Media Roundtable in SingaporeR. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
U.S. Embassy Singapore
December 3, 2007
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Good Afternoon, it’s a pleasure to be with all of you. My name is Nick Burns, I’m the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. I’m very pleased to be here in Singapore. I arrived last evening from Europe, where I was attending a series of meetings on Iran and Kosovo and the OSCE. I’ve been here for a day; I’ve had a day of excellent meetings. I am en route to Australia where I am going to meet with the Government of Australia tomorrow and Wednesday, and Thursday. I’d just like to say I’ve had a set of very interesting discussions today with the Singaporean leadership. I just met with the Prime Minister, came from that meeting, and met with the Minister Mentor before that. I had very good meetings with the Foreign Ministry, with the Foreign Minister and with my counterpart Peter Ho. And also, I had an excellent meeting this morning with the Defense Minister. So it has been a fine day of meetings. I want to say how much we appreciate the friendship of the Singaporean Government, one of our finest partners in the region. A government in which we always find a high quality of insights into the challenges here in the region. And a government with which we have a global partnership, and a global perspective. We literally talked about issues pertaining to every part of the world today. I also want to thank the Government of Singapore for the support it has given us in Afghanistan: the contribution made by the defense forces in their humanitarian mission has been much welcomed and we would hope that will continue.
We had, as you can imagine, extensive conversations about U.S.-ASEAN relations. Singapore is our dialogue partner. And when I’m in the United States, which is part of the time, of course, I’m in touch with – we are all in touch with – the Ambassador of Singapore to the United States. She is a great interlocutor for us, and we count on Singapore to be our major conduit for discussions in ASEAN. And we had good conversations today about how to improve U.S.-ASEAN relations and, of course, focused very much on the problem of Burma. And in that sense, I told all of my Singaporean interlocutors that the United States fully supports the mission of Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N. Special Representative. We are in touch with him consistently. We want him to succeed. We are working to help him succeed. We hope very much that he will be able to return Burma as quickly as possible, so that he can help to establish a true and effective channel between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military government, the Minister of Labor who has been appointed the Burmese Military Liaison with her.
Of course, we lament very much the lack of respect for human rights by the Burmese authorities. The atrocious treatment of the monks over the past several months, the continued violence against them, and the continued repudiation of the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi herself. And we hope that she can be released from her house arrest and that she can return, she and her supporters, to active participation in the political life of the country. And so, we have strong views on Burma. We appreciate very much the perspective of the Singaporean Government. In particular, I enjoyed very much listening to the Prime Minister on this, just a minute ago, when I was with him in his office, and respect very much the point of view of Singapore. We pledge that we want to work together, and that both ASEAN as well as United States will support Ambassador Gambari.
I should also say that in all of these meetings, I was impressed by the degree of, the breadth of the Singapore Government. It is a global perspective. We had extensive conversations about the opportunities for us in our respective relations with the Indian Government. Of course, we in the United States have embarked on a strategic partnership with India. Singapore and India have very close ties and there is extensive conversation about the positive opportunities that we see that emanate from the rise of India. We also of course had extensive conversations about the rest of this region, the Asia Pacific region, including the role of China in the region. We talked quite a bit about the Middle East. I explained what we are now trying to do to follow up the Annapolis peace conference of last week, to put forward a vigorous peace negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians. We talked about Iran, Iraq and of course, Afghanistan.
Throughout all of this, of course, I pledged on behalf of my government that the United States wants to be fundamentally engaged in this region. We consider ourselves a Pacific nation. We have an undiminished military presence in the region which is a force for peace and stability in this region. We understand the need to be involved and engaged politically. And I reassured the Prime Minister and all of his counterparts, including the Foreign Minister, that the United States in 2008 intends to be very active in Asia, in Southeast Asia in particular. We look forward to good relations with all the countries of the region, most notably our friend Singapore. So, with that, by way of introduction, I will be happy to take any questions that you have on any of these issues.
QUESTION: Good Afternoon Sir. I’m just wondering what you make of Singapore’s role as ASEAN Chair, the way it decided over the Burma issue during the recent ASEAN and East Asia summits. What do you make of the way Singapore handled the Burma issue?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, we have great respect for the way that Singapore has acted as ASEAN Chair and in hosting the meeting. If there were any complications, I’m sure they weren’t due to a lack of effort by the Singaporean Government. In fact, we wished very much that the Burmese Government would have come to the meetings – as far as we can understand their participation – with a more open mind about having discussions with Mr. Gambari. But we respect what Singapore tried to do, I think everyone does. Everyone knows that this is an extraordinarily complicated issue, and the Burmese Government has not made life easy for the ASEAN partners. Much less the rest of us around the world. And so we had a chance to talk about that in great detail, and we fully support a close relationship with ASEAN. As I said before, Singapore is our dialogue partner, and so in Washington when we reach out to the ASEAN countries, it is first and foremost through the Ambassador of Singapore. And of course, we have the greatest respect for her. So, I admire the way that Singapore conducts its foreign relations in this region and ASEAN, but also with us.
QUESTION: I want to ask, when you met with the Singapore leaders did you also discuss something about the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Singapore?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Oh yes, we did. I think both of us agreed that we have an excellent bilateral relationship. We have a true partnership in many important areas, and I specifically said how much we appreciate our defense ties, the cooperation between us, what Singapore and the U.S. are able to do, in terms of exercises, in training in the Asia Pacific region, as well as what is happening, as I said, in Afghanistan.
We have a number of American visitors here this week. Admiral Willard of the Pacific Fleet is here; Steve Mull, who is our Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, is here this week; we have a senior official from the Defense Department here, so I think we’re - the United States - is signaling through these multiple visits that Singapore is a very important partner. Our bilateral relationship I think is problem-free. I can’t think of a major problem, a major divisive problem in the relationship between us. And as I intimated before in my opening remarks, we value many things about the relationship with Singapore. What we especially value is the wise leadership and global perspective of the Singaporean government, from the Prime Minister to the Minister Mentor, to the Foreign Minister, to the Defense Minister, with whom I met as well. These are people who have a global view, and of course Singapore is playing a very important role, not just in this region, but globally. And so we appreciate that kind of global perspective from a partner like Singapore.
QUESTION: How does the U.S. plan to work together with ASEAN in terms of Myanmar? I just wonder how you foresee you might be able to do that, given that the approach towards Myanmar is so divergent, with the western countries, particularly the U.S. approach on one side, and ASEAN’s softer approach on the other side.
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I think that we have the same objectives, and that is to see a return to democracy, and the liberation from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the restoration to full political life of the National League for Democracy, and a redressing of the human rights, the considerable human rights problems in Burma, and help to the refugees that is so much a problem in Burma today. I think on all these issues, if I can say this, I think that there is a great deal of common ground between the United States and ASEAN, particularly Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia. We may differ in tactics, we’re not part of the ASEAN, we know it’s a complicating factor for the ASEAN partners to deal with this issue as Burma is inside the organization. And the United States of course has taken a very tough approach with substantial sanctions against the Burmese regime. But where I think we agree is that the effort has to be made to convince the Burmese government that its present conduct is unacceptable, in fact it’s an embarrassment in this region. And I think we agree that change has to come.
And so it is possible for partners to work perhaps with different tactics while agreeing on the same strategic objective. And we very much respect those tactical differences, and I suppose they are natural, that two different countries from different parts of the world would have those tactical differences. But that does not mean that we don’t have the same ultimate objectives, and therefore we could not imagine trying to work on an international basis to try to resolve the challenges in Burma without ASEAN, and in particular without the leading members of ASEAN who have been in the forefront of this issue for a number of years: Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and some of the other countries. And so I don’t find it abnormal that this should be the case, and the discussions today were very open, very candid but always constructive, always constructive. And I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister, and obviously he’s a very wise person with a lot of experience and so we value that perspective. Thank you.
QUESTION: As a senior diplomat, what is the best way in your eyes to improve China-U.S. ties after the warship incident in Hong Kong?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, let me just say that obviously we are always looking to improve our relationship with China. It is a fundamentally important relationship for both countries. The United States is a Pacific country and a Pacific power, therefore we live in this region. We believe our military forces have been a factor for peace and stability in this region. We seek to engage China, and of course we have an extraordinarily broad bilateral relationship, from the trade issues to investment, intellectual property rights. We have some differences, some notable major differences on human rights, on political values, on religious freedoms, and these are important, and we have to be open about them, and we have to confront them.
In the foreign policy sphere, we seek to engage China and work with China. And there my colleague Chris Hill is in, of course, is on a trip to Asia this week, and he is in China and North Korea. And I think we’ve had some success. China and the United States working together to convince the North Koreans to give up their nuclear apparatus. Secondly, we count on China to use its influence with the Sudanese government on behalf of the United Nations to convince the Sudanese government to live up to the commitments it made and allow an adequately strong peacekeeping force to go in to Darfur to protect the innocent civilians there. Third, I must say that we have an important engagement on Iran. Now we haven’t always agreed, or seen eye to eye on Iran, but I had a particularly positive meeting with Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei on Saturday. We met in Paris, we met bilaterally. We then both participated together in a meeting of the P5 countries in Germany, and we made some progress in putting together a third UN Security Council sanctions resolution. I appreciated the constructive spirit of the Chinese side in the meetings; I very much appreciated it, in the meetings that we held in Paris on Saturday, in particular the participation of He Yafei himself.
And so I think if China and the United States can learn to work together on some of these major international issues – North Korea, Iran, Sudan – then we’ll be doing what we have to do, which is share in the responsibility to find solutions to difficult problems, to try to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs on issues like Sudan as well as on Iran. And China and United States will never have a perfect relationship, we’ll always have our important differences, but we can work together to contribute to resolving problems internationally, and so, for us, the U.S.-China relationship is very important, in that respect.
I would also say since I’m in this region and on my way to Australia, that we of course look first and foremost to our treaty allies in this region – to Japan, to Australia, to South Korea – and we enjoy excellent relations with all three. And I’m looking forward to my trip to Canberra and Sydney to meet the new Australian leadership. There’s every reason to believe that we will continue to enjoy the closest possible relationship between our two countries, and we have congratulated Prime Minister Rudd on his decisive electoral victory. We look forward to working with him, and with all the members of his Cabinet. We feel very close to Australia. There may be differences on some important issues, but I’m sure we can work through those differences and continue to enjoy an excellent and close allied relationship with Australia.
QUESTION: Could you just elaborate a little bit about the progress that you made – you mentioned the third UN Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran. And also a second bit, maybe you could comment on the results of the Venezuelan referendum that just came out showing that Chavez was defeated?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, let me say first, on Venezuela. I must say this was positive news to see this victory by the citizens of Venezuela. Because we felt that this referendum was a referendum to make Chavez president for life and that’s not ever a welcome development in a country that wants to be a democracy. The people spoke, and the people spoke for democracy and against unlimited power. And so in that sense it was a victory for the people of Venezuela. And as we live in that hemisphere, we are a friend of the Venezuelan people. I must say how pleased I think people all around the world are to see this development against – to vote against someone who wanted to give himself unlimited power and make himself president for life.
On Iran. As you know, we’ve been seeking a peaceful way forward on Iran. We hope to achieve a diplomatic - a set of diplomatic negotiations - with Iran. We know that Iran continues to engage in research at its plant in Natanz, on the enrichment process, which is a necessary process to achieve a nuclear capability in the future. We’ve seen the reports of the IAEA of Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei that says that Iran in 2007 advanced and accelerated its research into centrifuge development at its plant in Natanz. So we felt that we should continue to try to pass sanctions resolutions at the United Nations in order to raise the cost to Iran, so that it would turn towards negotiations and away from developing this nuclear capacity in centrifuge - in enrichment through the centrifuge research and development that it has underway.
We passed two Security Council resolutions, one in December ’06, one in March of ’07, and we were supposed to pass a third resolution in May of this year. China and Russia took the position that we should wait, we should encourage developments in the IAEA, negotiations with Iran. We have felt that it was better for the Security Council to act, and after six months of delay, I felt in our meeting the other day we made some progress. Now there’s more work that needs to be done, and in fact our Russian colleague, Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Kislyak, was not able to attend the meeting because he was snowed in, in Montreal. So in the absence of the Russian side, we obviously now need to consult with the Russian government because it has a right to obviously have its voice heard among these six countries. But I was particularly pleased, as I said, by the fact that we made progress in our deliberations with the Chinese government. And that we’re able – with the Chinese government – to focus on a number of areas where we would agree to sanctions. And now if we can bring the Russian government on board, I think we’ll have the makings of a third Security Council resolution. And that would be very welcome news indeed. So a step forward – I don’t want to exaggerate the promise of this because we have a ways to go, there’s more work that needs to be done – but it was a step forward for us.
QUESTION: Sir, you mentioned your visit to Canberra and that you’re going to have the senior officials meeting of the trilateral strategic dialogue. There was some proposal by Japan recently that there could be a quadrilateral process involving the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. And although senior officials of the four countries have met, it’s generally understood that behind the scenes the U.S has not been very much behind the Japanese initiative. Is that true? And also, what is the update on that proposition now that there is a new government of Australia and also because of the difficulties and the implementations of the 123 Agreement, the civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement between India and U.S. And also, if you don’t mind, the update on the civil nuclear energy agreement with India: is there a possibility of re-opening 123, just in case India requests formally?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, thank you very much. In the geometry of our allied relationships, we do have a trilateral security dialogue among Australia, Japan and the United States. And in fact, I’ll be attending a meeting of that trilateral dialogue in Canberra beginning Tuesday evening and continuing all day Wednesday with my Japanese and Australian counterparts. We’re looking forward to that. We have met at the head of government level, the ministerial level, we meet regularly at the sub-ministerial level – my level – and so we value very much this trilateral mechanism among the three treaty allies. We have also met – those three countries: Japan, Australia and the United States – with India. I believe the last meeting was at the Assistant Secretary of State level, back in July in Manila. And I know that Assistant Secretary Chris Hill attended for the United States. That group has not met as frequently, but it has met and there are a number of projects underway. But our priority emphasis has been on this trilateral dialogue among the three allies.
On the civil nuclear question, we have always felt that this civil nuclear deal is in the best interests of both countries. It is part and parcel of a new effort to try to elevate the U.S.-India relationship into a strategic partnership. We are confident that this deal should go forward; of course, we now need to wait for the Indian government to make a final decision on putting the safeguards agreement forward, but we believe it’s in the best interest of both of us that it do so. And then of course, the step after that will be the nuclear suppliers group, to convince the 45 members to act by consensus to support international change, to treat India in a more fair and effective manner. Then there will be a final vote in the U.S. Congress, we hope at the very beginning of 2008. And then this deal will be finished. It will be historic, because it will give - it will deliver India from its isolation – its isolation in the civil nuclear field of the last 35 years. It will give India extraordinary economic and technological benefits, it will allow us to have a more equal relationship with India – all of us in international community, not just the United States, but all of us. And so, in that respect, it’s a fundamentally important agreement. We hope and trust it will go forward, but I don’t want to comment on the internal politics of India, that’s for the Indian government to do, not for me.
And finally on the 123 Agreement, we finished those negotiations on July 22nd of this year in Washington, D.C. That Agreement is finished, it’s done, it’s completed, it just stands to be approved finally by both governments. I think with goodwill and hard work, it will be. But I do not foresee it being re-opened, by either side. Not by the United States, and I don’t think by India either.
QUESTION: In Sydney where Rudd has just signed Kyoto, what would take for the U.S. to do the same?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Let me just say that I’m going to take advantage of your question by just saying that we have a broad relationship with Australia. We are treaty allies. I think that we have a very, very promising agenda with the new government. We look forward to working with the new government. It is the obvious right of the Australian government to determine its position on an issue like Kyoto. Both of us will be at the Bali conference. And I know our delegation looks forward to getting a more specific view of the new policy of Prime Minister Rudd and his government. We look forward to working with them. If we have tactical differences, I am sure we will deal with those in a respectful matter. And the Bali conference is going to be an important conference. We have a major US delegation there. We are looking for ways, as you know, to advance the spread of technological development that will help ease carbon emissions and will help countries around the world, rich and poor, to deal with the effects of climate change. And we’re already also very much focused on the post-Kyoto regime. I think that’s where the focus of the international debate is these days. What must we all do post-Kyoto, post-2012. So we look forward very much to more detailed discussions with the Australian government. After all, it just took office today and so I think the better part of valor will be to have those discussions privately before we say too much by way of public commentary. Thank you.
Released on December 3, 2007