Ambassador Atul Keshap, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Center for Strategic and International Studies Asian Architecture Conference 2020 – Virtual
Thank you, Greg, for that kind introduction.
I’m honored to be with you today to discuss U.S. priorities for this year’s East Asia Summit. I’m joined by my good friend and colleague Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Feith. David, as many of you know, leads our multilateral engagement in the Indo-Pacific, and he has been a tremendous partner in helping us to realize the goals of our Indo-Pacific Strategy.
After my brief remarks, David and I look forward to your questions.
Vision for the Indo-Pacific
In just a few days, leaders from around the Indo-Pacific will gather virtually for the East Asia Summit, or EAS. The 18 members of the EAS include the ten ASEAN member states and their eight dialogue partners, including many partners and allies of the United States.
The last major EAS event was in September, at the ministerial when Secretary Pompeo joined his counterparts for a useful discussion on the region’s political and security challenges. I know the Secretary was heartened to hear the widespread support for transparency, the rule of law, and respect for sovereignty, and to hear shared concerns over recent threats to those values.
Let me take a moment to mention a few of our major engagements over the past few months, despite the pandemic:
In June, Secretary Pompeo met with Yang Jiechi in Honolulu; our dialogue with the PRC is ongoing while we work through our differences.
In July, Secretary Pompeo and former Secretary Esper met their Australian counterparts face to face in Washington, D.C. demonstrating the enduring bonds between our two countries.
Last month, the Secretary participated in the Quad meeting in Tokyo. This forum represents multilateral diplomacy at its best – effective, and efficient, and working for the security of the Indo-Pacific.
The Secretary participated in the important 2+2 meetings in Delhi.
And he recently wrapped up very productive meetings with our partners in Jakarta, Hanoi, Colombo, and Malé in the Maldives.
This week the Secretary welcomed to Washington ROK Foreign Minister Kang for important discussions between allies.
This year, HHS Secretary Azar and Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and Environment Keith Krach made historic trips to Taiwan.
And importantly Deputy Secretary of State Biegun has had regular calls with key Indo-Pacific counterparts on our fight against COVID and planning for the region’s economic recovery.
So as we carry on our bilateral efforts to ensure the security and economic prosperity of the region, we recognize the importance of fora like the EAS, with ASEAN at its center.
At this year’s EAS, we will again describe our bold vision for the Indo-Pacific that the President outlined in Vietnam in 2017. We’ll focus on what we have achieved so far and what we want to achieve going forward.
Our Indo-Pacific vision aligns with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and with the priorities of our allies and partners.
It is based on principles that underpin peace and security, including transparency, fair and reciprocal trade, adherence to international law, energy security, and a commitment to ASEAN centrality.
The vision is necessarily a long-term one, but the United States is always prepared to respond to the region’s immediate needs. This year and in the coming year, those immediate needs center on responding to and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the EAS, we will discuss how the United States is leading in public health and humanitarian assistance. We have invested more than $20 billion in the international fight against COVID-19. And we will ensure that a safe and effective vaccine is available as quickly as possible.
We will describe further collaboration between the United States and ASEAN countries in preventing infections, adding to our extensive public health programs and projects in the region. The U.S.-ASEAN Health Futures initiative, for example, will expand public health cooperation in Southeast Asia, building on over $3.5 billion in U.S. public health assistance to ASEAN countries over the last 20 years.
Our public health work includes USAID’s support to the ASEAN Public Health Emergency Coordinating System, a network that enhances coordination, data transparency, and legal measures so ASEAN countries can respond as a region to emerging public health crises and help prevent the next pandemic.
We will also note our appreciation for the efforts of our Indo-Pacific partners in supporting ASEAN’s COVID-19 response.
U.S. Support for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Whether in public health, human capital development, investment, or innovation, the United States is making good on its commitment to the ASEAN region and the greater Indo-Pacific. We will make this clear at the EAS.
Since 2005, we have provided over $813 million to support basic and higher education and more than $785 million to support exchange programs. We have welcomed over half a million ASEAN students in U.S. universities since 2010. Just this year, we inaugurated the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Academy at Fulbright University in Ho Chi Minh City. The Academy offers executive-level seminars for entry- to mid-level professionals from across Southeast Asia, around the themes of technology and innovation, public policy, and entrepreneurship.
The United States is committed to expanding private sector participation as an alternative to state-dominated financing that impinges on national sovereignty and saddles economies with debilitating debt. We are strengthening energy markets and infrastructure through Asia EDGE and helping the region attract U.S. finance and investment.
For example, despite the pandemic, we joined with Vietnam to hold the 3rd Indo-Pacific Business Forum last month, which brought together business and government leaders to spur economic innovation and collaboration. U.S. firms signed over $11 billion in commercial deals, and the United States with our partners, Australia and Japan, announced a $30 million investment in an undersea fiber optic cable in Palau.
Over 4,200 U.S. companies operate in the ASEAN region, including 70 percent of U.S. companies in the Fortune 500. They employ local workers. They train their staff and improve their leadership and technical skills, contributing to the region’s human capital development.
In addition to our private sector, the U.S. government is using a range of tools to support private sector-led growth.
The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation already has over $1 billion invested in the countries of Southeast Asia and is eager to catalyze billions more.
There are other government agencies also working to grow our trade and investment, including the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, the Commerce Department, and the U.S. Ex-Im Bank. In the last year alone, these and other agencies supported dozens of projects with a market value of over $125 billion and potential U.S. export content of $22 billion.
Another exciting aspect of our economic work is the U.S.-ASEAN Smart Cities Partnership, which is announcing pairings on transportation between Las Vegas and Phuket, Dallas and Kuala Lumpur, Portland and Johor Bahru, Boston and Phnom Penh, and Los Angeles and Jakarta. We are also working to announce three new city pairings on water management and are starting a digitalization project with three ASEAN Smart City power grids. This will help them to become more efficient, resilient, and able to incorporate new sustainable energy sources.
The United States is also working with our partners to build out the Blue Dot Network and Clean Network initiatives. These initiatives promise to enhance transparency and sustainability in key infrastructure, including the next generation of 5G telecom networks.
We think these exciting new programs and partnerships are solid proof of the sustaining U.S. commitment to ASEAN.
PRC Destabilizing Actions
China, unfortunately, has chosen a different path from a free and open Indo-Pacific. They have exploited the COVID-19 crisis with destabilizing actions.
I expect we will hear—as we did at the EAS foreign minsters’ meeting in September—region-wide concern over Beijing’s assault on the autonomy of its neighbors and on the rules-based system that has underpinned global prosperity and peace for decades. The United States will be equally candid in our remarks.
South China Sea
In the South China Sea, Beijing’s unlawful maritime claims and its intimidation of ASEAN coastal states are unacceptable.
In 2015, General Secretary Xi Jinping stood in the White House Rose Garden and stated “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of the Spratly Islands, and China’s outposts would not “target or impact any country.” Beijing instead pursued a reckless and provocative militarization of those disputed outposts: they have deployed anti-ship cruise missiles, expanded military radar and signal intelligence capabilities, constructed dozens of fighter jet hangars, and have built runways capable of accommodating combat aircraft.
The PRC uses these militarized outposts as platforms of coercion to assert control over waters to which Beijing has no lawful maritime claim. They serve as staging grounds for the hundreds of maritime militia vessels and China Coast Guard ships that regularly harass civilian craft and impede legitimate law enforcement activities, offshore fishing, and hydrocarbon development by neighboring states.
Since 2013, the PRC has undertaken massive dredging to build up more than 3,000 acres across the South China Sea, causing untold destruction to coral reefs and fisheries, all in an attempt to further Beijing’s unlawful maritime claims.
Beijing has sought to scare away the competition for oil and gas resources, then push other states in the South China Sea to accept what it calls “joint development” deals with its own state-owned firms, essentially saying “if you want to develop those resources off your coast, your only option is to do so with us.” This is extortion, plain and simple.
In June, ASEAN leaders stressed that maritime disputes like these and a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea must rely on international law, including UNCLOS. We support that.
This year, we strengthened our approach to the South China Sea, rejecting China’s unlawful maritime claims and imposing costs on executives and state-owned firms that further them. Since then, an unprecedented number of countries, including six of the 18 EAS members, have rejected China’s South China Sea claims at the UN.
Moving to the mainland, we have seen reports that a maritime security facility was demolished at Ream Naval Base in Cambodia. We are concerned that razing the facility may be tied to plans for hosting PRC military assets and personnel at Ream. A permanent PRC military presence in Cambodia would be disruptive and destabilizing to the Indo-Pacific region and could undermine the freedom of navigation and overflight.
In a November 2019 letter, the President opened the door to discussing ways to increase U.S.-Cambodia cooperation that protects the autonomy of Cambodia and reflects the will of the Cambodian people. We hope that Prime Minister Hun Sen will take us up on our offer for dialogue. We would welcome a dialogue about Cambodia’s needs, and to identify how we can support infrastructure at Ream that would benefit an independent Cambodia and all nations supportive of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The disturbing reports out of Ream are part of broader troubling trends in the Mekong region. The region faces several challenges, including historic droughts exacerbated by Beijing’s chokehold of Mekong River flows, and its ties to infrastructure-linked debt and a significant increase in transnational crime and trafficking in persons, drugs, arms, and wildlife. Beijing is increasingly applying its South China Sea playbook – coercion, disinformation, and contempt for rules – throughout the region.
We have a playbook as well: supporting the prosperity, autonomy, and security of our friends and allies. That’s why we were thrilled to join with our Mekong partners to launch the Mekong-U.S. Partnership in September. The Partnership follows the hugely successful Lower Mekong Initiative, and will support a deeper, more strategic relationship with the five countries of the Mekong.
The Partnership will continue our long-time work on water governance, which is not simply a technical issue for the peoples of the Mekong but an existential one with over 60 million people depending on the River for their livelihoods.
I mentioned Beijing’s unilateral manipulation of upstream water flows through its network of 11 mega-dams. I’ve been told that these dams hold enough water to fill the entire Chesapeake Bay or provide water to all 8.3 million residents of New York City for 35 years.
Until recently, China has refused to share year-round data on its dam operations. Its unilateral withholding of water has exacerbated historic droughts and contributed to devastating economic impacts on tens of millions of people.
In response to requests from the Mekong countries, Beijing recently announced its intention to share year-round water data with the Mekong River Commission. This is a start, but regional experts point out the limited scope of the data Beijing is providing, which falls short of the comprehensive and year-round hydrological data necessary for downstream planning and water resources management. Then there are also the challenges for Mekong stakeholders to independently verify the PRC’s data. Beijing needs to do better.
The PRC’s unilateral manipulation of upstream dams is just one of a number of the troubling trends I mentioned. We hear from communities in the Mekong that are concerned about infrastructure-linked debt and the predatory business practices of Beijing’s state-owned actors. We hear concerns about People’s Republic of China-controlled economic zones and casinos, which function as clusters of trans-national criminality, with ties to trafficking of persons, drugs, and wildlife, and money-laundering networks.
Beijing’s failure to curb corruption tied to these PRC-controlled projects threatens to further strengthen criminal networks that undermine the security and autonomy of not only Mekong countries but even other ASEAN members.
We will raise these concerns at the EAS and we will continue to encourage ASEAN to elevate the Mekong region as central to their prosperity and collective interests, as they have done with the South China Sea. Vietnam has done a terrific job doing just that this year as ASEAN Chair.
Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang
We will also raise our concerns about Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and elsewhere in China. Beijing has broken its promises to the people of Hong Kong. Any erosion of confidence in the rule of law or protection of rights has significant international impacts.
We will continue to call out Beijing’s repression of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim and ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.
The global community is calling on the PRC to end its inhumane campaign of repression in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and elsewhere in China.
Burma/Rakhine State Crisis
As the Secretary said yesterday, the United States recognizes that Burma’s parliamentary elections, the second competitive national election since the end of military rule, mark an important step in the country’s democratic transition.
While we are concerned by problems in the electoral process — including unelected seats reserved for the military, disenfranchisement, and the cancellation of voting in several regions — we remain a dedicated partner of the people of Burma in their pursuit of democracy, peace, and national reconciliation.
A key component of these efforts is addressing the Rakhine State crisis. We continue to call on the Government of Burma to fully implement its commitments with UN agencies; to allow unhindered humanitarian access to regions affected by violence; and to establish conditions conducive to the safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable return of refugees and internally displaced persons.
The United States is the leading single donor of humanitarian assistance to the Rakhine State crisis, providing nearly $1.2 billion since the escalation of violence in 2017. On October 22, we co-hosted a conference to promote sustained support for the Rohingya refugee response that generated nearly $600 million in new commitments.
By comparison, China’s contribution to the Joint Response Plan in 2020 was only $400,000, and nothing in 2019 and 2018 — a paltry sum for a UN P5 member, especially given China’s role in drug and weapons smuggling that erode peace and stability in Myanmar and the region.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Finally, on the DPRK, we will explain that we remain open to diplomatic negotiations with North Korea to eliminate the threat to international peace and security posed by the DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Our goal is to achieve complete denuclearization of the DPRK, as committed to by Chairman Kim when we met in Singapore.
We will call on EAS members’ cooperation, to fully implement obligations under UN Security Council resolutions sending a strong, unified message that North Korea must halt provocations, abide by its obligations under UNSCRs, and engage in sustained and substantive negotiations with the United States.
Thank you for your invitation today. As you’ve heard, we have a lot to discuss at the East Asia Summit. As it always has, the Indo-Pacific is critical to achieving the goals of our National Security Strategy.
Now I would be happy to take your questions.