Moderator: Thank you. Good day, everyone, from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I am Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in for this briefing.
Today we are pleased to be joined from Hanoi, Vietnam, Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control at the U.S. Department of State. Also joining the call is Deputy Commander of the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) Lieutenant General Thomas A. Bussiere.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Billingslea. We will 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 Ambassador Billingslea.
Ambassador Billingslea: Thank you, Zia. And good afternoon to the many journalists that we have got on the line here. I appreciate all of you taking time out of your busy schedules to have a discussion with us regarding probably one of the most paramount issues of importance to global peace and security, which is nuclear arms control, and the extent to which the actions of the Chinese Communist Party are imperiling both regional security as well as global stability. I will offer just a few, brief comments and then look forward to the questions.
We have had excellent conversations and consultations here in Asia, both in South Korea and Japan, and now in Vietnam. Our nations clearly have a shared understanding of what China is doing in terms of its secretive, nuclear crash buildup in its missile programs. All three nations, as well as the United States, have made it a priority, despite the significant challenges of the COVID virus, to enable these discussions to occur in-person in a very safe and secure manner. And we appreciate greatly our allies and our friends in that respect.
It’s also clear that as the United States moves forward, we will continue to consult with our allies and our friends as well as many other nations in the region on how we will ensure that we do maintain peace and security in Asia and in the Indo-Pacific region, and that we negotiate with China from a position of strength.
With that said, I think at this point I would welcome questions, and we can provide answers to illuminate some aspects of what we have been discussing.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. Just a reminder that if you are asking a question to please state your name, media affiliation, and location.
Question: Thank you for this opportunity. This is Dong Hyun Kim, a reporter from Voice of America Korean Service [in Washington DC]. Your excellency, during your visit in Seoul, you have mentioned that we need to stop China to become a nuclear [inaudible]. I understand your concern on China. Yet, in the meantime, South Korea has North Korea’s nuclear, on its head as well. While we have summit talks with the DPRK, there is little evidence that they have stopped from increasing their nuclear stockpile. And many experts in – especially in the U.S. – have continually expressed concern if DPRK keeps on its pace, and then when it’s later going to be above the threshold of three-digit number of nuclear stockpile, it would be more detrimental than even China as a nuclear bully, and even severely determine global arms control regime. Do you believe that due to U.S. putting China or Russia as the greatest challenge for U.S., is U.S. overlooking DPKR’s potential danger in the region? Thank you.
Ambassador Billingslea: Thank you, an excellent question. I am not going to comment on the specifics of North Korea policy. But you raise an important point, which is that the world faces a number of significant challenges with regard to nuclear weapons, and the role which certain regimes see nuclear weapons in facilitating their aggressive and bullying behavior.
In the case of China, we are talking about a regime that: clearly finds itself free to attempt to redraw borders and boundaries, to challenge longstanding international legal principles, such as the freedom of navigation; seems unconcerned with honoring its pledges such as the promise made in the Rose Garden back in 2015 to not create the situation that it has created with the Spratly Islands and weaponization of the South China Sea; seems unconcerned with honoring its commitments regarding Hong Kong, with its obligations on human rights and the way it treats the Uighurs, with the way it is attempting to seize borders and redraw borders with India; and the list goes on and on.
We are talking about a dangerous, revisionist power that is engaged, as I said, in a secretive nuclear weapons buildup and a massive missile production program. That has been the focus of our consultations this time in Asia and is an area that I believe all of the nations with whom we have discussed, understand the gravity of the situation. And we are committed to working together to challenge any effort to engage in nuclear blackmail or intimidation.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next, we will go to Nhat Dang Du from Tuoi Tre in Hanoi, Vietnam. Nhat Dang, please, go ahead.
Question: Thank you, Zia. Good morning, Ambassador Billingslea and Deputy Commander Bussiere. I am Du Nhat Dang with the Tuoi Tre newspaper. I have a question for Ambassador Billingslea. As you have put it, China has been putting efforts on nuclear and missile forces that threaten the peace and stability in the region. So, I wonder if the United States and Vietnam are working to counter China’s activity. What is on the agenda for now Sir? I am talking about the plans that Vietnam and the United States are working on as Washington is thinking of ways to protect its allies and partners. Will you talk about missiles, defense systems, or radar or something? Thank you.
Ambassador Billingslea: Thank you. Excellent question. We are focusing our efforts obviously, first and foremost, on diplomacy and arms control. And it is the case that here in Vietnam, many of the senior officials in the Vietnamese Government have long and distinguished careers in the fields of nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament. And we have solicited their advice on how to use multilateral mechanisms because this is – when it comes to what the Chinese are doing, this is not simply about great power competition. This is about China’s efforts to unravel international norms and unravel the international consensus that has existed to date.
That consensus has allowed the United States and the Soviet Union — and then the United States and Russia — to make deep cuts in our nuclear forces. And unfortunately, the Chinese buildup now calls into question the entire consensus that surrounds the arms control process. And we very much appreciate the advice we received today and the recommendations made. But of course, all of our diplomacy will be backed up by strength.
The United States is in the process of modernizing our capabilities, but we are doing so both with determination and restraint. We have also highlighted for all of our allies the additional capabilities that have now become an imperative, given what China is doing. And by this, I mean the kinds of capabilities that we must now pursue in the fields of cruise missiles and hypersonic capabilities, and, as you indicated, robust improvements to our missile defense capabilities, both sea-based and land-based in nature.
We will not allow China to menace the United States, our Navy, or our ground forces, nor will we allow them to intimidate our friends and our allies with these massive numbers of missiles that they are building. Excellent question, thank you very much for that.
Moderator: Thank you. Let’s go to Akita Hiroyuki [from Nikkei in Tokyo, Japan]. If you would please try that line.
Moderator: Yes. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes. Thank you very much. So, my question is about INF range missile deployment in Asia. As I understand, U.S. plans to deploy land-based INF mid-range missiles in the future, in the Asia theater. And I wonder if, first, which country will be a likely location in Asia? And whether – I wonder whether Japan will be one of the places under consideration. And did you discuss about it during your visit to Tokyo? Thank you.
Ambassador Billingslea: Thank you. So, let me clarify at the outset — the term “INF” is not the right term to be used with regard to the defensive capabilities that the United States is now pursuing. Because unlike Russia and China, both of whom have developed and deployed nuclear tips on medium-range missiles, ground-based missiles, that is not the current United States intention. The United States was prohibited, by mutual agreement with the Soviet Union, from developing and deploying INF systems for more three decades. Unfortunately, the Russians chose at some point along the way, for a decade or more, to secretly develop and secretly produce, and ultimately to deploy, in violation of that treaty, such missile systems. They destroyed the INF Treaty, and it is deeply regrettable what Russia did.
China, on the other hand, was never under any restriction or prohibition. And so, for more than 30 years, China has been free to develop and deploy these kinds of missiles, and they have done so in enormous numbers. China today possesses 13 different types of missiles that fall into these categories of short- and medium- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles. And they paraded a number of those weapon systems a year ago to this day in the annual – or, in the big military parade that they conduct every 10 years.
In total, the Chinese have deployed, in fact, more than a thousand – it could be almost 2,000 – of such missiles that are in this class and category. The United States does not yet possess such a capability, since we were prevented under international law from pursuing that, while we were part of the treaty. However, we are in the process of developing these kinds of capabilities, and our industrial base and our capabilities are moving very, very fast.
I am not going to comment on specifics regarding either the capabilities of the missile systems that we will possess and deploy, nor am I able to comment about where we might wish to base or rotate such capabilities. But, suffice to say, we will not allow China to use its missiles, ballistic or cruise missiles, nuclear-tipped or conventional, to threaten U.S. forces, to threaten or intimidate the United States Navy, or to bully our friends and our allies. And we are all committed to working together to achieve that.
Every country has to make its own decisions on the right mixture of defensive capabilities. But these are — in the case of the United States and the capabilities that our allies are pursuing — these are fundamentally defensive in their character, and we look forward to working very, very closely with our allies and our friends to ensure that basic, international rights are respected regardless of what the Chinese Communist Party tries to accomplish.
Moderator: Thank you. We probably have another 10 minutes or so. Next, can we go to Anthony Kuhn from NPR [in Seoul, South Korea]. Anthony, if you’re there, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, can you hear me?
Ambassador Billingslea: Yes. We can hear you, Anthony.
Question: Hi. Thanks for taking my question and for doing this. Some decisions, as to how to deploy U.S. forces in Asia, were made before the North Korean and Chinese missile threat is what it is today. I’m thinking in particular of Camp Humphreys, where forces have been concentrated and moved from all over the peninsula into one location. This makes it vulnerable now to these, to these missiles. And what is the U.S. response going to be to this situation in South Korea and elsewhere in the region?
Ambassador Billingslea: I’m going to ask Lt. Gen. Bussiere to answer that question, and then I may offer a few additional thoughts.
Lt. Gen. Bussiere: Anthony, this is Tom Bussiere. So, I would offer the considerations specific to force posture in the Korean Peninsula is probably better answered by General Abrams and INDOPACOM, but I would offer for all the media outlets on the forum: The real question is not just what the United States and Vietnam, or the United States and South Korea, or the United States and Japan, are doing to address the destabilizing veil of secrecy from China, but I think the greater security question is in light of China’s rapid modernization, diversification, and fielding of nuclear weapons systems: What is the world going to do to get the Chinese to the table and be more transparent on their nuclear forces?
The United States has decades of experience working with Russia on this very forum, to reduce risk, to reduce an instance of miscalculation. I think the nations of the world need to lock arms and really bring China to the table. Their unconstrained nuclear buildup should be alarming and concerning to all the international community.
Ambassador Billingslea: Thank you, General. Anthony, in line with that, it is regrettable that China continues to dodge its legal obligations under the NPT. China is obligated to negotiate in good faith. So, when we ask them to sit down at the table to negotiate, that is not a request. That is a legal obligation they have, and it is our expectation they will honor what they committed to do when they signed up to the NPT.
To make such spurious excuses such as they can’t meet face to face because of the coronavirus, which is highly ironic given what the Communist Party in China did to spread that virus to the rest of the world, I find it absolutely outrageous that they are now hiding behind that as an excuse not to negotiate, when clearly we can sit down face-to-face with our South Korean counterparts, our Japanese counterparts, our Vietnamese counterparts, in a safe and responsible way. These face-to-face discussions are critical. You are not going to talk about nuclear weapons issues over Zoom. And so, it’s important that we have these discussions in a timely fashion, and we do expect that. I mean, the Chinese foreign minister seems to globetrot without problems.
It would be useful for the Chinese arms control community to recognize that they have this obligation, and the sooner they sit down and begin conversations with us in good faith, the better off they’re going to be. If China wants to be treated like a great power – that’s Chairman Xi’s ambition – well, if you’re going to be treated like a great power, it starts with behaving as a great power should, behaving responsibly. And that means, becoming more transparent. That means agreeing to confidence-building measures. And that means having an adult conversation regarding this most important topic of nuclear weapons.
It’s a great question, Anthony, and we look forward to following up with you on further aspects of this.
Moderator: Thank you. Next, we’ll go to Kathrin Hille from the Financial Times in Taiwan. Kathrin, please go ahead.
Question: Thanks very much for doing this and for taking my question. I heard – Ambassador, I have a question regarding the United States’ assessment of China’s nuclear buildup. I remember that in this year’s annual China military power report there was – well, a forecast or a prediction that China’s nuclear arsenal would double in size with regards to the number of warheads, I think, over ten years. And, many of us were slightly surprised when that came out. Can you clarify how that number was arrived at, and what that means in the context of the security concerns that you’ve outlined earlier? Thank you.
Ambassador Billingslea: Kathrin, great question. A couple of important aspects of that report. First of all, the numbers ascribed by the United States to China are – is an estimate that – first of all, is an estimate that we would be comfortable releasing publicly. And it is with reference to the operational warheads of China only – not the total size of their arsenal, their stockpile, nor perhaps, at any level of granularity that we would be prepared to discuss, except in a public format.
Also, I would tell you that the estimates of what they intend to do – what we’ve said is that they intend to at least double. At least double. And again, I cannot get further into that with you today, but I would very much recommend that we take note of a recent editorial run by the editor-in-chief of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the Global Times, where he publicly called for the deployment of a thousand warheads of the DF-41 ICBM alone.
Now, Kathrin, there’s no way that the editor-in-chief of the Global Times would publish such an editorial without approval, potentially at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party. And it is worth noting that China is, in fact, talking about such numbers. By comparison, today the United States and Russia have elected to limit themselves, to limit ourselves, to approximately 1,500 such warheads under the New START Treaty. So here we have a complete change in circumstances by China as they have, in essence, abandoned their many-decades-old posture of minimal deterrence, and they are now moving towards a triad of bombers, submarines, and long-range and short-range missiles with a wide variety of nuclear warheads on top of them.
This is deeply troubling. This portends a potential three-way arms race, which President Trump seeks to avoid. We are negotiating in good faith with Russia. Russia is negotiating in good faith with the United States. China is not. China has refused to engage. And it is essential, if we are to avoid a three-way arms race, that we begin serious conversations regarding Chinese intentions, regarding Chinese plans and capabilities. And I think that it’s not just the United States that expects this. It is the world that expects this of the Chinese. Great question, Kathrin.
Moderator: Thank you. We’ll be wrapping up the call soon, but next let’s take another question. We have Masakatsu Ota from Kyodo News in Japan. Ota-san, are you there?
Question: Yes. Thank you very much for taking my question. My question is also regarding the China issue. Ambassador, what is your game plan to engage China with trilateral disarmament negotiations, which you are pursuing? What will be the most effective incentive for China to do so? Maybe U.S.-China mutual inspection for the missile defense sites will be one of the solutions. Don’t you think so? That’s my question. Thank you very much, sir.
Ambassador Billingslea: Masakatsu, good question. And the kind of creative thinking implied by your question is exactly the right way to think. As I said earlier, China wants to be provided great power status, and frankly, what better way to be seen as a great power than to be seen as sitting down side-by-side with the United States, or maybe even side-by-side with the United States and Russia, discussing these topics? China stands to benefit substantially from such discussions. You see, we learned the hard way with the Soviet Union, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, that it was essential that the two sides do such things as create hotlines, phone lines; that we create nuclear risk reduction centers, to exchange data and to make sure that our senior leadership was available night or day if something, if some strange event occurred, as a way of managing risk, as a way of reducing risk between the two superpowers.
China is going to want to have such capabilities and, as you indicate, transparency and confidence-building measures. Now, whether we’re talking about mutual inspections of missile defense sites or inspections of other kinds, perhaps mutual inspections of ICBM silos, or maybe inspection related to monitoring of warhead production. These are all very possible. These are things we have done together with the Russians over the years. And these are the kinds of things that, frankly, we should look at doing with China as well.
We have an open hand to China. But again, it is not a request that they negotiate. It is an obligation of theirs that they have to negotiate with us in good faith. Thank you for that question.
We can do two more questions, Zia.
Moderator: Okay. Actually, we’ll just end on this one question that we received in advance, if that’s okay. We received a question about your impressions of your visit overall in Vietnam, and Vu-Anh Le from VnExpress in Vietnam was saying, “What do you think about the role that Vietnam can play in arms control and nuclear weapons control in the Indo-Pacific region?” What role can Vietnam play in that?
Ambassador Billingslea: Well, first of all, this is my first time in Vietnam. It is, in fact, the first time that many of my negotiating team have been here. I wish that we had been able to come at a different time, when we were not so restricted by the coronavirus. But I will say that the Vietnamese Government has done an outstanding job of fighting the virus and containing it, and we very much respect what they’ve accomplished, and appreciate their willingness to have the health and safety protocols so we can have these in-person discussions.
It is also the first time, to our knowledge, that the Strategic Command has been represented in discussions with the government, represented by Lt. Gen. Bussiere, who is the number two in our nuclear forces. And that is a signal both of the seriousness with which we take Chinese behavior, but also a seriousness with which we regard the 25 years of friendship and cooperation – and defense cooperation in particular, security cooperation – we have with Vietnam.
Vietnam – we’ve come out to Vietnam on purpose, obviously, and the reason is clear: not just the 25 years of close and friendly relations, but Vietnam is currently the chair of ASEAN and, as I indicated, has a number of highly experienced senior diplomats with a long track record in the field of arms control as part of the non-aligned movement, and we wanted to benefit from that insight. And we come away from Vietnam with a number of ideas.
But I would also say that we – Vietnam is experiencing what every other nation in the region is experiencing in terms of Chinese intimidation in the South China Sea, for instance. And we intend to talk to all nations in the region, as well as to talk to friends and allies globally, on the importance of not allowing China to destroy the international consensus that has existed to this day on nuclear arms control.
So, it’s been an excellent and outstanding visit. We look forward to coming back in the near term. And again, I appreciate all of the journalists taking time out of their busy schedules to join us, and I encourage you to reach out to the Department of State and to our public affairs shop. We’d be happy to discuss further any particular matters that you would like to talk about.
Thank you, Zia, for organizing the Hub Call, and I will stop there.
Moderator: All right. So with that, thank you very much. That will conclude today’s call. I want to thank Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control at the U.S. Department of State, and USSTRATCOM Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere. And apologies if we were not able to get to your question. 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.