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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

A Preview of Secretary Tillerson's Upcoming Travel to Asia

Susan A. Thornton
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

Washington, DC
March 13, 2017


MODERATOR: Hello, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today we have Acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton from our East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau to discuss the upcoming trip of Secretary Tillerson to Asia. Without further ado, here is the Acting Assistant Secretary.

MS THORNTON: Thank you, Andy. Thanks, again, Andy.


MS THORNTON: So good afternoon, everyone.

QUESTION: Good afternoon.

MS THORNTON: It’s a packed house. Well, of course, as Andy mentioned, you know that Secretary Tillerson is about to take off actually tomorrow for a trip out to Northeast Asia, his first trip to Asia, and we’re going to be visiting Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing – Tokyo, on March 15th; Seoul on March 17th; and then we travel to Beijing on March 18th.

So the idea is that this trip will allow Secretary Tillerson to engage allies and partners on not only a range of bilateral issues but also, importantly, to discuss and coordinate strategy to address the advancing nuclear missile threat from North Korea. The United States is committed to holding North Korea accountable for its flagrant and repeated disregard of UN Security Council resolutions which expressly prohibit its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. We will defend our friends and allies of course – the Republic of Korea and Japan – and seek to work collaboratively to the maximum extent possible with important partners like China on this issue.

In Tokyo, Secretary Tillerson is planning to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and also of course with Foreign Minister Kishida. This trip builds on Prime Minister Abe’s summit meeting with President Trump in Washington and in Florida earlier last month, February 10th through 12th. And Secretary Tillerson of course has also connected frequently with Foreign Minister Kishida, including by phone on February 7th and in a meeting the two held here on February 10th.

In Korea*, as President Trump has stated, strong U.S.-Japan bilateral relations serve as the cornerstone of peace and security in the Asia Pacific region.

In Tokyo, the Secretary will also discuss our shared regional and global objectives, including strengthening security cooperation within the U.S.-Japan alliance, working together to enhance a rules-based system in the maritime domain, and particularly exploring efforts to deepen U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation.

In Seoul, the Secretary will meet with Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn and Foreign Minister Yun. This will be the Secretary’s first meeting with Acting President Hwang. His last bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Yun was in Bonn, Germany, where he also participated in a trilateral meeting with the foreign ministers of both Japan and South Korea. While in Seoul, the Secretary will convey the U.S. continued support for, of course, the strong U.S.-ROK alliance.

And he will then travel to Beijing on March 18th, where he will meet with State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi as well as with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. President Trump and President Xi Jinping spoke by telephone on February 9th. And after first speaking to State Councilor Yang by phone on February 21st, the Secretary welcomed State Councilor Yang to the State Department also for a meeting on February 28th. And the Secretary, of course, also formally met with Wang Yi – Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bonn, Germany on the margins of the G20 foreign ministers meeting in February.

So I think these calls and visits early in the Trump administration with various counterparts in Asia show that we are moving quickly to establish good lines of communication and are seeking to establish very constructive relations also with our Chinese partners. We are pursuing a results-oriented relationship with China, one that benefits the American people and one that remains faithful to our allies and presses China to abide by international rules and norms. At each meeting up to now, Secretary Tillerson has urged China to use all available tools to alter North Korea’s destabilizing behavior, and he’s discussed the need to create a level playing field for trade and investment between our two countries.

So we expect at each stop on Secretary Tillerson’s trip the discussion will be forward-looking and will focus on ways that we can strengthen cooperation in order to advance the security and economic well-being of the American people and of our friends and partners in Asia. This visit will be the first of what we envision will be close, ongoing working relationships.

In closing, I just want to reiterate – of course, you all know – the U.S. is a Pacific power, and we will certainly be remaining active and engaged in Asia in this administration. The visit will focus on our pursuit of a constructive and results-based relationship with China as part of a larger Asia policy that prioritizes our alliances and strategic friendships which have been the bedrock of peace and security in the Asian region. We will also look to further broaden and enhance U.S. economic interests in the Asia Pacific region. We will continue our security cooperation and seek to build on our current security cooperation with two key allies, and we will seek to pursue foreign policy cooperation on global and regional challenges.

And so with that, I’ll be happy to take a few questions before we head out tomorrow.


MS THORNTON: Thanks, all, for being here.

MODERATOR: As we move to the Q&A portion, please wait for the microphone and state your name and publication for the transcript.

We’ll go right there in the middle. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Mikyung Kim, Seoul Shinbun Korea. Do you expect to announce any new sanction like against North Korea, including secondary boycott or financial sanctions against North Korea, during this trip?

MS THORNTON: Right, thank you. Well, of course, the – as I mentioned, North Korea’s provocative behavior, its violations of UN Security Council resolutions, have galvanized the international community and have brought to the fore these two UN Security Council resolutions, which have been passed recently, imposing the tightest sanctions regime we’ve ever had with respect to North Korea. That’s UN Security Council Resolutions 2270 and 2321. I think you all know that the current administration, especially following on the missile launches that occurred a couple of weeks ago, is looking very actively at the issue of North Korea and reviewing its approach and what kinds of options it is considering. That process is still ongoing. So although we will certainly continue to strictly implement the UN Security Council resolutions and we call on our partners around the world to continue to actively implement those resolutions and to maintain the sanctions regime, we don’t have anything new at the moment to announce. We’re intent on keeping up the pressure on the North Korean regime and trying to change the calculus on the part of the North Korean leadership to come back to the negotiating table and discuss its illegal and very destabilizing weapons programs.

So I don’t think we have – we’ll have anything new to announce on this trip, but certainly, discussing the elements of any new approach would be an important part of the discussions.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll go down here.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. I’m Ching-Yi Chang with Shanghai Media Group. And what I’d like to know: Is Secretary Tillerson’s visit paving the way for the future meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Trump? And also, we saw since President Trump took office, we saw very frequent bilateral high-level meetings. So will the U.S. carry on the periodical Strategic and Economic Dialogues? And also, what’s the progress of BIT right now? Thank you.

MS THORNTON: Okay, a series of questions there. I’ll try to take them one by one. So the first question – I mean, certainly, Secretary Tillerson is our Secretary of State; he’s in charge of our foreign policy. And of course, his trip will to some extent be paving the way for future high-level meetings between our two presidents. There’s no question about that. I expect that he will be discussing with the Chinese interlocutors all of the various challenges and also areas of cooperation that we are looking to continue to pursue and continue to discuss and make progress on. And I think there’s been some discussion in the news recently about high-level meetings. I don’t have anything specific to announce on that front, but I think, as you’ve seen in the communication between the two presidents themselves, there’s been talk of an early meeting.

So I think Secretary Tillerson’s first trip out to China, of course, he’s going to be meeting some of the counterparts for the first time, but he will certainly be looking to set out the sort of work plan for the bilateral relationship in the new administration.

So the second question --

QUESTION: Regarding the dialogue.

MS THORNTON: Oh, the dialogue. So – yeah, right. So on the – I mean, we have this trip, then we will be having continued engagements. I think – I know one thing that the Chinese side has been interested in is continued high-level engagement, and I think the administration has already signaled with this trip and talk of a high-level meeting in the future that we will be continuing high-level engagement. As far as the specific form that that’s going to take, and with regard to the --


MS THORNTON: -- future of the sort of Strategic & Economic Dialogue and some of the other specific mechanisms, we haven’t actually gotten to the point of discussing how those might be changed or which ones would continue. But I think that we’re starting the conversation here, so that’s a good thing.

On the BIT, I think there have continued to be rounds of discussions on the BIT between our working level counterparts, and I think it’s one of the things that certainly will be part of the discussions coming up on this trip as to what happens to that negotiation and whether or not it moves forward.

QUESTION: Thanks. Zhenhua Lu from 21st Century Business Herald. We know that 12 TPP member countries will meet in Chile tomorrow for two days’ meeting, plus China and South Korea. So I – and I wonder if State Department have any comments on that. And as the U.S. is not a part of the TPP negotiation, do you foresee that by any chance President Trump will change his mind and go back to TPP negotiation table? And do you still see TPP or integration of Asia Pacific economic interest as a rebalancing pillar to Asia or economic tools for U.S. presence in Asia Pacific region? Thanks.

MS THORNTON: Okay. Again, a series of questions, sometimes a little bit complicated, but I’ll try to answer. I think the issue of the U.S. economic engagement in Asia is the focus of your question, and I would answer that like this: This administration certainly recognizes that Asia is the most dynamic and holds the potential for a lot of future growth as a region, and that it’s very essential to the future of U.S. economic prosperity. And so I think what we’re looking to do is to approach our economic engagement with Asia in a way that not only promotes growth but also promotes the interests of the United States, of United States workers, of United States citizens, and United States companies. So we’re looking for a way of – you used the word “rebalance,” but leveling the playing field, because the feeling is that the playing field has been tilted in – against the favor of our – some of our companies and some of our interests in the trade arrangements that have persisted up until now. And so I think that’s what we’ll be looking at, is how to certainly engage economically with the region, but how to make sure that the engagement is fair and balanced, as you put it.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’re going to break away and take a question from New York. Please go ahead, New York.

QUESTION: Hi. This is Manik Mehta, syndicated journalist. I have a question in regard to the tensions currently seen between North Korea and Malaysia following the assassination of the stepbrother of the North Korean leader. Would this issue come up for discussions with China? And what is your take on that? What is the State Department’s take on that? Would you like to comment, please? Thank you.

MS THORNTON: Yeah, thank you for the question. I think our take on this issue is that the Malaysian Government has a perfect right to try to defend its citizens and its territories from attacks on people, whether it be at their airport or in other venues, and so we have been very supportive of Malaysian Government efforts to get to the bottom of this attack. And I think for any kind of detailed discussions on the tensions between the Malaysian Government and the Government of the DPRK, I would have to refer you to the two of them. I know that there have been some ongoing discussions, but I don’t anticipate – I mean, other than our support for the Malaysian Government handling this very difficult issue, I don’t think I have any further comment from the State Department perspective.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll go to the middle there.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you very much. I’m Guyeon from Christian Broadcasting System in Korea. And there is some speculation that the next president of Korea will make a different decision about the THAAD deployment in Korean peninsula. So would you possibly confirm your position about the THAAD deployment, and then what’s going to be the Secretary Tillerson’s actions during the trip? Yeah, thank you.

MS THORNTON: Great, thank you. Well, just on the first part of your question about the issue of the political situation in the ROK and how we think about that, I mean, I think what you’ve seen actually over the past number of weeks is the unfolding of a pretty transparent process undergirded by varying democratic institutions, which have really proven their mettle in the unfolding of this sort of peaceful process. It’s a difficult process, of course, but I think we see the strength of South Korean democratic institutions through this process, and I think we are certainly aware that there’s going to be an upcoming political process and set of new elections for president coming up, and that there may be candidates that will be different from those that have been in the administration in recent years.

As to what it means for the THAAD deployment, it’s very difficult, obviously, to say, since we have no idea who the candidates are yet, never mind who’s going to win. But I think the way we look at the THAAD deployment is it’s a very utterly reasonable step for a country to take which sees itself threatened by missiles from its northern neighbor – and not only sees itself threatened, but these threats and these provocations are coming now with great regularity. And it’s very alarming to people who have to live under that kind of a situation.

So I think for us, the THAAD deployment is not related to some political constellation or other consideration. It’s a very reasonable and real response to a very provocative threat that is facing people in South Korea. So I’m sure we’ll be continuing to discuss it, but I really don’t think that there’s any big mystery about why people in South Korea should be sort of feeling the demand signal for such a system.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll come down here. Be patient for the microphone.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Susan, for coming back. My name’s Donghui Yu with China Review News Agency of Hong Kong. And now that President Trump has said that he will honor “one China” policy, could you please state here clearly, representing the Trump administration, what is the U.S. “one China” policy? How would President Trump talk to President Xi in their possible first meeting in Florida about the “one China” policy and Taiwan issue? Thank you very much.

MS THORNTON: It’s hard for me to imagine how President Xi will talk to President Trump about the “one China” policy, but I do know what our “one China” policy is, and what – which is the policy that was reaffirmed in the phone call between the two presidents. So our “one China” policy, as I’m sure many of you know, is the same U.S. “one China” policy that we’ve had going back generations and generations of different secretaries of state, all the way back to Henry Kissinger. It’s based on the three joint Sino-U.S. communiques that were signed in 1972, in 1979, in 1982, and it’s also based, importantly, on the Taiwan Relations Act, which is a U.S. law, piece of legislation signed into law also in 1979 which provides for the United States’ robust, strong, and committed unofficial relations between the people in the United States and the people in Taiwan. And I think that that has been stated clearly by President Trump; it’s been understood clearly by President Xi, and I think that in the follow-up conversations that we’ve had with our interlocutors in China, there doesn’t seem to be any question about that that’s our stated policy and – going forward.

MODERATOR: We’ll get the gentleman standing in back.

QUESTION: Hi. Nathan King, CGTN. I want to follow up on our Korean colleague’s question, maybe phrase it a bit differently. Would you respect the sovereignty of the Republic of Korea if they decided against THAAD in a new government? And also, you said – sorry, I’m just going through my notes here – you said you wanted a results-based relationship with China. Can you explain what that means a little bit?

MS THORNTON: Sure. So on the first question, would we respect the sovereignty of the South Korean polity? I mean, of course we would respect the sovereignty of South Korea, so I don’t think that that’s at issue. I mean, I think that that’s not really the question that’s at issue, because this decision was made as an alliance decision. It was made in consultation and jointly between the ROK and the United States, and I anticipate that anything that would happen would be discussed, but I don’t think there’s any question that we respect the sovereignty of South Korea.

On the issue of the – what was the second part? The --

QUESTION: Results (inaudible) --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the transactional relationship, (inaudible) --

MS THORNTON: Results-based --

QUESTION: Results-based relationship.

MS THORNTON: Yeah. So I think this gets to sort of what I mentioned earlier in response to the question from the gentleman from the 21st Century Herald about our engagement economically with Asia. I mean, we want to be able to pursue a constructive discussion with China that enables us to get at sort of problem areas and make progress on issues. And I think in certainly the economic and trade relationship, although it’s obviously been a very bountiful relationship and mutually beneficial, over the recent period of time there is definitely a feeling that there is some weighting of the scale, if we can put it that way, and some areas that need to be righted in that sense. So I think we want to have a discussion where we can make progress on those issues that we’re raising and we want to see that move forward. That’s what we mean by results-based.

MODERATOR: We’ll go all the way in the back to the gentleman.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Kyle Cardine from Fuji TV. Sorry. So I have two questions for you. First about the recent North Korean missile launches, specifically those missiles were targeted at U.S. bases in Japan, or at least that’s what the testing was for. So having said that, is Secretary Tillerson going to be speaking with the Japanese officials about more defense within Japan, which might include THAAD, or is he anticipating discussions from the Japanese on more defense?

Then secondly, I wanted to ask about the 38 trademarks that were recently approved by the Chinese Government on Trump’s name. When Tillerson – when Secretary Tillerson is in China, will he be advocating for future approval of those kinds of trademarks in the future?

MS THORNTON: Okay. So on the first question, I mean, I think it stands to reason that when Secretary Tillerson is in Tokyo, one of the things we have been discussing with them in the encounters we’ve had so far in this administration but also in the last administration is how we can strengthen the alliance and what more Japan can do to contribute to the strengthening of the alliance. And so there will certainly be discussions, as there have been ongoing, about future strengthening of the alliance and future capabilities that might come into play to help with that. So I think it’s not as a result so much of the recent missile launches, but it is part of the ongoing conversation, and it is partly inspired by the kind of increasing concern that we have with North Korea’s weapons programs as they continue to test kind of on a regular basis over the last year or year and a half.

On the question of the trademarks in China, so I’m not a patent/trademark lawyer and I’m not intimately familiar with the details of these cases, but I’m pretty sure that Secretary Tillerson will probably not be talking about these kinds of issues when he goes. My understanding is that most of these cases have been hanging around for a long time and they’re kind of – I don’t know if you call it a false flag trademark registration. And so a lot of them, I think, were pretty easily dispatched through the court process. So I don’t think this rises to the level of something that the Secretary would be talking about, but that’s my understanding, anyway.

MODERATOR: Okay. We have time for a few more questions. I’m going to go first to New York. Please go ahead, New York.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is, sir, Michael Persson from Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. A question: Secretary Tillerson was not taking along the press corps on his trip to Southeast Asia nor has he been holding a lot of press conferences so far. Could you comment on that? He seems sometimes to be a bit isolated with regard to the press and to the public.

Well, your comment, please.

MS THORNTON: Our press spokesperson, acting spokesperson Mark Toner, has spoken quite a bit from the podium at the State Department on this issue, but I would say just with regard to the trip to Northeast Asia, there are about 20 journalists that are going to be flying out, I think, to Northeast Asia to join with the trip and we’re making all the arrangements so that they can cover all of the events where the press is going to be convening. So I don’t think we’ve had so much of a problem in getting the press to travel, and we’re making all the arrangements on the ground for them to be there.

I know Secretary Tillerson – it’s very early days in the administration. Secretary Tillerson was only confirmed a couple of months ago and he’s been very busy in the time since trying to sort of get up to speed and have a lot of these different issues that all of the administration and cabinet officials are looking at and reviewing. And so I think we’re certainly – we’ve got the State Department’s press briefing back up online now and I think you’re going to start to see more and more engagement from us. I think the Secretary is doing a press conference in Tokyo with his counterpart there, and so we’ll look for him to be engaged. I wouldn’t at all condone the moniker of being isolated.

MODERATOR: Okay, for – we’ll – for a final question, we’ll go to the lady right there, sitting in – you got it.

QUESTION: Thank you, Alicia Rose from NHK. I noticed you shied away earlier from the word “rebalance” and I was wondering if you could clarify this administration’s position on the pivot or rebalance to Asia. And also, do you have any updates to share on the schedule? Specifically, will there be anything in either – in any of the stops other than the bilateral meetings?

MS THORNTON: Sorry, so the second thing was about the schedule?

QUESTION: Yeah, if the --


QUESTION: If Secretary Tillerson will be making any stops other than the bilateral meetings in each of the countries.

MS THORNTON: Yeah, so just to pick up the point on the schedule, I don’t have anything to announce on the details of the schedule. I’m only sort of going over the official meetings. I’m not sure – I don’t think all the details on all of the other activities have been nailed down yet, so I’ll leave that to our press office and the PA folks to release the details on that.

On the issue of pivot, rebalance, et cetera, I mean, that was a word that was used to describe the Asia policy in the last administration. I think you can probably expect that this administration will have its own formulation, and it hasn’t actually – we haven’t really seen in detail kind of what the formulation will be or if there even will be a formulation. But what I outlined in my opening is kind of the broad strokes of what the messaging is. We’re going to remain engaged and active in Asia. The Asian economy is very important for U.S. prosperity and growth, and so we will be there working on fair and – fair trade and free trade issues. We’re working on regional security challenges, such as North Korea, and continue to press for a rules-based and sort of constructive, peaceful, stable order in Asia.

And whether there will be a kind of a bumper sticker to put on that at some point, it’s still – like I said, it’s early days, so I think it’s early to say.

QUESTION: Excuse me, can you take one question on Taiwan?

MS THORNTON: I took one question on Taiwan. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS THORNTON: It’s up to Andy.

MODERATOR: I do – I’m sorry, we’re out of time. Thank you all for coming. This event is now concluded.

MS THORNTON: Oh, sorry.


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