Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Asian Affairs Jeff Bader, and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes
2:08 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. Sorry we are starting late. The bilateral meeting with Premier Wen of China started late and lasted longer than was previously scheduled. So before we do questions, we will start first with — I think many of you know Jeff Bader, senior director at the National Security Council for Asia, who can talk a bit about the meeting that was just concluded. And then we’ll have Ben Rhodes talk and answer questions that you may have about the President’s speech to the General Assembly.
MR. BADER: Thanks, Bob.
This is the third time that the President has met with Premier Wen. They first met in November of 2009 on the President’s trip to Beijing. Then they had a couple of meetings in Copenhagen at the climate change conference.
The meeting today had a positive tone. I think it was a — I would describe it as a genuine conversation. The meeting comes two weeks after Tom Donilon and Larry Summers went to China, where they were very warmly received at extraordinarily high levels.
The spirit of the conversation I would characterize as pretty well summarized by Wen Jiabao’s comments at the top when you heard him say that the two sides — the common interests of the two sides outweigh their differences. This was a conversation in which the two sides agreed that we have a substantial common interest and we wanted to have candid discussion of the differences.
Now, Wen Jiabao, as many of you know, is primarily responsible for the Chinese economy. So, unsurprisingly, most of the discussion today was about economic issues. There was a brief discussion of a few political security issues — namely Iran and Sudan, and South China Sea came up briefly. But most of the meeting was about economic issues.
The general thrust of what the President had to say was consistent with what he said on the record the other day and with Secretary Geithner’s testimony last week. The President talked about the importance of our trading relation in general and the currency issue specifically, to the United States and to the world economy; the need for China to do more than it has done to date. He described the issue as the most important issue we were going to talk about today. And there was a lengthy discussion about the impact and the politics of the issue.
The President also talked about the need for protection of intellectual property rights in China and the impact of the way in which China is enforcing — implementing and enforcing its policy of indigenous innovation, the need to ensure that there is national treatment, in other words, fair treatment for American companies in China, that they are not discriminated against in any way, including on any — in any government procurement by the Chinese.
And I think that’s all I’d say by way of introduction and describing the general tenor of the meeting. I’d also mention that this is not the only meeting with an Asian leader that we have in the next couple days. Later this afternoon, the President will be seeing Prime Minister Kan of Japan, and tomorrow he will have a meeting and lunch with the 10 leaders of the ASEAN countries, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — the second meeting by the President with all the leaders of ASEAN, and the first time there’s been such a meeting in the United States.
MR. RHODES: Thanks, Jeff. I’ll just say a few things about the speech and our agenda here up at the U.N., and then we’ll take your questions — or we’ll wait for the phone — but I’ll just start by saying that one of the useful things about this speech each year is it provides an opportunity for the President to lay out his priorities and give an update as to where we stand on our leading foreign policy priorities.
So as you heard today, the front half of the speech really was in many instances a update, as the President said, of what we’ve done over the last 20 months. That starts with the efforts we’ve taken through the G20 to coordinate our response to the global economic crisis. It includes our efforts to end the war in Iraq, including withdrawing nearly 100,000 U.S. troops. It includes a very robust nonproliferation agenda that includes reaching the START treaty, as well as the sanctions we placed on Iran and North Korea.
We focused a lot of the attention today on the Middle East. And here, given the timing of direct talks, the President really wanted to deliver a message where he called upon the world to stand up and play a role in support of the Israelis and Palestinians. We’re at a critical juncture, obviously, having gone through two rounds of talks, and the President really wanted to lean into a message of mutual responsibility that the world has to give these two parties the support and the space that they need to reach an agreement.
So to that end, the President identified the need to provide greater support for the Palestinian Authority and also to restrain from the kinds of actions, for instance, on delegitimization of Israel that would create a negative atmosphere for the talks to go forward.
So I think the principal message here was we’re at a moment of promise in the Middle East. We’ve gone, after, again, many months of proximity talks into direct negotiations. We’ve seen the potential for extraordinary progress in those negotiations. I think the President was struck in Washington by the seriousness with which President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed one another and the very substantive issues that they dealt with in negotiations. And I think the President wants to use this opportunity to lift up this issue again and make sure that the international community is playing a role in supporting the two parties — because we know that there are going to be great difficulties in any negotiation.
One of those, of course, is the upcoming expiration of the Israeli settlement moratorium. And you heard the President restate his position, which is that we believe that in the context of these negotiations, which are going forward in a positive way, that the moratorium should be extended. He also believes that the talks need to be carried forward until they reach their conclusion.
So we, again, chose to focus on Middle East peace because we’re at this critical juncture, not just because of that particular issue around the moratorium, but more broadly, because we recently launched these direct negotiations and, as you heard him say, those of you who have covered the U.N., it’s an issue every year at the U.N. General Assembly, and I think the President’s message was we can come back here every year, year after year, and give the same speeches about this, the same talking points read back and forth, or we can come together to really seize this particular moment to make progress.
Then lastly, let me just say a few words about the close of the speech. And here the President wanted to focus on our efforts over the long run to promote democracy and human rights in the world. And I think after running through the ledger of challenges and, in many instances, crises that drive our agenda on much of a day-to-day basis, he wanted to use this opportunity to step back and say what America’s purpose in the world was. And here we addressed three different areas related to our human rights agenda.
The first — and all three of these areas I’ll say are tied to the notion of openness — that open societies, open governments deliver better for their citizens and are fundamental to the events of human rights.
So here he started with — focused on our open economic agenda. Many of you saw him lay out his development agenda yesterday at the MDG conference. And one of the noteworthy aspects of that development agenda is that it focuses on unleashing economic growth as the ultimate driver of development around the world, that the kinds of actions that we can take, not just with foreign assistance but through our economic policies, can promote economic growth in a way that leads to greater rights for people in societies abroad.
You heard him talk about open society and civil society initiatives, the notion that this is not just about advancing democracy through government-to-government contacts, but often the agents of change in foreign countries are in civil society. It’s been the case in many instances, and you heard the President list a number of them today, from Eastern Europe to South Africa.
And we’re focused on developing some concrete initiatives that we’ve been building over the course of the last year in this area. That would include, for instance, some of the things you heard him talk about today — our Internet freedom agenda, the efforts that we’re doing to promote open access to information through the Internet and other means, our efforts to promote people’s ability to access technology securely in repressive societies so they’re not threatened by government censorship. These are things that Secretary Clinton has talked about, most recently in Krakow, and that the President is going to be working on and our administration is going to be working on in the coming year. So that’s kind of an illustrative example on the civil society side.
You also heard him talk about the need for greater access for civil society groups around the world. This is an issue we raise a lot on a bilateral basis, and it’s one that we’ll continue to raise — the expansion of civil society.
And then lastly, he talked about the promotion of open governance and democratic government. And here too what we’re doing is looking to develop a program where nations make specific commitments in the coming months around some of the key priority areas that we’ve lifted up in our, again, democracy agenda, which would include anti-corruption initiatives. It would include the expansion of civil society and civic engagement, and would include, again, ways to make government more open and accountable to citizens.
And so this is something that we’re going to be working on over the course of the next year so, as the President said, when we come back here to UNGA next year, we have advanced a number of commitments from governments around the world in this area.
So that’s an outline of the speech. I’d just — again, just give you a couple updates on our schedule. The President is at CGI to introduce the First Lady here shortly. After that, he has the bilateral meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister.
Tomorrow morning, he’s going to do an interview with BBC Persia. This is an opportunity for him to speak directly to an Iranian audience, an audience of the Iranian people. And here he’ll have the opportunity to build on the same message that he’s delivered repeatedly over the last 20 months, including today, which is that we seek a better relationship with the people of Iran. We seek a relationship in which our economic ties, for instance, with Iran can be improved in ways that will benefit the Iranian people.
But that relationship is only possible if the Iranian government lives up to its international obligations. And thus far, they have repeatedly refused to do so, and that is why we’ve imposed the accountability measures that we have through multilateral sanctions at the U.N. and through the sanctions that we’ve imposed unilaterally and with like-minded countries in Europe and Asia.
So tomorrow morning, he’ll be doing an interview with BBC Persia, and then from there we have a full schedule — an ASEAN meeting, as Jeff said; a multilateral meeting on Sudan, which we’ve briefed you on and we can answer questions about; and then additional bilateral meetings with the President of Colombia and the President of Azerbaijan and the President of Kyrgyzstan.
So with that, we’ll take questions.
Q What time is that Iranian interview?
MR. RHODES: I’d have to — I’m not sure exactly when it will — when it will air. We’ll get you the information.
MR. GIBBS: I think it’s in the morning. We’ll get you a transcript as soon as it’s done.
Q Thanks. Two quick questions on the Mideast for Ben. Can you elaborate a bit more on the President’s personal decision to spend so much time on the Mideast? By that I mean, did he see this as not just an important issue but a sign of how fragile the talks are right now and that he needed to spend this much time in order to keep them together?
MR. RHODES: I’d say a couple things. I think when you — I mean, it’s mainly an issue of what is the ripe issue right now. And when you consider what to focus on in your U.N. General Assembly speech, you kind of survey the leading priorities that you have and make a determination about which one is, again, most ripe for a very substantial focus in the speech.
I think that — so it’s not so much about the fragility of the talks as it is about the potential for progress. We just launched these negotiations at the beginning of September, had two very productive rounds in Washington and in Sharm el Sheikh. The parties are digging into substance in a very heartening way. And I think he feels like we’ve put a lot into this, of course, but the parties have put a lot on the line as well.
There’s obviously the issue of the moratorium, but there are always going to be issues. There’s always going to be something that is an obstacle in the road. And the message he has is twofold, right. It’s, number one, that the parties need to help each other through this. As you work through difficult issues you build trust and the parties, again, need to work in a very constructive basis to try to find a way through this particular challenge, to keep pressing forward with talks.
But secondly, the international community can’t sit on the sidelines. And there are things that can be done to provide political and financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority, which could use additional resources; for the Arab states, who have an Arab Peace Initiative, to give some life to that. The goal of the Arab Peace Initiative is obviously normalization, but outlining how that process would take place, being vocal in their support of the talks. Then, similarly, not engaging in the kind of negative actions that can pollute the atmosphere for talks.
So we all have seen over the course of the years how the Middle East issue can be used for political purposes or used in ways to demonize Israel, for instance, during international forums. That kind of activity clouds the atmosphere for talks and makes it less likely that we’re going to achieve progress.
So, again, I think it was both the fact that these talks just got underway and we want to continue to provide our full support for them and for the goal of two states, and we also wanted to deliver a message that this is not just a bilateral issue between Israelis and Palestinians, it’s not just an issue between the United States and the two parties, but it’s an issue for the world — because, again, people consistently place this as a leading issue.
We’ve had good support from European allies, for instance, but to ultimately reach a solution and to create the kind of environment where they can work through difficult challenges, it’s going to take the two parties above all, but it’s also going to take the Arab states, the Europeans, the United States and the international community more broadly.
Q And also on the settlement moratorium. We’re hearing of a potential U.S.-brokered compromise in which the Palestinians would agree to stay in the talks even as construction continues? Can you update us all about whether that’s in the offing?
MR. RHODES: I wouldn’t get into any specific diplomatic items on the agenda. What I would say is, again, this is going to have to be worked on a bilateral basis between the two parties. We’ve been actively consulting with them around this and other issues. It’s come up in our meetings and we’re continuing to work with them.
But, again, our position is that these talks should go forward. In the context of what has been a good start to talks, the Israelis should extend the moratorium. But the Palestinians should also look for a way to, again, make — as the President said in his press conference — make it easier for them to do that.
So we’re continuing to work with them, and we’ll see what happens.
Q Can I ask, Jeffrey, did Premier Wen respond in any way to what the President said about the currency issue and trade?
MR. BADER: Well, as a general rule, I like to let the Chinese speak for themselves. I would say that, generally speaking, Premier Wen did reiterate Chinese intention to proceed to continue with reform of their exchange-rate mechanism. Beyond that, I’d rather let the Chinese speak for themselves.
MR. GIBBS: Chip.
Q Robert, there have been some comments from Iran that some have interpreted as maybe inching toward the possibility of talks. Does the White House see anything significant in what Iranian leaders have said, and is there anything going on behind the scenes to move toward talks?
MR. RHODES: Yes, I’d just say a number of things. I think that, first of all, since U.N. sanctions started to come into place in June and the follow-on measures have come into place from the United States, from Europe, from our Asian friends, and from private sector entities, I think what you’ve seen in Iran is a recognition that these sanctions have been perhaps more — have had more bite than they anticipated. And you see an increased internal dialogue about the course that they’re on and increased discussions around the potential for diplomacy.
And that’s been reinforced, for instance, even just yesterday when the Russians announced that they would not be providing S300s to Iran, which is an important step forward.
I think that has created an atmosphere where there is greater discussion around the notion of reopening diplomatic activity. We have consistently said we want to pursue diplomacy with Iran. We would like the nuclear issue to be addressed through the P5-plus-1 process, so Iran needs to come to the table to address that. And I think the important thing to underscore, from our perspective, though, is we can have talks and we would like to, but they’re going to have to take steps, concrete steps, to demonstrate that they’re going to — the peaceful intent of their nuclear program and that they’re going to live up to their obligations.
So we’re looking for actions from the Iranians and not just words about diplomacy, and they’ve yet to show those actions. They’ve yet to take steps to demonstrate the peaceful intent of their program. For instance, we put a proposal on the table last year, which you’re well familiar with, that could have created that kind of confidence in terms of shipping our their low-enriched uranium. And instead what they did was they dragged that discussion on and then they came forward with a proposal that didn’t ship all the low-enriched uranium out while upping their capability.
So, again, we’re open to diplomacy. We’d like to have those discussions. We’d like to do it through the P5-plus-1. And we’d also, though, strongly deliver a message that in addition to talking they’re going to have to show some serious actions.
Q Sounds like you’re saying the words we’ve heard from Iran in the last day or two, there’s nothing meaningful and nothing new.
MR. RHODES: Yes, I would — well, I’d say it’s — there has been a lot more talk out of Iran since the sanctions started to come into place. So I think you’ve seen, again, internal debate about the sanctions, public comments from different members of the Iranian government about the sanctions and the need to, again, change course because of those consequences that were imposed.
So there’s more activity. There’s certainly more discussion. But there’s no imminent diplomatic shift at this moment.
Q Ben, what’s your impression of what’s going to happen when the moratorium expires?
MR. RHODES: Well, as I said to Ben, we’ll have to see. The two parties are –
Q They’ve been talking to you. I mean, are they saying, we’re going to start construction again, or are they saying, don’t worry, we’re going to continue it?
MR. RHODES: Well, I’m not going to get into what they say to us. But the point is that they are — they’re talking to each other, the Israelis and Palestinians, about this issue. We’ve had discussions with them about it. And what we’re focused on is the need for them to be able to work through this in a way that keeps talks moving forward and builds trust between them.
I think the broader point here is there’s always — there’s going to be obstacles in the road in this kind of negotiation. Right now it’s the moratorium. And their ability to work through that on a bilateral basis, to help each other through those difficult points in a negotiation, will also help build trust while creating the potential for more progress.
So we’ll have to see. There’s still more days before the moratorium expires. They’ll continue to talk to one another and we’ll continue to talk to them.
Q How firm has the U.S. government, how firm has the White House been with Netanyahu about continuing the moratorium and not allowing it to expire?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think we’ve said in public what we’ve said in private, which is that –
Q But I’m talking about aid, I’m talking about diplomatic pressure.
MR. RHODES: Yes, well, first of all, let me just step back. I mean, the moratorium has made a difference on the ground. It has created a positive atmosphere. And interestingly, people at the time that it was announced said, oh, it’s not really a big deal. But it’s actually proven to be of great consequence. And you can see that in the desire of the Palestinians to have it extended.
So what we’ve said is this creates a positive atmosphere for talks. In that context, it should be extended to provide more time and space for these negotiations to go forward. That’s what the President said in public. That’s what we’ve said in private.
We’ve also said to the Palestinians — as the President said in the press conference the other day — this is an opportunity also to work with the Israelis to find a solution to get through this. The parties, again, have to be able to help each other in order to get through this. They have to have a stake in each other’s success.
And that’s the kind of conversations that are taking place.
MR. GIBBS: Stephen.
Q Thanks. This is one for Jeff. Could you talk a little bit about what the President said to the Premier on the South China Sea tensions? Does the U.S. have any kind of role in trying to solve this issue? How serious do you view it given the fact it’s your major ally in sort of a confrontation with a major trading partner, et cetera, et cetera? And how do you think ASEAN will address this in the ASEAN-U.S. Summit tomorrow? Will there be some kind of statement?
MR. BADER: During the meeting, the President emphasized the importance of a peaceful resolution of disputes, the U.S. interest of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and the interests of the entire international community in freedom of navigation in that area.
It was a fairly brief discussion on that issue. I am confident that the issue will be discussed by the President and the ASEAN leaders when they meet tomorrow — that the President will discuss it, and a number of the ASEAN leaders will discuss it.
As for what we’d like to see, Secretary Clinton made a clear and definitive statement of what we seek in the South China Sea at the ASEAN Regional Forum Meeting in Hanoi in July. And she laid out a number of principles that we believe are in the interests of the entire international community, the U.S., the ASEAN countries, and China. There are no principles that she laid out that China should object to.
Those principles include freedom of navigation, the importance of claims in the South China Sea being based on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, legitimate claims based on land-based claims, the importance of a peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, that the U.S. had no territorial claims, that the U.S. would be prepared to facilitate a negotiation of a code of conduct for states in the region, and that the U.S. supported peaceful resolution of the territorial claims, but the U.S. did not propose to become a direct party to resolution of those claims. Those are for the parties themselves to work out.
Q Can I follow up on that, please? Can you just talk, though, about this dispute right now between China and Japan and whether the U.S. kind of finds itself in the position of not necessarily having to mediate but having to facilitate this before it kind of escalates and causes any more regional stability, given the fact that the President met with the Premier and is going to be meeting with the Prime Minister later today?
MR. BADER: Well, I agree with you about — number one, that we’re not playing or going to play a mediating role; number two, about the importance of this being resolved through diplomatic discussions and being resolved soon. These two countries have a history with each other and there are nationalist sentiments in both countries that can be stirred up should the problem stagnate.
So we do want to see common restraint on both sides. We do want to see them resolve it diplomatically soon. Both sides have talked to us about the issue and we want to see China and Japan have a good relationship, a relationship with reduced friction. It’s not in our interest to see these countries in this kind of a dispute.
MR. GIBBS: Who else had a follow-up on that? You did?
Q Yesterday Premier Wen told Phoenix TV that it would very like to talk — discuss the Yellow Sea issue with Obama. And also — and there’s news that George Washington carrier will go through Yellow Sea next month.
MR. BADER: Well, the issue did not come up in the meeting between the President and Premier Wen. Premier Wen did not raise the issue.
As for the George Washington, you will have seen the spokesman for the Defense Department made a statement on that subject last month. There’s no update on that. As you know, we regard the Yellow Sea as international waters and we are in the wake of the sinking of the Cheonan. We have demonstrated our commitment to the defense of South Korea and the need for deterrence, and will continue to do so by exercises on both sides of the Korean Peninsula.
MR. GIBBS: Does anybody have a follow-up on that? Do you have a follow-up on that?
Q Currency issue?
MR. GIBBS: Does anybody else — yes, go ahead.
Q I just want to make — clarify that the two leaders did not talk about East China Sea?
MR. BADER: That’s correct. No, I’m sorry, they talked about — briefly about the South China Sea. They did.
Q Yes, but I’m talking about East China and the Senkaku island.
MR. BADER: They did not.
MR. GIBBS: All right, we’ll get back there. Go ahead, Julianne.
Q On the currency issue, in the discussion today, would you say that they were any more productive than they’ve been in the past? And I guess what specific inroads were made on the currency issue today as a result of the meetings with Donilon and Summers in China a few weeks ago?
MR. BADER: Well, I would describe the discussions on the issue as candid. They were at some length. The President reiterated that we had welcomed the Chinese announcement last June that they were going to pursue a more flexible exchange-rate policy; that they were going to tie their — the renminbi to a basket of currencies rather than link it directly to the U.S. dollar. You know that we were disappointed that there had not been much movement since; that this had consequences for the global economy and for the U.S. economy. And we look to see more rapid and a significant revaluation in the months to come.
Q How would you describe these conversations on currency as any different than they’ve been in the past? Is it just because of the action that China took in June?
MR. BADER: I would say that the President in this meeting — look, in past meetings with Premier Wen and President Hu, the issue has been one of a number of subjects. It has — I don’t know, in the two-hour meeting it might — and previously it might have occupied a quarter or less of the meeting. This time it occupied most of the meeting. So it was a more intensive and fuller discussion than we’ve had in the past.
Q A follow-on?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q The Ways and Means Committees of the House will vote a currency bill tomorrow. And if the bill were passed on the Capitol Hill before the midterm election, how the Obama administration handle this situation? Were you worried about the possibility that U.S.-China relations will deteriorate again? And secondly, did the two leaders make any compromise — I mean, Premier Wen promise to accelerate the pace of the RMB appreciation and President Obama promise he won’t sign the bill?
MR. BADER: The legislation, the U.S. — the administration is not taking — does not take a position on this specific legislation. Our criteria for legislation is we want to see that any legislation is consistent with our international obligations and consistent with — and more specifically with our obligations under the World Trade Organization and is in our interests.
The President made no commitment to Premier Wen about this legislation. I don’t recall that this specific bill was brought up, although there was discussion about the attitude of the Congress. And Premier Wen clearly is well aware of that.
Q What did the President say in response to that?
MR. BADER: In response to?
Q Concerns about the attitude of the U.S. Congress?
MR. BADER: Well, the President made clear that we’re expecting to see more action — more significant movement on the RMB. In the last few weeks you’ve seen the President, the administration, authorize a couple of WTO cases, bring a couple of WTO cases against Chinese practices. So the President made clear through that and in his meeting that he’s going to protect U.S. economic interests, and that we look for the Chinese to take actions. If the Chinese don’t take actions, we have other means of protecting U.S. interests.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.
Q Robert, what’s the White House reaction to the Republicans’ Pledge to America?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I know that you’ve probably seen or heard a lot about this back in Washington. Look, I will say this, from what I’ve read, if it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same litany or catalogue of failed policies that got us into this mess: tax cuts for the very rich that cost trillions of dollars; putting banks and insurance companies back in charge of Wall Street and your health care.
I think John Boehner said, and I think most of the American people will see, that this is very much in line with what the Republican Party has proposed for the past many years. It’s the same policies that got us into this financial crisis. The document was written by somebody with a — written by a lobbyist and rolled out at a small business even as Republicans went back to Capitol Hill to vote against tax cuts for small business.
So I think it was just another — it seems like just another day — could have been any of the days of Republican ideas for the last 10 years.
Q This is for Ben. A couple questions on the democracy agenda. Could you talk a little bit about why the President chose to speak about this now? And what specifically does it — what implications does it have on U.S. foreign policy? I’m thinking of the President’s call for countries not to stand idly by while political dissent is threatened. What does the U.S. responsibility not to stand idly by — I’m thinking of Iran, the Iranian elections, for example, and the President wanted to stay out of those. Would he approach that differently now?
MR. RHODES: Let me just take the second first. I mean, I wouldn’t say that we stood idly by in the aftermath of the Iranian elections. I think we spoke out against the behavior of the Iranian government. We will continue to do so over the course of the next many months.
We actually took action through the United Nations, for instance, helping to — working with others to prevent them from getting a seat on the Human Rights Council, and joining with the E.U. in condemning their actions, drawing greater attention to instances, for instance, where people were imprisoned unjustly within Iran.
What the President did make clear after the Iranian elections is that we were not going to proactively meddle in Iranian affairs, for instance, by providing some means of direct support to the Iranian opposition, which, again, was not in the interest of the Iranian opposition. Part of the power of those protests was that they were indigenous the Iranian people.
So just in the first instance, I would say that we did take a clear stand on behalf of the rights of the Iranian people, and we’ve continued to do so.
We’ve also tried to expand space for the kinds of technologies that can protect the freedom of the Internet in Iran and have carved out exceptions to our sanctions to provide those technologies.
In terms of the calling on other countries, I think this gets to — some of you have heard me talk about a broader focus to our foreign policy is that the United States can’t bear all the burden for dealing with a range of global challenges and that emerging countries need to play a greater role.
And what he was speaking about is you have a number of countries that have come out of oppression in recent years. For instance, the South Africas of the world, Indonesia, many countries in Latin America in the ‘80s and ‘70s, and that often they’re reluctant to speak out on behalf of these types of issues beyond their borders. They’ve been consolidating their own democratic gains, which is critically important — and, frankly, the most important thing — but what he’s trying to do is kind of rally a broader range of voices so that it’s not just the United States speaking out, it’s not just some countries in Europe, but it’s these democracies have emerged and really emerged in a powerful way. I mean, India has got over a billion people, and they stitched together a very vibrant democracy.
So just as a thematic point at the end there, he was saying that it’s going to take — the next phase of democracy promotion, if you will, is going to have to take a broader coalition of nations than, say, the ones that tended to be together in the Cold War.
Q What’s the difference between the way President Obama sees his democracy agenda and President Bush’s freedom agenda, which also sought to promote democracy?
MR. RHODES: Well, yes, and that ties into your first question, actually. And you asked why now. You know I think he’s spoken about these issues a lot. I mean, it was in the speech last year. I think he felt — we’ve begun to put in place the chunks of our agenda is it relates to a whole range of issues, and this is one of them.
And this gets to your second question. I think our agenda is focused on doing whatever we can do to empower people within their countries, understanding that democratic movements are going to be different in different countries; understanding that in some countries, that the needs for democracy promotion are different; and that, again, that change is going to have to come from the bottom up in those countries. And in some countries, that means putting pressure on a government to change its behavior, and in some instances it’s going to be working in multilateral forums — for instance, like ASEAN, to try to work to improve the situation in Burma.
But in some instances, it’s going to be trying to empower civil society in countries so that more civil society groups can operate in those countries freely, can communicate with their counterparts around the world, so that individuals have free access to information through the Internet without fear that it could be monitored or suppressed by the government, for instance.
So I think the Obama one is one that is pragmatic and that is focused on, again, doing what is best to promote the specific capabilities that are needed in specific countries.
And then lastly, I think a core element of the agenda is one of capacity-building, and that’s in our development policy, too, which is it’s all well and good to hold elections but elections don’t add up to a democracy. You need institutions, you need parliaments that can function, you need independent judiciaries, you need honest police forces.
And so a lot of our assistance in this area is going to be focused on not just ensuring that countries can have free and fair elections — and he called today for greater access for international monitors to elections to guard against fraud and abuse — but that countries are building democratic institutions.
So in some sense, it’s — ironically for this President, it’s less rhetorical and more roll up your sleeves and build capacity in emerging democracies — build capacity for civil society, build democratic institutions around the world — so that democratic change may not happen overnight, but over time the trend lines in different regions of the world are moving in the right direction.
Q At the Pentagon press conference today, Secretary Gates is signaling that he may stay beyond July 2011. Do you know anything? Have you heard from the Secretary?
MR. GIBBS: I have not seen the reports, but I can check on that. I’ve not heard anything recently on this.
Q President Hu’s visit to the U.S. next year, I think both President Obama and Premier Wen talked about this issue. What’s the specific issue they discussed on President Hu’s visit to the U.S.?
MR. BADER: Well, President Obama has invited President Hu to come for a state visit. President Hu — early next — President Hu has accepted. And we are still discussing possible dates with the Chinese side. The issue didn’t come up more precisely than that today. There was simply brief discussion about the desirability of a visit and the importance of a visit.
Q Early next year, did you say?
MR. BADER: That’s right.
MR. GIBBS: January of next year.
Q Could I just follow up briefly on the — with Mr. Bader — on the East China Sea incident? You mentioned it did not come up — on the Senkakus — it did not come up in the meeting today, but I believe you also mentioned that both sides have brought the issue up. Could you say at what level the Chinese, then, have brought it up with the U.S.?
MR. BADER: That’s correct, that the issue did not come up in the meeting with Premier Wen today. The issue has been raised diplomatically by Chinese and Japanese senior officials with the U.S. side. Really since the incident first occurred, there have been a number of approaches at senior levels, but not at the level of the President.
Q The ASEAN Summit tomorrow. What are your main priorities for that? And specifically, does the President believe that increasing relations with ASEAN can offset the trade imbalance with China?
MR. BADER: Well, since the beginning of the administration, we’ve tried to rebuild relations with ASEAN. There was — we felt that the region had not gotten the attention that it needed and deserved in the — much of the previous decade. So, for example, Secretary Clinton’s first trip to the region, she went to — first trip abroad, she went to Jakarta. We’ve — the President has now decided to — that we should participate in the East Asia Summit. We have appointed our first ever resident ambassador to ASEAN, is going to be stationed in Jakarta.
I would expect at the meeting tomorrow there will be substantial discussion about the future of multilateral institutions — what we call wonkishly “architecture” — in the region. As I say, we’re joining the East Asia Summit. Secretary Clinton will be going to Hanoi next month, the first time the U.S. has participated in this organization, which for those of you who don’t follow it that closely, groups all the ASEAN countries plus South Korea, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand and India. And the U.S. and Russia will be participating for the first time and the President will be participating next year.
So we’ll be talking about how we can make that organization into a cooperative framework. We’ll be talking about nonproliferation issues — the expectations that the regions of the country — the countries of the region will rigorously enforce their obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions, particularly vis-à-vis North Korea and Iran. We’ll be talking about trade and investment. As you know, we’re negotiating a treaty, a trade promotion treaty with a number of the ASEAN countries. So trade and investment will be on the agenda. So those are the highlights.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, ma’am. And then I’ll come over here.
Q Talking about tomorrow’s meetings, I wonder whether you could talk about the impact of the killing of the Colombian guerrilla military leader and what impact it’s going to have tomorrow in the meeting with President Santos?
MR. RHODES: You know, I — we’re going to have to look into that. All I’ll say about the bilateral relationship with Colombia is it’s one of the most important that we have in the hemisphere. They’re one of our closest friends and allies.
President Santos — and I should add, actually, this is relevant to Scott’s question — President Santos came to power after an election that took place because President Uribe respected the finding that — of the maintenance of term limits in Colombia, which sends a pretty powerful signal given the fact that part of the challenges to democracy around the world are that some leaders are extending well beyond mandated term limits. So President Uribe set an example to the region, I think, about the importance of democratic institutions and democratic governance by stepping aside.
I think the President really looks forward to meeting with President Santos. He wanted to have this bilateral meeting at the earliest occasion after President Santos’s inauguration. I think they’ll certainly continue to discuss the security support that the United States provides for Colombia and the close cooperation we have with them on security as it relates to, again, the longstanding relationship we’ve had.
On the specific instance, we’ll look into that with our Latin American team who’s here and can get you an answer.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.
Q Back to China. Is there any progress or consensus about resumption of military-to-military dialogue between U.S. and China, including Secretary Gates visit to China? Second question, what kind of discussion will actually make about North Korean nuclear issue, including resumption of six-party talks?
MR. BADER: I missed the first part –
MR. GIBBS: Do the first question again.
MR. BADER: I heard the first –
Q What do you think about resumption of military-to-military dialogue –
MR. BADER: Okay, okay. Neither the subject of military-to-military relations nor the subject of North Korea came up today. As I mentioned, economic issues — unsurprisingly — dominated the discussion both because of the salience of the issues and the particular responsibilities of Premier Wen in that area.
I would just say that with regard to North Korea, we are looking to see the North take steps to address the grievances of the South in the wake of the Cheonan, that that is a critical first step before there can be any sort of multilateral process. And then we would want to see some kind of behavior or manifestations by the North that indicate a sincerity about denuclearization. But that said, the subject did not arise.
On military-to-military relations, we had good discussions about those during Tom Donilon and Larry Summers’ visit to Beijing. And I would expect to see contacts and exchanges resuming shortly.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, ma’am.
Q I wanted to ask — going back to the President’s speech — firstly, the President spoke about democracy and so forth, but in Iraq, there’s still much concern, though. We’re going into our seventh month, and still no government. How concerned is the President about that? Elections have happened and still nothing.
And secondly, I wanted to ask you about this call for the Arab states to explain what normalization would mean. I mean, surely they’ve done that previously — normalization would be once there is peace. So what specific steps to that — you know, we saw a few gestures last year — what more are you looking for?
MR. RHODES: On the first question, what I’d say is the President is concerned that he would — he believes that the Iraqis should form a government as soon as possible.
I think that the election demonstrated the commitment of the Iraqi people to their own democracy. It had a very strong turnout. The review of the election by both Iraqi institutions and the international community found it to be a credible election. And I think what’s important and the point that we’re underscoring through the government formation process is that the new government reflect the results of that election, that in all of the discussions that are taking place, the one outcome that is essential is that the Iraqi people can look at the government that is formed and see the representation of their vote.
And so that means that the leading parties — for instance, State of Law and Iraqiyya — each need to play an important role in that government. And that’s what — that’s the message that we’ve been delivering. They’re obviously still working through it.
In Baghdad, you’ve seen some pickup in the pace of those discussions since the end of Ramadan. And we’re, again, optimistic that the Iraqis will forge a government that reflects the will of that election and have encouraged them and will continue to encourage them to move forward with a sense of urgency because we know that in the period of time of government formation, some parties will seek to take advantage of that, for instance, through the kinds of violence that has been undertaken to try to spark sectarian tensions.
I’d point out that that violence has not succeeded in doing so, and in that respect the Iraqis have again shown the resilience of their people and their democracy.
On the Arab states, I’d say just a couple of things. There’s a range of steps that can be taken. First of all, it’s important to show support for the Palestinian participation in the talks and for the end goal of the talks. Of course, Egypt and Jordan played a critical role in helping to launch the talks. The Arab League was constructive in its support for President Abbas going into the talks. That kind of political support is important, particularly in the region. It helps give President Abbas the space that he needs to negotiate.
Secondly, I think the Arab states can provide financial support for the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority has great needs because they’re, in essence, building the institutions of a state. They’re building security forces, they’re building what would become the democratic and service-providing institutions of a Palestinian state. They’re already doing that, of course, in many respects. But there are great needs associated with that, and we believe that the Arab states can make greater contributions financially, as well as politically, to the Palestinian Authority in that effort.
And then with regard to the Arab Peace Initiative, I think there’s obviously a range of steps that can be taken related to engagement with Israel, culturally and politically and otherwise. I think part of it, though, simply is describing normalization is the end state. We’re in a period of negotiation, and, again, beginning to describe the process by which we would reach that normalization — what are the steps that could be taken in a range of areas, politically and otherwise — again, will contribute to a positive atmosphere for the talks.
And that can be done through a variety of ways — whether it’s the public statements that are made, whether it’s the discussions that we have diplomatically or the Europeans.
So I think it’s — again, all of this is about creating a positive atmosphere for the parties because we know there are rejectionists. We know there are — as the President said — there are people on both sides who don’t want to see the outcome of two states. We know there are those who will commit acts of violence to disrupt the talks, as we’ve seen through the killings that Hamas has undertaken, you see — and that you, of course, see a great deal of rejectionist rhetoric out of Hamas and Hezbollah.
So what we need is a counter to that and a counter to that that makes clear that people are united around the goal of these talks, and united in support of President Abbas as he leads the Palestinians through them, but also in support of laying the groundwork for a Palestinian state that would emerge on the other end of it.
Q Ben, just to follow up, will the President go to the Middle East in this normalization process you’re looking for and in this positive atmosphere you describe?
MR. RHODES: We don’t have any plans right now. I think the President’s role has been to, again, weigh in at important times and to make it clear that it’s a priority of his.
I think one of the things, given the difficulties involved in this issue that we felt was important, for instance, was that he get involved from the first day of his administration. We’ve seen a lot of administrations wait until the sand is running through the hourglass to decide to launch a peace initiative. And, frankly, it took us a while to get into direct talks. And part of that was the atmosphere when we came in, coming out of the Gaza war and Israeli election, but part of that is simply it takes time and diplomatic speedwork.
The President felt it was important to host the leaders at the launch to provide momentum to their efforts, and to, again, make it clear that the United States stands fully behind them in their efforts.
But what he’s done is made Hillary Clinton his point person for these talks, so she, along with her team — led by George Mitchell — will be going to the region I think a lot. I don’t know the next planned trip, but I’m sure — she was recently in Sharm el Sheikh. I think you’d expect to see Secretary Clinton return before the President. He obviously has a very substantial travel itinerary in November with his trips to Asia.
So he doesn’t have current plans to go to the Middle East, but Secretary Clinton I think will be playing that role in many respects as she did at Sharm el Sheikh.
MR. GIBBS: Last one right here.
Q I have a question to Mr. Bader. In the meeting, they talked about their — you said they talked about South China Sea, but not Senkaku Islands and also East China Sea. So what is the difference between them, between two issues, from the U.S. perspective?
MR. BADER: What is the difference between?
Q Between the South China Sea dispute and also between — on the Senkaku Islands?
MR. BADER: Well, you’ve correctly summarized what was discussed. Senkaku Islands was not discussed, South China Sea was discussed and the Yellow Sea was not discussed. There are a lot of maritime issues that have been on the agenda for the last few months.
Q Jeff, just quickly, apparently the Japanese are saying that Hillary Clinton said today that the issue between China and Japan, this island dispute, and the territorial dispute, would fall under a U.S. treaty.
Now, I know that no one expects this right now to escalate out of control, but could you kind of sort that out? I mean, would you expect that if this were to escalate into a military confrontation — and, again, I’m not saying anybody is expecting that — but how do you come down on this right now? I mean, it does leave you in a vulnerable position.
MR. BADER: We have no expectation that this dispute is going to escalate to that kind of a level, and so that’s — that’s very quite hypothetical.
What the Japanese are referring to is a longstanding U.S. position, which is, number one, we do not take a position on the respective territorial claims of China and Japan towards the Senkaku Islands. But number two, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covers all areas administered by Japan, and since the reversion of Okinawa to — from the U.S. to Japan in 1972, the Senkaku Islands have been administered by Japan, so that is what that is a reference to. But we have no expectation in any known universe that this would escalate to that kind of a level.
Q How long did the meeting last?
MR. BADER: The meeting was close to two hours.
MR. GIBBS: And we’ll do one quick update on Colombia and then –
MR. RHODES: Should I just — one quick thing. Due to the miracles of modern technology, I was able to — we have a statement out offering our congratulations to Colombia on what is a truly remarkable event in removing the leader of the FARC.
So our reaction is out publicly in that respect, but I’m sure the President will reiterate those congratulations tomorrow. It’s obviously an extraordinary achievement for the Colombian government that demonstrates the success of their efforts over many years, and at great sacrifice, to expand security in Colombia and to combat the FARC. And it also demonstrates, again, the importance of our close security cooperation.
So I’m sure that will be something that the President leads his meeting with tomorrow and offering his personal congratulations not just to President Santos but to the Colombian people.
MR. BADER: As long as Ben is expanding on an earlier question, let me just expand on an earlier question as well — the question about what will happen at the ASEAN leaders meeting. One subject I did not mention, I’m sure the President will address the issue of Burma. Our expectation — I mean “expectation” in the sense that this is what we want, not what we foresee — free and fair elections in Burma; the need for there to be true national reconciliation; the release of political prisoners and Aung San Suu Kyi. And I expect that that issue will probably be raised by others as well.
MR. GIBBS: Thank you, guys.
Q What was Premier Wen’s response to the statements on the South China Sea?
MR. GIBBS: I think Jeff usually lets the Chinese speak for themselves.
END 3:11 P.M. EDT