Moderator: Good morning afternoon everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I’m Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and the United States.
Today, we are pleased to be joined by Ambassador David Hale, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Ambassador Hale will discuss his ongoing April 26th through May 6th travel to Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and Japan. He is currently speaking from Napyidaw, Burma.
We’ll begin today’s call with some brief opening remarks from the Under Secretary, then we will turn to your questions. 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.
With that I’ll turn it over to Under Secretary Hale.
Ambassador Hale: Thank you very much, and hello everyone. I’d like to just make a few comments to frame the conversation.
This is my first trip to this region as Under Secretary. I started in Jakarta where I visited the ASEAN Secretariat in recognition of ASEAN’s central role and in the U.S. vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific as well as in the region. ASEAN is the number one destination for U.S. investment, over $900 billion in cumulative investments have been made from the United States — which is more than China, Japan, Korea and India combined.
We see ASEAN’s approach as one based on respect. Respect for each other as sovereign independent states, respect for the supremacy of the rule of law, respect for equality. These are principles that are not only shared in the region, but are the core of our own Indo-Pacific Strategy which does not seek to impose any singular model on any one country. Economics is at the forefront of this approach of private sector led investment, which we believe is most sustainable and the best method to untap the economic potential of this region.
When I was in Jakarta, we were celebrating 70 years of our bilateral relationship and our strategic partnership, and it was also a chance for me to congratulate the government on its successful conduct of their first simultaneous presidential and legislative elections.
Then I moved on to Thailand, which is chairing ASEAN this year, and I met with the NSC and MFA officials there to coordinate how we’re going to engage ASEAN. And I made clear that America and Thailand have been strong partners for over 200 years and we hope that the post-election process there will resolve concerns that exist in a fair and transparent manner that’s consistent with the will of the Thai people.
Today I’m calling you from, as was mentioned, from Naypyidaw. I met this morning with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and talked about ongoing challenges in our relationship with Burma, challenges within Burma, and ways to move forward. Over the last three days here I met with leading thinkers, activists, diplomats, and others in Yangon and I traveled to Rakhine State yesterday to meet with government and community leaders, including representatives of the Rohingya community and humanitarian partners. Throughout, I emphasized that America is a strong supporter of Burma’s ongoing transition to civilian rule and the decades-long democratic aspirations of the Burmese people. Our countries share an enduring connection and [inaudible] goodwill, and we want to continue to support peace and prosperity and national sovereignty here as Burma faces these significant challenges.
Chief among those, of course, is the situation in Rakhine, a problem with deep roots. And I made clear to the State Counselor and other government officials that it’s the responsibility of their government to create the conditions that would enable the refugees, the Rohingya, to voluntarily return safely and with dignity and live with basic rights. That is something that the government authorities have not yet done.
We seek credible, independent investigations and mechanisms to hold accountable those who are responsible, and we’re also deeply concerned about ongoing insecurity in Rakhine State which makes repatriations under these circumstances impossible, and it’s having continued negative effects on all civilians.
I urged the government to improve humanitarian access to displaced people in Rakhine as well as in other conflict zones in the country, Kachin and Shan States. We call on all parties to seek peace through negotiation and to respect human rights.
At every stop, I also talked about China at some length, and I’d be happy, in the question and answer format, to discuss that in more detail.
I do want to make the point I make at every stop, which is in the context of America’s strong support for human rights and fundamental freedoms across the world, we also advocate for those who are facing government repression such as the Uighurs in Xianjing, China. And throughout my visit I urged others in the region to join us in pressing China publicly and privately to end this campaign of repression that has included the detention of over a million members of Muslim minority groups there.
And with that, I would be happy to answer any questions you have.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador.
We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation.
With that, our first question will go to Josh Berlinger from CNN.
Question: Under Secretary Hale, thanks for taking the time for this. I really appreciate it.
I wanted to ask a little bit about the synthetic drug trade in Northern Myanmar. I know you spoke with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi about the other civil conflicts, but did the issue of synthetic drugs come up at all in your trip? If not, why not? And what else is the United States doing to either push or help Myanmar crack down on this billion dollar industry?
Ambassador Hale: I’m still conducting my meetings, and rest assured that we are raising, myself and Ambassador Marciel, all of the issues that concern us, including the illicit narcotics production. We talked about conflicts throughout the country including in those areas in which this is a particularly acute problem in terms of narcotics manufacture. It’s a threat not just in Myanmar but throughout the region.
We are working with elements of the Myanmar authorities. Our DEA in particular is engaged with their counterparts to work on drug interdiction training, and we’re also assisting law enforcement agencies here to disrupt the drug networks. We also, through our USAID program, are extending support to prevent drug use and address addiction issues in those communities that are suffering from this problem.
I do want to step back from this and also note that, as you indeed touched on, there’s a need for strong support for peace processes that can help eliminate these lawless areas in which narcotics production is so prevalent, eliminate corruption, and also address the problem of transborder supplies of precursors.
Moderator: Thank you, sir.
Our next question will come from Gwen Robinson from the Nikkei Asian Review in Thailand.
Question: Thank you. I actually had a question about the free and open Indo-Pacific. Actually, it’s two parts. One is the sense in the region that [countries] feel a bit squeezed between the U.S.-Japan led free and open Indo-Pacific strategy and [China], particularly as you might be well aware, in this mainland Southeast Asia.
But second to that, could you address, there’s a lot of talk now of ASEAN coming up with its own version of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The kind of “Outlook Strategy,” they’re calling it.
Could you comment on that? Is it possible for ASEAN to sort of bridge the kind of two positions or the two stances of the U.S. and China with this kind of, I guess, more general inclusive strategy?
Ambassador Hale: I would be happy to. I made the point at every stop that our vision is very consistent, we believe, with ASEAN’s vision. And the answers [I heard] back I think confirmed that. The points I made at the opening about respect is at the core of our approach. Secondly, we do not view this as a zero sum game. We want to have every nation that is willing to commit to the spirit of Indo-Pacific to be included in that, and that means projects that are commercially motivated, transparent, and that everyone is abiding by the international rules, and no hidden agendas about using predatory tactics in trade and commerce and investment in order to try to exert power and domination. That’s a very clear, I think, message.
I have heard about the ASEAN approach and outlook. They mentioned that they were sort of finalizing their ideas, and we welcome any input to make the Indo-Pacific meaningful for the countries that wish to participate in it. It’s not a one size fits all thing. It’s very flexible. And we want to embrace those practical ideas and projects that address the needs of the people in the region. Energy and infrastructure are absolutely key to that. And to do so in a way in which they’re not caught in a trap of debt and other encumbrances that come, unfortunately, with some of the offers we see from China.
Moderator: Thank you.
Our next question will come from Jacob Goldberg from DPA based in Burma.
Question: Thanks for the call, Ambassador. I was wondering if you had a chance to gain any insights into State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s apparent opposition to give any ground on the detention of the reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. And also into her, and her party’s, apparently growing intolerance of activism and political dissent.
Ambassador Hale: I can tell you our position. We continue to be deeply disappointed about the verdict of the two Reuters journalists that you mentioned. We are advocating at every level for their immediate and unconditional release. I think this position is well known, that we’re speaking out. I’m raising this throughout my visit. I think it would be wrong of me to characterize the Burmese position out of these diplomatic meetings that we’re having, but I agree that the verdict calls into question some basic press freedoms, the commitment here to press freedoms. It raises questions about rule of law and judicial independence as well. So it’s very troubling and very disappointing. We’re hoping to see some progress, so we’ll be watching.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador.
Next we’ll go to Santi Dewi from the IDN Times in Jakarta.
Question: Hello Ambassador Hale. I just would like to ask one question. During your visit in Jakarta, did you also discuss about the Indo-Pacific cooperation within our government? Because when it was promoted in Indonesia as a country in ASEAN…It’s not really, not as a country, welcoming the idea of Indo-Pacific cooperation. Thank you very much.
Ambassador Hale: In Indonesia, certainly I sensed with those officials that I met with, the Foreign Minister included, actually a lot of enthusiasm about the Indo-Pacific and a willingness to cooperate with us and a full understanding of what it could potentially unlock in terms of greater investment and opportunities for Indonesia. I think they’re actually very excited about that. So, I don’t know about other officials. I can only explain what I heard when I was there which was a very enthusiastic embrace of this approach.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador.
Next we have Feliz Solomon from Time.
Question: Hi, thank you very much. I would like to know as the biggest single country donor to the Rohingya refugee response, how long is the U.S. committed to keeping up its support in Bangladesh? Are you committed to say as long as it takes? And are you satisfied with the response at this time?
Ambassador Hale: I think that the international donor community has been quite generous, as they should be, given this horrific situation and the United States, as you mentioned, has been the largest donor in terms of a single country, nearly $500 million. I can’t make commitments. That’s up to our Congress and the administration, but I certainly know that we intend to, our generosity is [inaudible] and the need will continue.
But the more important issue is really whether or not we see the synergy needed to create conditions here so this is not going to be an open-ended problem. We want to see a return of the refugees. I covered some of the ground in the opening statement about what that requires, and first and foremost, this is the responsibility of the authorities in Myanmar to create conditions there in which those who fled feel that they’re safe, and that they’re going to be treated with the same respect and rights that every citizen of Myanmar expects of their government. Those are the two fundamental things. There are others, too, I’m not excluding anything. There are others, but those are the two fundamental things that we believe are necessary in order to bring this much closer to resolution.
Moderator: Thank you.
The next journalist is Ravi Buddhavarapu from REAL Republic in Singapore.
Question: Thank you, sir. My question has to do with the Indo-Pacific Strategy which is now a little more than a year old. For the past, say since April, it has been noticed that the U.S. administration has stepped up pressure on China. Apart from the trade movement, trade negotiations, et cetera. The Naval Chief of Operations in recent testimony to Congress last month likened China to an anaconda in wrapping its next meal. And recently, a few days ago, the FBI Director in a speech to the foreign policy [inaudible], he said, he pointed to China as the greatest threat that the U.S. faces.
And right now since the Iran oil embargo, I’m curious to know, number one, how is China coping with it? Because it’s the largest importer, clearly, and it is bound to be affected by the embargo on Iranian oil.
The other thing is, India which is almost, not only Japan, but it is also at the center of the Indo-Pacific policy after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared this Indo-Pacific policy, which he announced at the Shangri-La Dialogue last year. So, things are ripe for quite a perfect storm in this place, so how is China responding to all these pressures?
And I’d like to also remind you that Secretary Pompeo on a recent visit to Latin America also criticized Chinese involvement in Latin America especially, with the Venezuelan crisis going on right now. Thank you, sir.
Ambassador Hale: Thank you. Obviously China’s a significant factor in the Indo-Pacific, but your question really goes right to the essence of the China-America relationship, so why don’t I begin there.
We want a constructive relationship with China. We want one that produces results for our people, for others involved. We want to keep cooperation with China when we can, where our interests overlap, and we think they do, for example in enforcement of UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korea, for bringing to an end the flow of opioids into our country and elsewhere.
But where we aren’t able to find that kind of cooperation, we’re going to be actively defending American interests and values and those of our allies. That is an area, some of which you touched on — trade, religious freedom, human rights, and predatory and aggressive action in the South China Sea and even further afield.
But in all this, I come back to the point, our goal is to have a constructive relationship. I think in the case of trade, for example, the objective is fair and reciprocal trade. In the case of the Belt and Road Initiative, we just want to make sure that countries are aware of the strategic risks there. And that they can see for themselves whether these initiatives are all that they are said to be, or in fact whether there are debt traps and other ways in which these countries will be caught into relationships that they had not intended when they started out.
But our own approach is different, in the sense that it’s a fundamentally different approach to economic development and governance, one in which free market and free and fair trade are key elements to this. Market-driven investments rather than state-driven investments.
Last thing, the South China Sea, you didn’t mention it, but I think it’s pertinent to your question. We have interests there. ASEAN clearly has interests there. So many of the ASEAN states border the South China Sea. We want to make sure that what happens there is based on the rules of law, and that there be a code of conduct that is based on law and enshrines freedom of navigation and other activities.
We’re talking about peaceful resolution to problems, not taking sides, and making sure that countries feel that they’re free from coercive behavior. That’s the fundamental difference we see, and one in which we believe our Indo-Pacific strategy is promoting effectively across the region.
Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador.
Our next question we’ll go back to Josh Berlinger from CNN.
Question: Thanks for taking my second question. I actually wanted to ask about comments given by Kiron Skinner, the Director of Policy Planning a couple of days ago at, I think it was, the New America think tank. She said that the current conflict with China has been “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology and the United States hasn’t had that before.”
Does the State Department view the current conflict with China as a clash of civilizations in the Samuel Huntington sense?
Ambassador Hale: I see China as a strategic competitor of the United States. It’s going to be a long-term competition. And as I said, it’s very important that we be clear about what’s possible in terms of cooperation and we definitely seek that; and to be very clear equally when we are at a difference with China, that we defend our interests and our values. And I do underscore values. That’s essentially what I have to say on the topic.
Moderator: Thank you.
Sir, we received a question in advance from Tzu-Ying Hou from Taiwan Central News Agency, who was asking this question:
Question: China has been ramping up its efforts to block Taiwan from participating in international organizations. As this year’s World Health Assembly is approaching, is the U.S. going to take any action in support of Taiwan’s World Health Assembly bid?
Ambassador Hale: The United States has a well-known position. We support meaningful participation in international organizations that require statehood as a condition for membership. In full participation by Taiwan, I should add.
Moderator: Thank you. The other questions we received in advance, I believe we’ve addressed all those topics.
At this point, it appears we have exhausted all the questions that have come through our question and answer queue. Just right on time.
Unless you have anything further to add, I’ll go ahead and wrap up the call.
Ambassador Hale: Thank you very much. I appreciate everyone’s time and interest in my visit to this region. Thank you.
Moderator: That will conclude today’s call. I want to thank Ambassador David Hale, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and I also thank all of our callers for participating.