Background Briefing by a Senior Administration Official on the President’s Meetings at Asean and East Asia Summit

Monday, November 21, 2011

Release Time: 

For Immediate Release

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Anderson Air Force Base, Guam

5:10 P.M. WITA

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The two moving parts to the East Asia Summit were the plenary session, which was a fairly scripted discussion of the five somewhat arcane areas of focus, historical, from the beginning of the EAS six years ago, including things like avian flu and so on, where each leader — intervention, and the leaders retreat, which was private, just the leaders plus one, with no separate — no sound, anyway, in a note-taking room.  So it really was a more intimate discussion.

Apart from the ritualistic recitation of some of the ASEAN steps on the specific historical agenda, the bulk of the plenary discussion focused on disaster relief and some of the initiatives that have been taken by member countries, including the U.S. proposal for a disaster relief mechanism that would allow for quick response by pre-cooking access agreements in advance of an emergency.

By far the most interesting element in the East Asia Summit was the leaders retreat, which followed a social lunch and lasted for just under two hours.  Thereto, there were a number of ASEAN-specific issues that were touched on by many of the leaders, including as related to economic integration, free trade, education, continued discussion on disaster response and so on.

But the bulk of the discussions were a very robust conversation on maritime security and the South China Sea.  By my reckoning, 16 of the 18 leaders addressed maritime security in varying levels of specificity.  And most of them talked specifically about the South China Sea.  The early speakers were — included ASEAN members Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, as well as Australia and India. 

All of those countries spoke directly to the South China Sea.  The only two countries that didn’t mention the maritime security issue were Cambodia and Burma.  So I think that gives you a sense of how the conversation shaped up.

There was clearly widespread consensus on a number of principles.  Not every leader invoked every single principle, but certainly the earlier speakers were more extensive and more fulsome.  And as the sequence of speakers unspooled, increasingly leaders referred to previous comments and associated themselves with what other leaders had said rather than going through an explication.

But the principles, beginning with the initial speakers — Singapore, Philippines and Vietnam — included the importance of protecting freedom of navigation in the maritime domain in general and in the South China Sea in particular; the importance of adherence to the rule of law in approaching and settling disputes; the applicability of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and the importance for all nations to abide by its terms.

Nearly all of the speakers invoked the importance of a peaceful resolution and they also talked about the need to make progress on a code of conduct, something that ASEAN and China had agreed in 2002 in principle to pursue, but towards which there had been very little movement, if any, certainly for the first eight years, and really only since the ARF meeting in Hanoi in July of 2010 has there been progress in developing and implementing guidelines on the declaration of conduct and an increased push to try to make progress on, first, elements, and then an actual code of conduct itself.

Several speakers stressed the importance of protecting legitimate commerce in the maritime domain and particularly in the South China Sea, and a number also called for a multilateral resolution of the conflicting territorial claims by the parties themselves.

I think, frankly, the best single presentation, with the exception of President Obama, was by the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib who began by noting that he had had the same presentation of principles in his intervention at an internal ASEAN leaders retreat and described near consensus among the ASEANs.  And he was speaking — he made a similar comment in the ASEAN-U.S. meeting the day before.

And he went through principles that are very similar to what the U.S. has also articulated with respect to the need to resolve the issue peacefully through dialogue, the need to make progress on a code of conduct, the principle of respect for international law, the applicability of UNCLOS, the need for a multilateral process to resolve these territorial disputes among parties, and adherence by all to the guiding principles.

I would describe the overall discussion as constructive.  It was neither acrimonious, nor was it averse to — was it indirect.  The leaders were not equivocating; they were not speaking ambiguously.

Several leaders, including the Russian Foreign Minister, and most importantly the Chairman of the EAS, President Yudhoyono of Indonesia, pointedly said that they thought that maritime security issues were appropriate and important issues for the EAS to discuss.  After all — after 16 of the 18 leaders had spoken — and there were other — obviously other security issues that they discussed, which I'll come back to — President Obama made his intervention. 

I won't go through it in detail unless there's a strong desire, because it was a principled outline of the position that the United States has frequently articulated — consistently articulated, namely that while we are not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, and while we do not take sides, we have a powerful stake in maritime security in general, and in the resolution of the South China Sea issue specifically — as a resident Pacific power, as a maritime nation, as a trading nation, and as a guarantor of security in the Asia Pacific region.  He articulated the U.S. position that there should be a clarification of claims on the basis of international law, and that claims to — claims should be based on geographic land features.

After the President made his statement, Premier Wen Jiabao asked for the floor.  I would say that even though he started off maybe a little bit grouchy, by and large it was very measured and interesting — I would say a positive intervention.  Positive in the sense that he was not on a tirade, and he did not use many of the more assertive formulas that we frequently hear from the Chinese, particularly in public.  So to be more specific, he said — he began by saying that he did not — China didn't think that the EAS was an appropriate forum for a discussion of this issue.

Now, that was not an assertion that carried a great deal of force in the wake of the statements by others, including the chairman, that it was an appropriate subject for the EAS.  He said that he had not wanted the subject of South China Sea to be raised, but that since it had been, he would respond.  He then went on to say that China shares the desire articulated by the ASEAN countries, for a cooperative process to reach a code of conduct on the South China Sea. 

Now, what struck me about that statement is not what he said, but what he didn't say.  Typically, the Chinese public posture has been to be vaguely positive about the idea of reaching a code of conduct, but then to qualify it by saying, at an appropriate time and when the circumstances are propitious.  He conspicuously omitted both of those caveats.

Now, far be it from me to say where the Chinese actually are, or what they're going to say in the future, but it –

Q    What was the second — "at the appropriate time" — what was the other?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  When circumstances are right or at the appropriate — in the appropriate time and appropriate circumstances.  I don't think anyone, including the ASEANs, ever knew what "appropriate circumstances" or "propitious circumstances" meant.  In any event, that seems to have — at least in the context of the discussion today, which was, after all, the highest level, broadest strategic discussion of the South China Sea anywhere to date — those qualifiers and caveats were conspicuously absent.

Another thing — another dog that didn't bark was when he went on to say that China believed that the disputes should be resolved between the states or the interested parties directly.  What he didn't say, and that — what we invariably have heard from the Chinese, was the word "bilaterally."  Now, here, too, I can't say that the Chinese have abandoned their position that the South China Sea competing claims need to be resolved one-on-one, "mano a mano," China versus each one of the small other claimants.  They may not be abandoning that position, but he didn't say it.  And he made his statement on the heels of the repeated point by other leaders, that there needed to be a process among — a peaceful — among the claimants for a peaceful resolution.

He affirmed that China wants this issue resolved peacefully, and volunteered that China had committed to that in the original declaration of conduct.  He then went on to say, as we've heard the Chinese say before in the ASEAN regional forum and elsewhere, that there really isn't a problem because China, after all, protects the sea lanes in the South China Sea; that China goes to great pains to ensure that the shipping lanes are safe and free. 

But, in sum, he made clear that he wanted to — China wants to make progress. 

Following that, the Indonesian president, as chair, again took the microphone and he said, "I would characterize the discussion today" — "we all discussed the South China Sea in a very constructive fashion," and he said he thought that the leaders had demonstrated that it's possible for the East Asia Summit to make progress on the code of conduct.

So, in sum, I think that, from the U.S. point of view, we certainly hit the mark, not by — no confrontation; this was not "Showdown at the O.K. Corral."  This was a clear manifestation of an overwhelming consensus among ASEAN and the other participants in the East Asia Summit about the principles that President Obama has articulated throughout.  This was spontaneous combustion, and not artifice.  These leaders were speaking openly and on their own behalf.  I think it was constructive, and one has to believe that the Chinese premier will go back to Beijing with the sense that the center of gravity in the Asia Pacific area is around the adherence to the principle of the rule of law, peaceful resolution, and a constructive, rules-based approach to the resolution of territorial disputes.

The last thing I'll mention is that President Obama also spoke about nonproliferation.  He welcomed the agreement between the ASEAN countries and the Perm-5 to move ahead towards signing a protocol on what's called SEANWFZ — the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone.  He welcomed some of the steps towards either agreeing to or ratifying the IAEA additional protocol among the members.  And he, along with a number of other leaders, referenced North Korea and the importance of the countries in the region ensuring that North Korea is not allowed to proliferate or to violate the U.N. Security Council resolutions; that they continue to make nonproliferation a priority, in order to protect the infrastructure of international trade and commerce and several other — I didn’t count them up, but a number of other countries also made reference to the importance of denuclearization of the Korea Peninsula, and in a moderate and constructive way called on North Korea to take the necessary steps that will permit a resumption of the six-party talks.

So, I’ll stop there.

Q    So based on the subtle differences that you’ve heard in these last engagements with the Chinese, are you willing to say — does it appear to you that their position on South China Sea is evolving, and I guess I should say evolving in a positive way?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I can’t make a characterization beyond describing how Prime Minister Wen spoke in this meeting and how he approached it.  But what I heard is consistent with the proposition that the Chinese will come away from the meeting believing that a heavy-handed approach on the South China Sea will backfire badly and that there is a genuine consensus on the importance of a constructive process to find a peaceful way forward.

I would be watching from this point on for signs that China is engaging directly and seriously with the ASEANs on elements that could constitute a code of conduct.  This is not going to be a quick set of steps.  No one who knows the issue is under any illusions that there will be a quick fix.  It’s a long process.  But the content of the interventions today, including the Chinese intervention, were quite positive.

Q    Can you talk about the omission of certain phrases that Premier Wen used?  Was there surprise in it — was the President surprised, were other leaders surprised that he didn’t use the language that he had used in the past?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I don’t have any way of judging the reactions of other leaders, and it may be that because this is my day job, I’m several orders of detail more alert to some of the nuances than one would expect a President or a Prime Minister.

No, I wouldn’t use the word “surprise,” simply that I noticed and accorded some significance to it, but it’s still very early days.  The Chinese positions don’t shift radically or quickly.  One should be alert for gradual indications of an evolution in their position.

If these sorts of indications are reliable bellwethers to the direction that China is moving, it would be a positive thing.

Q    Can I ask you, so far throughout the entire week, probably, there’s been quite a lot of discussion about sort of what the U.S. asked of China in terms of a more flexible currency rate and intellectual property respect and South China Sea — abide by international norms.  What did China ask of the U.S.?  And specifically today, was there discussion of the military troop buildup or — I don’t know if that’s the right term — but putting the troops in Australia?  Did the Prime Minister ask you anything about that, you know, the President?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  In the meeting that I participated in, there was no reference by Premier Wen to the U.S. force posture announcements or, frankly, the U.S. military presence in Asia.

The President, however, has said directly to his Chinese interlocutors, and in fact restated to Premier Wen Jiabao this morning, that we would speak to the issue of the South China Sea in the East Asia Summit and that we would make clear our view about the guiding principles that should govern China and the other claimants.  He made clear that this is, in our view, a legitimate topic for discussion and that he would approach it on the basis of principles and in a constructive way.

Q    But just — I mean, just broadly, also at the bilateral meeting in Hawaii, was there specific things that the Chinese asked of you or even a tone-downed rhetoric and anything like that?  I mean, was there any sort of message they were trying to deliver in an active way or more active way?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The thrust of the Chinese comments to President Obama, both particularly in Hawaii but also here in Bali, were that China places great importance on U.S.-China relations and on U.S.-China cooperation on global issues as well as regional issues in the Asia Pacific, and that they see it important, particularly in light of the global financial challenges, for the U.S. and China to find constructive ways to engage.

Q    I assume it wasn’t any coincidence that 16 out of the 18 members spoke on the maritime security.  How much pre, or advance — how much does the U.S. and the President’s work ahead of time account for that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I don’t know to what degree foreign governments and foreign leaders are persuaded by the logic of what the President has said clearly and publicly about the principles that should guide approaches to the South China Sea and to resolving the territorial conflicts and how much stems from their own assessments, their own approaches and their own values.

The President didn’t lobby other governments to say one thing or another, or to say anything at all.  In his bilateral meetings — and by the way, he didn’t meet all 16 of the leaders who spoke out on maritime security — he told them what he would say, and he made clear that he thought it was important to have a constructive discussion and not an acrimonious confrontation.

Q    Can I just ask a question — at the dinner last night, on TV you could see the President and Prime Minister Wen talking a lot.  Can you describe the tone of the conversation, and did South China Sea come up in that conversation at the dinner?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I could not hear the conversation, so I can’t describe the tone.

I am unaware of the South China Sea coming up in that discussion at dinner last night.  I know that they spoke about economic and trade issues.  I do know that the President raised it this morning in his conversation with Premier Wen Jiabao, as I said earlier.

Q    On Burma, given that the next ASEAN is to be hosted by Burma, is there any concern that the — what’s that?


Q    Cambodia is next?


Q    Then Burma?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  No, Cambodia is next, then Brunei, then Burma.  So the ASEANs made a decision to designate Burma as the ASEAN chairman for the year 2014.  So Cambodia takes over for the year of 2012, and Brunei takes over for 2013.

Q    Thank you very much.
5:41 P.M. WITA

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