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Daniel Russel, Remarks at the Brookings Institution, Dec. 16, 2014

Russel is Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He spoke at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.
December 16, 2014

Daniel R. Russel
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Washington, DC
December 16, 2014

Thank you, Strobe, for the kind introduction.

Many years ago when I worked for Senator/Ambassador Mike Mansfield, I frequently heard him declare that the “next century (the 21st century) would be the century of the Pacific.” I remember thinking at the time that this sounded a little overstated – but fortunately I kept my mouth shut. We’ve all come to recognize how prescient he was.

Mansfield was profoundly interested in Northeast Asia because he believed – as President Obama and Secretary Kerry both believe – that America’s well-being, security, prosperity, and future are deeply affected by developments there. The Obama Administration has placed tremendous importance on our relations with China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, and we too understood the impact that relationships and policies in Northeast Asia have on the region and the world.

Since 1977, when Mansfield left the Senate and became Ambassador to Japan, and certainly since 2009 when President Obama took office, the pace of change in Northeast Asia has been accelerating. While it is stable relative to other parts of the world, as your invitation mentioned, that can not, and must not, be cause for complacency – the stakes for the global economy and regional and global stability are too high.

So the individual and collective challenge – for Chinese, Koreans, and Americans – is to help build an inclusive, sustainable order in Northeast Asia.

The question is: What will be the tenets of that order?

And how can we build from that base to preserve the peace, advance human dignity, and promote prosperity and opportunity in the wider region and ultimately the world?

The fact is, our countries have a tremendous ability to shape the future. We are major world economies. We are home to some of the world’s most innovative thinkers and most efficient manufacturers, thanks in part to our investments in each other and our tight financial and supply chain links. Just think iPhone or Samsung Galaxy or ThinkPad.

But we’re not only linked by investment capital – we’re also linked by human capital – over 40 percent of international students in the U.S. are from Northeast Asia.

Likewise, China has risen to become the fifth-most-popular destination for Americans studying abroad. And last year saw significant increases in American students in Japan and Korea.

The blending of our cultures and sharing of knowledge is seen in everything from food to film to music to this very conference.

Now, international relations is not quite “Gangnam Style” – this conference is not going to break YouTube – but I do hope that working together, you’ll be just as creative as PSY. I’m setting the bar high, I know.

Given our commonalities, it is natural that we seek opportunities to collaborate. Plurilateral groups of nations working together are an increasingly important force in world affairs. By definition they’re more inclusive than bilateral partnerships, and in practice they are more nimble than larger regional and global groups.

For example, the U.S., Australia and Japan Trilateral Security Dialogue is more than a decade old. Just last month in Brisbane, I was with President Obama for a leaders’ trilateral meeting. It showed we’re expanding beyond regional issues to jointly confront global challenges, from kick-starting the world economy, to battling ISIL and Ebola, to humanitarian and disaster assistance, to development aid.

The trilateral collective of the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the U.S. is another grouping that does extremely important work together. President Obama hosted a leader’s trilateral meeting in March in The Hague where he, President Park and Prime Minister Abe consulted on the North Korean threat and other concerns.

Those groupings are based on shared values like democracy, human rights, and respect for international law, and they’re based on shared interests – both in the Pacific region and across the globe.
So is the group I’m joining tomorrow when I head to New Delhi for periodic U.S.-Japan-India trilateral consultations.

Those are just a few examples that testify to the possibility – and the utility – of a kind of flexible geometry involving Northeast Asian countries and the United States.

So in that vein, we welcomed President Park’s call last month for a resumption of the trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting among China, the Republic of Korea, and Japan. I think there’s a widespread hope and expectation that after the meeting of the three Foreign Ministers, leaders’ meetings will resume. That would be a very good sign for peace and stability in the region.

Regardless of the format, I think we can all see the critical importance of communication between South Korea, China and Japan – as well as with the United States. Because we need to build on areas where our interests converge and manage areas where our interests may conflict.

Our collaboration and coordination to counter Ebola, for instance, is a good example. So is the crisis management mechanism that China and Japan agreed to in principle last month. We hope it becomes operational soon.
Conversely, the abrupt declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea last year was an object lesson in how not to handle a sensitive issue with overlapping national interests.

The coming year presents us with another particularly sensitive set of issues – the anniversaries we will mark in 2015. It is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 50th anniversary of normalization between Seoul and Tokyo.

1945 saw the creation of the UN, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States occupation of Japan, Korea’s independence, but also its division, and Nationalist China’s deal to recognize Mongolia’s independence (a country I’d note that next year will celebrate 25 years as a democracy).

Navigating these anniversaries will require restraint, judgment, skill and good will. And frankly, I welcome your help and advice – not just to handle the anniversaries, but to build on them as well.

The record of the past 70 years in Northeast Asia has been one of extraordinary progress. And as I’ve said before, progress in 2015 – particularly in Tokyo’s relations with Seoul and Beijing – can make historical millstones into forward-looking milestones.

This is not a theoretical proposition. China, South Korea and Japan are major players in the region’s security and economy. All three are increasingly active and influential players on the global stage.

Far from Asia for the Asians, it’s now Asia for the world. We cannot afford to have these three countries operating in anything less than a fully cooperative manner – let alone working at cross-purposes or worse.

One important way to support good relations among these neighbors is to support the well-established regional order. That includes APEC, the East Asia Summit and other ASEAN-centered fora. And of course, it is built on the strong foundation of U.S. alliances and security partnerships that have kept the region safe and stable.

This architecture, and the system that the United States has championed, has fostered trade and investment, economic and political linkages, educational and technological exchange, and rapid development – enriching countries across the region. It has helped lift hundreds of millions out of poverty.

And as each country has developed and found its social, economic and political footing – first Japan, then the R.O.K.– it has paid back into the system and worked to further strengthen it.

Now it is China’s turn. Look at the period from President Nixon’s historic visit, to the normalization of relations 35 years ago, to China’s accession to the WTO in 2001, to the achievements of Sunnylands last year and President Obama’s Beijing visit last month.

For decades, the United States has supported China’s peaceful rise. We’ve worked to avoid strategic rivalry and to narrow – or at least manage – our differences.

But China’s rise is by no means the only development - the entire Asia-Pacific region is changing. India is “Acting East.” ASEAN is becoming more integrated. Indonesia’s democracy is flourishing. Burma’s reformers are pushing forward. America’s rebalance is continuing and our alliances are growing stronger and more capable.

This is all to the good. But the shifting regional dynamics generate tensions as well; tensions that pose serious risks to stability and prosperity for all of us.

Is the construction of large-scale man-made outposts and continual encroachment by ships, planes and oil-drilling rigs going to be the way that Asians resolve maritime boundaries?

Will ASEAN’s longstanding effort to negotiate a basic Code of Conduct in the South China Sea require another decade?

The sharpening of tensions over maritime boundaries underscores the importance of maintaining a regional system based on adherence to rules, not adhesion to rocks… a system where claims are based on international law, not a sense of entitlement or muscle…a system based on interdependence and peaceful dispute resolution.

But while changing dynamics drive some tensions, the greatest threat in the region is a chronic one: North Korea, the dangerous outlier in Asia.

The good news is that North Korea is an area where the U.S. and the rest of Northeast Asia cooperate closely.

We do so because of the risks posed to all of us by the D.P.R.K’.s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, its rejection of international obligations, its broken promises, and its sudden provocations.

I just gave a speech last week addressing North Korea’s illegal programs and abominable human rights record. I won’t reprise it here, but I wanted to touch on one part of it. The first question I got from the audience was basically: “China’s the problem; China’s preventing progress on North Korea, right?”

My answer was “No.” China has sent unmistakable signals of its displeasure, such as President Xi’s decision to visit Seoul before visiting Pyongyang or even meeting with Kim Jong-Un.

Now of course the U.S. and some partners believe there’s more that China can do to apply pressure. And China believes there’s more the U.S. can do to engage diplomatically.

But overall, I see a broad alignment in strategic interests and a commitment to cooperation. Beijing, Seoul, Washington and Tokyo are united – and Russia as well – on denuclearization.

And at the same time as we pursue a free and whole Korean Peninsula, we’re working with our Northeast Asian partners in other ways. Because each of us has a significant role to play in addressing myriad, ongoing challenges around the world.

In a still-sluggish global economy, we are engines of growth. Working within APEC and the G20, we’re poised to do even more.

Implementing the Korea-U.S. FTA, negotiating an investment treaty with China, and finishing the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Japan and ten other partners will each provide a huge lift to the global economy. China’s FTAs and trade proposals like RCEP are an important part of the conversation as well.

The U.S. and China are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, but our recent action on climate targets shows we are determined to address this problem. So do President Obama’s and Prime Minister Abe’s pledges to the South Korean-hosted global Green Climate Fund of $3 and $1.5 billion respectively. And our countries' R&D and manufacturing capacities will keep us at the forefront of the clean energy economy.

We each have public health and infectious disease expertise, and experience from epidemics such as Bird Flu and SARS. Our nations are key contributors to the Ebola response, and likely will be needed even more in the future.
And we’re major providers of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, from Syria and Iraq, to the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan.

We are also tackling the interrelated issues of food, water, and energy security, which are challenges in the Mekong River basin and the Pacific Islands, just as they are in Africa. Our expertise and our capital are needed to address these issues.

The major Northeast Asian powers and the U.S. need each other – just as much as the rest of the world needs us – to jump start the global economy, preserve regional stability, enhance global security, and protect the global environment.

If I can channel my former boss: U.S.–Northeast Asia relations are the most important plurilateral relations in the world—bar none!
You know that – it’s why you’re having this conference. I look forward to hearing your conclusions.
Thank you.