Ambassador’s Telephonic Press Briefing Transcript Post U.S. – ASEAN Summit 2016

U.S. - ASEAN Summit - Sunnylands

Listen to audio file. 

OPERATOR: Welcome to the readout of the U.S.-ASEAN Summit conference call. At this time all lines are in a listen-only mode and later we will conduct a question and answer session. If you would like to ask a question on tonight’s conference you can press * then 1 on your touchtone phone at any time. And as a reminder, tonight’s conference is being recorded. I would now like to turn the conference over to our host, Cynthia Gire with the US Department of State Office of International Media Engagement. Please go ahead.

MODERATOR: Thank you, and greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Media Engagement. I would like to welcome our journalists who have dialed in from throughout the Asia Pacific. Today, we are joined by U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN, Nina Hachigian who will brief us on the recent special U.S.-ASEAN Summit hosted by President Barak Obama in Rancho Mirage, California. I appreciate all of you taking your time out of today to participate in the briefing. Ambassador Hachigian will be speaking to us today from Jakarta, Indonesia. She will begin with opening remarks. We will then open it up to your questions. And with that, I will turn it over to the Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Good morning, everybody. Thank you, Cindy and your team for setting up this call so we can talk a little bit about last week’s special U.S.-ASEAN Summit at Sunnylands, California, which I had the honor of participating in. This is really a historic event with President Obama hosting for the first time a standalone summit with ASEAN leaders in the United States. And it was also the first summit that ASEAN held after launching its community at the beginning of this year. So it was a real honor for us.

The summit showed, to quote President Obama, the “commitment of the United States to ASEAN and its people, the commitment is and will remain strong and enduring.” The President was joined by Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Commerce Pritzker and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, which speaks to the breadth of our engagement with ASEAN.

The Summit amplified our commitment to this region, to ASEAN and to ASEAN centrality in a relaxed, informal and also very beautiful setting with the Mountain of San Jacinto in the background. The leaders had a chance to take stock in how far the relationship had come. The United States was the first country to employ a dedicated ambassador to ASEAN and open a mission, a dedicated mission to ASEAN. We became strategic partners in November and all the leaders offered a strong embrace of the new strategic partnership between ASEAN and the United States and more broadly of the United States presence and engagement in the region.

Leaders’ discussions covered many issues including trade and investment as well as security and transnational challenges. So on economics, as you may know, ASEAN represents America’s fourth largest trading partner and we have a quarter of a trillion dollars in annual trade. This trade supports millions of jobs at home and in the region and the United States is the largest source of foreign-direct investment in ASEAN.

At the Summit, leaders had a chance to discuss their economic engagement, including with three CEOs who joined for part of the sessions to discuss what countries can do to create an environment that is conducive to innovation. Leaders discussed how innovation will play a central role in their growth and that the United States is a vital partner. In terms of outcomes, at the Summit, President Obama announced U.S.-ASEAN Connect, which is a new initiative that will strengthen our economic engagement in Southeast Asia and build on our existing efforts to support ASEAN’s economic integration. It will become a network of regional hubs, three of them. And there are four subparts. There is Innovation Connect, Business Connect, Energy Connect and Policy Connect. And I can talk more about those later if you’re interested.

One of the new initiatives under Connect will be a series of trade workshops that respond to ASEAN’s growing interest in the TPP. Our trade officials will work with ASEAN officials to create a set of engagements that will describe how the TPP works on specific topics and answer questions of interest to them. As you know there are four ASEANs that are involved in TPP and a number of others have expressed an interest.

Another new initiative is English for ASEAN, which will help ASEAN citizens improve their business English. Also the President announced an Innovation Challenge contest that we will be conducting with our Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. It now has 66,000 members across the 10 ASEAN countries and it’s helping to forge an ASEAN identity. Our leaders also discussed transnational challenges in another session and their strong commitment to a regional order where international rules and norms are upheld.

The President announced new support for a border security initiative that will help to [inaudible] thwart foreign terrorist fighters. We also pledged our help in trafficking in persons. Leaders also discussed the need to lower tensions in the South China Sea including the halt to further reclamation, new construction and militarization of these needed areas. As President Obama said, “Any disputes between claimants in the region must be resolved peacefully through legal means such as the upcoming arbitration ruling under the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas which the parties are obligated to respect and abide by.”

The joint declaration that ASEAN and the U.S. released made clear our shared position on the importance of non-militarization as well as disputes being resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law including full support for legal and diplomatic processes. President Obama made clear that the United States will continue to work with ASEAN to advance rule of law, good governance and universal human rights of all people. Human rights continue to be central to our foreign policy and the President raised these issues repeatedly, publically as well as privately.

An overall message of the Summit was that ASEAN can count on the United States continuing to be engaged with the region, no matter who the next president is. We are investing in ASEAN because it’s in our clear national interest to do so. I thought I would run through five reasons why that’s true but it really comes down to three words: growth, stability and rules. So first, ASEAN is important to American prosperity. As I’ve said, we are the largest cumulative investors in Southeast Asia. ASEAN is a growing region with an expanding workforce and a growing middle class. The ASEAN economic community is helping to reduce barriers and offering new opportunities and the United States has been supporting the ASEAN economic community for many, many years now. So that’s the first reason.

The second reason is that ASEAN is a strategic partner for us on key transnational challenges including countering violent extremism, climate change, cyber security, wildlife trafficking, trafficking in persons. In Sunnylands, leaders agreed to work harder together to prevent such attacks as occurred in Jakarta and San Bernardino. On trafficking in persons, ASEAN signed its new landmark convention in 2015. Two ASEAN nations have ratified it and one-sixth have done so, it will go into effect and we will have better tools to combat what President Obama has called modern slavery. And as I said we will work with ASEAN to help implement this new convention.

Another challenge that I focused on during my time is the degradation of marine and coastal ecosystems and this marine bounty is under severe threat by climate change, by the construction of artificial islands, by harvesting endangered species, by legal and over-fishing. We’re partners of ASEAN on all these fronts. And moreover, new regulations that the United States is enacting will help prevent illegally caught fish from entering our ports and will send a powerful market signal to the region, which I think and hope will change behavior on the ground.

The third reason that ASEAN is important to the United States is that it is geopolitically stabilizing. It’s stabilizing because ASEAN works to institutionalize cooperation, threatens no one, dedicates itself to non-violence and seeks strategic independence. ASEAN forms the stabile center of a region with multiple big powers: China, Japan, India and the United States all have a big stake here. Whereas it could be difficult for any one ASEAN country to stand up to a big power when it takes actions that increases tensions and risks, ASEAN as a group can and has. We want Asia to continue to enjoy the peace that has allowed so many to prosper and ASEAN is a critical part of that.

In this sense, ASEAN has led by example. It has helped to preserve stability among its incredibly diverse member nations for nearly 50 years. If you think about the tumultuous geopolitical environment in Southeast Asia at the time of ASEAN’S founding in 1967, it’s remarkable that ASEAN has managed to forge and keep the peace until today.

A fourth reason why the United States is investing in ASEAN is that ASEAN convenes Asia. No one else brings together all the countries of Asia at the East Asia Summit every year, at the ASEAN Regional Forum and other forums to discuss difficult strategic questions. At the East Asia Summit last November in Kuala Lumpur, President Obama and leaders of half the world’s population discussed key political and security issues facing the region and the globe.

Finally but in some ways, the most important reason why the United States is focused on ASEAN is this: ASEAN plays a vital role in advancing the rules-based order for the Asia Pacific. What binds ASEAN together is a shared commitment to a set of principles. Three of them are the importance of rule of law, the peaceful resolution of disputes and the upholding of international law. Rules and norms provide the connective tissue of the ASEAN community. Common approaches, standards and rules are the currency of ASEAN. It is through their harmonization that countries are integrating.

ASEAN also shares our respect for international law, which is what connects it to outside powers and defines expectations for their behavior. Rules and norms create predictability. They create a sense of fairness because all countries have the same burden of compliance and responsibility. Common rules and norms foster habits of cooperation. In other words, over time, when countries followed shared rules and norms, it can create trust. That’s not easy, but in ASEAN, because the 10 countries agree on basic principles and its built up an infrastructure of rules and norms, they have developed that baseline of trust.

Beyond these five reasons, the United States and ASEAN are of course connected through personal and cultural links. The United States is a Pacific nation and we are bound to Southeast Asia by millions of threads through families, through educational exchanges, through tourism. After the Summit concluded the President said that the meeting “put the U.S.-ASEAN partnership on a new trajectory that will carry us to even greater heights in the decades ahead.” So with that, I will hand it back to Cindy to open it up for questions. Thanks very much for being part of this.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We will now open it up to question and answers from the journalists on the line. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to today’s topic, the recent U.S.-ASEAN Summit hosted by President Obama. With that, I’ll just remind you to press *1 on your phone to join the question queue. You need to press *1 on your phone to join the question queue.

Our first question was submitted by Zing Online in Vietnam. And the question is, in the U.S.-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit, U.S. President Barak Obama and Southeast Asian leaders talked about many aspects about disputed issues in the South China Sea. For example, President Barak Obama called for a halt to any new construction or militarization of the South China Sea and reaffirmed the U.S. right to operate freely in the international area. But why was the South China Sea not mentioned directly in the joint statement of the U.S.-ASEAN Special Leaders’ Summit?

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Thank you for that question. This was a very high-level declaration of broad principles that we share with ASEAN. If you read through it, you’ll see that it doesn’t mention specifics of any kind in any of the 17 paragraphs. It does, though, address the very important underlying principles that we ascribe to and that ASEAN subscribes to when it comes to the disputes in the South China Sea. You’ll find those in paragraphs seven and eight.

For example we confirm that they re-share a commitment to peace, security and stability in the region, ensuring maritime security and safety, including freedom of navigation and overflight and other useful, lawful uses of the Seas, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce as subscribed in the 1982 UN Convention on the Laws of Sea as well as non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities.

In past joint statements that we have had with ASEAN, we have actually mentioned the South China Sea but this again was a high-level document that really talked about principles. I would also note that in paragraph seven, the leaders agreed to a shared commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes. And that’s new language and was referred for example to the Philippines case brought under UNCLOS.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Kieu Oahn of Thunayan Online.

QUESTION: Hello? Hi.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Yes, I can hear you.


OPERATOR: Kieu Oahn, your line is open.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Yes, I can year you.

QUESTION: Yes, ma’am, my name is Kieu Oahn from Than Nien Online Vietnam. My question is that after the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, the US President Obama told (unintelligible) that he and ASEAN leaders discussed that there are tensions in the South China Seas and agree that any disputes will actually be resolved peacefully through legal means. Immediately after that, China deployed surface to air missiles in Woody Island. It’s not on the protest from international communities including the U.S. The after-summit deployment surprised the U.S. and do you see any mix to change the current strategy to stop willful (unintelligible) acts of China? I mean the strongest statutory difference on something like the U.S. and ASEAN even (unintelligible) to China in the statement after the Summit. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Thank you. I think that if I understood, it was a little bit garbled but if I understood your question correctly, you’re asking about the surface to air missiles. So we are very concerned that these actions are increasing tensions in the region and are counterproductive. I was encouraged to hear Foreign Minister Wang Yi yesterday express China’s commitment to non-militarization of the South China Sea as President Xi did last year and we hope that these words are followed up by actions.

As expressed in the Sunnylands Declaration, President Obama and leaders of ASEAN countries confirmed that we share commitment to peace, security and stability in the region. We continue to encourage all claimants to clarify their territorial maritime claims in accordance with international law and commit to peacefully manage or resolve these disputes, including through the peaceful dispute settlement mechanisms. We call on all claimants again to publically commit to a halt of further land reclamation, construction of new facilities and militarization of disputed features.

We continue to work with ASEAN member states to strengthen their maritime demeanor, awareness and presence in their own claimed waters.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Santi Dewi from Rappler.

QUESTION: Hello, good morning Ambassador Hachigian. My name is Santi. I work for Rappler Indonesia. So I have one specific question. So on deployments, our president, President Joko Widodo, was endorsing the idea to use social media to combat radicalism idealism and the idea was to (unintelligible) to meet President Obama’s (unintelligible) ASEAN leaders. So I’m just wondering how is the U.S. government will help to fulfill the idea. Thank you very much, ma’am.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: I heard most of that, but could you repeat very slowly and loudly the second part of what you said? I understood up until President Joko Widodo proposing to use social media to counter radicalism and then I couldn’t quite hear you after that.

QUESTION: Okay so I apologize. So how the U.S. government support to help to fulfill the idea of our President. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Thank you. Well, the leaders had a good discussion about counterterrorism and we think that President Joko Widodo is of course absolutely right in suggesting that part of the response to ISIL and to the problem of foreign terrorist fighters is to use social media. Because of course they are very active on social media. And I think we all have our individual efforts already to do that and the question is can we work more closely together in enacting or fulfilling his proposal. And I think we will be exploring in the coming days how it’s best to do that. But it was a very excellent suggestion on President Joko Widodo’s part.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the Cambodia Daily.

QUESTION: Hello, Ambassador. Hello?


QUESTION: Okay, my name is Anthony Jenson calling from the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. I’d like to get your reaction to comments made by a spokesman for the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party about the Sunnylands Summit. In an interview with a colleague, the spokesman Suki Sen described the invitation as a very great honor for Cambodians, adding, it means that President Barak Obama is optimistic about Cambodia’s human rights situation by not believing the incitement of a small group of the opposition side. It’s like a big heavy wooden stick hitting the heads of the opposition people who have never used clear common sense about Cambodia’s situation.

My question, did President Obama’s invitation to Mr. Hun Sen truly represent an optimistic view of human rights in Cambodia by the U.S.? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Thank you. I think that that is probably a question better directed to our bilateral ambassador who is working every day with the government to improve human rights and rule of law. But I can tell you this, that at every opportunity in the Summit, the President raised the importance of human rights and rule of law. We do it regularly and at the very highest level. Our key priority is to see Cambodia develop into a strong democracy that respects human rights and supports a thriving civil society.

We have a robust foreign assistance program that includes promotion and protection of human rights. Overall, the situation in Cambodia has improved but significant challenges remain. We urge the Cambodian government to continue to create a more just society and improve its commitment to democracy and human rights.

MODERATOR: Thank you. And just a reminder to press *1 on your phone to join the question queue. Our next question comes from the China Review in Beijing. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello? Hello, can you hear me?


QUESTION: Thank you, good morning Ambassador and Ben Yao a reporter from China. My first question is pertaining to the Philippine arbitration. Since the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has stated that during his meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Bishop last week, Mr. Wang has stated that China’s rejection of arbitration is precisely in accordance with law because China, under the rights entitled in Article 298 of the Convention made a public statement of optional exception in 2006, that it rejects the arbitration on the matters concerning territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.

And on the other hand, Mr. Wang has said that the Philippines in the matter initially chose the arbitration violates Article 4 of the DOC signed by the President of Philippines. So I wonder here, what are your comments on Mr. Wang’s preceding statements on the arbitration issue. And my second question is pertaining also to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on going to the United States this week. The Prime Minister Wang he has met with Secretary Kerry twice recently, respectively in Beijing and in Munich. So in your opinion, why does he have to make the third meeting in less than one month? What makes it such an imperative agenda? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Thanks for those questions. Let me answer your second question first, which is that the United States and China have a very robust relationship and we cooperate on a whole range of issues, many of which are quite urgent. So it’s not at all surprising to me that they would meet three times in a month. There is the ongoing situation for example in North Korea, the situation in Syria, climate change and many others, all of which we work on together so that seems not an inappropriate pace of meetings to me.

As regards to your first question, so the first part of your first question refers to some exception that China has made and what I can tell you is that the tribunal considered the question of jurisdiction very, very carefully. And these are the best legal minds on maritime law in the world. And they issued a nearly 150-page unanimous ruling saying that the Court in fact did have jurisdiction. And so they are now looking to the merits of the Philippines case and we expect a decision sometime in the coming months. And that decision will be binding on China and on the Philippines.

Secondly, your question about the DOC and your reference to Wang Yi’s reference to Article 4 of the DOC. Article 4 of the DOC also references the 1982 UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea and that convention speaks very clearly to the authority of the Arbitral Tribunal to issue a decision. It provides that in the event of a dispute as to whether a court or tribunal has jurisdiction, the matter shall be settled by the decision of that court or tribunal. It also says that the absence of a party or failure of a party to send its case shall not constitute a bar to proceedings.

So it’s pretty clear here that the court has jurisdiction and its decision will be binding under international law.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Stars and Stripes.

QUESTION: Yes, hi, this is Eric Slavin with Stars and Stripes. For years, a code of conduct in the South China Sea has been talked about but it never seems to get that far. In your opinion, are economic relationships with China among some of the ASEAN members preventing a code of conduct from getting done and did anything out of the recent Summit give you an indication that ASEAN might be moving forward on a substantive code of conduct?

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Well, we support these talks, on a code of conduct. We think that this is an avenue that could resolve these disputes peacefully and through diplomacy and in accordance with international law. We have called for them to be concluded rapidly. As the situation is changing things are only getting more tense.

I’m not going to speculate about why the talks have not produced a code of conduct. We very much hope that they will do so soon in the future, thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Metro TV News in Indonesia.

QUESTION: Good morning Ambassador. My name is Wahyu from Metro TV News in Indonesia. Could you explain more about ASEAN trade workshop on TPP, is it a long-term program because President Joko Widodo (unintelligible) that Indonesia needs at least two or three years to join TPP. And in what level is the workshop (unintelligible) thank you.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Thank you. The TPP is a very high-level agreement that has high standards for important areas of trade such as protections for labor and protections for intellectual property, provisions that prohibit, for example illegal fishing et cetera. So it’s a really new kind of high-quality trade agreement. We very much welcome President Joko Widodo’s interest in joining. Once it’s ratified by all countries, it’s meant to be an open agreement that others can join when they ready.

The workshops are designed to explain in greater detail, specific chapters of the TPP and I imagine that they — I don’t think we have a particular timeline in mind about how long these workshops will continue but I imagine they will continue for a number of years. And they will respond to ASEAN’s request for more information about any particular chapter, whether it be on small-medium size enterprises or intellectual property or investment principles or whatever; there are many. And so we will be gathering those suggestions in the coming weeks and begin then to implement this program of workshops to which all ASEANs will be invited.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Cambodia, the Maritime.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me? Hello, can you hear me?


QUESTION: Hi Ambassador. Thanks —


QUESTION: Thank you for doing this press conference. Hi, my name is Jonathan Cox and I’m a reporter for the Khmer Times in Phnom Penh. You mentioned earlier in your talk that some ASEAN countries have expressed interest in joining the TPP. Now, I know Cambodian political and business leaders would very much like to join and I wanted to ask what needs to happen for Cambodia to join and how long would the process take to include the country in the TPP?

Also as a related question, what would you say are the chances of the U.S. adding Cambodia’s garment exports to its list of duty-free imports? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Okay for your second question, that is definitely a question for my bilateral colleague who will be more familiar with the specific details than I am. And on the second question, so it is designed to be an open architecture. The standards are very high and so it will be up to Cambodia to work towards being able to implement these various provisions that the TPP has.

And I can’t really speculate on what exactly that will take or how long it will take. As I’m not an expert in the Cambodian economy, I think I would just refer back to the comments that I made in response to the previous question. But thank you for that question.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our last question is from San Yen Media in Vietnam.


MODERATOR: Operator? Yes? Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you hear me?


AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Okay, my question is, you mentioned briefly that the policy of the U.S. towards the ASEAN region, does (unintelligible – 34:08) depend on this, how will the region (unintelligible – 34:09) of the United States but Mr. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung coached that and this code was mentioned in the Vietnamese Domestic newspaper that the U.S. government should have more practical action towards the Chinese action in the South Asia Sea. So what do you mean? What does he mean? What does he mean?

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: I think I heard most of that, can you repeat the second part of your question? You said that there was a quote in the newspaper that said something?

QUESTION: Yes, Domestic newspaper there’s a quote from Mr. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung that the U.S. government should have more practical actions towards the South China Sea issue. So my question is what do you mean? More practical, what does he mean?

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: Probably it’s a better question for him in terms of what he meant by that. I’m not sure what he meant. I can tell you that what we’re doing is being very active in building regional consensus around principles that undergird the rules-based order, standing up for the rights of claimants to use international law, speaking with one voice with ASEAN on the fundamental importance of peace and stability, freedom of navigation and overflight, self-restraint and the need to find peaceful solutions to these disputes.


MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Hachigian. I know we don’t have much time left. I would like to thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today and ask if you have any final words before we close the call.

AMBASSADOR HACHIGIAN: No, I would say as far as — thank you very much. I have enjoyed speaking with all of you. I guess I would want to make one comment. I’ve heard numerous times from our Chinese friends that it is actually the United States that is causing the tension in the South China Sea and militarizing the South China Sea. And I just want to offer a different view on that.

I think we can all agree that there are greater tensions now than there have been in the past. ASEAN has said as much in a variety of statements. We’ve been operating in the South China Sea for many decades. Our presence has been welcomed across the Asia Pacific because we have helped to provide stability in this region that has allowed countries to prosper. Our freedoms of navigation operations are routine, they are lawful, they are conducted in accordance with international law.

We’ve conducted these operations around the globe since 1979, including in the South China Sea and the South China Sea cannot be an exception. The purpose of these operations is to protect the rights and freedoms and lawful uses of the Sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations, large nations, small nations, under international law. And China regularly exercises its navigational rights and freedoms under international law.

For example, last year, Chinese naval ships lawfully transited in the United States territorial seas off the coast of Alaska within 12 nautical miles of our shores. We respect China’s international legal right to conduct such operations. Similarly we expect that Beijing will respect others’ rights under the same international law that it relies on. So our operations are not new and they are not provocative.

We very much welcome Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement that China is committed to non-militarization and we very much hope that those words will be followed up by action. Thank you very much and just in final closing, I would like to say that it was a real honor for me to participate in Sunnylands. I think it marks a new milestone on the very positive road of U.S.-ASEAN relations and in the words of one of my ASEAN colleagues here in Jakarta, we are entering a golden era for ASEAN-U.S. relations. Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

MODERATOR: And thank you to all of our callers for participating in today’s call. If you have any questions about the call, please contact me at and that concludes today’s call. I’ll turn it over to the operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And this call will be available for 48 hours. You may dial 1-800-475-6701 and enter in the access code of 387145. International participants may dial 320-365-3844. Again those numbers are 1-800-475-6701 and 320-365-3844 with the access code of 387145 and that does conclude our conference for tonight. Thank you for your participation and for using AT&T Executive Teleconference Service. You may now disconnect.