Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel: East Asian and Pacific Affairs Press Roundtable May 8, 2014 in Hanoi

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Press Roundtable

Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel:
East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Press Roundtable
May 8, 2014

Mr. Cryder: Good afternoon everybody. Welcome to the new American Center. My name is Spencer Cryder. I’m the U.S. Embassy Hanoi spokesperson. Today we have with us the Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Mr. Daniel Russel. He is going to start out the press roundtable with brief remarks, then we will go into a Q&A. The last question will be a question taken from Facebook.

I’d appreciate it if you would limit yourself to one question. Please no four-part questions. If you do, we will answer one question and then move on and come back to it at the end if possible.

With that, I’d like to hand it over to Assistant Secretary Russel for his remarks.

A/S Russel: Thank you very much, Spencer. I’m happy to be back in Hanoi. I was here last December with Secretary Kerry and I also participated in the meetings in Washington when President Sang visited last July. Since then and since the conclusion of the comprehensive partnership announced between the two presidents, there’s been significant progress and a maturing of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. I’m here in Hanoi this week to advance the comprehensive partnership and to strengthen our dialogue and our cooperation mechanisms.

Specifically yesterday I spent the bulk of the day participating in the U.S.-Vietnam Asia Pacific Dialogue with my counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Son. This is my second time and the fourth in a series of Asia Pacific Dialogues.

This is a set of consultations on regional issues in particular, and yesterday was a productive session the fact of which I think underscores the importance of U.S.-Vietnam cooperation in the Asia Pacific region.

I also had a very substantive meeting today with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Minh and in the course of my two days in Hanoi I’m also meeting with officials from the party, from the Prime Minister’s office, and I had a good session with representatives of Vietnam’s civil society.

Strengthening the U.S.-Vietnam partnership is an important part of the broader U.S. engagement in the Asia region. We care hugely about the Asia Pacific as a Pacific power because it’s directly tied to America’s long term security and economic interests. That’s the reason we’re working to build closer bilateral relations. It’s a reason that we are actively participating in the important institutions in the region such as ASEAN, the East Asia Summit, APEC, and others.

It’s also the reason that we put an emphasis on people to people ties and cultural exchange between the U.S. and Vietnam which is why I met with some alumni of the U.S. Fulbright program earlier today.

In my meetings with Vietnamese officials I briefed on not only the U.S. policy in the region and more broadly, but also provided a readout on the recent visit by President Obama to Northeast Asia and to Southeast Asia. Based on that trip I was able I think to reaffirm the ongoing and intensive engagement by the United States in the region broadly and with Vietnam as well.

So, my discussions here in Hanoi focused on Southeast Asia, on Asia more broadly, how the U.S. and Vietnam continue to work together to promote peace and stability, economic growth, and cooperation.

Not surprisingly, we had extensive discussions as well on the situation in the South China Sea. That issue has been a staple of the consultative dialogue between the U.S. and Vietnam certainly in the years I’ve been engaged in Asia policy.

The Vietnamese side briefed me on the developments regarding the Chinese oil rig in the Paracels which the government had also yesterday briefed to you, the press. And I explained the U.S. position and perspective on the South China Sea issues broadly and on the incident regarding the oil rig specifically.

I’ll tell you up front that the spokesperson of the Department of State yesterday issued an authoritative statement of the U.S. view and I will be hard pressed to improve on that. So our position has been laid out quite clearly.

My interlocutors and I also discussed other issues of common concern including the Mekong River Delta in terms of the ecosystem and the environment as well as a broader discussion about issues of climate change and climate adaptation.

We discussed the importance of continuing progress and negotiations over the TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership. And as I always do, as U.S. officials always do in meeting with our Vietnamese counterparts I raised U.S. concerns on human rights which is an issue that we routinely discuss.

There were other regional and bilateral issues that we discussed. This is, after all, an ongoing conversation between the governments and the foreign ministries. I’ve had a very productive trip so far and I’m happy to take your questions.

Mr. Cryder: Let’s alternate between Vietnamese outlets and international outlets. I’d ask that you state your name and outlet before asking your question. Let’s go with a local outlet first. Mr. Bang, VTV1.

Press: [Through Interpreter]. I would like to learn from you the view of the U.S. and Department of State on the positioning of the Chinese oil rig at the 981 in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.

A/S Russel: As I mentioned, the spokesperson of the Department of State issued an official and authoritative statement laying out our position. I refer you to that statement.

I think the point I stressed in particular in my conversations with Vietnamese authorities is the strong view of the United States that competing sovereignty claims in disputed areas including in the Paracels must be dealt with peacefully, must be dealt with diplomatically, and must be dealt with in accordance with international law. And I made clear the commitment of the United States to the principles of freedom of navigation and unimpeded lawful commerce as well as the absolute importance for claiming countries to exercise restraint.

The global economy and the regional economy is too important and too fragile to book the possibility of a crisis that could escalate into conflict. Therefore it is in our view incumbent on all the countries in the region to refrain from unilateral actions that can jeopardize peace and can raise tensions.

Mr. Cryder: Marianne?

Press: I’m Marianne Brown from the German Press Agency.

If Vietnam did use force against China regarding this oil rig, would the U.S. support Vietnam?

A/S Russel: There’s a long and distinguished tradition in diplomacy to think twice before answering a question that begins with an “if” because that’s a hypothetical question.

What I said and would repeat, it is our strong view that it is incumbent on the parties in the region and the claimants to exercise restraint, prudence and to make full use of diplomatic and political channels to lower tensions, to manage disputes, and ultimately to resolve questions of sovereignty. It’s the long-held view of the United States that if diplomatic channels don’t yield results, claimant countries enjoy the right to avail themselves of international legal mechanisms.

As far as this issue, this incident is concerned, my simple message is to restate the importance of restraint and dialogue and adherence to international law.

Mr. Cryder: Mr. Son, Thanh Nien?

Press: [Through Interpreter]. I’m from [Thanh Nien] newspaper.

With regard to the oil rig crisis, just say the State Department of the U.S. issues statements and the U.S. says that this crisis is involving an area of dispute. But in fact the oil rig in 981 is placed very deeply within the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam and international law recognizes that this area is fully under the authority of Vietnam.

So do you think that China is successful in making the international community misunderstand about this incident?

A/S Russel: The United States does not take a position on the relative merits of any country’s claim in the South China Sea. I think it is fair to say that both Vietnam and China claim sovereignty over the Paracels. There is a dispute. It is not for the United States to say which position is stronger, but it is within the rights of the United States and the international community to call on parties to address the dispute in a peaceful way and to handle the matter in a way that is fully consistent with international law.

Mr. Cryder: Chris?

Press: Chris [Brummitt] from AP.

What is the United States doing other than issuing statements to try and resolve or diffuse tensions if anything?

A/S Russel: The President in traveling to Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia just two weeks ago clearly reaffirmed America’s abiding commitment to the security, stability and the economic development of the region. That presence, that commitment [brings] a significant stabilizing force today as it has for many decades.

Secondly, the United States has good, candid and in-depth diplomatic dialogue with all of the claimant countries involved in the South China Sea dispute, and for that matter the East China Sea dispute and we use those channels at every level to urge the parties towards constructive and legally acceptable diplomatic means to address their differences.

Thirdly, the United States is actively engaged in promoting economic development throughout the Asia Pacific region through our participation in APEC, through our negotiation of TPP, and through our active bilateral commercial, economic, trade and investment endeavors.

I believe that the growing economic ties among the countries in the Asia Pacific serve as a constructive network that encourages good neighborliness, that encourages peaceful resolution, and raises the cost ultimately for unilateral provocative engagement.

Mr. Cryder: Do we have any non-South China Sea questions that people want to raise?

Press: Hi, I’m Linh from Reuters.

You mentioned that you had a meeting with VP and the Prime Minister’s office and is Vietnam so apart from the U.S. in this case? And is there any, has U.S. got any ship closer in that area, or you plan to move any ship closer? Thank you.

A/S Russel: The Vietnamese officials with whom I discussed the issue acknowledge the U.S. position and recognized and accepted I believe that the United States does not take a position on the relative merits of the sovereignty claims. There was no suggestion in any of my meetings from either side of a role for the U.S. military and had there been one, I would have emphasized the points made by the State Department spokesperson, namely that these issues must be addressed peacefully and in accordance with international law.

Mr. Cryder: Ms. Viet Anh, VnExpress?

Press: [Through Interpreter]. In the past the U.S. said that it supports the Philippines but in reality in the Scarborough Reef China has violated many times. So do you think that what is happening now? Is China trying to place an oil rig in the area of Vietnam is the results of action and words which are not strong enough from the U.S.?

A/S Russel: Let me clarify that the support of the United States for the Philippines which is solid does not mean that the United States supports the Philippines’ claim to sovereignty over any particular land feature in the South China Sea. We take a position on certain things but not on others. We take a position on the importance of adherence to international law. We take a position on the importance of freedom of navigation and unimpeded lawful commerce. We take a position on the sanctity of our commitments to the Philippines as a treaty ally. But we don’t take a position on the relative merits of the Philippine claims themselves. That’s an important distinction that I’d like to make.

The statement issued in Washington pointed to what you as reporters can more easily document, namely a series of steps and a pattern of behavior by China to advance its territorial claims.

Now every country has the right to advocate for its position and for its claims to territorial sovereignty. However, the consistent position of the United States is that that advocacy must be diplomatic and the means for advancing one’s claims must be consistent with international law including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Press: [Chris Brummitt, AP] So, would you say the rig placement is in violation of those norms? What’s your position on that?

A/S Russel: We believe as the statement in Washington has made clear, that the onus is on China to define its claims in a manner that’s consistent with UNCLOS and that would be the basis for finding the answer to the question you’ve asked.

Mr. Cryder: Ms. Thuy, Lao Dong Newspaper?

Press: Another [inaudible] question. You referred at this meeting that all parties in this dispute have to refrain from using forces. However, from the clips that we saw yesterday where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam showed at the press conference showed China’s military boats, petrol vessel, has rammed into the Vietnamese boat. So how could you see this development of China to use these forces against the Vietnamese boats? Thank you.

A/S Russel: The United States is very concerned about any dangerous conduct at sea and we oppose any act of intimidation by vessels including and particularly in disputed areas. That’s the reason why we continue to reinforce the message through diplomatic channels, through political channels and via the media that each party must conduct itself in a safe, responsible and appropriate manner. That every party needs to exercise restraint.

Mr. Cryder: I promised the embassy Facebook fans, all 52,000 of them, that I would ask a question solicited from Facebook.

From a Mr. Paul Pham Sy in Hanoi, he asks, “Recently a group of bloggers and Facebookers went to the U.S. to participate in a hearing on press freedom. What will the U.S. do to encourage Vietnam to release all prisoners of conscience and to ensure press freedom?”

A/S Russel: Step number one is for me to hold a press roundtable with you here today in Hanoi.

In all seriousness, human rights and press freedom is an essential component of U.S. diplomacy worldwide. Human rights and press freedom is therefore very much a part of the bilateral discussion between the U.S. and Vietnam and in fact is part of the comprehensive partnership that President Sang and President Obama concluded last year. That’s why the Human Rights Dialogue comprised of officials from Vietnam and the United States will be held early next week in Washington. That’s why I raised the issue of human rights as well as our specific concerns about individuals here in Vietnam in my meetings in Hanoi.

We believe strongly that free access to information, that free speech, and that adherence to the rule of law have been proven again and again to be the essential ingredients for unlocking human capacity and promoting economic growth.

We think that the ability to ask questions, to challenge assumptions, to think and speak and report freely tie directly to the stability and the prosperity of [a nation].

Specifically, we know from our own experience that freedom of the press is a major driver for rooting out corruption and moving good governance and therefore it’s an essential ingredient of economic growth.

So at every level from President Obama through all of our embassy officers, from the congressional legislative branch of the U.S. government and elsewhere, we advocate for a free and open society in Vietnam. We advocate for civil society and for fundamental labor rights.

We have serious concerns about Vietnam’s human rights record including restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and so on. But at the same time I will say that we are very mindful of significant steps taken by Vietnam in the recent period. Those steps include signature of the convention against torture, it may include the invitation to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, they include numerous incidents in which prisoners of conscience have been released, they include increased church registrations, and they include broadening engagement with international NGOs.

The United States speaks candidly but as a friend to Vietnam and never misses the opportunity to speak out and to speak up in favor of both the principles and the individuals.

Mr. Cryder: Thank you very much. The transcript from this press roundtable will be available on the embassy web site and the embassy Facebook page tomorrow. Thank you so much Assistant Secretary Russel.

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