Background Briefing by Senior State Department Official en Route to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
MODERATOR: Okay, everybody. We are en route from Dili, Timor-Leste to Brunei. Here to give you a sense of what we’re planning to do in Brunei is [Senior State Department Official], hereafter Senior State Department Official.
Take it away, [Senior State Department Official].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks. We’re going to Brunei. We’re the guests of the Sultan, who will be hosting the Secretary and a small team of us for dinner tonight at the palace, and he’ll give a tour. It’s one of the most opulent, magnificent royal homes in the world.
The Sultan, in many ways, has been a very strong supporter of the United States for years. Many members of the royal family have a history studying in military academies, working with American presidents, and he is no exception. He’s been – he and his government have been very generous and supportive. They’ve provided a very substantial grant to help with our plans to do English training across Southeast Asia. I’m grateful for that. The Secretary will be holding an event with the East-West Center tomorrow morning to go through what these – what the Government of Brunei has provided.
We have a very strong security relationship with them. Lots of military training goes on. They’ve just recently bought a very substantial package of helicopters, and I think we can anticipate our military engagement with them increasing. There have been a number of recent finds offshore of even more natural gas and petroleum. It means that it will continue to be one of the wealthiest per capita countries on the planet. We want to talk to them about a variety of things. They’re part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, so as we approach the endgame, we’ll want to be talking with them about what are the key issues that are still left to be resolved or require further diplomacy on the TPP.
Secondly, they are the hosts next year of the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, and I think we’re going to want to be continuing to talk with them, and others in ASEAN will as well, so that we hope to have a smooth and well-coordinated set of events in Brunei next year. And we’re also looking at a number of areas of coordination on some environmental issues and the like.
The – I mean, just a word or two – I don’t know how many of you have been there before. We’re staying in an incredible hotel, one of the largest hotels in Asia built there on the bay. It was originally created to house these enormous summits. So there are thousands of rooms. So you’ll find it interesting; it’s dry, though, but quite beautiful and very opulent as you make your way through the place.
I’m happy to answer any particular questions about her meeting – what we’re speaking about, what their concerns are, everything.
QUESTION: How do you see Brunei in the issues about the South China Sea? I mean, they had their (inaudible) before Mr. Yang went there. What type of role do you see them playing in the debate about this code of conduct?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They’re low-key, but concerned about how ASEAN has managed the situation today. They are strong supporters of ASEAN unity, but we’re worried about how the organization fared in Cambodia in July. They tried very hard to work behind the scenes towards consensus in advance of the East Asia Summit in November. They’re like many ASEAN countries; they want very much to have a good relationship with the United States and China. They don’t want to have to choose. But at the same time, they are very committed to defending their sovereignty and feel very strongly that issues associated with the South China Sea have to be resolved in a conciliatory, diplomatic manner, and are worried about coercion generally.
But they do most of their business behind the scenes, not out in the open. But I think they’re somewhat nervous about next year when they’re going to host the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum, largely because they would like to avoid the kinds of public tensions that we just witnessed when we were in Cambodia.
QUESTION: Does the Secretary, when – or the U.S. side – when you’re talking to the Bruneians, do you – are you sort of – do you feel that they’re in a healthy place politically, I mean, given all of the turmoil we’ve had around the world against autocratic regimes? Are they immune to that, or does the Secretary also carry some of her castles in the sand speech, the same thing that she did with the Gulf (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, look, we do talk with them about reform efforts and steps taken to allow greater political space. Look, there’s no doubt but – that there’s a political system there that is different than a parliamentarian or democratic system. At the same time, there are a number of areas that we work closely together on, and we’ve seen progress on a host of recent initiatives like trafficking in persons and the like. It’s hard to tell, honestly, about dynamics beneath the surface there. It’s a very small country, but the population seems to be strongly supportive of the royal family. And clearly, he and his main ministers are very attentive to ensuring that they are well connected with the people.
QUESTION: You said that Brunei is working behind the scenes to try to come up with some consensus on ASEAN. Could you talk to us just a little bit about what role Singapore is playing in South China Sea right now?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, Singapore – I think the leading state in the effort is clearly Indonesia. And the supporting states around Indonesia, encouraging Indonesia, explaining what are the necessary components of sort of advancing the ball in the South China Sea would include Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. But each of them play a very careful and quiet role. None of them enjoy being in the spotlight, all of them would prefer progress be made, but don’t want to expose themselves to unnecessary scrutiny or criticism.
QUESTION: Do you think they can – have got a strategy?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think my own personal sense is that we are going to go through a period of higher tensions, no matter what, and that the countries of ASEAN have to get used to periods of intensity and focus, and that that is the new phase of ASEAN diplomacy. We are not going to be able to go back to situations in which things were easy, and that decisions were made without certain amounts of strain. I think this is the new normal.
QUESTION: Do you have the details on the military sale helicopter package you mentioned? And also, can you tell us, is there any commercial diplomacy with U.S. companies going on? Are there any U.S. companies selling things –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: She will share with you the 12 helicopters that Sikorsky sold this year. There has also been a terrible accident, helicopter crash, not long ago. The Secretary will –
QUESTION: An older helicopter, not –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, older helicopter, it was a Bell helicopter. The Secretary will be carrying condolences.
There is another campaign for helicopters, as well. American firms are competing for that. I think three American firms. But the contract that was just awarded by Sikorsky is a very substantial one, hundreds of millions of dollars.
MODERATOR: $200 million in U.S. export content supporting 1,000 U.S. jobs.
QUESTION: What is that for 200?
MODERATOR: $200 million in U.S. export content supporting 1,000-plus U.S. jobs.
QUESTION: That is everything, not just defense.
MODERATOR: Yes. Sikorsky.
QUESTION: That is the Sikorsky project; is there other commercial diplomacy, though? Other U.S. companies?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There are other American companies: IT, airplanes, Boeing, a lot of different things are involved. I mean it is a small country, again, but we have a very robust trade with them, and that is one of the reasons why they are in TPP.
QUESTION: Can you just explain why you think that we are going to go through a period of higher tensions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I am sorry, what?
QUESTION: Why are we going to go through a period of higher tensions, no matter what? Why? Is it because the Chinese are not just going to – are not going to stand down? Or –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think that the – there are disagreements on territorial issues, not just between ASEAN and China, but within ASEAN. And I think many of those issues have to be discussed and worked out. I also think that there is going to be a lot of pressure to think creatively about whether it is possible to do joint development arrangements in circumstances in which sovereignty is unresolved.
So, all of this requires hard work, heavy lifting, very challenging discussions. And ASEAN has generally been content to sort of skate on the surface and to avoid debates. And I just – my own sense is that these issues are going to be much more difficult to deal with.
QUESTION: How long do you see it playing out? How long is this new normal period?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That is a very good question. I mean what we have normally seen is that territorial issues spike. Right? They spike over periods – I mean we have seen them now for 50 years, and they spike. We had a spike in 1995, we had one in 1987, we had another one in 2004. I think the spikes are probably going to come more regularly, and probably have a more intense duration. You know, obviously, our desire is to see these matters dealt with peacefully and diplomatically. But I do think we have to be prepared for more tension on some of these matters.
Brunei is one of the countries that has been most effective in dealing with discord. They have done – they have had a very effective diplomacy with both Malaysia and Indonesia on disputed areas.
MODERATOR: They settle – then they settle their own –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They have settled their disagreements, and they have done some joint development deals that are models for what we would like to see elsewhere.
QUESTION: Okay, and then I will stop after this. But what is the – what do you think the risk of conflict, the actual conflict, is? I mean, or –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It is a great – it is a good question. The truth is we have many more skirmishes in the South China Sea than people realize. Fishing vessels being shot on, bumpings, all sorts of things. So I think the chances of those kinds of things continuing – I think that, again, has played out over a long period of time. The key is that they not escalate, they not – many of those actions have been undertaken by Coast Guard and local forces, as opposed to military forces.
I still think everyone appreciates right now that the larger effort has to be towards sustaining economic growth in Asia. And then, if you go down this path, everyone is going to be badly hurt. So my hope would be that cooler heads would prevail. But I think what you guys have witnessed on this and the previous trip, when we were in Cambodia, is that there is a very certain and definite rise in nationalism, which triggers issues associated with territory, with history, and with politics. And it is a very potent brew. And it leads to really unpredictable circumstances.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you very much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: All right. Thanks, you guys.
PRN: 2012/ T70-15