Press Availability in Vientiane, Laos

John Kerry
Secretary of State
National Convention Center
Vientiane, Laos
July 26, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good afternoon, everybody. On behalf of President Obama and all of the American people, I want to express my deepest condolences to the families of those whose loved ones were killed in the horrific attack in Sagamihara, Japan this morning. And our thoughts and our prayers are very much with those people who are going through a terrible process. And our thoughts are with the Japanese people as they mourn this yet another senseless act about which we don’t know a lot, though we know some things that may separate it from terrorism. But it is a form of terror under any circumstance.

I am personally really delighted to be back in Laos this week for the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, and all of the meetings that we have been able to have over the course of the last days on the margins. I have to tell you the schedule is about as jam-packed as any political event, political diplomatic event, that we take place in. Reminds me a little bit of the United Nations week when we are going from meeting to meeting. But it’s a really excellent opportunity to be able to carry on multiple discussions in multiple formats. And I had the occasion to have a trilateral meeting with Fumio Kishida and with Julie Bishop of Australia — Australia and Japan — and other meetings on the side, all of which have been extremely productive.

Needless to say, when there are so many critical issues that are facing all of the countries that are here, including the countries that meet in one forum but not in another, it is a prime opportunity for diplomacy and we have really been able to take advantage of it. So I want to thank the Government of Laos for its tremendous organizational effort. It is not easy to have this many ministers and this many large delegations in anybody’s city at any time and we very much appreciate the work that they have done. And I want to thank my counterparts who have gathered in Vientiane this week for their serious commitment to try and solve some very hard problems.

One of the most important actions that President Obama took after entering the Oval Office nearly eight years ago was to rebalance the United States’ foreign policy so that we could play a larger and more long-term role in the Asia Pacific. Last February, when President Obama hosted the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Summit, he declared – I’ll quote him – “ASEAN is central to the region’s peace and prosperity, and to our shared goal of building a regional order where all nations play by the same rules.”

So I think it’s fair to say that the United States has long placed an enormous value on the relationship with ASEAN. And last November when our countries entered into a formal Strategic Partnership we really deepened that commitment and we created further understandings about our ability to be able to work together. And of course, President Obama hosted ASEAN for the first time ever at Sunnylands in California, a meeting I was privileged to take part in and it was an extremely productive, in-depth discussion of our common interests and the increasing interconnection between the values that we share.

Now, here in Vientiane my ASEAN colleagues and I discussed a number of areas where we believe we can expand our cooperation.

First of all we talked about ways that we can open up opportunities for women and young people. And yesterday I announced plans to establish the region’s second Women’s Business Center – this one in Vietnam – which will be provided for women entrepreneurs to be able to have access to workshops, to mentor networks, and to academic training.

We also discussed steps to further integrate our economies and examined the progress that we had made through shared initiatives like the U.S.-ASEAN Connect. And needless to say, there was discussion with a number of the countries about the TPP and where we are heading with respect to our trade partnership.

And of course, we also discussed the wide range of regional and transnational challenges that are facing our nations, from terrorism to climate change to sustainable development. I am particularly proud of the Lower Mekong Initiative, an effort that we started in order to take this precious resource of this international asset – and I say international because the Mekong River goes from China all the way down through Vietnam, touching, I think it is, seven countries or so. And it is an enormously important source of livelihood, of work, of food, of commerce. And it is critical that this asset be preserved.

So in yesterday’s meeting of the Lower Mekong Initiative we launched the Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership, which is an important effort that will help build regional capacity in order to incorporate environmental impact assessments into infrastructure planning. I mean, look, if you have a dam that is built that is not thoughtful, not designed correctly, it can have a profoundly negative impact on fisheries and on the livelihood of people anywhere below that dam. So what one country does is critical to several other countries. And what kind of technology is used, what kind of state-of-the-art design is used. All of these things bear enormous impact on the future of this region and the sustainability of this asset.

We need to ensure that development projects actually help the millions of people who live along the Mekong without further degrading the already stressed ecosystems that those people depend on every single day. And I want to make it clear that this matters enough and is important enough to the United States and to me personally that I intend to come back here in the Mekong region, and Vietnam particularly, I think in the fall, in order to revisit some of that project and make sure that we are making the progress that we want to make.

Now, obviously, there were a couple of issues that came up in almost every single one of our meetings, and those issues have been on the top of everybody’s minds for some period of time, especially recently.

The first one, which I know you are curious about, is the South China Sea and the recent decision by the arbitral tribunal. Now, we were very encouraged by statements coming from many members of the international community, including many ASEAN members, which expressed support for the rule of law and the peaceful settlement of disputes. I want to emphasize the peaceful settlement of these disputes is absolutely critical, we think, to all of us. And we encouraged all of the claimants to behave responsibly and to exercise restraint.

I want to emphasize again, as I have every time I talk about this issue, the United States of America does not take a position on the side of one claimant or another claimant. We don’t get involved in the substance of somebody’s claims. What we are pushing for is absolute support for rule of law, for the legal process, and for diplomacy to work out the differences that people have. And we have, frankly, had this very discussion in between the U.S.-ASEAN meetings here and the East Asia Summit. We’ve had these discussions with all of the participants. And I think we have been able to have some very candid and constructive discussions about the path forward in light of the tribunal decisions.

And I had a constructive meeting yesterday with the foreign minister of China, where we talked very directly, as we have previously, about how we can proceed. I am confident that the discussion is going to continue later today at the ASEAN Regional Forum. And our hope, and I think the hope of every colleague that I talk to here, is that we turn our collective focus now to trying to turn the page to the question of how do we resolve this in the peaceful and diplomatic way in which we have encouraged.

The other issue that came up in nearly every meeting I’ve had so far this week is the provocative and deeply concerning behavior of the DPRK. Now, North Korea’s actions present a very serious threat not just to this region, but to international peace and security. And let me emphasize to everybody here: the whole world is trying to move in a different direction on nuclear weapons. The United States of America a number of years ago entered into an agreement with Russia. I was privileged to lead that effort on the floor of the Senate where we ratified the treaty, the START Treaty, whereby we are reducing the number of nuclear weapons that we had, both of us. And the world is now talking about how do we move to a world without nuclear weapons. It’s hard. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. But there are steps that we can take to move in that direction.

And President Obama has been extremely articulate about that in his famous Prague speech and in the Nuclear Summit that we held in Washington, the Nuclear Security Summit. It is something that matters and that we care about. It matters enough that the P5+1 – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the United States, China, and Russia – came together in an effort to negotiate with Iran for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to deal with the potential of Iran moving towards a nuclear weapon. And Iran, a powerful and well-developed country with a long history of thousands of years, made the decision that it would join in an agreement in which it would make it clear to people it was not going to pursue a nuclear weapon and in exchange would like to have the sanctions lifted that had been put in place because of the evidence of that program.

So countries can do this. But North Korea alone, the DPRK, the only country in the world defying the international movement towards responsibility, continues to develop its own weapon, continues to develop its missiles, continues in provocative actions. And in March, the UN Security Council spoke for the world when it unanimously adopted a resolution that imposed on North Korea the toughest set of sanctions in a generation. But despite this and numerous other Security Council resolutions, the DPRK chooses to flout its international obligations. It is critical for the world and for all countries to fully enforce the sanctions that have been imposed and we intend to do that.

North Korea, in January, did another nuclear test. In February, March, April, May, continually they have done missile tests. So together we are determined, all of us assembled here – perhaps with one exception assembled here – to make absolutely certain the DPRK understands that there are real consequences for these actions.

So we’ve had a very, very full plate here in a very short period of time. Our staffs were here for several days ahead of time working on these issues. This has been a very productive period. We still have the ASEAN Regional Forum to come in the course of the afternoon. But in addition to the issues I’ve just mentioned, we are also going to focus on developing a strong regional response to the serious challenge that is posed by illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing. This is a $20 billion-a-year illegal industry that damages marine resources and hurts coastal economies throughout the Asia Pacific and beyond.

There was a story recently about how some of this illegal fishing takes place, which appeared in one of the major publications in the United States, the New York Times, a front-page story that talked about a young man who left one country in this region to go to another in order to be able to get a job in construction. But guess what? He wound up being a prisoner, being a slave on a fishing boat with a shackle around his neck and a chain locking him to the boat. And for two years he was forced into illegal fishing, not only not being paid but living the life of a slave in order to produce the illegal fish that were sold illegally into the market. That is unfair to everybody who plays by the rules.

And so increasingly, we are going to focus on this issue. We are having a major conference in Washington in September which we are hosting at the State Department called Our Oceans, where we will focus on the problem of climate change in the oceans, pollution in the oceans, but also, significantly, this issue of illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, which is a threat to every single country in this region.

So with that, let me again thank all of my colleagues and counterparts here for their serious engagement in Vientiane. I also want to thank them for my relationship and work with them over the course of the last three and a half years because this will be my last meeting of the ASEAN as Secretary of State and final time representing the United States at the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit. But I have no doubt – and I want to assure you – that whoever follows, whoever follows the President, whoever follows me, will build on the progress that we have made and will believe that the U.S.-ASEAN partnership can only become more important and I hope more productive in the years to come.

With that, let me open it up to any questions that anybody may have.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We have time for just a few questions. First question goes to Matt Lee, Associated Press.

QUESTION: Thank you. Greetings, Mr. Secretary. I wanted to ask you first, just as a very (inaudible), when you said that everyone here was working for – or agreed that North Korea shouldn’t be doing this behavior, then you said with the exception of one. You were referring to North Korea, correct? Yes, okay.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I haven’t had any conversation with him, but I haven’t presumed that his position changed.

QUESTION: Right, okay. I just wanted to make sure we were talking about the same thing.

On your meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, a couple things. One, the foreign minister was asked about the allegations about the DNC email hack, and he clearly didn’t want to talk about it. But I’m wondering if you raised it with him, the issue not only of the hack but also of the allegations that had been made about Russia trying to involve itself or interfere in the presidential election. And if you did, what did you say and what was his response, if you could, including any four-letter words that he might have used?

And then secondly on the issue of Syria, yesterday at the Pentagon Secretary Carter and General Dunford were not, let’s say, particularly enthusiastic about the prospects of your effort to get the Russians on board with this plan. And I’m just wondering if you had managed to make any progress with Foreign Minister Lavrov on this today, and where exactly you all are in the process. Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Okay. Well, with respect to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I did raise the issue of the DNC. And as you know, the FBI is investigating the incident and it’s important for the FBI to do its work. And before we draw any conclusions in terms of what happened or who is behind it it’s very important that whatever public information is put out is based on fact.

So I raised the question and we will continue to work to see precisely what those facts are. And the FBI has responsibility for this investigation and we’ll let them speak as they proceed forward gathering those facts.

With respect to Syria, I read the comments of both Chairman Dunford and Secretary Ash Carter and I would disagree with you that they are not – certainly I’d say with respect to Secretary Carter’s comments, he specifically said: I am enthusiastic about what Secretary Kerry is doing in the hopes that he is able to deliver and that we have confidence that as we go forward this will work. What he and Chairman Dunford and others have expressed is some concern about whether or not the Russians are really prepared to step up and do the things that they say they’re prepared to do. And that’s a question that everybody has asked.

But that is why we didn’t announce to you publicly a whole series of celebratory steps, and that is why when I was in Moscow we said we are not going to tell you what we’re going to do over the next few weeks until it’s done, if it is done. Now, that’s exactly how we’re proceeding because we’ve been disappointed in the past and we don’t want to be. I don’t think we want to be. I don’t think they want to be. By the way, they feel they have been disappointed too with respect to some of the obligations that were supposed to take place with respect to Nusrah for instance, or other components of this.

So we’re doing our homework. Now, a lot of that homework has been done in the last few days and I will tell you has been done successfully. And so today, Foreign Minister Lavrov and I talked about the next piece of homework that needs to be completed before we would be prepared to make a public announcement. And we are, both of us, committed to a series of quiet meetings that will take place – not between he and me, but technical-level teams – to work through details in order to make certain that the doubts expressed by Secretary Carter, by Chairman Dunford, or the doubts expressed by President Putin or the Russians, are going to be addressed ahead of time so that we are approaching this without the question marks about the road that we are heading down.

So I think we’re making progress, and I want to thank Secretary Carter and Chairman Dunford whose people helped contribute to the homework that we have done so far. And we will continue to do our homework over the course of the next few days. My hope would be, stepping out a little bit, but I would say to you that if we do our work as effectively as it’s been done over the last days since I was in Moscow, my hope would be that somewhere in early August in the first week or so, who knows, somewhere in there, we would be in a position to be able to stand up in front of you and tell you what we’re able to do, with the hopes that it can make a difference to the lives of people in Syria and to the course of the war.

In simple terms, what everybody knows we are trying to do is strengthen the cessation of hostilities, provide a framework which allows us to actually get to the table and have a real negotiation and try to move forward here. And we had a good meeting today but we have more homework coming out of today’s meeting. And we’re going to do it, and do it quietly, with the same spirit that we have made the progress of the last week or so in.

MODERATOR: Great. Our next question goes to Somsak Pongkao from the Vientiane Times.

QUESTION: My name is Somsak from Laos. I have one question. My question is: Laos is currently experiencing strong economic growth and stable security environment. Do you think U.S. can learn from Lao experience?

And my second question is that you have held a bilateral meeting with Lao counterpart, Mr. Saleumxay. Any specific solution or agreement during your talks? And what is the most important that you discussed?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, first of all, let me congratulate Foreign Minister Saleumxay and congratulate Laos again on undertaking this gigantic task of having an ASEAN meeting and hosting it and we are very, very grateful to you for that. And I think his leadership has been very distinguished and very clear and we appreciate it.

With respect to learning from each other, I think most countries can learn from each other all the time. And we are – what’s important, however, is that we work together and find ways to cooperate. Obviously, Laos is in a very, very different place from the United States in terms of the development of an economy. What we’re trying to do is help Laos not to do what we think and want it to do but what Laos wants to do. We’re trying to help the Laotian leaders implement the reforms, the changes, the things they need.

What they’ve been particularly clear about and what we want to focus President Obama’s visit in Laos, which is an historic visit – in six weeks the President of the United States will be the first American president to come to Laos. And we have a great deal of work we’re doing now to think about the things that we can do to make that visit really productive. Some of the areas that we are looking at are education, health care, and development, infrastructure, and sustainability in climate, energy.

Those are the things where we think we could work together, the United States could help show how some of the things we’ve learned through the years could be applied so Laos doesn’t make the same mistakes that we might have in some ways. And we can share thoughts about how to do things – agriculture, for instance. There are many things that we could share and all of these we are working on for what we hope will be an extremely productive and historic visit by President Obama. And that’s what really the foreign minister and I agreed on when we met. We talked also about some regional security issues, the need to be very alert and proactive with respect to preventing violent extremism from being able to move into the region. This is a focus that we’re also engaged in.

So we have a lot of work to do together, but I think the breadth of the things I just laid out to you underscores how substantive the discussion was and how important the visit of the President of the United States will be.

MODERATOR: The last question goes to Ori Sugimoto from NHK.

QUESTION: Thank you. In this series of meetings, the dispute over South China Sea and the international arbitration ruling have turned to the biggest issue, one of the biggest issues. While ASEAN countries look divided over this dispute, Chinese foreign minister claimed that the discussion about the arbitration had been over.

So what do you think about this claim by China? And —

SECRETARY KERRY: The Chinese foreign minister claimed that what?

QUESTION: Claimed that the discussion over the arbitration have been over.

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, okay, yeah. Arbitration has ended.

QUESTION: What do you think about this claim? And also I would like to ask you how do you believe that the USA can maintain its influence to keep the peace and security in this region?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, very good questions. And let me just say that on the South China Sea, I said in the room a few minutes ago that the arbitration is an arbitration that took place under international law. And it is an arbitration, the results of which, the international community, ourselves included, believe is legally binding and is a matter of law. Now, that said, that’s our position. We don’t take a position, as I said earlier, on the claimants. We take a position that rule of law must be upheld. And we believe there are obligations under it.

Now, China has a position that they say that the decision is illegitimate. So we still have a task ahead of us, a challenge, which is to try to work going forward to make sure that we are resolving the issues through diplomacy and rule of law, through the diplomatic process, but also through whatever available legal institutions there are to support a process. And China, in my meeting with the foreign minister, the foreign minister said very clearly the time has come to sort of move away from the sort of public tensions and turn the page and begin to engage in full measure of diplomacy and so forth.

Well we agree with that, if that’s the direction that people want to move, that no claimant should be acting in a way that is provocative. No claimant should take steps that wind up raising tensions. And what we would like to see is a process of dialogue. China indicated its willingness and readiness to engage in a dialogue and bilateral negotiation with the Philippines. I will be leaving for the Philippines this afternoon and meeting with President Duterte tomorrow, and I would encourage President Duterte to engage in dialogue and in negotiation.

So hopefully this can become a moment that we can all take advantage of, where we work out some of the modalities of how do you deal with fishing, how do you deal with natural resources, how do you deal with the movement of – the free movement of vessels, and protect the rights of everybody. This could be a very important moment of shifting how this discussion has taken place, and not being played out through public moves unilaterally and challenges, but in a constructive and thoughtful, engaged diplomatic manner. That would be our hope. That is what we have encouraged all the time and I hope that that could be an outcome of where we are today. Thank you all. Nice to be with you.