Telephonic News Conference with Kin W. Moy, Senior Bureau Official for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Melissa A. Brown, Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Mission to ASEAN
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Moderator: Greetings from Washington, D.C. I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing, which is being run in coordination with the State Department’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila.
Today we are pleased to be joined by Melissa Brown, Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta. We are hoping that Kin Moy, Senior Bureau Official for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, will be joining us shortly.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Chargé Brown and then we will turn to your questions.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Chargé Brown for opening remarks.
Ms. Brown: Thank you so much. Hello to everybody. Good morning for those of us who are in Southeast Asia, but good evening to anyone that’s back in the U.S. Excuse me, I’m going to do an intro up top and it will be a little bit lengthy because we just have so much to cover from the last week.
Over the past week, Secretary Blinken met with his Indo-Pacific counterparts in five separate engagements to demonstrate U.S. support for ASEAN-centered architecture. These meetings included the East Asia Summit ministerial, which we fondly call EAS; the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF; the U.S.-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting; the Mekong-U.S. Partnership ministerial; and the Friends of the Mekong ministerial.
In all five of these meetings, the United States reaffirmed our commitment to ASEAN and to our Indo-Pacific allies and partners. The Secretary’s overarching message was that the United States is leading the global response to COVID-19, energizing economic recovery and reinvigorating our alliances and our partnerships. He emphasized that U.S. engagement with ASEAN is critical to these efforts and delivering results for the combined 1 billion people in our two regions.
Many of the points – again, I’m going to go into some detail – but they can be found in the State Department’s fact sheets that were issued last week, so please do take a look at those for the details. Let me first talk a little bit about some of the specific policy issues.
On COVID-19, Secretary Blinken noted that the United States to date has shared more than 110 million safe and effective vaccine doses with more than 60 countries, and that includes 23 million doses and more than 158 million in emergency health and humanitarian assistance to ASEAN members. We also shared our plans to provide 500 million Pfizer vaccines to Gavi for distribution by COVAX, and also a $500,000 contribution to the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund, and that will be used to purchase additional vaccines for ASEAN.
The Secretary emphasized that we provide these doses absolutely free of charge with no political or economic conditions attached. Our singular goal must be to save lives. The Secretary noted that we will continue to emphasize science-based, robust, and transparent clinical trials, regulatory processes, and high-quality manufacturing, and that we must scale for the world by working with U.S. vaccine manufacturers and international partners to invest in resilient, local vaccine production.
Next let me talk about climate. The Secretary stressed that Indo-Pacific countries are key partners in the clean energy transition and to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The Biden-Harris administration brought the United States back into the Paris Agreement and has made climate an essential part of our foreign policy and national security. We were really pleased to have Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, among many other countries, during the President’s Leaders Summit on Climate back in April, and they were able to offer their perspective and commitment to increase climate ambition.
We’re also very pleased that we have introduced an East Asia Leaders’ Statement on green recovery. That’s something that will be negotiated soon. We hope to do more to elevate engagement with ASEAN through a proposed ASEAN-U.S. ministerial dialogue on environment and climate later this year.
Next, on Burma. The Secretary welcomed ASEAN’s appointment of a special envoy and emphasized that the coup threatens the stability of the entire region. He urged ASEAN to hold the military junta accountable to the April 24th ASEAN leaders’ Five-Point Consensus, to send the special envoy to Burma to engage all stakeholders, including the pro-democracy movement, and for the junta to immediately end the violence, restore democratic governance, and release those unjustly detained.
Secretary Blinken also spoke about Beijing’s pattern of aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas, the Mekong subregion, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as assaults on human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet. He shared the U.S. and global concerns with the PRC’s defiance of the rules-based system that has underpinned global prosperity and peace for decades.
The Secretary also outlined our commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and called for an effective UN cybercrime treaty.
Next let me go – I’m going to go a little bit more into some of the details of the ASEAN deliverables that the Secretary announced last week. In all of his engagements, the Secretary made it absolutely clear that the United States is committed to ASEAN, and, in fact, we’re expanding our engagement with ASEAN in maritime cooperation, in connectivity, in sustainable development, in economic growth. These are the four pillars of cooperation under the ASEAN’s outlook for the Indo-Pacific. That’s the framework that ASEAN has laid out for its vision of the future, and the United States is absolutely leaning in to partner with ASEAN to support that vision.
Beyond the monetary contribution I mentioned earlier to the ASEAN COVID-19 Relief Fund, he, the Secretary, announced a number of initiatives to strengthen engagement. On the economic side, we aim to advance U.S. interests and support ASEAN’s Comprehensive Recovery Framework, which is the roadmap for the region’s recovery from COVID-19.
The Secretary’s further announcements include the U.S. Agency for International Development’s COVID-19 Private Sector Engagement and Partnership Fund, and that equips businesses in ASEAN countries with skills to accelerate the safe resumption, continuation, or adaptation of business operations and to put into place plans and processes to ensure readiness for future pandemics.
The Secretary announced an additional $400,000 to expand the ASEAN Small and Medium Enterprise Academy that saw a strong uptick in use during the pandemic, and is something we’re doing in cooperation with the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.
Also, an additional $250,000 for the U.S.-ASEAN Connect Digital Economy Series. That’s a forum of virtual and in-person events that we aim to increase capacity and share best practices to accelerate ASEAN’s digital transformation to focus on fields like e-commerce, fintech, cybersecurity, and many others.
The Secretary announced the launch of a new U.S.-ASEAN Connect Green Economy Series, and that will provide expert advice on technology and best practices across a range of environmental issues to promote a green recovery in the region.
And also, USAID has a Clean Power Asia Program that has dedicated so far more than $7 million since 2016. One of the projects recently launched is the Southeast Asia Smart Power Program that will support modern, reliable, and resilient sustainable energy systems.
Beyond all these programs I’ve noted to energize the economic recovery, the Secretary also announced new or expanded programs to develop human capital and people-to-people ties, and this includes scholarship opportunities through the Billion Futures Scholars Program. This year that’s going to fund 35 Fulbright students and 65 students from the Global Undergraduate Exchange. The Secretary also announced an additional $500,000 to continue the YSEALI Seeds for the Future program. That program supports young Southeast Asian leaders’ innovative ideas for civic engagement, economic empowerment, education, and environmental stewardship, and that’s also been just fabulous during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Secretary also noted that YSEALI Academy at Fulbright University Vietnam has begun its first seminars this past summer, and it offers executive-level training on technology and innovation, public policy, and entrepreneurship.
I think next I’m going to cover a little bit the Mekong ministerial. Before I do so, can I just double-check that SBO Moy is not on the line?
Moderator: CDA Brown, I am not aware that Senior Bureau Official Moy is on the line yet.
Ms. Brown: No problem, I’ll keep on going. As I mentioned earlier, we really do have a lot to celebrate. So, turning to the Mekong subregion, the Secretary announced four Mekong-U.S. partnership flagship programs. And again, we have fact sheets on these, but let me cover them briefly. We have the USAID Mekong Safeguards, which provides policymakers, government regulators, financiers, and contractors with important information and tools to apply environmental, social, and governance standards for infrastructure development.
Second, we have the Mekong Water Data Initiative, which strengthens the capacity of the Mekong subregion to collect, analyze, and manage water and related information to promote sustainable economic development.
Third, we have the Mekong-U.S. Partnership Policy Dialogue Series, and this series convenes experts from Mekong country governments, nongovernmental organizations, civil society, academia, business, and other areas to develop and advance policy solutions for prosperity and autonomy among Mekong states.
And number four, finally, last but not least, we’ve got the Pathfinder Health Program, and that builds on our significant COVID-19 assistance to help the Mekong country health authorities to identify and respond to future emerging infectious diseases.
The Secretary was really delighted to convene the Friends of the Mekong ministerial also to discuss how the participating 16 countries and institutions can best collaborate on all these programs and many others to support the treaty-based Mekong River Commission and other rules-based solutions in the Mekong subregion. The Friends of the Mekong countries and institutions have provided more than $25 billion in development assistance to the Mekong subregion since 2015. That’s a pretty impressive total number.
So thank you for your patience. I’ve given you, again, a lot of detail. Much of this was covered in the fact sheets. I think there really is a lot going on out there, but this is just a demonstration the United States has remained committed to ASEAN but, in fact, we are [inaudible] expand that cooperation with a lot of the initiatives we are excited about.
And with that rundown, I think I’m going to turn it back over to facilitate questions.
Mr. Moy: Great. Can everyone hear me? This is Kin [Moy].
Moderator: Hi, we can hear you. Senior Bureau Official Kin Moy has joined the call. Go ahead.
Mr. Moy: Thank you very much, and that was a great rundown by Melissa. I think that we’re open to questions. One thing I just wanted to reiterate that Melissa just mentioned, and I think that she might have mentioned it earlier, but the amount of participation in the – not just the ASEAN meetings, but in visits to Southeast Asia really does underscore the importance of the region to the Biden-Harris administration. So, in addition to the number of events that the Secretary participated in last week, Deputy Secretary Sherman has already visited the region; Secretary Austin has just come back from Southeast Asia – great visits to Singapore and to the Philippines as well as Hanoi. And this week, the U.S. Perm Rep to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield will be traveling to Thailand after going to the closing ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics. And then, as you may have heard, we have some other senior-level travel to Southeast Asia coming up in the next kind of couple of weeks, before the end of the month. So, I think it’s really a time to reflect on potential – not just the work we’ve done in the past, but for the potential of Southeast Asia, really going to try to make sure that we’re doing, we’re engaged with all of ASEAN for the right reasons.
With that, back over to you for some questions. And thank you, Melissa, for such a great rundown on the past week and all the cooperation that we’re working on.
Moderator: Thanks to you both for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Our first question goes to Jeong Eun Lee, Radio Free Asia, South Korea.
Question: Yes, thank you very much for doing this. I just wanted to ask if there was any meaningful exchanges with, or notable remarks from, North Korea during the ASEAN meetings. And secondly, what’s the prospect of U.S.-China cooperation on North Korea issues, especially in light of what China mentioned during the ARF ministerial meeting? And lastly, I understand Secretary Blinken emphasized the need for ASEAN members to fully implement UN sanctions on North Korea, so I want to ask how that was received by the ASEAN states and, in general, what other points the U.S. focused on during the ASEAN meetings in regards to North Korea? Thank you.
Mr. Moy: Well, great. Thank you very much. I think on the first question, the Secretary and others reiterated an interest in sort of a comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. I think a number of countries had mentioned that in the ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial on Friday, which was the concluding meeting, which is the meeting where the DPRK is present. I think the Secretary – I don’t know if Melissa mentioned earlier, but in his comments, I thought, were very good about our openness to talk to the North. And I think that that shows a kind of willingness to consider different options. I know that there was in the past week – well, I think that some countries recognized that the most recent development in communications between the ROK and DPRK, that it is something that is noteworthy. And so I think – we’ll have to see. But in terms of possible discussions down the road, the Secretary mentioned that he was open to different possibilities.
So at any rate, I think that was sort of the main kind of thrust of the comments or the remarks on the DPRK issue. I don’t think that these venues, because they are very much kind of scripted and so there isn’t an opportunity for a back-and-forth exchange, but they are opportunities to state our views. And so, to that extent we hope that – ‘we’ meaning the United States and other partners — we hope that the DPRK side heard us and will take those messages back to Pyongyang and then we’ll see what happens.
I’m sorry, the second question, could you repeat that one?
Question: Yes, the second question was about the prospect of U.S.-China cooperation on North Korean issues in light of what China mentioned during the ARF ministerial meeting, mainly, UN sanctions on North Korea and the upcoming U.S.-ROK military exercise.
Mr. Moy: Right. That wasn’t so much a part of the discussion. I think as far as the possibility to coordinate, I think that the lines of communication remain open between Beijing and Washington. When Deputy Secretary Sherman went to Tianjin recently and spoke to Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi about a range of strategic issues, the DPRK was one of those issues, and so that shows that the two sides can have the conversation about how to move forward. And so, I think that that shows actually a willingness on both sides to continue to coordinate. But there hasn’t been any kind of substantive discussion, or there wasn’t during the ARF, on sanctions.
Moderator: Thank you for that. Our next question goes to Feliz Solomon with the Wall Street Journal, based in Singapore.
Question: Great. Thanks so much for your time. Just a general question about the state of U.S.-ASEAN relationships. Have any ASEAN officials expressed to you directly that they felt slighted or neglected by the downturn in engagement in recent years? And beyond what Secretary Blinken calls ‘reinvigorating’ these relationships, do you think that the Biden administration actually has some repair work to do? Thank you.
Mr. Moy: Thanks very much. I don’t think we want to focus on the past. I think what was important during the meetings – for us anyway – is that we heard a lot of enthusiasm coming from ASEAN countries about the engagement of this administration. And so we can take that to mean that they saw the Secretary’s remarks and all of the engagement that I laid out in terms of recent visits and future visits. I think that it was seen as a very sincere effort to engage with Southeast Asia for the right reasons, and that is to benefit the peoples of both our countries – or not just with our countries; I should say the Southeast Asian region as well as the American people. So that’s really, I think, what we’re going to focus on. But I don’t get a sense that people are looking back too much; I think they’re kind of looking forward and how we handle COVID issues, how we try to turn economies around because of the effect of the pandemic on our economies.
Melissa, did you have any thoughts on that?
Ms. Brown: Kin, I couldn’t agree more. The issue now is it’s like any relationship: it takes a lot of communication. And what we’re trying to do in terms of expanding our engagement, whether it be on climate, whether it be on energy, whether it be on these health issues, these are issues of priority for ASEAN and they appreciate the fact that we are approaching this as a strategic partnership working shoulder to shoulder to figure out where we want the future to take this cooperation. And in fact, you heard my laundry list but there’s so much – it’s more and more exciting work that wants to be done. So now, we’re working hard here in Jakarta to operationalize all these new programs, but of course the ministerials and the formal meetings, that’s something of great importance that complements the work we’re doing day to day.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to Sangho Song, Yonhap News Agency, South Korea.
Question: My question is similar to the first one – it’s also about North Korea. You said that Secretary Blinken reiterated openness to dialogue on North Korea. And then what was the response from North Korean participants? I understand that the North Korean ambassador to Indonesia was there at the ASEAN Regional Forum. And also, I’m wondering if Secretary Blinken made any specific message that was actually different from the previous message, like better than just signaling openness to dialogue? Thank you.
Mr. Moy: I don’t know if we have anyone else on the line. I don’t know, Melissa, if you captured the thrust of DPRK response. I didn’t hear anything of substance on that. I think what we should focus on more is there are a number of other discussions that are going on. These kinds of ministerials are opportunities to communicate general views about – that the work that’s been done and also kind of overall, in kind of thematic points we would want to convey.
But in terms of the kind of specifics, especially on an issue as sensitive as the DPRK, I think you’re going to have to look for other channels for those kinds of discussions. But I took the remarks that the Secretary made as being positive in the sense that we’re willing to engage. And I don’t know how the DPRK views all that. I mean, a lot of times when we’re working on North Korea issues, you have to wait before Pyongyang responds. That message has to be taken back to the capital. And so, I wouldn’t expect that North Korea would respond in any kind of major substantive way to anything like that, but I think that what Secretary Blinken was doing was kind of reiterating what we have already conveyed through different channels, anyway. Over.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question goes to Le Thi Doan Minh Thien with Forbes Vietnam.
Question: Hello, Le Thi Doan Minh Thien from Forbes Vietnam. I just have one question to you. Could you please share your opinion on the U.S. trade surplus with Vietnam? Why the trade balance between the U.S. and Vietnam continues to show up in bigger numbers.
Hello, can you hear me?
Mr. Moy: I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that question —
Question: Share your opinion – please share your opinion on the U.S. trade surplus between the U.S. and Vietnam, because we can see that the trade balance between the U.S. and Vietnam shows up in bigger numbers in recent years.
Mr. Moy: I can turn it over to Melissa for views on that, but I can tell you that we’re very much positive on the trade potential of the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam. I think that in last week’s meetings, we didn’t so much focus on bilateral relations or trade relations, but we focused on kind of regional development of trade relations, and as far as that’s concerned, there’s really unlimited potential there. Vietnam is just one area we see a lot of potential. There are also from time to time, with all countries, there are going to be some frictions here and there, but we’re very optimistic that because we have such a strong dialogue now with Vietnam that we can sort of alleviate some of those issues and maintain a very positive direction.
Ms. Brown: Thank you. Yes, in fact I was going to say something along the same lines. The good news is the fact that a vibrant dialogue is going on between the United States and Vietnam, and I would say that includes all of our agencies. I know that Treasury and the U.S. Trade Representative’s office — they have frequent discussions with Vietnamese officials about how to seize opportunities, how to overcome challenges, and they’ve had some good news recently overcoming some issues, and those conversations continue. I think the emphasis on trade balances is certainly one way of looking at it, but I think that ensuring that working nimble too, because, of course, COVID-19 has impacted trade and supply chains and we’re just really grateful to see – really happy to see the vibrant communication between our two countries on all of these important issues.
Moderator: Thank you. That concludes the question and answer portion of today’s call. Senior Bureau Official Moy, do you have any closing remarks you would like to make?
Mr. Moy: Yeah, thank you. I just wanted to thank all of you for joining us on this call. It’s really important for us to be able to talk to media representatives such as yourselves because we just want to amplify some things, and not everyone can sit in these meetings, and we’re talking about five consecutive days of meetings that the Secretary of State is involved in, and you’re not always getting access to those kinds of meetings. And certainly, as I mentioned earlier – there is a bit of kind of choreographing or scripting that goes along with this. But there are important themes that we’re discussing here. One of the most important themes is that the United States is so heavily invested right now in helping the world and Southeast Asia recover from this pandemic, and we’re doing as much as possible, and we’re going to do more down the road, and we’re going to continue having these discussions.
But from the perspective – what we heard a lot during these conversations is that Southeast Asia is looking at the kind dual track. We are going to tackle these pandemic issues full-throttle. We’re also going to look at ways to develop our economies back, “Build Back Better,” if you will, and that expression was used quite a bit during the conversations. And so not only has the world suffered from the global health perspective, but in the economic and trade perspective as well. And so we’re really invested in this, and it’s so important that we’re able to amplify some of these messages along with some of the other ones that we discussed. I mean, in all of these conversations, because of the different makeup of the various ministerials, some involve a wider range of countries – like ASEAN Regional Forum — there are 27 countries involved, including the United States, and there is DPRK involved in that meeting, and so there’s a bit of an opportunity to talk about that. But also in the more intimate settings where we’re talking about five or six countries involved in the Mekong Partnership, the U.S.-Mekong Partnership, and talking about more targeted kinds of cooperation areas as varied as cybersecurity, digital economy, climate change, and all of these issues – so important.
So I’m so happy that you were able to join us and if you have some follow-ups, you can send them in our direction and we’ll try to get back to you. I really thank you for joining us tonight and to hear some of the things that we had to say and we’re very proud of when it comes to our investment in engagement in Southeast Asia and ASEAN. Thanks.
Ms. Brown: Great, thank you. I mean, I can’t put it much better than that. But I’d also say yesterday – because this marks ASEAN Day – so I think that Secretary Blinken put it best: We are aiming for a more stable, prosperous, and peaceful region, and ASEAN is at the very center of that vision. And it lets you have the ASEAN outlook on Indo-Pacific so that ASEAN can spell out for itself, in its own words, where we want the future to head. And I think what we’re doing is we are, as Kin stated, we are addressing the most urgent opportunities and challenges together, and I’m just really excited to see where we can go to expand this partnership in some new areas and continue to work together. We have this shared trust and I think symbols matter, and this last week was such a perfect example. Working with them, as I mentioned, was, of course, Foreign Minister Retno being in the United States.
So Southeast Asia is just absolutely on our agenda and ASEAN is at the very heart of the way that we’re working with the Indo-Pacific. We’re excited to see where else we can take this.
Moderator: Thank you. I want to thank Senior Bureau Official Moy and Chargé Brown for joining us, and thanks to all of the reporters on the line for your participation and your questions. This concludes today’s call.