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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Preview of the U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue

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

David F. Helvey, Performing the Duties of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs
Washington, DC
June 20, 2017


MODERATOR: All right. Good afternoon. Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. Very pleased to have you with us today. Housekeeping note before we start: The State Department press briefing is at 2 o’clock. We’re going to keep this pretty short to allow anybody to get over there that needs to. So we’ll have, as usual, opening statements and then a Q&A that I will moderate.

We’re very honored to have with us today Susan Thornton, who is Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. To her right is David Helvey, who is performing the duties of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. They’ll each make an opening statement; we’ll go to Q&A, which I’ll moderate. Thank you for being with us today, Ms. Thornton.

MS THORNTON: Morning, everyone, or I guess afternoon, already. Thanks for being here. As you all know, Secretary Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis are going to be hosting State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Chief of the Joint Staff General Fang Fenghui tomorrow for our first Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, which we’re calling for short DSD, the D&SD.

You’ll recall that this dialogue was established under the broader framework of a comprehensive dialogue mechanism which came out of President Trump’s meeting with President Xi Jinping down in Mar-a-Lago in April, and we hope that this Diplomatic and Security Dialogue will continue that positive momentum from the Mar-a-Lago meeting and set a constructive tone for our three dialogues to come and enable us to deepen our communication and make progress on priority issues.

We are, of course, pursuing a constructive and results-oriented relationship with China, one that benefits the American people, allows us to remain faithful to our allies, and presses China to abide by international rules and norms but also contributes to resolving global challenges and to improving international security. Reflecting our desire for a streamlined approach, this Diplomatic and Security Dialogue will focus on key security issues and will be a little bit narrower than our previous Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

We will give the top priority - top billing - to the issue of North Korea, the DPRK, and we are aiming to advance concrete cooperation with China toward a peaceful resolution of the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea through these talks. We remain committed, of course, to holding North Korea accountable for its flagrant and repeated disregard for multiple UN Security Council resolutions, which expressly prohibit these programs. We also continue to urge China to exert its unique influence and leverage over North Korea as its largest trading partner, including by fully implementing all UN Security Council resolutions.

The two secretaries, Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis, also intend to have discussions with the Chinese about other important strategic issues such as the South China Sea, defeating ISIS, and risk-reduction efforts in the military-to-military relationship. We remain committed to a policy that aims to expand cooperation with China where possible while narrowing our differences on key issues. And we, of course, do not expect to resolve all of the differences in a one-day dialogue tomorrow. But we do believe that we can achieve concrete results through this dialogue and that we can help to deepen mutual understanding on these issues.

Some of the notes on the order of events: Participants will start in the morning and work through lunch, discussing priority topics. And then the Press Office will have details for all of you on any access to these events, including any press availabilities by the principals after the dialogue. We’ll have a break after the working sessions, and then we’ll close with a dinner, a joint dinner, among the principals.

So with that, I’d like to pass it over to Mr. Helvey.

MR HELVEY: Thank you very much, Susan. And thank you. It is my pleasure to join you and all of you today as we prepare for the first iteration of the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue.

As my colleague Susan Thornton described, the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, or D&SD, is significant. It brings together the diplomatic and defense leaders from both sides, both the United States and China, to focus on those issues that are most critical in the U.S.-China relationship, the region, and beyond.

Secretary Mattis looks forward to co-chairing this discussion with Secretary Tillerson. This discussion elevates the level of dialogue with the Chinese in a way that, in our view, will enable in-depth considerations of areas of cooperation, as well as ways to manage and narrow the differences between the United States and China on a range of strategic issues that affect both the diplomatic and the defense spheres.

In this respect, as Secretary Mattis has said, the most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security in the Asia Pacific region is North Korea. The United States and China have a shared interest in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, and given China’s unique influence, we seek to deepen our cooperation to realize this outcome, which is in the best interest of peace and security in the region and the world.

U.S.-China defense relations are an important aspect of a constructive and results-oriented bilateral U.S.-China relationship. And Secretary Mattis has stated his desire to strengthen and improve the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship to ensure that it remains a stabilizing element and a supporting element in the overall bilateral U.S.-China relationship.

We look forward to the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue tomorrow as a venue to discuss a number of critical issues, including in the areas of strategic security, maritime security, countering ISIS, and exploring practical ways to improve communication, to increase understanding and reduce risk, including through additional confidence-building measures.

And so with that, I’d be happy to take some questions with Ms. Thornton.

MODERATOR: Thanks very much. As always, please identify yourselves and your outlet as you ask your questions. Please keep them to as few parts as possible, which is one part, to allow everybody to participate. We’ll get our colleague in New York after a couple. We’ll start with Ching-Yi in the front, please.

QUESTION: I have one question for Susan and one question for David.

MS THORNTON: Can you identify yourself? Thanks.

QUESTION: Oh, I’m Ching-Yi Chang with Shanghai Media Group.

MS THORNTON: Great. Thanks.

QUESTION: Yes. The question is on global governance. We’ve seen a lot of cooperation between China and U.S. in many fields. So what [are] field[s] that China and U.S. can explore in terms of global governance, in order to improve it?

And question to David is about we see the U.S. is trying to stabilize the region by reaching out to China for the issue of DPRK. Yet, on the other hand, we see more and more U.S. Navy ships patrol in South China Sea. According to Financial Times the number of days spent by U.S. Navy ships in the South China Sea was on track to exceed 900 days in 2017, which is more – 300 days more than before. So is this the right strategy to stabilize the region? Thank you.

MS THORNTON: Thank you very much. So I believe that the U.S. and China have already been cooperating extensively in almost all fields of global governance, and – which is how we came to develop this comprehensive dialogue mechanism with China, so that we would have the wherewithal to continue to have in-depth conversations on all of these aspects and to continue to coordinate and make progress in these areas.

Some of the areas that we’ll be discussing tomorrow in global governance include things like counterterrorism and countering extremism. We’re going to speak about the development of international norms in a lot of areas that David touched on, for example international cyberspace norms; development of norms and discussions about how we deal with each other in outer space, which is a new area; the area of stability, nuclear stability; and how we deal with the development of new kinds of weapons and other technological developments.

But we have also on the list of issues to be discussed – of course, in the Comprehensive Economic Dialogue, we’ll be discussing trade and investment, not just bilateral but also global trade and investment flows, monetary flows, which is a conversation we’ve been having for a number of decades and will continue to have. In the Law Enforcement and Cyber Dialogue, which will be coming up, we’ll also be talking about how we can coordinate on international law enforcement issues, international crime, things like the narcotics flows that are really ravaging a lot of populations both in the United States and also elsewhere and how we can cooperate to stem those flows. So these are all areas that we’ve been talking about with China and we continue to talk about.

In global governance in particular, I think health is an issue that we’ve discussed coordination and cooperation on, with joint activities to help prevent the outbreaks of disease in Africa and elsewhere. And so I think there is no end to the areas of useful coordination that we can have with China and we’ll continue to work on those through all of our discussions, both tomorrow and in the future.

MR HELVEY: Thank you. And with respect to your question, look, we have a common interest with China in cooperating to realize a (inaudible). This is something that is a longstanding area where the United States and China have a shared interest and a desire to cooperate. This is something that supports peace and stability in the region, to see that outcome.

With respect to --

[Audio system difficulties]

MR HELVEY: With respect to the question on operations in the South China Sea, I’ll have to – I don’t talk about military operations. But with respect to the broader issue of our strategy in the South China Sea, which is a strategy (inaudible) across the region (inaudible) --

[Audio system difficulties]

MR HELVEY: There you go. Thank you. With respect to the larger question on maritime security, look, our presence serves a variety of different purposes. First and foremost, we acknowledge then recognize that Asia Pacific is an area where we have tremendous interests – economic interests, diplomatic interests, security interests. We have – five of our treaty-based allies are in the Asia Pacific region.

And so our military operations and our presence supports our longstanding policy of maintaining freedom of navigation, maintaining freedom of maneuver, which ensures that the sea lanes are open for commerce, for trade, for people to be able to use them, all seafaring nations to be able to use them in a way that supports economic development, trade, and prosperity for the region as a whole.

So our presence is a stabilizing presence. It recognizes that there [are] opportunities to be able to cooperate with other countries, other countries that seek the same things as we do. And in that respect, we cooperate with China, we cooperate with our allies, we cooperate with our partners.

So going back to your original question, I don’t see there’s any conflict between those two outcomes that we seek.

MODERATOR: All right. Let’s try here in the front, in the white shirt, and then we’ll try New York after that.

QUESTION: Hi. Chia from United Daily News Group. You guys mentioned the maritime issues and ISIS issues, but you’ve never mentioned the Taiwan Strait. I’m wondering if the Taiwan will be a topic in the D&SD. And as Panama just switched diplomatic relation from ROC to PRC, are you worried that it may raise the tension between the cross-strait? Thank you.

MS THORNTON: Okay, yeah. So thank you very much for the question. And of course, as is the case in almost every discussion that we have of this nature with a top-level Chinese delegation, I do anticipate that the topic of Taiwan will be raised. I think it’s clear that the United States is committed to our “one China” policy. The Secretary mentioned it again the other day in his testimony.

And I think what we’re looking for when we will be speaking to the Chinese about it tomorrow – assuming that it comes up – is we are very much interested in the continued stability and peace in the cross-strait area. And we will communicate that, of course, to our Chinese counterparts.

And I think we would want to stress that we want to see continuing dialogue and communication between the two sides of the strait in order that there not be any increase in tensions. We think it’s very important to have open lines of communication. We don’t want to see either side make moves that would be considered destabilizing. In that sense, we’ve always been opposed to changes in the status quo by either side. But of course, we do have commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act, and we’ll make clear that we remain faithful to those commitments as well.

And so that would be the sense of what we would want to, I think, communicate, in broad-brush strokes on this issue.

QUESTION: A follow-up?

MODERATOR: (Inaudible) please.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you, Susan. My name is Donghui Yu with China Review News Agency of Hong Kong. And last week in a hearing of the House, Secretary Tillerson said that a big question of U.S.-China relations in the next 50 years is the “one China” policy, if the “one China” policy is sustainable. And also Taiwan, South China Sea, and North Korea are all elements of this complex dialogue. So I just would like you to elaborate this kind of statement. Thank you.

MS THORNTON: Yeah. So I think it’s clear to all of us in the room that the discussions that the United States has with China and the relationship that we have with China is very complex. It involves all kinds of different facets, as I mentioned in response to the earlier question. So there are any number of issues that we’re going to be discussing with China, and so, of course, the ones you mentioned will also come up. I don’t detect that the Secretary implied that there was any connection necessarily among those issues, but we do discuss the full range of issues that are of concern to us. So I think that would explain the second part.

I mean, the first part is not, I don’t think, aimed at questioning or calling into question the U.S. commitment to the “one China” policy, but more just the practical question of how the situation across the strait will evolve over the longer term. And I think that’s something that, frankly, we all watch. We’re all concerned about continued stability on that issue, and I think that was what he was meaning in reference to the statement that he made.

QUESTION: A follow-up?

MODERATOR: Let’s try New York, please.

QUESTION: This is Manik Mehta. I am a syndicated journalist. I would like to address a question in regard to the tragic death of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, who arrived here from North Korea in a state of coma. Would you say that China could have intervened to prevent the death of Warmbier? And is China willing and able to exercise what you just said: its unique influence on North Korea? Thank you.

MS THORNTON: Yeah, thank you very much for the question. I think you’ve probably all seen the statements and the remarks that have come out regarding the tragic passing of Otto Warmbier yesterday. I think both the President and the Secretary have made statements, and I would like to refer the specific details to the briefing that’s going to be taking place at the State Department shortly with our spokesperson.

But I think obviously, North Korea in general will be a big topic of our discussions with China tomorrow. As far as the Chinese intervention to have had a – whether or not Chinese intervention could have made a manifest difference in what happened to Otto Warmbier, I don’t think I should speculate on that hypothetical. But we are, again, very saddened by his tragic passing.

I think on the question of China’s involvement in the North Korea question, the Secretary and the President have said many times that what we’re focused on is getting the Chinese – I mean getting the North Korean regime to change their calculus about coming back to the negotiating table and in a frame of mind that makes it a possibility to abandon their nuclear weapons and missile programs.

And so the Chinese have a similar position to ours on this issue. They support denuclearization and they have endorsed repeated UN Security Council resolutions in order to try to increase pressure on the North Korean regime in order to try to get it to change its calculus about what its – its attitude toward its weapons programs.

So I think we’ve seen some notable cooperation from China in this effort to create this kind of global echo chamber for getting the North Koreans to change their mind. Certainly, they’ve cooperated in passing very tough UN sanctions regimes, including a new sanctions resolution, number 2356, just last week. They have also, as you know, announced a ban on the importation of DPRK coal, and they’ve undertaken a number of other efforts.

We’ve seen all kinds of countries in the international community also step up their own actions in regards to squeezing the North Korean regime’s economic lifelines and try to cut back on the possibility of proliferation activity in North Korea. And I think I mentioned some of those efforts yesterday that different countries have undertaken. There are a number of others. We’ve seen DPRK shipping very much squeezed by refusal of countries to accept DPRK ships into port, squeezing their shipping registry. We’ve seen visa regimes that used to be much more open to DPRK visitors be slowly winnowed down and eliminated, in addition to some of the things yesterday I mentioned about cutting back on Air Koryo, the national airline of the North Koreans, flights to and from other countries; squeezing on diplomatic presence in other countries.

So I think in addition to what China is doing, we’re working on getting the entire international community to step up these efforts and try to – at the end of the day, the goal is to try to get the North Korean regime to change its mind about where it’s going. And we’ll certainly be talking to the Chinese about that tomorrow, and we hope to continue to cooperate with them on these issues.

MODERATOR: All right, we’ll have one or two more questions. Let’s do Jen in the blue jacket, please.

QUESTION: Thanks, Mark. Jennifer Chen with Shenzhen Media Group, China. I would like to – can both of you shed some light on how two secretaries will link the DPRK issues and the South China Sea in this dialogue with China? And you know under the context of increased urgency on Korean Peninsula, will this administration keep the South China Sea matters relatively quiet in order to ensure concrete cooperation, as was mentioned yesterday in the teleconference with China for the peaceful resolution of North Korean issues? Thanks.

MS THORNTON: Yeah, thank you very much for the question. I think I mentioned in my remarks yesterday and then again today that North Korea, as David said, is a very urgent national security priority for the U.S. Government. And of course, that will feature prominently in the discussions with China. It’s a problem for China, it’s a problem for the United States, and it’s a problem for the entire global community. And so we’ll certainly be talking about that.

South China Sea is also a high-priority issue because none of us wants to see an increase in tensions or an increase in militarization in that region. And I think we’re certainly supportive of diplomatic and peaceful resolutions of any disputes in that area, but as Dave mentioned, we have very prominent security interests in seeing security maintained in the South China Sea and seeing that these disputes do not sort of emerge into something more worrisome than what we see today. So I think it’s not that these two issues will be linked in any way. They’re both issues that are important to both countries, and so, of course, they merit a thorough discussion, a thorough comparison of where our positions are and what our views are on these issues, and I think we can certainly find common ground on both the issue of North Korea and on the issue of South China Sea, but we want to make sure that our security interests are preserved and maintained and that countries in the region are operating in accordance with international law and international rules and norms. And I think as long as we do that, since those rules and norms are self-executing, it maintains security and can assure the sort of very important trade routes that run through that part of the world. So I hope that answers your question, but I’ll let Dave take his turn at answering as well.

MR HELVEY: I would just say that there is no daylight between Susan’s response and the response that I would provide. We don’t see a linkage between the two issues there. Two very important issues for both countries and we look to be able to use the dialogue, an elevated dialogue between the leaders on both sides to be able to talk about areas where we can cooperate, and also to be able to manage whatever differences that we have. But there is no trade or linkage between North Korea and South China Sea. These are areas that are of critical importance to both countries and both countries have a shared interest in ensuring peace and stability consistent with international norms and law.

MODERATOR: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Thanks. Zhenhua Lu from South China Morning Post. On North Korea, it’s reported by Wall Street Journal last week that the Trump administration asked Beijing to take actions against nearly 10 Chinese companies and individuals to curb their trading with North Korea. This is sources from U.S. senior officials. And so I wonder will you raise this demand in tomorrow’s dialogue with your Chinese counterparts, and where are your two sides on this issue so far? And if U.S. pushes to sanction those Chinese companies and individuals, have you taken into account the scenario that China will retaliate against the American companies in China? Thanks.

MS THORNTON: Yeah, thank you very much for that question. So I mentioned in my earlier response some of the areas of coordination and cooperation that we have between the U.S. and China on DPRK, including very close consultation on implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions regimes that have been approved by the entire UN Security Council in New York. And we have as part of implementing the sanctions exchanges of information with China on an ongoing basis about things that we believe are potential violations of the sanctions designations in connection with those resolutions. This has been a running exchange of information that’s been going on for quite a long time, and we have this exchange of information regularly on cases of concern regarding proliferation not just with North Korea but with countries around the world. So it’s part of our regular kind of nonproliferation dialogue that we have between the U.S. and China, two very large countries with a lot of manufacturing capability and a lot of trade. So I think that the Wall Street Journal reports that there was this exchange of information on 10 companies is not at all unusual; it’s part of our routine discussions and we will continue to follow up on those discussions and express our concerns if we see something that’s concerning, and the Chinese will express their concerns or whatever information they’re able to provide in response. So I think we will have conversations about that regular exchange tomorrow, and it will certainly be ongoing.

And regarding the question of sanctioning individual entities, we have undertaken in rare instances, but going back for decades, sanctions activities among – against entities that we feel may pose a threat to the U.S. financial system or otherwise in proliferation activity and I would expect we would continue to do that. I don’t expect any particular retaliation for that kind of ongoing activity that’s meant to protect the U.S. financial system and U.S. sort of interests in these cases, so.

MODERATOR: That concludes our briefing. Thank you for joining us. Thank you to both of our briefers for their valuable time.