September 27, 2021

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Briefing With Senior State Department Officials Previewing Secretary Blinken’s Participation in This Week’s ASEAN-Related Ministerials

23 min read

Office of the Spokesperson

Via Teleconference

MODERATOR:  Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us for this evening’s on-background call to discuss Secretary Blinken’s participation at various ministerial-level events taking place this week related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

The State Department officials briefing you today are:  and .

As a quick reminder, the call is on background, so for your reporting purposes our briefers should be referred to as Senior State Department Official One and Senior State Department Official Two.  All of the contents of this call are embargoed until the conclusion of this call.

Now with that, I’ll hand it over to .

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Thank you very much, .  Good afternoon, everyone.  Thanks for joining us.  Let me start off by saying that, as Secretary Blinken recently discussed earlier this month and as he will continue to highlight at our upcoming ASEAN meetings, under the Biden-Harris administration the United States is revitalizing our multilateral partnerships to advance our shared prosperity and security and values in the Indo-Pacific.

The United States commitment to the Indo-Pacific is grounded in our commitment to ASEAN centrality.  ASEAN is at the center to achieving our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.  We continue to support the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific – this is ASEAN’s own vision for its future – and believe our support for ASEAN is in line with the four priority areas of cooperation.

Recent U.S. Government high-level engagement in the region is a testament to how important the Indo-Pacific is to us and underscores how much we prioritize our efforts in the region.  Just a few weeks ago, President Biden participated in the APEC Virtual Leaders Retreat.  Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin just concluded a trip to Singapore and the Philippines.  Secretary Blinken’s first trip as Secretary of State was to Asia, with Deputy Secretary Sherman following suit with her own trip to the region as well.  You also just saw last week that Vice President Harris is planning a trip to the region as well later this month.

These upcoming ASEAN meetings and Secretary Blinken’s attendance for five consecutive days illustrates how focused he is to playing an active role in our region.  As my colleague will explain in more detail, the Secretary’s participation here isn’t just cursory.  He’s going deep into the details in understanding the complex issues that drive this diverse and complicated region.

Combined, there are 1 billion people across our countries.  In the United States, millions of people have ancestry from Southeast Asia.  Soon, we hope the flows of millions of businesspeople and tourists can resume between our countries, as our people-to-people ties are the backbone of our relationship.  Our trade and investment ties across the Indo-Pacific are strong and continue to grow and ASEAN economies will be significant drivers of growth as we all endeavor to return to and exceed pre-pandemic levels.

We thank ASEAN members for their cooperation during the earliest days of the pandemic to keep supply chains open for critical medical supplies and equipment.  We continue to support ASEAN members with medical supplies and vaccines as they fight the pandemic.

The strength of our strategic partnership and our commitment to ASEAN is why we have proposed to expand our engagement with ASEAN with five new ministerial-level dialogues.  We hope ASEAN will agree to these proposed dialogues soon so that we can begin implementing them later this year.  My colleague will talk further about that as well.

As the President and Secretary Blinken have made clear, we’re bringing diplomacy back, prioritizing our diplomacy with our allies and partners.  The challenges we face, from climate change to maritime security, to revitalizing democracies in the region and calling out the PRC’s bad behavior that threatens the well-being and livelihood of all who live in the region, cannot be overcome by the United States acting alone.  These are global and regional problems that can only be solved through bilateral and multilateral engagement.

With that, I’ll turn it over to my colleague to discuss the ASEAN meetings in more detail.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Thank you, .  And good afternoon to all.  As you may know, on July 13th Secretary Blinken participated in the special US-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting, where he reiterated the U.S. commitment to our strategic partnership with ASEAN and our support for the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

So his participation in the five meetings that start this evening continue to show the importance that he places on these relationships and our engagement with ASEAN.  He intends to take that momentum from the July 13th meeting to address many of the pressing issues facing the countries of Southeast Asia today, including COVID-19 vaccine access, economic recovery, the climate crisis, the situation in Burma, and PRC coercion in the South China Sea and the Mekong subregion.  He’ll also discuss cyber security, the digital economy, human rights violations in China, and our commitment to people-to-people ties.

As a theme throughout all the meetings, we expect Secretary Blinken to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to ASEAN centrality and to work with ASEAN to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and to support economic recovery.  So starting this evening, the Secretary will participate in the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, a meeting between the U.S. and the five Lower Mekong countries.  This year, we celebrate one year under the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, which launched last year.  The Secretary is eager to discuss impactful programs such as the Mekong Water Data Initiative and the Mekong Dam Monitor.  He will also unveil the Mekong-U.S. Partnership’s four key flagship projects.

Tomorrow evening, August 3rd, the Secretary will co-chair the U.S.-ASEAN Ministerial, a meeting of the 10 ASEAN nations and the U.S.  In addition to addressing pressing policy issues, the Secretary will announce several new and exciting deliverables to support ASEAN’s economic recovery.

The next morning, Wednesday, August 4th, Secretary Blinken continues by participating in the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.  This meeting includes the 10 ASEAN nations, the U.S., and seven of ASEAN’s other dialogue partners, including China, Japan, Korea, Australia, India, Russia, and New Zealand.  This meeting focuses on regional political security issues in the leadup to the East Asia Summit in late October.

On Thursday, Thursday morning, August 5, the Secretary will co-chair – will chair the Friends of the Mekong Ministerial Meeting, which brings together the five Lower Mekong countries and a group of nine likeminded partners, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, New Zealand, Japan, the ROK, Australia, and for the first time, the Mekong River Commission Secretariat.  The EU and the U.S., of course, will also participate.  It’s the first Friends of the Mekong minister-level meeting since 2014.  And this year, we’ve also invited India and the UK to observe, and they have agreed to participate as observers in this meeting.

And last but not least, on the morning of August 6, the Secretary will participate in the ASEAN Regional Forum.  This is the largest of all the ASEAN-related ministerial meetings and it focuses on regional security issues and involves the ASEAN nations plus Indo-Pacific regional partners for a total of 27 nations.  The ARF objectives are twofold: first, to foster constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues, and second, to promote confidence-building and preventive diplomacy.

I’d like to share some of the messages that the Secretary will discuss with his counterparts this week and why we value our strategic partnership with ASEAN.

First, the U.S. is a trustworthy partner in the fight against COVID.  To date, we have donated more than 20 million vaccine doses to Southeast Asia, assisted in vaccine rollout and cold chain logistics, and plan to provide funding to the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund.  As President Biden has stated, we want to become the world’s arsenal of vaccines.  We have provided these vaccine doses free of charge and with no political or economic strings attached.  We expect the Secretary to detail continued support of ASEAN in the fight against COVID.

Throughout the hardships of the pandemic, we see the resilience and the determination of all Southeast Asian people.  Between our countries, there are over 1 billion people, and strong and dynamic people-to-people ties form the backbone of that relationship.  We’re proud to partner with the youth of Southeast Asia through programs such as the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, known as YSEALI.  These young leaders bring their energy and spirit to come up with innovative ideas for civic engagement and economic empowerment.  We expect the Secretary to announce exciting updates to our Billion Futures Scholars program, the YSEALI Academy at Fulbright University, and the YSEALI Seeds for the Future program.

We recognize that as Southeast Asia fights new waves of the pandemic, it’s also looking to the future and to a green recovery.  The U.S. will continue to deploy every tool we have available to support the region and build back better from the economic damage wrought by the pandemic.  This includes work through the U.S.-ASEAN Smart Cities Partnership, the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, and other programs that we’ll announce later this week.

In addition to announcing the expansion of these projects and initiatives, Secretary Blinken will discuss the region’s challenging and complex issues, not the least of which is the coup in Burma, which has impacted all of ASEAN and threatens the stability of the entire region.  The Secretary will address this issue in detail during each ministerial meeting.  He will urge ASEAN to hold the Burma military junta accountable to the April 24 ASEAN Leaders’ Five-Point Consensus to name and send its special envoy to Burma to engage all stakeholders and for the junta to immediately end the violence, restore democratic governance, and release those unjustly detained.

So across these – the next five days, we will address these issues and many more.  And with that, let me ask if you have – I look forward to your questions.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to —

OPERATOR:  And ladies and gentlemen, in order to queue up for a question, you need to press 1,0.  Again, 1,0 if you’d like to ask a question.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to David Brunnstrom.

QUESTION:  Hello, and thank you very much for doing this.  I just wondered if there’s going to be any discussion in any of these meetings this week about the situation in Afghanistan and what regional countries can do to help there.  And I wonder what the Secretary will be telling Southeast Asian countries about the Quad vaccine initiative, which obviously was announced in March and seems to have been stalled now because of India’s ban on exports of vaccines.  Now that’s supposed to produce a total of a billion vaccines by the end of 2022, but should that already have been delivering vaccines by now?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah, thank you for that question.  So during these ministerial meetings we do not expect Afghanistan to come up as a topic of discussion.  That could come up at some bilateral meetings in the future, but none that are previewed for this week.  And with respect to Quad vaccines, I don’t have anything to add on that, to comment on that at the moment.  I would ask perhaps to check with the White House, which is kind of really driving this initiative, and they may have more to share on that issue.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION:  Hi, there.  Thanks for doing this call.  Could I follow up on Burma?  Senior Official Number Two, you mentioned the appointment of an envoy.  How far along do you think that process is?  Do you think that’s something that could happen soon with ASEAN?  How important of a role do you think ASEAN has in terms of addressing what’s going on there?

And related to that, the junta, as I’m sure you know, yesterday was announcing a plan of what they say for elections in two years’ time.  Do you think this is a step forward at all or do you not see it as serious?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  So we are awaiting the readout of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, which took place August 2nd.  I know the topic of a special envoy was to be – to have been discussed.  I don’t have a clear readout of that meeting, so we’re eager to see how and what was – what was decided and next steps in that process.

And I’m sorry, your second question?  The second part of that question?

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) about having elections in the next two years.  Do you think that’s progress at all or do you think this is not serious?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Well, I think it’s indication that the – it’s a call for ASEAN to have to step up its efforts because it’s clear that the Burmese junta is just stalling for time and wants to keep prolonging the calendar to its own advantage.  So all the more reason why ASEAN has to engage on this and live up and uphold the terms of the Five-Point Consensus that Myanmar also signed up to.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go over to Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION:  Hi, can you guys hear me?  Hello?

MODERATOR:  Yes, we can hear you.

QUESTION:  Hey, thanks.  Can you talk a little bit – you mentioned the no-strings-attached provision of coronavirus vaccine, so can you talk about U.S. concerns?  I presume that’s an allusion to China’s own vaccine diplomacy.  Is that a growing concern for you, and is the Secretary going to be raise that with – going to be raising that with ASEAN partners?

And then can you address this issue of ASEAN nations that feel a little bit uncomfortable about the competition/conflict that’s going on between the United States and China right now in the sense that, despite what the Secretary said, they are essentially being asked to choose sides between two countries that are both looking to exert greater control over ASEAN?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Thank you.  We want to be – we want the – we want to be seen as a trustworthy partner in the fight against COVID, and that’s why we’ve donated over 20 million doses of – to the ASEAN – countries of ASEAN to date.  We provided these free of charge, and we don’t want and don’t expect anything in return.  Clearly, that’s not been the case with vaccines that we’ve seen donated from other countries, and we want to make clear that we do not follow that – we do not follow that playbook.

We expect the Secretary to address the issue of COVID vaccines, calling for more transparency, and we certainly will – that will be part of his interventions this week.  He will also want to continue detailing support – our support for ASEAN in the fight against COVID as we go forward.

And to your question about competition with China, yes, we’ve heard the narrative that – and ASEANs have said themselves that they don’t want to have to choose between the U.S. and China.  And this is something that we are very attuned to, and we want to engage ASEAN for ASEAN’s sake, to portray – present a very positive image of the U.S.  And we’re not – we’ve never asked any country to choose between the U.S. and China.  We fully recognize that these countries have to have good relations with China.  It’s an important trading partner.  It’s an important neighbor.  It’s only logical that they would want to do that.

So we want to portray – present the countries of Southeast Asia with options and to show them that we’re acting in good faith and as a good, trustworthy partner that they can depend on.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to Will Mauldin.

QUESTION:  Thanks so much for having this.  I just – I wanted to ask if there’s any plan for boosting economic ties between the U.S. and countries in the region or the region as a whole.  You know the Obama administration wanted to do the TPP, and then the Trump administration initially wanted to do bilateral deals in the area, and neither one of those has happened.  So wondering if there’s a plan for some kind of trade integration or else some other kind of increased economic ties to sort of drive home those connections.  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Sure.  The Secretary will address economic recovery at the ministerial meetings and highlighting hopes for a green recover, and we’ll deliverables – a partnership and expansions of many programs the United States already has with ASEAN.  That’s really the extent of what I can say at this point.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go to the line of Doug Byun.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you for doing it – doing this.  So the Secretary is taking part in the ASEAN Regional Forum, which I understand also involves North Korea.  So I was wondering if North Korea is taking part in this year’s forum and if the Secretary had any plans to directly engage with his North Korean counterpart.  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah, thank you.  I believe we expect that the DPRK foreign minister will participate in the ASEAN Regional Forum as he has participated in the past.  Secretary Blinken has no plans to engage him on any particular issues.

MODERATOR:  Let’s take one final question from Owen Churchill.

QUESTION:  Hi there, thanks so much for taking my question.  Just a couple of – a couple of quick questions.

Firstly, you mentioned engaging with partners on the issue of human rights in China.  I wondered if you could elaborate specifically on what issues do you envisage discussing and what kind of commitments or takeaways you might be hoping to secure with the meetings.

And secondly, a broader question about engagement with the region on climate change.  We’ve been seeing increased rhetoric from China about refusing to – effectively refusing to cooperate with the U.S. on certain issues, including climate, unless the U.S. takes steps to de-escalate tensions in other areas of the bilateral relationship.  And that point was raised just as recently as the meetings with Sherman and Xie Feng.  So I wondered if you could speak to that, whether you think that the prospect of U.S.-China cooperation on climate is in jeopardy, and how that might affect your efforts to combat the climate crisis. Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I’m sorry, I had a mute button pushed.  Apologies.

In terms of China’s human rights record, yes, we will be raising that in these – in the Secretary’s meetings this week, focusing on China’s records, human rights atrocities, and the genocide in Xinjiang, as well as other human rights violations in Tibet and Hong Kong.  We believe that these atrocities are so serious that they cannot be overlooked, and we need to stay true to our principles and speak out in the face of these injustices.  So that will be certainly reflected in the Secretary’s interventions this week.

On the climate – on the issue of climate change and competition with China, look, it’s – we can’t force China to cooperate.  We can continue to point out the advantages, and hopefully they’ll see that this is also in their advantage to work with us on climate issues.  We want to expand our cooperation with the countries of Southeast Asia on climate.  They’re very, very vulnerable to it, and that is part of the reason why we have proposed to ASEAN that we elevate our engagement with them on climate and a number of other issues at the ministerial level.  So that’s something we look forward to ASEAN’s response and a sign of our commitment to working with them to resolve this crisis.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, everyone.  I appreciate your participation today, and that concludes this evening’s call, which, again, was on background.  The embargo is now lifted and have a great rest of your evening.

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    What GAO Found Congress needs to take action to break the impasse over a permanent solution for commercial spent nuclear fuel—used fuel removed from nuclear power reactors—according to experts GAO interviewed. Specifically, most experts said Congress should (1) amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) to authorize the Department of Energy (DOE) to implement a new consent-based process for siting consolidated interim storage and permanent geologic repository facilities, and (2) restructure the Nuclear Waste Fund to ensure reliable and sufficient funding. Experts highlighted concerns about the effect of the continuing impasse on environmental, health, and security risks; efforts to combat climate change; and taxpayer costs. For example, the amount the federal government will have to pay to owners to store spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites will continue to grow annually (see figure). Figure: Department of Energy Total Estimated Costs and Remaining Liabilities for Storing Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF), in Billions of Dollars Note: For more details, see figure 4 in GAO-21-603. The United States currently has an ad hoc system for managing commercial spent nuclear fuel, which can affect future disposal decisions and costs. For example, spent fuel is stored using a variety of different technologies that will have implications for final disposal. Nearly all of the experts we interviewed said an integrated strategy is essential to developing a solution for commercial spent nuclear fuel and potentially reducing programmatic costs. However, DOE cannot fully develop and implement such a strategy without congressional action. In 2015, DOE began efforts to engage the public and develop a draft consent-based siting process, but it has not finalized this process. The draft includes elements that nearly all experts agreed are critical for an effective siting process. Finalizing the draft could help position DOE to implement a consent-based process for consolidated interim storage facilities and/or permanent geologic repositories if Congress amends the NWPA to allow for storage and disposal options other than, or in addition to, the Yucca Mountain repository. Why GAO Did This Study Commercial spent nuclear fuel is extremely dangerous if not managed properly. About 86,000 metric tons of this fuel is stored on-site at 75 operating or shutdown nuclear power plants in 33 states, an amount that grows by about 2,000 metric tons each year. The NWPA, as amended, requires DOE to dispose of spent nuclear fuel and specifies that the only site that may be considered for the permanent disposal of commercial spent nuclear fuel is a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. However, in 2010, DOE terminated its efforts to license a repository at Yucca Mountain, and Congress stopped funding activities related to the site. Since then, policymakers have been at an impasse on how to meet the federal disposal obligation, with significant financial consequences for taxpayers. This report examines actions that experts identified as necessary to develop a solution for spent nuclear fuel disposal. GAO reviewed DOE and other agency documents and interviewed 20 experts and 25 stakeholders from industry, nongovernmental organizations, and tribal and state groups.
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