Telephonic Press Briefing with Derek Chollet, Counselor of the U.S. Department of State

Source: State Department Website 

Telephonic Press Briefing with Derek Chollet, Counselor of the U.S. Department of State; Kin Moy, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, U.S. Department of State; and Craig Hart, Deputy Assistant Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development

Click here to listen to the audio file.

Moderator:  Good day from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila.  I’m the Hub Director, Zia Syed, and I want to thank you all for joining this briefing.  Today, we are pleased to be joined from Jakarta, Indonesia by Derek Chollet, Counselor of the U.S. Department of State; Kin Moy, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State; and Craig Hart, the Deputy Assistant Administrator at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

We’ll being today’s call with opening remarks from Counselor Chollet.  We’ll try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes.

Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Counselor Chollet.

Mr. Chollet:  Thanks everyone for being on the call this afternoon and greetings from Jakarta.  Derek Chollet here, and I’m leading an interagency delegation to the region this week and I’m joined by representatives from the State Department, the National Security Council at the White House, USAID, and USUN.  We spent Tuesday of this week in Bangkok, yesterday in Singapore, and today in Jakarta, and we fly back to the U.S. tomorrow after a very brief stopover and touch base with colleagues in Tokyo.

This trip is the latest example in a series of senior-level engagements by the Biden administration in Southeast Asia, including Secretary of State Blinken’s extensive engagement with an ASEAN ministerial event this year – he’s participated in three already this year – as well as a series of high-level visits to Washington and also out here in the region, including of course the Vice President’s trip to Southeast Asia as well as Secretary of Defense Austin’s trip here in this part of the world as well as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield and my colleague, the Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

These engagements really underscore the importance that we place on the region and a level of commitment to working with our allies and partners.  Over the course of the last three days, we’ve met with leaders in Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia.  I’ve had the chance to meet with the foreign ministers of all three countries, and we’ve discussed ways we can work with ASEAN and our allies and partners in this region.  We’ve worked together on a full range of issues.  That includes working closely to tackle the pandemic and get robust economic recovery, combat climate change, and commit to the rules-based international order from which we all benefit.  And we are encouraged by the progress we’ve already made and what we have on deck.

Now, the main focus of our meetings this week has been the deteriorating situation in Burma, and at each stop we have reiterated U.S. support for the people of Burma and their aspirations for freedom and democracy, and we’ve underscored that the international community has an urgent responsibility to pressure the military regime to cease violence, to release those unjustly detained, which includes, of course, the American journalist Danny Fenster, and to respect the will of the Burmese people who are demanding a return to democracy.

There are really three main lines of effort that we, the United States, see with ASEAN — and working with us as well as other members of the international community to focus on — that we see as at a critical juncture in this crisis.  First, of course, the humanitarian situation in Burma is deteriorating rapidly.  The confluence of the regime’s violent repression, the widespread prevalence of COVID-19, and a collapsing economy have really devastated the Burmese people and have put us at risk of seeing a failed state in the heart of Asia.  And I’ve been making clear in my visit this week that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Burma and the United States has provided more than $650 million in assistance to Burma over the last five years, and just a few months ago, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield committed another $50 million of assistance to the people of Burma.

We also continue to be extremely concerned about the crisis affecting the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh and the region, which is why we’ve contributed over $1.5 billion to support the Rohingya since the outbreak of violence in 2017.  And we are working closely with our partners to ensure that the international organizations and nonprofit organizations, some of whom we had a chance to meet with the other day in Bangkok, have the access they need to continue delivering this vital assistance to all Burmese people.

So, second, there’s widespread agreement on the overall objectives of pushing the regime to put Burma back on the path to democracy, to cease the violence, and to release all those unjustly detained, and to adhering to ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus.  One of the things we found in conversations this week and in the consultations we’ve been having in advance of this trip with the NUG, with countries in Southeast Asia, and more broadly, is that we’re in general agreement on the path forward.  There are, of course, differences of opinion on – the tactics of how we get there, and there are going to be very important decisions we need to make in the coming weeks to make progress and to hold the regime to account.  But strategically, it’s striking that we are on the same page and we are committed to pushing forward together.

Third, in my view, we are at an inflection point on how to reach these objectives in Burma.  Following the decision last week by ASEAN to downgrade the participation in the upcoming summit, we also have the transition coming up of the chairmanship in ASEAN from Brunei to Cambodia as well as the general instability of the situation inside Burma, are the reasons why I believe we’re at this inflection point.  We do need to be realistic about the limited tools we have to influence the regime, but there are tools we have at our disposal, especially diplomatic pressure, that have helped us make some progress.  I think the downgrade decision last week, which seems to have taken the military leadership by surprise and which they did not take to very kindly, is one example of how international pressure can make a difference.  And that was another example of how the international community came together in support of ASEAN and the central role that ASEAN plays in addressing this crisis.

While of course it was ASEAN’s decision to make to downgrade Burma’s participation in the upcoming leaders’ meeting, the United States supported that decision, as did many of our allies and partners, and we believe that holding the regime to account for its commitments and actions and enabling the Burmese people to do the same is another area where working with our partners will be critical in the months ahead.  And deepening that partnership was really one of the main objectives of our interagency trip here this week.

So, for example, Thailand is a critical humanitarian assistance partner in Burma given their long shared border, and the levers that we generally have to alleviate the suffering of the Burmese people played a central role in our conversations.  Singapore has significant financial leverage over the regime, and we discussed how we can partner effectively to wield it.  And of course, Indonesia has demonstrated real leadership throughout this crisis in ASEAN and regionally.

So really, the fundamental point is that these partnerships with ASEAN at the center will be critical to making progress to return Burma back on the path to democracy.  We are committed to the Burmese people for the long haul, both because it’s the right thing to do and because it is in our strategic interest.

Our trip gave me hope that we can make some progress, and we have a lot of work to do and a very long road ahead.  Working with our partners in ASEAN and the region must be at the center of our strategy.

So, with that, I very much appreciate your questions and thanks again for taking the time to be with us here this afternoon.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.

Our first question will go to Hui Yee Tan from The Straits Times in Bangkok, Thailand.  Hui Yee, please go ahead.

Question:  Good afternoon, Mr. Chollet.  This is Hui Yee from the Straits Times.  What is the outcome of your discussions with the monetary authority of Singapore on how to limit the junta’s access to overseas assets?

Mr. Chollet:  Well, thanks for the question.  We did have good conversations yesterday in Singapore with a whole variety of officials, and of course Singapore has to be, by definition, a very important part of our efforts to try to bring about greater pressure on the junta to change its ways and make better decisions on behalf of the Burmese people.  The United States, as you know, has taken significant measures in the last nine months to address the crisis there in terms of bringing about pressure on the regime from designating certain key individuals as well as entities to make it harder for them to transact business in the international community.

Singapore has a very, very important role to play.  We had very good discussions with our partners there about the way ahead and the way that we’re going to continue to work together as we seek to wield whatever leverage we can over the regime to put Burma back on the course of democracy.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  Next if we could go to Sui-Lee Wee from The New York Times in Singapore.  Please go ahead, Sui-Lee.

Question:  Thank you.  It’s Sui-Lee Wee from The New York Times.  Counselor, can you outline some of the tools that the U.S. is thinking of using in pressuring the regime?  Thank you.

Mr. Chollet:  Sure, Sui-Lee.  It’s good to talk to you.  So first, as I said in my opening statement, the diplomatic tools are first and foremost.  I think sending a message of unity between the United States, our partners here in the region, and ASEAN, as well as the broader international community, is a key tool.  We very much embrace the decision that ASEAN has taken to downgrade the participation of Burma in the upcoming meetings.  As I said, it was not our decision to make, but we believe it was completely justified and warranted given the circumstances.

The economic tools are also significant, and as I said, the United States has wielded those tools — as well as other partners around the world — in trying to bring about greater pressure on the regime.  And it’s very important to note that as we’re doing this, we want to be very careful not to compound the hardship that the Burmese people are currently suffering under.  So, we’re trying to wield those economic points of leverage very, very carefully.  But nevertheless, we still have – we’ve already taken some steps and there’s more steps that we could possibly take if the situation continues to deteriorate.

But again, to return to kind of where – the first point, again, the main point for our trip is to really consult with our partners and allies here so we can step out in a unified fashion, and I think one of the lessons we’ve learned is that we’re really only going to be successful if we’re working together.  And as I said, even though there may be some occasional differences on tactics, we all share the same strategic outlook on what we’re trying to achieve inside Burma and the kind of opportunity we’d like to give to the Burmese people.  And so that gives me hope.  I mean, there are many problems around the world, as you’re aware.  We’re often – there’s a great debate about what actually we’re trying to achieve, even with our closest allies and partners.  That’s not the case here, and that gives us a strong foundation from which to work from.

Mr. Chollet:  I’m going to ask Kin Moy, my colleague from the State Department.

Mr. Moy:  I think one of the important objectives of the trip is to consult with our partners to find out what the potential impact of some of these tools are.  And so, we’re not going to pull the trigger unilaterally here and then apologize later on.  What we want to do is consult very closely with friends, partners, allies, and develop a list of tools that we can use.  And so, I thought it was very effective, wherever we seemed to go, there was quite a lot of interest in searching for tools that would have an impact.  And as the Counselor said a little bit earlier, we have since the coup started developing these lists of tools and we’ve already sanctioned certain individuals, and we’re developing more tools.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  Next if we could go to Azis Kurmala, who is with Antara News Agency based in Indonesia.  Azis, can you please go ahead?

Question:  Thank you.  Mr. Counselor, would you like to elaborate more about cooperation between Indonesia and the United States in terms of COVID-19 economic recovery and climate change?

Mr. Chollet:  Sorry, can you repeat your question?  I missed the second part of it.

Question:  Would you like to elaborate more about cooperation between Indonesia and the United States in terms of COVID-19 economic recovery and climate change policies?

Mr. Chollet:  So COVID-19, climate change, and economic recovery.  We had very, very good discussions here today in Jakarta.  I spent over an hour with Foreign Minister Retno, discussed a range of issues, really picking up the conversation from where things were left off last summer when we hosted the first strategic dialogue, U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Dialogue in Washington.  That had been a long time coming.  I think we’d agreed to have a strategic dialogue five, six years ago, and so we were – Secretary Blinken was very glad to launch that back in August.  And then also, we had a chance to engage with the minister on the margins of the UN General Assembly.

So, Indonesia is a key partner of the United States across a range of issues, and whether it’s climate change and, of course, we discussed the preparations for the upcoming COP26 meeting; COVID-19, where the U.S. has worked very actively to help Indonesia with its own crisis but then also working together with Indonesia to help address COVID-19 and the aftereffects of it here in the region; as well as our economic relationship, which we believe has tremendous potential between the United States and Indonesia.  We already do a significant amount of work together, but we believe that there is a lot of room to grow in building that economic relationship, and that’s something that we very much welcome in the United States and we had good discussions about that today.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  Next if we could go to Jonathan Head from BBC News in Bangkok, Thailand.  Jonathan, if you’re there, please go ahead.

Question:  Thank you, Counselor Chollet, for this information.  I wanted to ask whether the U.S. is willing to meet the request of the National Unity Government for greater official recognition.  It’s one thing the NUG has been asking for, to be recognized as a representative of the people of Myanmar.  It is backed by those who were elected in the election last year.  And yet it’s only ever mentioned – in a rather veiled way, of sort of informal contact.  Would you give it – would the U.S. give the NUG greater recognition?

Mr. Chollet:  Thanks for the question, Jonathan.  We, the United States, continue to support efforts by the pro-democracy movement, including the NUG as well as all others who seek to peacefully restore Myanmar’s path to inclusive democracy.  We have engaged with the NUG over the last several months in various meetings.  I myself have had three or four engagements with them just in the last six weeks or so, including a few days ago, another meeting with the foreign minister.  I had a chance in New York at the UN General Assembly meeting, on the margins of that, to have a hybrid meeting, meaning virtual, with NUG members virtually as well as several in the room, including the UN ambassador.

So, we are deeply committed to engaging with them, sharing our best ideas, hearing from them about their needs and the situation inside Burma, encouraging them to do what they can to unify the movement.  So, we’re very supportive of their efforts and we’ll continue to engage with them in the weeks ahead.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next, we’ll go to Amy Chew from the South China Morning Post based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Question:  Good evening, counselor.  You mentioned earlier about having designation of people so that it’s more difficult for them to transact.  Is it possible to let us know, are there going to be new officials from Myanmar who will be designated?  That’s one.  And secondly, will businesspeople – perhaps based in Singapore – who transact or do business with Myanmar, will they also be targeted in forthcoming sanctions?  Thank you.

Mr. Chollet:  Well, thank you.  I have no new announcements today to offer about further designations, but as my colleague Kin Moy responded earlier, the United States continues to actively consider new steps that we can take, new targets that we might be able to develop on this.  It’s something we consult closely with allies and partners on, and I can say I think we’re very satisfied with the degree of cooperation that we have received thus far as we are seeking to make these designations.  And so, we’ve done I think 50-some total, if we include combined individuals and entities thus far in the crisis, and we continue to look at this every day in terms of what more we can do as we learn more, but also as the situation evolves on the ground in Burma.  Thank you.

Moderator:  Next, if we could go to Nyein Nyein from The Irrawaddy News in Chiang Mai, in Thailand.  Nyein Nyein, if you’re there, please go ahead.

Question:  Thank you so much, Mr. Counselor.  I want to ask, ASEAN rejected, excluding the coup leader from the summit.  He pardoned more than [5,600] political detainees, but some of them have been re-arrested within days.  Can you comment on that?  Also, another question is:  It now seems like ASEAN’s approach for the negotiations in Myanmar is failed, so what is the U.S. plan for Myanmar issue now?  Thank you.

Mr. Chollet:  So, thank you for that.  Could you repeat the second question?  I had a hard time hearing that.

Question:  Yes, sir.  The second question is:  It looks like the ASEAN approach to have negotiations in Myanmar is failed, so what is the U.S. plan for the Myanmar issue now?

Mr. Chollet:  Well, thank you.  So, in terms of the first question and the release of prisoners that was announced, we too have seen those reports.  We’ve been studying the list of those who had been released.  We have also heard something similar to what you said that several of the folks who were released were quickly then re-arrested.  Also, we have heard stories of others having to pledge not to engage in political or public activities of any kind.  So, we also have to remember that everyone who was locked up or detained was – the reason for that was because they were trying to exercise what we consider their basic rights of freedom of speech, political expression.  So, we don’t believe that these detentions were necessarily just.  And so, whereas clearly, if thousands of folks are released, it’s not a bad thing; we’re skeptical that this is necessarily genuine and we’re also watching very carefully that this is just not an empty gesture that then is quickly reversed on the ground.

And then the second part of it, in terms of our approach to Myanmar more generally, if I understand that was the thrust of the question – as I said, part of the purpose of this trip was to continue to develop our approach.  We have been doing so in lockstep with our ASEAN partners.  And whether it’s the tools of leverage that we have that we discussed earlier, the economic tools and the political and diplomatic tools, or our efforts on the humanitarian assistance side and what we are doing in conjunction with our partners to provide assistance to the people of Burma to try to alleviate the suffering going on there, the United States is committed to staying deeply engaged to handle this crisis as best we can.  That’s the reason why we had an interagency delegation here in the region this week.  It’s a conversation that has been ongoing in all of these high-level visits to the region in the last several months.  It will certainly be a topic of conversation next week in the leaders’ discussion, and it’s something that we will continue to carry forward in the weeks and months ahead as long as this crisis persists.

My colleague Kin Moy would like to add a point here.

Mr. Moy:  Thanks very much, Mr. Counselor.  On the first question, I just wanted to reiterate that we call on the regime to release all political prisoners.  We noted that among the 5,000 were very few, if any, of the most prominent figures, political figures in Myanmar.  And to reiterate what the counselor was saying earlier on, this includes Danny Fenster, an American citizen who has been detained unjustly.

Moderator:  Thank you.  If we could next go to Peter Brieger from Agence France-Presse in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Question:  Thank you very much.  Can you hear me?

Mr. Chollet:  Yes, hear you loud and clear.

Question:  Just a couple of things with respect to a point that’s come up in a couple of questions and responses [inaudible].  You again described [inaudible] economic points of leverage taken, steps taken, considering more, and if you can talk about developing more tools and all that.  What can you tell us in terms of specifics about what you might be considering, especially considering beyond sanctions on the economic leverage side?

Mr. Chollet:  Well, as I said, I don’t have any new announcements to make today in terms of any further use of leverage that we have.  As I said, we have leverage left to deploy.  We’re considering various ways to do that, again, taking into close consideration the fate of the Burmese people and not wanting to compound their problems.  But nevertheless, we do believe that we have leverage over the regime.  But the key piece of that leverage, which is again why we’re here in Jakarta today, is working very closely with our allies and partners in the region and working together on this crisis, because I think we’re not, as my colleague Kin Moy said earlier, firing off unilaterally here.  This is something that we believe is – we’re working in conjunction with allies and partners in this region and elsewhere around the world.  That’s the pressure that could work, and so that’s why we’ve been consulting so closely with friends over the last week.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  Next if we could go to Philip Heijmans from Bloomberg News in Singapore.  Philip, if you’re there, please go ahead.  All right, I’ll give it one more moment here.

If not, if you could open phone line 34, Ella Mage from National Public Radio in the Philippines.

Question:  Hi, Mr. Counselor.  I just want to ask two questions actually.  There are concerns among some states in Southeast Asia about the troika of the U.S., UK, and Australia to sell your nuclear submarines, which is fueling an arms race.  Can you please comment on that?  And second is:  How can the United States expect to lead in the pandemic when there are countries in Asia that are outstripping in terms of vaccination rates?  Thank you.

Mr. Chollet:  Thank you very much.  So, on the first question, on AUKUS, the United States believes a free and open Indo-Pacific region with freedom of navigation through secure and open shipping lanes is absolutely critical to the security and prosperity of everyone in the region.  And it seems to us that the three ocean nation’s dependence on seaborne international trade, Australia – as one of those nations — needs cutting-edge naval capabilities and for its own defense as well as to contribute for a durable strategic balance in the region.  And really, AUKUS is really about technology cooperation in areas that are increasingly important to the region like cybersecurity, like artificial intelligence, quantum computing.  It’s really bringing our scientists together from the U.S., UK, Australia to promote deeper cooperation around technologies of the future, bringing industries together to cooperate in those ways as well.

And this trilateral security partnership is really possible because of Australia’s longstanding and demonstrated commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.  And to be clear, Australia does not and will not seek nuclear weapons.  And it’s also important to note that AUKUS in no way supplants our existing alliance partnerships or other partnerships we have here in the region.  It’s just another manifestation of the Biden administration commitment to strengthening our alliances and partnerships.  That’s both ones that already exist, like the one we have with ASEAN, as well as developing new partnerships and new areas of cooperation.

On COVID-19, one of the themes throughout the conversation in the last few days in our stops has been ways that we can work together specifically on the situation in helping to combat COVID within Burma, but also within the region more generally, and that includes both our bilateral efforts in helping our partners combat their own COVID-19 challenges, but also what we can be doing together helping those who have more severe crises than the ones that we’re facing address their own needs.  Thank you.

Moderator:  I’m afraid we’re just about out of time.  If we could maybe get in one last question from Bryan Kwa.  He’s been on hold for a long time from CNA in Singapore.  Bryan, if you’re there, please go ahead.

Question:  A quick follow-up to the AUKUS question.  Counselor, you admit and emphasize that the U.S. respects ASEAN centrality.  And do you agree that the – and many analysts have pointed out that the AUKUS deal actually undermines ASEAN centrality.  Do you agree with that assessment or is the U.S. saying one thing but doing another?  And if I may, a quick question on the Burma crisis.  I was wondering whether Russia and China, did they feature in conversations with ASEAN on solving the crisis in Myanmar?  Thank you.

Mr. Chollet:  Well, thanks.  Obviously, we do not believe that AUKUS in any way undermines ASEAN centrality.  And look, I think the more that the U.S. is engaged in the region, the better.  The Indo-Pacific is a priority for the United States.  It’s a priority for the Biden administration.  We remain deeply committed to ensuring that whether it’s through our diplomacy, whether it’s our economic engagement, or whether it’s our security presence, that the United States is going to be more engaged than ever in this part of the world.  That means strengthening and innovating with our current alliances as well as our current partnerships and efforts with organizations like ASEAN.  It’s also, as I said, developing new ways that we can work with partners in this part of the world, and AUKUS is one example of that.

In terms of the role of Russia and China in Myanmar, of course those topics were discussed with partners here, and there’s many other countries with influence over the situation in Myanmar, including the United Kingdom, including Australia, and the EU generally, that we have been coordinating with and talking to throughout this crisis.  And so, even though the focus this week was on principally what ASEAN is doing, as we engage with others throughout the international community — whether it’s at the United Nations or whether it’s other ad hoc groupings that the United States has, whether it’s going to be the East Asia Summit later next week — working together to solve the crisis or help alleviate the suffering created by the crisis in Myanmar is really top of the agenda.  There are a lot of other issues that we need to stay focused on, but we are very committed to working with our partners and allies in this region and around the world to help address the crisis in Myanmar.

So thank you very much for that.  I appreciate everyone taking the time.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  So that will conclude today’s call.  I want to thank Derek Chollet, Counselor of the Department of State; Kin Moy, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Department of State; and Craig Hart, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator.  And I’d also like to thank all of you participating in this briefing and I apologize if we were not able to get to your question today.  Please stay on the line for information regarding access to an audio recording of the call.  Also, please be aware that a transcript of the call will be posted to our social media platforms and sent out to all of you within a day.  If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Asia Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov.  Thank you very much.