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Briefing With Senior Administration Officials on Counselor Derek Chollet and an Interagency Delegation’s Upcoming Travel to Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia

25 min read

Office of the Spokesperson

Via Teleconference

October 15, 2021 

MODERATOR:  Thank you and good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you for joining us for this on-background call previewing Counselor Chollet and a U.S. delegation’s travel to Southeast Asia.  We announced this trip officially just earlier today, right around 12:30.

The State Department officials briefing you today are and .

Just as a reminder, this call is on background, and for your reporting purposes, our briefers should be referred to as senior State Department officials.  All contents of this call are embargoed until the conclusion of the call.  And just a quick note to folks:  We will be focusing on answering questions related to the trip, so I’d ask you to bear that in mind.

And I think with that I will go ahead and hand it over to .

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Thanks, , and thanks, everybody, for getting on the call this afternoon.  As we announced earlier today, will be leaving this weekend leading an interagency delegation, including , my colleague here from the department, as well as representatives from the White House, USAID, and USUN to travel to Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia.  And in late-breaking news, we are – as an update, we’re nailing down some meetings in Japan, on the way home.  And the purpose of the trip is to expand our cooperation with key allies and partners in Southeast Asia and, of course, to discuss opportunities to deepen U.S. engagement in the region. 

I should say this interagency trip follows up on several months of intensive engagement by the administration on Southeast Asia.  Secretary Blinken has had three ASEAN foreign minister –  ministerial engagements already in the first 10 months of the administration and, of course, Deputy Secretary Sherman has also traveled to the region.  Secretary of Defense Austin has made an important trip to the region.  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas-Greenfield has been there as well as, very importantly, the Vice President’s trip in late August.  And this level of engagement underscores the importance we place on the region, and it shows our commitment to working with allies and partners in an active leadership role.

So during the trip, our team looks forward to working closely with ASEAN member states to tackle some of the most pressing challenges of our time, including fighting COVID and boosting a strong post-COVID economic recovery, combating climate change, and, of course, the U.S. commitment to a rules-based international order. 

As Secretary Blinken has said many times, ASEAN is central to the architecture of the Indo-Pacific region and it’s critical to our own stability, economic opportunity, and our vision for a rules-based international order, and we’re going to continue to reinforce ASEAN’s centrality and our strategic partnership with ASEAN and its members.

Now, more specifically, our talks are going to focus on the situation in Burma, which is becoming worse, unfortunately.  will reiterate the U.S. support for the people of Burma and their aspirations for freedom and democracy.  The international community, including the neighboring countries that have an urgent responsibility to pressure the military regime to cease violence, to release those unjustly detained, to respect the will of the people who all yearn for a restoration of Burma to the path of democracy.  And the people of Burma continue to show that they do not want to spend another day under a military dictatorship, and we’re going to continue to support them.

So those are some of the topline goals that we’re seeking to achieve on what is going to be a very busy week in Southeast Asia.  But before we turn to your questions, let me turn it over to my colleague, , to see if he has any comments.  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah, thanks very much, and as well.  You said it very well, .  This is a follow-on to a robust series of meetings over the last few months, and I think even just in the last three weeks or so where the Secretary – and — when he co-chaired with the Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi a very engaging, substantive meeting with all of the ASEAN foreign ministers up in New York during the UN General Assembly.  And that was followed by several meetings down here in Washington the Secretary had with individual foreign ministers like the Thai Foreign Minister Don and the Singapore foreign minister as well.

So I think that these meetings that we’re having, especially because all of us on your team, , are covering quite a lot of areas of interest, priorities for this administration, but we are going to further underscore the importance of ASEAN centrality to us, the importance of Southeast Asia, restoring the strength of our relationships in the Indo-Pacific region, and, as you said, underscoring the importance of a rules-based international order.

With that I’ll turn it back over to .

MODERATOR:   Thank you, . 

Operator, would you please give the instructions for getting into the question queue?

OPERATOR:   Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press 1-0 to enter the queue.  Again, 1-0 to enter the Q&A queue.

MODERATOR:   Great.  Thank you.  And with that, let’s go to the line of Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION:  Hey there.  Thanks for doing this call.  I appreciate it.  Just to say – if you don’t mind me saying so – I think that if you could put some of it on the record, that would be great.  Obviously, we respect the ground rules, but just stating that out there.

Could I ask about the conversations regarding Myanmar/Burma?  You mentioned the concerns there.  To what extent is the ASEAN engagement with Burma becoming – going to be an issue?  Is that something that you want to encourage, the idea of not allowing the junta chief to take part in ASEAN – in ASEAN meetings?  And to what extent do you think that will be?

And if I could also ask, on Thailand.  Thailand, as you know, had elections in 2019 but still has a very military-based system since 2014.  To what extent do you think is that still an issue for the United States?  Do you see that now as a moot point, democratization in Thailand?  To what extent would that come up?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Sure, Shaun.  This is here, and I’m happy to take a first crack at the – at your question, to then , of course, following behind.

Just in terms of the importance of ASEAN to the situation with Burma, of course, ASEAN has been playing a central role in the Burmese crisis, and we, the United States, have been seeking to do whatever we can to support them, including by supporting the special envoy from ASEAN to the – to the Burmese crisis, the foreign minister of Brunei, Minister Erywan, who Secretary Blinken actually had a chance to speak with once again the other evening, our time.

And we have been working very, very hard with ASEAN partners throughout the course of the last several months, since February, to try to, first of all, register our deep concern with the situation inside Burma and the unacceptability of what occurred there back in February, but then also to pressure and to push and to encourage the regime there to put Burma back on the path to democracy, to end the violence, as well as to allow access for humanitarian efforts, and including – up to and including COVID relief.

You might have seen reports today that ASEAN ministers have taken a decision about downgrading Burmese participation in upcoming meetings.  That’s something we had been talking with our ASEAN colleagues about quite a bit.  Obviously, these are their decisions to make.  But we – and we very much respect their decisions.  But given the fact that the military in Burma has so far been completely unwilling to productively engage with ASEAN to respond to the crisis, and given that they are not fulfilling – this is the Burmese military, the junta – not fulfilling the obligations that they themselves have signed up to as part of ASEAN, it seems perfectly appropriate and, in fact, completely justified to – for ASEAN to downgrade Burma’s participation.  And so we are supporting all efforts to promote a just and peaceful resolution to the crisis, the restoration of democratic institutions, and we fully respect ASEAN’s decisions there.

On Thailand, look, obviously, they’re a treaty ally.  We have a shared history, shared interests, and a tremendous amount of important work we do together across all realms of our – of all dimensions of our foreign policy, from military and diplomatic to humanitarian as well as economic.  And so building on the trip that Linda Thomas-Greenfield had there back in August, where she announced more than 50 million in critical humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma, and a support for Thailand as well, we’re going to continue to talk to the Thais about their critical role they’re playing in the region, both as a treaty ally of the United States, but then also as a critical player in ASEAN, and with a particular influence on the situation in Burma, which is, of course, quite concerning given the challenges they’re facing on their border.

But with that, why don’t I turn it to to see if you have anything to add.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah.  Again, really well said, .  We do have this long-shared history with Thailand, and we, with regret, have watched their political system change over the last few years.  But just because we have this – these shared interests and we have a deep affinity for the people of Thailand, that’s not going to stop us from being very upfront about some of our criticisms.  

And so we are going to support a democratic process in Thailand, human rights, rule of law.  And you saw recently that we have downgraded their tier status in the – in trafficking in persons.  And so when we see such things in Thailand, we are – we’re not going to back away from being very candid with them.  But it is still out of a great respect for the people there, and out of our shared history, a deep, deep friendship, we want to make sure that our treaty ally walks hand-in-hand on a number of issues where we can agree.  And just noted, of course, Burma is one of those issues where they share a border, and we want to work with Thailand in order to find a way to apply pressure on Myanmar to restore democracy there, but also look at humanitarian efforts and where we might be able to coordinate to assist the people of Myanmar.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks very much.  , can you tell us who you will be meeting with in Myanmar?  Are you planning to meet with the military leadership?  And then also, what’s your message going to be to countries in the region that are increasingly uncomfortable with the way that the administration has framed its competition with China, as the President laid out in April, that the administration increasingly sees one of the primary challenges of the 21st century a battle of democracies versus autocracies and China being one of the defining challenges of the coming century?  There’s, as far as we understand, a fair amount of discomfort with that framing.  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Are we still on? 

MODERATOR:  , are you on mute? 

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I think he might be on mute.

OPERATOR:  It doesn’t look like is on the call anymore.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Everyone just, please, stand by for a moment, please. 

(Inaudible) everybody.  Just continue to bear with us for a moment.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Hello?

OPERATOR:  has rejoined us.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Hey.  Sorry, everybody.  I have a colleague here who can attest I did not touch anything on my phone.  It just went dead.  So maybe it was —

MODERATOR:  All right.  , were you able to hear Nick’s question?  Did you hear all of —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah.  Oh, did you not hear any of my answer, Nick?

MODERATOR:  I don’t believe he did.  Would you go ahead and give it again?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Oh, I apologize.  It was – I’ll try to do it again.  So, Nick, first just to clarify, you asked about who – whether we’re seeing anyone from the regime or not, because we’re not going into Myanmar.  We’re not going to Burma.  Of course, Burma will be a central theme of all of our discussions in Thailand and Singapore and Indonesia and in Japan, but we will not be meeting with anyone in the regime as part of this trip.

The second part of your question was on China and the conversations on China.  Obviously, all of our interactions with Southeast Asian partners in the last several months, from the Secretary to the Secretary of Defense to Vice President – certainly on this trip, we’re going to be talking about our perspectives on the PRC and the challenges that their behavior is posing in the region and more broadly.  Obviously, the PRC has an important role to play in the Burmese crisis because Burma, of course, affects the stability – the stability of the entire region.  And of course, we believe it’s in the PRC’s interest to work with all of us in the international community, and particularly with folks in the region, to try to bring about a better outcome there. 

And so we’ll – we’ve been urging the PRC over the last several months to continue to work with the international community as well as with Southeast Asian partners on – to press the regime to cease violence and release all those unjustly detained, and swiftly restore Burma’s path to democracy. 

Well, more broadly, and you’ve – I know you’ve heard the Secretary speak to this before – the U.S. relationship with China is very complex.  It’s something that is not easily relegated to a bumper sticker, or if you try to do that, you’d need a pretty, pretty long bumper.  And there are elements of the relationship between the United States and China that are adversarial, to be sure.  There are areas that are competitive, where we welcome that competition as long as we’re playing and abiding by the same set of rules.  And there are areas of the relationship that are – hopefully can be cooperative where we have – we believe we still have shared interests and we hope to be able to work together with them. 

And so that’s the broader message we’re sending, and including to partners in Southeast Asia.  We’re not asking anyone, whether they’re in Southeast Asia, East Asia, Europe, Middle East, wherever, to choose between the U.S. and China.  But nevertheless, we want to make clear our concerns, but also – and we do this – we’ve done this as part of all of our trips, but certainly this is what we’ll be doing next week – is listening, and hearing from them, from our friends and partners in the region, about how they see things, concerns they may have about what – China’s behavior, and perhaps hopefully hearing from them about some opportunities.  But we’ll certainly be able to update them on our recent – U.S. Government’s recent engagements with the Chinese and, of course, hear from them about anything that’s been going on with them.

Hopefully, you can all still hear me and —

MODERATOR:  Yeah.  We heard you, .

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Good, excellent.

MODERATOR:  I think we have time for just a couple more questions.  Once again, you can dial 1-0 to get into the question queue, 1-0.  And then let’s please go to the line of Rosiland Jordan.

OPERATOR:  Rosiland Jordan, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks so much for the call.  Happy Friday.  I wanted some more information about the stop in Japan.  With whom will you and the delegation be meeting, ?  What’s the focus of the discussions?  Is it about China’s efforts to expand its influence in the region?  Is it about DPRK?  Is it something else?  Thanks so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yeah, thanks so much, and that is a late addition to schedule from the – from just in the last few hours from the announcement this morning because we were trying to ensure that we could arrange the meeting.  I’m not in a position now to tell you exactly who we’re seeing just because we’re hopefully nailing that down overnight. 

But really, the purpose is to touch mainly on what we have just been talking about in the previous stops on the trip – Southeast Asia, obviously Japan, and particularly – and the situation in Burma has a longstanding history there, deep ties, and obviously wields considerable influence as well.  So we’ll be checking in with them on Burma specifically, but also more generally on what we’ve been hearing and talking about in the prior stops in the region. 

Although, Rosiland, I do expect, of course, we’ll touch on just the broader challenges and what’s going on in the Indo-Pacific, as well, in our short stop there on the way home.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  And with that, we’re out of time for today.  Again, I want to thank everyone for joining us, in particular and .  Thank you so much.  This call, once again, was on background to senior State Department officials.  And with this, we’re going to end our call, and the embargo is lifted.  Have a good day.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Great.  Thanks, everybody, and sorry again for the technical difficulties.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Thanks.

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