North Korea, I think we made very clear our position on North Korea over the last few days. We’ve condemned the latest provocation that’s been carried out by North Korea. We have reassured our allies in the region, beginning with South Korea and Japan, of our ironclad security commitments to them. And we’ve made clear that we will take a number of steps, including in New York at the U.N., to demonstrate to North Korea that there are consequences for its actions.
China is an important partner in that effort and will remain so going forward. And I’m sure, as you’ve seen over the last week, the President has spoken with President Xi Jinping on the phone about how to address the North Korean threat, and he did the same last night with the leaders of the ROK and Japan, as well. And I would anticipate, given the importance of this issue, it will also be addressed at Sunnylands.
MR. RHODES: And I’d just add on the first question, again, our view is that this should not be a matter where these principles matter to claimants but they don’t matter to non-claimants. The fact is, everybody has an interest in freedom of navigation and open sea lanes and the avoidance of conflict and militarization, and in international law and a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific.
That’s a scenario in which everybody benefits. And what we’ve heard time and again from our ASEAN partners, whether they’re claimants or not, is that type of stable, rules-based order is what creates the environment for continued economic development and continued development of our political and diplomatic relations.
And, look, that involves the U.S. having a constructive relationship with China, as well; that these not be seen as zero-sum issues, but rather issues where we have a set of common principles. And this summit will be an opportunity to reinforce that so that it’s not simply a matter of these principles are of interest to claimants but not to non-claimants. I think this matter is to everyone.
On North Korea, I’d just say a couple things. One is, obviously we’re focused on the response to the latest provocation. We’ve also worked with some of these countries over many years to address a range of security challenges related to North Korea. For instance, proliferation concerns, work that we’ve done with different countries through our counter-proliferation efforts to ensure that North Korea is not able to export materiel that could serve a proliferation purpose. And we’ve had good cooperation on that.
Some of these countries have reduced their relations with North Korea, their military-to-military cooperation. So I think we’ve had some good progress with ASEAN countries on that set of issues.
And frankly, we’ve also seen good engagement in these multilateral settings on these issues related to nonproliferation. And as I mentioned before, the East Asia Summit has been a venue for our ally, the Republic of Korea, to also engage ASEAN, as well.
Q Thank you, gentlemen, for taking the time. Since I don’t talk to you guys very often, I got lost. And, Dan and Ben, actually, if you could just tell me who answered AP’s first question. Was it Dan or Ben?
MR. RHODES: That was Ben.
Q Ben, for AP, the first question. Okay, thanks. My question is, aside from the focus of the summit, what other plans -- we’re a local paper in Palm Springs -- what are the President’s plans for any side trips such as touring some desert areas that he can designate as national monuments under the Antiquities Act, or visiting Twentynine Palms. Can you speak to any other side trips that he’s taking?
MR. RHODES: I wouldn’t want to get ahead of my White House colleagues. They’ll have more detailed information about the President’s schedule over the time that he’ll be out there. We’ll just be able to speak to the national security side of things. So you should anticipate getting more information from the White House Press Office on that in the coming days.
The only thing I’d just say of interest for your readership is that the President has really come to enjoy Sunnylands as a good venue to have these types of open discussions with leaders. It’s a more relaxed and informal setting than having a summit here in our government offices. He was able to have good discussions with Xi Jinping and King Abdullah at Sunnylands. And so it lends itself to kind of a stepped-back, broader strategic set of discussions in a very peaceful setting in which the leaders can get to know one another and really try to dig in over an extended period of time in a way that you couldn’t in an one-hour meeting here at the White House.
He’s been back there now several times in the last few years, and he’s appreciated the ability to take his fellow leaders out of the bubble, as it were, of Washington, and to have a more free-flowing discussion in a fairly peaceful but spectacular setting in California.
Q Hi there. Well, I hate to use that word “deliverables,” but are there any specific agreements or anything you would like to see or expect to see coming out of this meeting, maybe along the lines of the coalition against ISIS or something like that? Thanks.
MR. RHODES: So obviously we wouldn’t want to get ahead of the meeting. I think what this mainly is, is an opportunity to set the work plan, essentially, for the U.S. and ASEAN going forward. So we will be looking for specific ways in which we can increase our trade and commercial relationship, particularly in these areas around innovation. We’ll be looking for ways to cooperate with those countries that are concerned about ISIL’s efforts to gain a foothold in the region. That obviously varies among different countries. We’re looking, as I said, to increase our people-to-people ties. And we’ll be looking to develop a common set of principles for how we respond to a whole host of issues, whether it’s maritime security that we’ve discussed at length or the other challenges confronting the U.S. and ASEAN.
So I think there will be, in different areas, a different set of plans, a different set of details, depending on what the issue is. And we’ll provide you with updates on that over the course of the summit.
We’ll take one more question.
Q Hi. I wanted to -- sorry, it’s loud here (inaudible) in New Hampshire. But I wanted to follow up Toluse’s question. Obviously, China is a big undercurrent at this summit. The site itself is where President Obama met President Xi. And you guys were having some North Korea discussions, and there’s been rumors of contention between the U.S. and China on this issue. And so can you more specifically address whether or not there will be anything about this summit that is calibrated because of those discussions? Thanks.
MR. RHODES: Sounds like you're going to have an entertaining evening there in New Hampshire.
I’d just say that -- look, the fact of the matter is, over the course of the last seven years, this is kind of central to our entire approach to our Asia Pacific policy, which is that we have been able to focus on our core alliances, develop relations with these emerging powers in Southeast Asia, and have a very productive U.S.-China relationship.
And at any given time in the U.S.-China relationship, there are going to be areas where we cooperate, and there are going to be areas where we have differences. And so for instance, we would not have been able to achieve some of the most significant breakthroughs that we’ve had in our foreign policy absent cooperation with China. If you look at the Paris climate agreement, or if you look at the Iran nuclear deal, both of those involved significant cooperation from China.
At the same time, we’ve had strong differences with China on a range of issues -- again, whether it’s on cyber or differences with respect to actions in the South China Sea, for instance.
But our whole point is that the relationship with China is big enough that we can have a difference on one issue and try to find ways to cooperate on another. And we don't allow for there to be the type of spillover in which we are unable to work together on something because we have a difference on a separate issue. So to be very specific, we share an interest in denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. China does not benefit from the types of provocations that we’ve seen from North Korea in the recent weeks. And so we approach China on the basis that we have a shared interest in the principle of denuclearization and the avoiding of escalation on the Korean Peninsula.
At the same time, it is always going to be the U.S. position that we uphold principles like freedom of navigation, that we support the peaceful resolution of disputes consistent with international law. And so the important principle here is that the Chinese know where we're coming from, and that we're very clear and transparent with them, that we continue to preserve the areas where we can and must cooperate, and that if we have differences, we're candid with one another. And so that's guided our whole relationship.
Now, if you look at the ASEAN countries, they very much value the U.S. and China having a productive relationship. They don't want to see the U.S. and China in conflict. Even where some of them may have differences with China, I think they support our efforts to have open dialogue, to have our own military-to-military relationship with China, and to try to preserve that constructive cooperation.
So again, even as we deal with very sensitive issues and territorial disputes and these issues around maritime security, our positions are well known to China. The President was able to share them directly with Xi Jinping in their discussions.
At the same time, our shared interest in dealing with these provocations from North Korea will remain the same. So again, we will not be trimming our sails on any of these issues. On the contrary, we’ll be making clear that our role in the Asia Pacific -- whether it’s on maritime security or nonproliferation -- is to uphold international rules and international norms. That's what the countries of the region look to us for, and that's what will be our approach here at ASEAN.
Okay, well, thanks, everybody, for joining the call. And we’ll keep in touch through the summit.
END 6:20 P.M. EST