East Asia and the Pacific: U.S.-Philippines Bilateral Security Dialogue Press Conference

MODERATOR: Good afternoon members of the media and welcome to this press conference on the fifth Philippines-United States Bilateral Strategic Dialogue. And today we are fortunate to be joined by the co-chairs of the Philippine and U.S. delegations. For the Philippine side we have Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Evan Garcia, and Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino. And for the U.S. side, we have the honorable Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel and Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear.

So before we start the Q &A, I believe that our co-chairs have some remarks to deliver. We’ll start with Undersecretary Garcia.

UNDER SECRETARY GARCIA: Yes, thank you very much. First of all, I’d like to express my thanks to all the members of the media who are here today. Let me just say that we have had a very successful fifth Philippines-United States Bilateral Strategic Dialogue or BSD. The BSD reaffirms the depth of our partnership and our joint commitment to ensure that our alliance remains responsive and flexible in addressing the realities of the 21st century. The Philippines and the United States have a traditional friendship longstanding, we are strong allies.

In the discussions in the BSD, we covered virtually the entire range of our bilateral relations. We have agreed on the areas where we will work through action plans. In this regard, let me just make three points. On the economic side, we are committed to continuing our joint endeavors to ensure that the momentum of the Philippine economic development is maintained through various programs that would enhance our capabilities to pursue the kind of growth, inclusive growth that we would like to have. Secondly, we had a very full exchange on defense and security as well as regional development. We reviewed the work we need to do and we are continuing to do to improve the interoperability and exchanges between or respective defense establishments. And we also examined regional and international issues such as the South China Sea on which we reaffirmed our continuing concern over destabilizing activities that are contrary to the declaration of the code of conduct of the South China Sea or DOC as well as international law. And finally we had a full range of discussions on various aspects of people-to-people cooperation, transnational crime cooperation or cooperation against transnational crimes, and other areas such as climate change, and cooperation to combat cybercrime. In all, I would say that the fifth BSD has set the ground for continuing momentum to ensure that our bilateral partnership will be able to achieve the respective national priorities that we have as well as of course the objectives of our alliance in maintaining the peace and stability of our region. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Thank you very much. It’s great to be back in Manila. I appreciate the warm hospitality and the warmth of the Philippine people. And I’m also struck again at the enduring strength of the U.S.-Philippine alliance. We’re seeing through the BSD important opportunities to make it stronger. The Philippines is an old friend, an important partner and a great ally. I’m here with my friend and colleague Assistant Secretary Shear and a number of other important agency representatives from the U.S. government, which reflects the importance that we place on the bilateral alliance and partnership. This dialogue has become a very important vehicle for bolstering communication and coordination. I particularly want to thank our gracious hosts Under Secretary Evan Garcia and Under Secretary Pio Batino. This dialogue was marked by a strategic vision but it was also marked by friendship and warmth and even strategic dialogues are more fun in the Philippines.

While I’ve got your attention, let me make a plug for the State Department’s East Asia and the Pacific new Twitter account @USAsiaPacific. I invite all of you watching to take a look. We’re not in the same league as our distinguished Ambassador to the Philippines, Phil Goldberg, who has up to about 200,000 but we will certainly work on it.

In all seriousness, I’ve accompanied President Obama as well as Secretary Kerry to the Philippines in the past. They have emphasized that the U.S. is a Pacific nation and that there can be no doubt about our sustained engagement with the Philippines and here in the region. Moreover there can be no doubt that President Obama said last April in Manila that our rock-solid commitment to the Philippines and to the Mutual Defense Treaty stands. Our Bilateral Security Dialogue happened to coincide with the delivery by President Obama of the State of the Union Address. He made a couple of points that really resonate not only in terms of the U.S.-Philippine relationship but some of the themes of our own discussions. He said, “In the Asia-Pacific, the United States is modernizing our alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules including on trade, maritime disputes, common global threats like nonproliferation global climate change, and disaster relief, and the BSD is what modernizing global alliances really all about. The President also emphasized “a smarter kind of American leadership that “combines military power with strong diplomacy,” leveraging that power with partners. He said that, “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small.

While the President was speaking in Washington, we, here, were identifying ways for the U.S. and the Philippines to strengthen cooperation on common security concerns both in the region and as well as globally. And finally, we also shared President Obama’s focus on economic development in our discussions. He said we’re committed to an “economy that generates rising income and chances for everyone who makes the effort.” That was our guiding principle as we work to broaden our trade and investment and energy collaboration for the benefit of both our two countries. We covered a wide range of issues. We are a true partnership of equals and I look forward to doing more with our Philippine partners and friends both in Southeast Asia and on the global stage.

UNDER SECRETARY BATINO: I’d just like to add that there is a realization by the two sides that from the conduct of the first Bilateral Strategic Dialogue in January 2011, we’ve come a long way in furthering our bilateral relationship. In the fields of regional and global diplomatic engagements, economics, trade, law enforcement. On the part of defense and security, the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue has continuously provided strategic guidance to the regular consultations between our two militaries including the Mutual Defense Board and the Security Engagement Board. We have developed a clearer direction for the Mutual Defense Board and the Security Engagement Board to prioritize high-value exercises that would focus on maritime security, maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Aside from providing clearer direction, this bilateral strategic dialogue is a mechanism that has provided and generated greater momentum in the implementation of cooperative activities between our two militaries and our two defense establishments. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHEAR: Thank you very much. This is my first Bilateral Security Dialogue and my first ever visit to Manila. I think it was a very successful visit and I’m sure there will be more visits to come as we work together as equal partners to build this very strong, very robust, and very resilient alliance. The U.S. and the Philippines have overcome many, many challenges on the basis of our common values and our common interests and we came together on the BSD to discuss how we could further develop U.S.-Philippine relations in general; the U.S. defense and security relations in particular. And we demonstrated just what we can do on the basis of our common values and interests most recently in our joint efforts to face the devastation and respond to the devastation of typhoon Yolanda. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, of course, is a major portion of our efforts together. But we also discuss today how we could strengthen our efforts in maritime security and maritime domain awareness together to ensure greater security and peace in this region. We discussed what we can do together in multilateral fora and of course we look forward to the implementation of the EDCA as soon as the Philippine judicial process is complete because the EDCA will really help us in all these areas to strengthen our cooperation again as equal partners.

MODERATOR: Now we go to the Q&A portion. For the first question may I call on Mr. Norman Aquino of Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, sirs. My question is how will this Bilateral Strategic Dialogue affect U.S. relations with China? Isn’t the U.S. concerned that its alliance with the Philippines could draw it into conflict with China?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: The answer to your second question is “no.” And the answer to your first question is as follows: We believe, and it is the policy of the Administration, that a strong U.S.-led alliance system and close coordination among democracies in free market economies including the Philippines have, over the decades, provided and continuing in the future to provide the stability and security and the framework for rapid growth among all the countries of the Asia-Pacific region. China is a beneficiary of the stability and security that the U.S.’s broader alliance system has generated. I will say very clearly that our alliances are not aimed against a third country. Our alliances serve the cause of peace and stability.

MODERATOR: Thank you. For the second question, Mr. Roy Mabasa, Manila Bulletin.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, sirs. I’d like to address this question to both panels since this catches statements you both made recently. To Secretary Russel, you mentioned recently that the activities of China in the South China Sea, you described it as a “wholesale reclamation,” while on the other hand, the Philippine military has described the activities as “fifty percent finished or done.” Now may I just ask, what is the status in the South China Sea right now with regards to this reclamation? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: It’s true that the Chinese have a number of projects underway in South China Sea in which they’re reclaiming land in shoals and rocks in sensitive areas whose sovereignty is contested. Secretary Kerry last summer laid out a persuasive case for restraint. He urged not only China but each of the claimant states, to honor and live by the principle enshrined in the ASEAN-China declaration of conduct, namely that no party should take steps that raise tension. It’s a common sense rule.

Now, there are a range of diplomatic processes underway, bilateral and multilateral, including and importantly the dialogue between China and the ten ASEAN countries. This is an ongoing concern for, not only the claimants, not only ASEAN and Southeast Asia but for all Pacific nations including particularly the United States, and frankly all nations who rely on freedom of navigation, the sea lanes, and the principle of unimpeded lawful commerce. This is a topic of discussion naturally between the U.S. and the Philippines. It’s a topic of conversation between the United States and China as well. We look forward to the day when China and its neighbors will conclude a binding code of conduct. But in the meantime, we think there is a powerful case to be made for the maximum exercise of restraint.

UNDER SECRETARY BATINO: The Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea continue to be of serious concern for the Philippine defense and military establishments especially arising from the recent reports of greater development of its reclamation projects. The Philippine government has continuously prioritized the arbitral case it filed to address its concerns on the West Philippine Sea. We have consistently maintained that our resort to this arbitral process is an adherence to our principle of adherence to the rule of law.

UNDER SECRETARY GARCIA: Let me add also that the massive reclamation by China in the South China Sea is a clear violation of what we agreed upon in the DOC. It is not helpful in terms of finding a way forward and it is not an example of what anybody would understand, it’s so frustrating.

MODERATOR: The next question comes from Mr. Trefor Moss, Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. I think we just established probably that China isn’t really showing much restraint in the South China Sea and also it doesn’t seem to be heeding the legal case at the Hague; though we can agree that China is radically changing the status quo in that region. Bearing that in mind, what can these two countries, Philippines and the U.S., do as allies to try and prevent China from further changing the status quo and to stop in particular what you regard as encroachment into Philippine territory?

UNDER SECRETARY GARCIA: Thank you. I can speak for the Philippines first. I leave it to my American colleagues to speak for the U.S. and to Undersecretary Batino for the defense side. Well, for the foreign policy side it is very clear. The Philippine’s stand has always stood for the rule of law and the application of the international law here. We are not going to change our track. We are after a peaceful resolution of the problems there and for this purpose we have been making it clear to the international community that the reclamation activities are not a positive development to promote our common and shared interests. We will continue in this mode as I said we are after peaceful resolution. And so we will continue to rely on mechanisms that promote respect for and understanding of the rule of law.

UNDER SECRETARY BATINO: On the part of Philippine defense and military establishments, I’d just like to say that under the Aquino administration we are very fortunate that we have received substantial support from the legislature and from the top leadership in support for our AFP modernization program. This AFP modernization program prioritizes the procurement of modern defense equipment that would cater to our security threats, for territorial defense, maritime security, including of course HADR or disaster relief. Another track that we are aggressively pursuing is the enhancement of our alliances, our partnerships, and have been, we are very thankful for the U.S. government in its continued support for our AFP modernization program and other activities that promote our capabilities in addressing various security threats including of course maritime security and territorial defense.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: The United States government has been consistent and firm in calling on China to act in keeping with its commitments, act in keeping with international law, and act in keeping with the spirit of constructive engagement particularly with ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific region. The behavior of China and the need to clarify its maritime and territorial claims in a manner that is consistent with international law including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is a component of our ongoing diplomatic dialogue with Beijing. We have a huge interest in a stable, healthy, constructive bilateral relationship with China. We have an interest in good relations between China and China’s neighbors in the region including the Philippines. But behavior that raises tensions, behavior that raises questions about China’s intention, and behavior that would appear to be inconsistent with the principles that I enumerated work counter to those goals. This is not an issue exclusively for the Philippines. This is not an issue exclusively for the Philippines and the United States. All ten ASEAN countries are seized with the importance of finding a rules-based and peaceful resolution both to the sovereignty questions but more importantly and more immediately to the behavior problems that threatened the stability and congeniality of the region.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHEAR: As my colleague, Undersecretary Batino indicated, we strongly support Philippines’ efforts to modernize its military. The U.S. has provided over 300 million dollars in military-related assistance since 2001. We will provide 40 million dollars in foreign military financing in American fiscal year 2015 and we want to do everything we can to help the Philippine side make the best use of the assistance we provide. Furthermore, we coordinate very closely between our defense ministries between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and our Pacific Command and we look forward to strengthening and broadening that coordination in order to better promote freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

MODERATOR: I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. So we’d like to thank Undersecretaries Batino and Garcia and Assistant Secretaries Russel and Shear. And to our friends from the media, thank you for coming and… (press audience requests for one more question to ask). Are you OK with one more question? OK… Mr. Tomohiro Diguchi, Kyodo News.

QUESTION: Hi I’m Tomohiro Diguchi with Kyodo News. Different subject so please bear with us. How is the cooperation between two countries will go in tackling with the Islamist extremists in the region like BIFF, Abu Sayyaf Group? This is question to both parties. And the following question is to the U.S. side, the Islamic State yesterday just asked or threatened to kill two Japanese hostages that were being held by them if ransom is not paid. So what is the U.S. position on this? Are you ready to cooperate with Japan and assist Japan in the sense of military assistance, intelligence assistance, and so on? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHEAR: I’d like to take the first part of your question on countering such groups as Abu Sayyaf Group. The Philippines has done an exceptionally good job at creating stability and peace in the Southern Philippines by combatting such groups as the Abu Sayyaf Group. We have assisted their effort through temporary rotational forces in the Southern Philippines and we look forward as that situation evolves to strengthening our cooperation with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in ensuring that peace and stability remains in that area. And I’ll let Danny answer that second part of the question.

UNDER SECRETARY BATINO: In addition to the remarks made by Assistant Secretary Shear, there is continued cooperation and coordination between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and U.S. PaCom in terms of information-sharing to address potential terrorist activities. We also have benefitted from countless training activities on counterterrorism from the U.S. and we very much appreciated this countless, these many training activities that we have received. There exist regular consultations between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the U.S. Pacific Command in various fields and this would include counterterrorism.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: I would add on the first part, in our conversations with the BSD and in our broader discussions bilaterally we confer closely on the issue of terrorism beyond the borders of the Philippines, including the issue of violent extremism, and issue of foreign terrorist fighters which is a global concern. With respect to the atrocious threat by, ISIL to murder two Japanese citizens, the United States has made crystal clear that we condemn and deplore that threat. We call on ISIL to ensure the safety and to release these civilians and at every level including a few hours ago in a conversation when Secretary Kerry phoned the Japanese Foreign Minister, we have reaffirmed our strong support and our full cooperation with the government of Japan. When a nation stands for justice and liberty and freedom, it does not stand alone.

UNDER SECRETARY GARCIA: Thank you. I’ll just add that the Philippines has condemned the acts of ISIS, ISIL as being brutal atrocities and that is our basic position. We have joined the international community and the United Nations to work together against foreign terrorist fighters and we have dialogues with many countries on how to counter this threat, this kind of extremism not just the United States. Thank you.

MODERATOR: OK, and that concludes our press conference.

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