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Senior State Department Official On Indo-Pacific Issues at the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
September 26, 2019

MODERATOR: Okay. I think in the note that we agreed that this would be on background, Senior State Department Official. I think many of you have already had a briefing with [Senior State Department Official], and I think he's got a few things to start off, and then we can jump into some questions. The floor is yours, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Good afternoon again. I'd like to say I enjoy these more and more as I go. (Laughter.) The exchange is very helpful and positive, so let's keep it that way. All right.

Good afternoon. Happy to cover with you a productive week of events with U.S. partners and allies from the Indo-Pacific and from other regions. Interactions at this event this week, General Assembly, are one the key ways we demonstrate our shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and to prosperity, security, and good governance globally.

The President and the Secretary of State, the deputy secretary of state, and other U.S. officials met with their counterparts this week to lay out America's vision for addressing challenges around the globe, including in the Indo-Pacific. The President provided a clear-eyed and concrete vision of U.S. support for sovereignty; free, fair, and reciprocal trade; and international religious freedom. He also underscored our commitment to combating threats to international peace and security.

The Secretary hosted a Quad meeting with counterparts from Australia, India, and Japan. The deputy secretary hosted a powerful event on the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, in the People's Republic of China. Under Secretary for Economics Keith Krach brought together American business leaders with foreign ministers and senior officials from a number of Indo-Pacific countries to help catalyze private sector investment in the region's infrastructure. Our whole-of-government approach to the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region was on full display this week.

One of the most striking things for me this week was the reminder of the depth of shared values in the region between ourselves, our partners, and our allies. We agree that we must cooperate to promote good governance, cement security partnerships, and deepen economic ties based on free, fair, and reciprocal trade and transparent, market-based investments.

I spoke to you guys, the press, about Xinjiang earlier this week, and I'm glad to do so again because it does matter. On Tuesday, the United States, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands, and the UK cosponsored a panel discussion on the human rights crisis in Xinjiang – attended by more than 30 countries from all over the world, not just from the West – underlining our continuing demand that the Chinese Government reverse its highly repressive policies in Xinjiang.

The panel highlighted the incredible bravery of camp survivors who shared their deeply painful experiences so that the world will know the truth about the Chinese Government's repression. This personal testimony showed the pain inflicted on Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim families not just in China but in the United States and across the global diaspora. It highlighted work that advocates like Nury Turkel do every day, and it reiterated our call for other members of the international community to join in pressing China to end this campaign of repression.

Regarding trade policy, the President has made it clear that the United States will confront China's market-distorting technology transfer requirements, intellectual property infringement, and other unfair practices that threaten American innovation in critical sectors. Economies around the world, including China's domestic economy, will benefit if China responds by making needed reforms to its trade-distortive policies instead of adopting new and harmful policies to block trade and further distort world markets. As the President said, hopefully we can reach an agreement that would be beneficial for both countries, but we cannot accept a bad deal for the American people.

Over the week I held important consultations with a range of allies and partners. ASEAN is central to the Indo-Pacific region and we had an opportunity to affirm and expand upon that this week. I met with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi from Indonesia on Monday. We discussed the critical role ASEAN plays in ensuring a free and open region adhering to good governance, transparency, rule of law, and freedom of navigation – goals that are common to our Indo-Pacific vision and to the recently published ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

Last night, I also had the honor to attend a dinner hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council in honor of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, where he and other keynote speakers – including Under Secretary Krach – discussed the upcoming Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Bangkok on November 4th.

I also met with Philippine Foreign Secretary Locsin yesterday. We discussed the strong U.S.-Philippine alliance and developments in the South China Sea. The secretary and I shared a clear-eyed view of Beijing's efforts to coerce other South China Sea claimants from exercising their sovereign rights in the Sea, including in the development of offshore resources. I shared the general skepticism outlined in his public remarks this week about China's purported willingness to negotiate a meaningful code of conduct. While claiming all is well in the South China Sea and that they are committed to peaceful diplomacy, the reality is that China – through the PLA navy, its law enforcement agencies, and maritime militia – continues to intimidate other countries from accessing offshore marine resources, including oil, gas, and fisheries.

Can China truly negotiate in good faith a code of conduct with ASEAN states even as it uses intimidation and coercion to assert its claims? That's rhetorical. The code of conduct will have little meaning if it does not reinforce international law. It would be downright harmful to the region and to all who value freedom of the seas if it was used by China to legitimate its egregious behavior and unlawful maritime claims.

Earlier today, the U.S. was proud to host the first-ever meeting of the Quad foreign ministers. Secretary Pompeo was joined by Australian Foreign Minister Payne and Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar and Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi. They discussed how increased engagement in the region by Quad members individually and together contributes to improve maritime security, economic growth and development, and good governance.

I was also pleased with the level of engagement this week with Pacific Island nations. I will join Secretary Pompeo tomorrow in a discussion with Pacific Island leaders on issues affecting their vast area. I also met with officials from the region on Sunday at the Pacific Islands forum event hosted by the New Zealand Permanent Mission, and on Tuesday I was privileged to meet Palau's president.

We have made progress working with Pacific Island countries to increase prosperity and security in the region, but much work remains to address infrastructure needs, illegal fishing, and environmental issues.

Finally, this was my last senior leaders week, and as I mentioned, so I want to thank the President and the Secretary and our friends and allies for a great week of – and a busy week. I look forward to following up on these productive discussions with our allies and partners in the region.

And that concludes my summary. I'm happy to answer your questions.

MODERATOR: Okay. Go ahead, David.

QUESTION: Thank you. David Brunnstrom from Reuters. Good to see you again.


QUESTION: I wanted to ask, have any bilateral dealings at all with the Chinese? And also I wanted to pick up on the comments by Foreign Minister Wang and Trump – President Trump both expressing hope that the trade deal is going to be done. But Foreign Minister Wang was also seemed to be warning the United States to back off on issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang in the speech that he gave the other day. So can you see the two things getting in the way of each other? And from the U.S., what actually comes first? Is it the trade deal or the human rights issue?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me see how I can say that. Beware of false choices. We can do more than one thing at a time, right. We can walk and chew gum. We can maintain our principle-based position on these things while at the same time working out an agreement that addresses the interests of both sides.

As I am not the economic representative, I'm not going to get in the middle of the work of others, except to say that engagement continues. But again, the U.S. is going to stand firm on our position, especially where it regards things like human rights. And we've raised Xinjiang before without response, and so we're just going to have to keep elevating the level of visibility until not just the PRC but the world and others take notice.

And then on Hong Kong, as the President has said before, as the Secretary has said, the Hong Kong people are just asking for what they already had. They want the Basic Law to remain as agreed. This follows a trend that we've seen of the PRC saying it's going to do one thing and then doing something different. I mean, I know it's cliché, but the 2015 Rose Garden statement about non-militarization of the South China Sea features – just blew right past that. We agreed in Hong Kong to give them their – the freedoms they were used to for a period of 50 years, and we're seeing that getting squeezed as well. So I think we can do both at the same time. We can work on agreements while at the same time standing on principle.

MODERATOR: Okay. Go ahead, Mike.

QUESTION: Sorry, just to follow up.

MODERATOR: Oh. Yeah, follow up.

QUESTION: I mean, was there any bilateral dealing at all with the Chinese?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we continue to work with them, clearly, and talk. It is a very busy schedule.

QUESTION: Michael Gordon, Wall Street Journal. Sir, President Trump met with Abe, he met with Moon, and there were recent meetings with the Japanese and South Koreans. Is there any effort or any made to narrow the Japanese and South Korean differences in light of the GSOMIA decision? Was there any thought given to having a three-way meeting? And if not, why not? And are you pretty much reconciled to the South Korean decision standing and just trying to move on from there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: As you might imagine, there have been assertions in the past that just because we don't talk about efforts to get past this – a problem, that there's been no activity, and I can guarantee you there's been a ton of activity. Today was full of that sort of activity as we encouraged both sides to stop focusing on the past and start working back toward the future. We'll continue doing that. I can assure you that the U.S. is not disinterested and that this [title] is working very hard to do whatever we can. But in the end, until we get a decision in both capitals to resolve this, it's going to take time.

QUESTION: But just on the – would there be any merit in having a three-way meeting, or do you think the conditions at this juncture are not right for that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I'll just note that we've had three-way meetings in the past. The Secretary has participated in eight to date, most recently in August at the East Asia Summit. The President's had two. You said the President met with both Japanese and Korean leaders. Obviously, this is an issue of concern in both, so let's not assume disinterest just due to lack of visibility. We're clearly interested.

QUESTION: Did Trump himself raise those issues in the meetings?

MODERATOR: We don't read out the President's meetings.

QUESTION: Well, did the Secretary?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I was not in any of those meetings.

QUESTION: I mean, you're talking about all this activity.

MODERATOR: Okay, who else? Anybody? No? Okay, sure.

QUESTION: Can you address whether or not there's been any meetings, any sort of lower-level meetings between the U.S. and the North Koreans? And then more broadly, I feel like there hasn't really been any mention this week of their repeated violation of UN Security Council resolutions over the last six months with their short-range ballistic missile tests. Does that concern you that that hasn't been called out?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, any time North Korea violates UN Security Council resolutions, it interests the region. Certainly it interests me, but I will definitely – it would be wise of me to defer to the special representative to make sure you get the absolute most recent, most accurate information. He and I have a – we clearly communicate on all these things, but I haven't spoken to him in the last few days, so I'd push you his way.

QUESTION: Can I ask another one? Can you maybe elaborate a little bit about Secretary Pompeo's comment about North Korea today? Is there any – what level of contact has there been recently?

And President Trump maybe seemed to indicate a softening of the U.S. policy and maybe suggesting a new approach. Is that a correct interpretation? And would that make talks – resumption of talks more likely, do you think?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It's a great question. It's obviously on everyone's mind. It figured in the Secretary's comments this morning, but I'll show you my schedule. Unfortunately, North Korea was not on it anywhere, and it would be dumb of me to speculate, so I can't offer you any thoughts on that. I mean, clearly North Korea is in my portfolio, but we have someone dedicated to that, so I'll point you to the special representative.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask about Xinjiang. Humeyra Pamuk from Reuters also. You've done – you've raised some visibility throughout this week, you've done various events. Do you have plans as to like what's next, or will you be expecting some sort of a movement from China? What – I mean, there's been, like, events this week, but what's next?


QUESTION: I mean, they can just be quiet and do nothing and everything that's been going on there can just keep happening, so –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we definitely turned up the multilateral pressure, and to date it's mostly been – that water's been carried by the U.S. publicly. I'm not saying other countries haven't been actively involved or concerned, but the turnout at the Xinjiang event was, again, welcome, especially after the first effort a couple months ago with the letter signed by 22 other concerned parties.

So the folks who are willing to take a public stand on this obvious human rights disaster is growing, and that – if you look at what's been happening to date, you see a fairly linear raising of the – as I said before, the temperature of the water. We don't want to overreact; we want to give China every opportunity to do the right thing. And certainly we want to continue to leave open the option of cooperation there, but we do have to stand – we have to work off principle and stand up for the things that we believe in, human rights being the key.

QUESTION: In general at the UN, I mean, there's this sense – a lot of UN watchers talk about China's influence, its soft power; it has a lot of influence on committees. Do you feel that? Or do you think the U.S. is countering that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would say the same for sovereign states. Most recently, Solomon Islands exercised its sovereign choice of who they recognize. How that change of heart came to pass you can probably imagine. I'm sure there'll be more that comes out on the pressures and the influence that they faced there, but the UN is also not – it sits on American soil, but it's not the American body. It is a international body, and therefore the leadership there does what it finds in its interest. And just as the – there's no – just – how do you say this? We would insist that the UN stick to its charter and make decisions objectively without undue influences, so.

MODERATOR: Okay. One more. Conor.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you two question on Burma? Last year, Secretary Pompeo met with his counterpart during the UN. There wasn't a meeting this year. Is that meant to send some sort of signal to the Burmese that they're not doing enough on the Rohingya issue?

And then, you announced a new pot of funding for the Rohingya, but there's really been no change in the position of the government. Do you think it's time to put more pressure on the Burmese?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So to your first question, the pace of this week is absolutely eye-watering. It's just – we call it speed-dating, right. Just back to back to back meetings. Just dealing with East Asia-Pacific, it's been an absolute full week and you could not wedge one more thing in. Of course, I could cut out press availability, but I think that's not fair.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, I do think that's part of this, is to make sure that you understand both what we're doing and why. But I wouldn't read anything into that, which you might characterize as an omission. It was, as far as from where I stand, that was just part of a – lots to do and not time to do it all.

You raised your hand twice and we didn't call you, so.



QUESTION: I wanted to ask about this Quad meeting. I understand this has been the first ministerial meeting in this framework, and I wonder if you can quickly talk about why you're doing this now. Also the priorities of topics covered in it. How – are you going to plan the second and third meetings?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you for that question. Why now? Like all things – we start off in 2004 based on a tsunami event down in the South Pacific and the need for all to come together and do something to fix this; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. That worked out well. Again, in 2017, we saw the need to put some additional effort into this activity.

The great thing about multilateral events is everybody has to get something out of it, right? It has to address the needs of all our – in a international setting, you don't have to participate. And so all four came with something to offer. The interests of all aligned quite well. We have our Indo-Pacific strategy, the other three have very similar and overlapping strategies that deal with their interests throughout the region. And so the meeting went very well. The issues – just to make sure I get this right – dealt with info-sharing, counterterrorism, maritime domain awareness, cyber crime, the whole gamut of issues. There was speculation that may have been addressed at one particular problem, but the fact is that there are many things from sub-national to national level that we all see the ability to address and we can address better as a group.

So I was happy to participate in this one. And I – you asked about the future. This one went very well. I know we'll have more and you'll probably hear more about the Quad soon.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: If I can get [Moderator] to stop looking at her phone.

MODERATOR: That's not rude. Okay. (Laughter.) Thanks. We'll see you guys for the next one. Thank you.

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