DANIEL J. KRITENBRINK, ASSISTANT SECRETARY BUREAU OF EAST ASIAN AND PACIFIC AFFAIRS
YOHANNES ABRAHAM, U.S. AMBASSADOR, ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS (ASEAN)
NOVEMBER 10, 2022
Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink and Ambassador Abraham discuss the ongoing ASEAN Summit. Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink also discuss other upcoming engagements in the region, including G20 and APEC.
MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Asia Pacific region and around the world. Today we have the honor of hosting an on-the-record briefing with Daniel J. Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and Yohannes Abraham, U.S. Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink and Ambassador Abraham are in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and will discuss the ongoing ASEAN Summit. Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink will also be prepared to discuss other upcoming engagements in the region, including G20 and APEC. The speakers will take questions from participating journalists.
I’ll now turn it over to Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Thank you, Katie, and good evening, everyone. It’s a real pleasure to be with you all, and it’s absolutely great to be back here in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. As Katie indicated, I’ll provide some general remarks at the top regarding the President’s upcoming travel here to the region, then I’ll turn things over to my good friend Ambassador Yohannes Abraham to speak about some of our specific goals for the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit.
And before I get into the details of what we hope to achieve during the President’s visit, I would like to start by simply acknowledging the tremendous work of our Cambodian hosts and partners who we think have done such a skillful job in chairing ASEAN over the past year. We very much appreciate Cambodia’s preparations for this week’s event, as well as their stewardship of ASEAN during an eventful and challenging chair year. It has certainly not been an easy time to chair ASEAN with, of course, the worsening crisis in Burma as well as Russia’s continued illegal assault on Ukraine. But it has been clear to us that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn have made ASEAN a leading priority and they, again, have skillfully managed I think the many challenges we’ve faced over the past year. Their efforts have been visible in the productive engagements that ASEAN has held throughout this entire momentous year.
Again, let me stress at the outset that President Biden is excited to be here in the coming days to participate in the ASEAN-related leaders summit. The President will then travel to Bali for the G20 Leaders Summit. And finally, Vice President Harris will travel to Bangkok for the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting followed by a bilateral visit to the Philippines.
I think it’s clear that America’s high-level engagement at these three important meetings is a testament to how central the Indo-Pacific is not only to U.S. security and prosperity, but also to that of our combined 1 billion people between the United States and the countries of ASEAN. It also shows just how critical these multilateral fora are for advancing our network of alliances and partnerships in pursuit of a more free and open, resilient, and prosperous Indo-Pacific that benefits us all.
ASEAN is clearly at the center of the region’s architecture, and the U.S.’s strategic partnership with ASEAN is at the heart of our Indo-Pacific strategy. As President Biden said during the May U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, a great deal of the history of the next 50 years will be written in the countries of ASEAN, and that our relationship with ASEAN will shape the future we all want to see.
A few weeks ago, the administration reaffirmed this in its National Security Strategy by stating that the Indo-Pacific will be the epicenter of 21st century geopolitics, and that no region will be of more significance to the world and to everyday Americans than the Indo-Pacific.
Our top priority in the Indo-Pacific is to solidify the latticework of strong and mutually reinforcing coalitions to build the collective capacity of our partners, friends, and allies so that we can together tackle shared challenges and seize common opportunities. Over the past year we celebrated 45 years of U.S.-ASEAN relations at the May Special Summit, and over the past year we have announced nearly $250 million in new U.S.-ASEAN initiatives on a host of bilateral, regional, and global issues, including on climate change and inclusive economic growth and global health.
Turning to APEC, Vice President Kamala Harris will represent the United States at the upcoming APEC Leaders Week to close out Thailand’s host year and to take the reins as the U.S. prepares to host APEC in 2023. The Vice President will underscore our enduring commitment to the region and to broad-based economic growth. We’re extremely appreciative of Thailand’s leadership and hospitality this year during their APEC host year, and we of course will continue to work closely with them on the successful outcomes for their host year as we prepare to take over in the year ahead, including on the key issue of environmental sustainability.
Hosting APEC in 2023 will provide the United States with a unique opportunity to showcase U.S. economic leadership and multilateral cooperation in the region, and to highlight the vital importance of international economic engagement in promoting prosperity at home in the United States. We also plan to use our host year to further the conversation on economic inclusion, including by sharing the U.S. experience with women’s economic empowerment, disability rights, and the inclusion of ethnic minorities and immigrant and refugee communities.
This year’s summits occur against the backdrop of persistently high inflation, growing food insecurity, sharply rising borrowing costs, and slowing economic growth. President Biden’s visit to the region once again demonstrates the U.S. commitment to working cooperatively with ASEAN members as well as our other allies and partners to address these global challenges through concrete actions.
Finally, let me note that we also remain deeply concerned with the DPRK’s recent escalatory launches of ballistic missiles. We have continued to condemn these provocations and we have also, of course, reaffirmed the ironclad U.S. commitment to the security and safety of our South Korean and Japanese allies.
Now I’ll turn it over to my friend, Ambassador Abraham, for a bit more about our goals for the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit. Ambassador Abraham.
AMBASSADOR ABRAHAM: Thank you so much, Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink, and thank you, everybody, for making time to be on the phone with us tonight. I think if there’s one thing that is clear, it’s that the United States is excited about the future of our partnership with ASEAN. I think you heard that in the Assistant Secretary’s comments. I think you see that in the consistent high-level engagement across all of the U.S. Government with ASEAN. Just in the past several months, Secretary Blinken, U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Tai, Administrator Samantha Power – just to name a few – had engaged with the region in person or virtually on a variety of important issues.
And of course, the reason we’re on the phone today is President Biden will be meeting with his ASEAN counterparts just six months to the day since his last in-person meeting with them at the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit in D.C. The Assistant Secretary mentioned the Vice President’s trip to the region; that’s her second trip to the region in the first two years of the Biden-Harris administration. And I think when you look across all of this in its totality, it shows a clear picture of U.S. excitement for the future of our partnership with ASEAN.
This region is essential to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific and is directly connected to the future of our combined 1 billion people. The ASEAN countries are collectively the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner, and we are the number one investment partner in ASEAN member countries.
Let me take a moment to talk about one of the most exciting aspects of our partnership, and that is centered on the region’s dynamic and young population. Our continued cooperation and engagement with young leaders across the region is only growing, and it only will continue to be more important as we work together to meet the challenges and opportunities that will shape the 21st century. Back in May, we, along with our ASEAN partners, announced a variety of expanded opportunities to foster these important relationships, including expanding the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, the U.S. Government’s signature program to strengthen leadership development in Southeast Asia.
Now, there will be a number of priorities we will discuss with our ASEAN partners in the coming days, and all of these discussions will be rooted in excitement for our shared future and commitment to our ongoing partnership, and we are delighted with the possibility that a new phase in U.S.-ASEAN ties can herald. Amongst other topics, as the Assistant Secretary mentioned, we will discuss our collective efforts to end the crisis in Myanmar and alleviate the suffering of its people.
We will also at the East Asia Summit talk clearly about Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, which has impacted the people of the Indo-Pacific in significant ways, including increasing the cost of food and energy. We have a shared commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity with our ASEAN partners, and we will be speaking about those values over the course of these events.
I would just like to take a moment to recognize and commend ASEAN for inviting Ukraine to the ASEAN Summit as a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation signatory. The signing took place today, as you all are tracking. I think that’s a showcase of ASEAN’s longstanding and principled support for the importance of respecting national sovereignty.
I will stop there, and we’ll stop there and take questions. I just want to underscore – and you can probably, hopefully, hear it in both our voices – just our extreme excitement not only for these events that are coming up, but for the future of this critical relationship.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador Abraham. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Our first question goes to Amanda Hodge of The Australian in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Amanda asks, “What will a successful summit season look like for the U.S.? What outcomes does it want to see from the ASEAN, G20, and APEC summits? Is lowering tensions with China on the agenda too?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Well, Katie, thanks. Thank you for that and to Amanda at The Australian, thank you very much. Look, what we’re looking for through the President’s consequential engagements here is, again, a further demonstration both of the strength and the breadth and depth of America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific and to our many allies, partners, and friends here, but also a way to further highlight the fact that the Indo-Pacific is central to America’s own security and prosperity. And I think what you’ll see through the totality of our engagements and discussions and outcomes here is the fact that our closest partners here in the region are also committed to making concrete progress on these issues in ways that benefit all of our peoples.
Again, I think you’ll see the President engaging with leaders in the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, in the larger configuration of the East Asia Summit. I’m confident that the President will have opportunities to meet bilaterally and in other configurations with partners on the ground as well. And again, I think the totality of those engagements will highlight the priorities that I’ve just described. Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right. Our next question goes to Tran Hoang of Zing News, Vietnam. He asks, “What are the expected outcomes of this ASEAN Summit? And how does Southeast Asia play its role as it has hosted a number of regional summits this month?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Well, let me take an initial stab at that and then I’ll ask Ambassador Abraham to chime in as well. Again, part of the reason why the President is attending the ASEAN-related summit is we’re trying to demonstrate our strong support for ASEAN centrality and our recognition of the fact just how crucially important our ASEAN partners are. I think as Ambassador Abraham outlined at the top, collectively, the 10 countries of ASEAN form the world’s fourth-largest economy; its 650 million people represent one of the youngest and most dynamic regions on the planet; and what happens in ASEAN really will be central to what happens across the Indo-Pacific. And certainly the fact that the ASEAN-related architecture is central to the regional architecture just really highlights just how important this region is and how important ASEAN is.
I think our friends in Southeast Asia play a critical role not just because they represent such an important, dynamic region, but as the core of the region’s architecture – this is the main forum for coming together, where countries around the world can discuss both global events that affect us all, including friends in Southeast Asia, but also ways in which we can address the top priorities for our friends in ASEAN. And as we’ve discovered over the past year, because ASEAN represents the region’s most important architectural arrangement, it is also the place where world leaders come together to discuss major events in the region, even those that aren’t always central to the ASEAN countries themselves.
But, Ambassador Abraham, would you like to add to that?
AMBASSADOR ABRAHAM: Thank you, Assistant Secretary. And I would – the only thing I would add to that, or really just to complement what the Assistant Secretary said, affirm what he said, is I think success at these summits from our perspective is a further deepening of our critical relationship with ASEAN. And as the Assistant Secretary said, that means talking through and charting a path to work together on a whole host of critical issues, and be they challenges or opportunities. And we’re very much looking forward to doing that and we have what we think is going to be a very fruitful set of days for the leaders.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Absolutely. And maybe I’ll just add again to the Ambassador’s excellent comments, as he outlined in his opening remarks: the most consequential issues in the region and on the global stage right now will be addressed over the coming week. I’m confident of that. The global implications of Russia’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine; issues related to combating climate change and to promoting economic growth and recovery coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic; and concerns related to maritime security and freedom of navigation, the situation in Myanmar.
Again, I think you’ll see some of the most important issues all will be addressed in the coming week – again, which highlights just why our engagement with ASEAN is so important.
MODERATOR: Our next question goes to Azman Abdul Hamid at The New Straits Times in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Hello, Assistant Secretary and Ambassador. My question is: There has been new sanctions against Myanmar, so what does the U.S. and perhaps you hope to achieve and how do you see ASEAN role in the Myanmar issue moving forward?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Well, thank you very much for the question. Let’s be very clear here. What has happened in Myanmar over the past two years has been an absolute travesty. The coup d’état carried out by the junta, the absolutely brutal and horrific violence that the junta has carried out against its own people is absolutely unacceptable. And so what the United States has intended to do since the coup, together with partners, including those in ASEAN, is we have tried to increase via various means pressure upon the junta to try to compel it to cease the violence and to return to a democratic path.
Now, and that will continue – as the situation continues to worsen in Myanmar, I’m confident that the United States and other partners will continue to take steps to increase that pressure on the regime.
Now, as you noted, ASEAN obviously plays a central role in the world’s response to the travesty in Myanmar. We strongly support the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus. We strongly support efforts by ASEAN and others to make the Five-Point Consensus real. And I know that the issue of Myanmar has been central to the discussions that ASEAN leaders have been holding in recent months and are certainly holding this week. I’m confident it will be a prime topic of discussion this week, both for the leaders of ASEAN and for other partners, including the United States.
MODERATOR: Our next question goes to Duy Linh Hang of Tuổi Trẻ in Vietnam. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Yes, we can – loud and clear.
QUESTION: Yeah, okay. Thank you. I have two questions for you. The first is that, will President Biden meet Chinese President Xi Jinping (inaudible) in Indonesia? And the second question is that I heard some analysts suggest that the dynamic at the ASEAN Summit will be more influenced by the U.S. than China because China is sending the outgoing premier while, meanwhile, the U.S. President will be attending the ASEAN Summit. So can you tell or share with us what the U.S. will bring to ASEAN meeting this time? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Thank you very much for the question. Always happy to talk with friends in Vietnam. Look, on your first question, I don’t have anything to announce regarding the President’s possible meetings at the G20, and I’ll simply refer you to the White House and I’ll leave it at that.
On your second question about what the United States will be bringing to ASEAN and any comparisons related to both U.S. and Chinese participation in the ASEAN-related summits, let me just simply underscore this: Our focus in the Indo-Pacific first and foremost is in building the collective capacity of our partners so that we can address shared challenges and seize common opportunities. We’re focused on our affirmative, positive agenda that we bring to the table – everything from highlighting our large and growing trade relationship with ASEAN, massive investments by the U.S. private sector across the region, our contribution to regional peace and stability and security, including in the South China Sea. We’ll highlight the growing ties between the American people and the peoples of ASEAN, talk about ways we can combat climate change, and again, combat pandemic disease and a whole host of other issues.
And the point that I’m trying to make is that we’re going to focus on the intrinsic value that ASEAN and our ASEAN partners have for us, and we’re going to focus on, again, our affirmative agenda and what we bring to the table. And I’ll leave it to friends in the PRC or others to comment about what China may or may not be bringing to the table.
MODERATOR: Our next question goes to Yvette Tanamal of The Jakarta Post in Indonesia. Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION: Hello, is my voice clear?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Yes, loud and clear.
QUESTION: All right. Good evening. So I just have one question. We know that the Indo-Pacific area or the Southeast Asian countries have been getting special attention under President Joe Biden’s administration, but earlier this year – I guess it was when the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework first started coming out – there was a lot of skepticism and a lot of distrust coming from the Southeast Asian countries because they felt like what the – what is the guarantee that the U.S. is not going to leave us again when – after what Trump did? So there was a lot of distrust, there was a lot of skepticism in the beginning of the year. What has the U.S. done to gain the trust of these Southeast Asian countries, and is there anything on President Joe Biden’s agenda this time to earn this trust and friendship back? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Well, thank you very much for the question. Look, let me just say that we’re incredibly excited by the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, or IPEF. We think this is just one and the newest tangible demonstration of America’s commitment to our shared future with partners in the Indo-Pacific. We’re working closely with our 13 other partners in IPEF to advance what we consider are some of the most important and most exciting issues related to the 21st century economy. It includes work on critically important issues related to the digital economy, to resilient supply chains, to promoting clean growth as well, green growth, and then addressing issues related to governance and corruption as well.
So, again, we think that the issues addressed – some of the issues addressed in IPEF are new and are not addressed anywhere else, and what is most exciting to us in working with our partners is that I think all of the IPEF partners see the benefit in working together to define the rules of the road, so to speak, for the 21st century economy.
You asked what are we doing to demonstrate our commitment and build trust. Look, the United States has been an Indo-Pacific power now for more than a century and will certainly be for the foreseeable future. And when you look at the breadth and depth of America’s commitment across the region, that has been enduring and am confident will be so going forward. But certainly, I think if you look at the totality of the engagement of the Biden-Harris administration to this region, it’s been quite striking.
From the very beginning, from shortly after President Biden’s election to his hosting at the White House as his first foreign visitor of the Japanese prime minister shortly thereafter, followed by the president of South Korea, we’ve seen really just in this past year the President’s hosting of the U.S.-ASEAN Summit at the White House, the U.S.-Pacific Island Summit at the White House. We saw the President’s travel to Korea and Japan, and now the President coming out here. As Ambassador Abraham indicated, the Vice President will be on now I believe her third trip to the Indo-Pacific region, her second to Southeast Asia. And that doesn’t even count the literally dozens of other significant engagements and other investments that America is making across the region.
So I think the signal that we’re sending to the region is that America’s interests in this region are enduring. The region can count on the United States of America, and they can count on the United States of America in large part because, as we’ve indicated here, we can see that it is in our interest to remain engaged in this region which is so central to our own security and prosperity going forward.
AMBASSADOR ABRAHAM: Only thing I’d add to the Assistant Secretary’s great comments are we’ve been very encouraged by the response to IPEF across the Indo-Pacific, and specifically in Southeast Asia, from the launch of IPEF to today. And we are excited to work with those participating countries to continue to make progress and work together to find ways to deepen our economic engagement.
MODERATOR: That brings us to the end of our time. And now, Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Well, Katie, just let me thank you for skillfully hosting this call. And most importantly, let me just thank again all of our friends in the media, especially across the Indo-Pacific region, for joining us this evening. I hope you’ve seen through our comments here really the strength of our commitment to the region and the enthusiasm that we have for our engagement here. I’m confident that the President and the Vice President will have successful trips here. I’m confident that the travel will serve to strengthen our bonds with this region, and I’m excited to see what we achieve over the week ahead.
MODERATOR: Ambassador Abraham, do you have anything to add?
AMBASSADOR ABRAHAM: Just to wholeheartedly echo the Assistant Secretary’s sentiments and thank everybody for their time.
MODERATOR: That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink and Ambassador Abraham for joining us, and thank you to all of our callers for participating.