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Remarks With Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay

MODERATOR: Good morning to everyone, and welcome to the joint press conference of the Philippine secretary of foreign affairs and United States Secretary of State. To begin, Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs the Honorable Perfecto R. Yasay, Jr., will give his opening statement.

FOREIGN SECRETARY YASAY: Good morning. I am pleased to welcome Secretary John Kerry and his delegation to the Philippines. The U.S. Secretary of State is the first foreign minister to call on the president later today. We appreciate this gesture of goodwill, which demonstrates the strength of the Philippines-U.S. alliance and the importance of the alliance to the United States. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the United States, and the 65th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty. Our alliance is part of the web of U.S. security alliances in the region that helped maintain peace, security, and prosperity in Asia Pacific. The Philippine Government remains fully committed to this alliance.

In our meeting today, I had the opportunity to consult with Secretary Kerry on a full range of issues in our bilateral relations. I assured Secretary Kerry that we will help – that we’ll pursue our planning process for the full implementation of EDCA. The EDCA will help us prepare for the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations and contribute to our AFP modernization efforts. We also discussed common challenges, in particular the threat of violent extremism. The Philippines recognizes U.S. leadership to counter violent extremism, and we express our desire to continue working with the U.S., as we have in the past, in our own efforts to fight terrorism.

On the issue of maritime disputes in the South China Sea, we thank the U.S. Government for its statement of support for the arbitration decision and its call for restraint by all parties. The United States is our only treaty ally, and we will continue our consultations and engagements with them on a way forward with our national interests paramount and with full consideration for the award from the Arbitral Tribunal. We work with the United States on many regional and global issues, and I look forward to working with Secretary Kerry on initiatives that will advance our mutual interests.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Secretary Yasay. At this point, the United States Secretary of State the Honorable John F. Kerry will give his opening statement.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you very much. Mr. Foreign Secretary, Jun, thank you very, very much for your welcome here – very, very warm welcome. And I’m really happy to be back in Manila, back in the Philippines, a place that I’ve traveled to many times through the years, and I’m particularly glad to be here and honored to be the first foreign secretary, foreign minister that you’ve received. It’s a privilege, and I look forward to meeting with the president.

Being here so soon after the election and remembering the journey of many years – I commented to one of my staff people today that it brought back a lot of the memories of the early days when I first came here back in 1986. It’s hard for me to believe that it is three decades ago. But in 1986, as a young senator, I joined an international effort to monitor the snap election that had been called here by President Marcos, and I traveled all around this beautiful country during those period of time. And everywhere I went, particularly when I went on election day – I flew by helicopter all the way down to Mindanao and stopped in various places in between – and I saw people standing in long lines in the hot sun, very hot day. They were standing by the thousands, waiting long hours to be able to vote, and literally doing their part to make democracy work. I can’t tell you how impressed I was. And I went back to the United States Senate and I talked about the courage and the determination of the people of the Philippines to make their democracy work. I still remember the yellow shirts, the pro-democracy banners, and I look wherever at people who vote and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the kind of enthusiasm and hope that people expressed, with men and women participating in an election for the first time – a real election.

The courage of that moment displayed by the people of the Philippines inspired people all across the globe, and it helped to spark an historic movement towards democracy that was felt by those people all around the world. Today, this nation is a model of democracy. The election that was held here in May was open and transparent, it offered a real choice, and the voters flocked to the polls – a turnout of more than 80 percent. That is exactly what democracy is all about, and I congratulate the Filipino people and I very much look forward to congratulating President Duterte on his victory in person later today.

My purpose in coming to Manila today is to underscore the value that the United States places on the alliance and the true friendship and relationship that we have with the people of this country. The U.S.-Filipino relationship has absolutely withstood the test of time and it is clearly one of our most important in the Asia Pacific. Foreign Secretary Yasay was in Vientiane with me this week for the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, and this morning he and I discussed a few of the key issues that came up during those ministerial meetings, including, obviously, the situation in the South China Sea. Now, I made it clear in Vientiane and I make it clear here, as I have everywhere, that the United States does not – we are not a claimant, and the United States does not take a position on the competing sovereignty claims to the land features of the South China Sea, but we do take a strong position on protecting the rights, the freedoms, and the lawful uses of air and sea space as defined by international law. We take a strong position in support of the rule of law. We have made clear that the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal convened under the UN Law of the Sea Convention is legally binding, and that we expect that the parties should comply with their obligations under law. Now, the rights of all countries under the law should always be respected. That is what international law is about; that is what a rules-based order is about.

At the same time – and I want to be equally clear about this – we urge all the claimants to exercise restraint and to work to reduce tensions. In our meeting today, I told the foreign secretary that we appreciate the very responsible and measured way that the Philippine Government has responded to the decision. That’s been important. In all my meetings in Vientiane, including with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, there was a consistent focus expressed by everybody, including the Chinese foreign minister, to turn the page on the past confrontations. And looking ahead, we hope and see a real opportunity for claimants to work together to constructively, peacefully manage and ultimately resolve their differences consistent with international law. We hope to see a process that will narrow the geographic scope of the maritime disputes; set standards for behavior in contested areas; lead to mutually acceptable solutions – perhaps even a series of confidence-building steps. We hope to see a diplomatic process between and among the claimants, without coercion or the use or threat of force. And we look forward to working with all of the parties in order to advance the goals that I have just expressed.

But we have a much broader agenda, my friends, than just the question of the South China Sea. We continue to work together with Philippines and with other countries in the region on law enforcement and on regional security and on combating transnational crimes like human trafficking. I made very clear that civil and human rights need to be protected even as we work to keep our societies safe. We also work together on countering violent extremism. Unfortunately, the Philippines is no stranger to the threat of terrorism. This nation has been managing these threats by groups like Abu Sayyaf for some period of time, and our nations work very, very closely together – excuse me – our nations work very closely together in order to counter those threats.

In addition, the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, which Jun referred to, has been a cornerstone of security in the region for decades, and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, the EDCA, is exactly what the foreign secretary has defined it as. It not only helps us to coordinate our efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region, but it also allows the United States to provide rapid assistance to the Philippines in the event of an emergency because it enables us to be able to preposition humanitarian relief supplies. I personally saw firsthand the importance of this disaster response when I visited Tacloban very soon after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. And I saw the unbelievable destruction that that typhoon wreaked on that community, the buildings that were just wiped away, the water that came up to the airport tower, the mountains that were just completely shredded and these major trees. It underscored the importance not only of disaster response, but it also underscored the importance of our doing things about climate change so that we prevent this increased intensity of storms that are costing all of us so much money.

Moving forward, the EDCA agreement will also expand opportunities for our militaries to train together, and that will help to modernize the armed forces of the Philippines in order to help them to be able to increase their effectiveness in responding to 21st century threats.

Beyond our defense and our military partnership, the United States and the Philippines have expanding economic ties which are very important in order to provide jobs for our people, raise the standard of living, increase the opportunity for health care and education, for people to be able to get better and better jobs. Last year, the economy here was one of the fastest-growing in the world, and we fully support the government’s efforts to make the country even more competitive in the global market by promoting free trade, protecting intellectual property rights, fighting corruption, and pursuing sustainable development. And even though the Philippines is not a member of the TPP, definitely the Philippines can benefit from the high standards that this agreement will set for the entire region.

The bottom line is that the friendship between the United States and the Philippines is a deep friendship. It is deeper than just our economic and our defense cooperation. It is rooted in history. It is rooted in our support for democratic institutions and values. It is rooted in our people and the relationship of our people to each other. And as you know, we have a large Filipino American community which contributes so much to the life of our country. Nearly a quarter of a million Americans live here in the Philippines, and roughly 4 million Filipinos live in the United States, which is further binding our two nations together through cultural and familial ties.

To an extent, I think it’s fair to say that we see a bit of each other in ourselves, and that’s a good thing, and we understand that. Just as our nations have been linked historically, so to our future prosperity and our security will go hand in hand.

So again, I am pleased to be here. I look forward to meeting with President Duterte. I speak for President Obama and the entire Administration in saying that we look forward to working with President Duterte and with all of our friends in the Philippines for the benefit of both of our countries and for all of those countries in the region and in the world that can benefit from the strength of our relationship.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Secretary Kerry. The floor is now open for questions. Due to our extremely tight schedule, we can only take two questions, one from each side, and no follow-up question, please. We’ll take the first question from the Philippine media. Mr. J. C. Gotinga from CNN Philippines will ask a question.

QUESTION: This question is for Secretary Yasay, but of course, the Secretary is free to answer if he should want to.

Secretary Yasay, how does the Duterte administration plan to implement the EDCA in light of the fact that China is disregarding the ruling from the Arbitral Tribunal?

FOREIGN SECRETARY YASAY: To begin with, let me say that the ruling and EDCA has no bearing or direct bearing whatsoever. Even as China has made its statement not to respect or recognize the decision, it does not automatically on that basis kick into play EDCA. It continues. And I’d like to assure you that the president has also committed to make sure that our agreements with the United States will be fully fulfilled and respected.

SECRETARY KERRY: I think the minister answered it very effectively.

MODERATOR: The next question will come from the U.S. media. Ms. Lesley Wroughton of Reuters will ask a question.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Foreign Minister, good morning. The – I wanted to talk just a little about the South China Sea. Was the joint statement from the ASEAN nations really a victory for ASEAN when it skipped to mention of the arbitration decision and basically stuck to its pro forma comments, as it always did?

And then to the Secretary, only six countries have joined the United States —

SECRETARY KERRY: We’re both secretaries.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. It’s early morning. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s okay.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, only six countries have joined the United States calling publicly for it to be respected, and both ASEAN and the EU have also shied away from publicly calling for that. How does one prevent the ruling from becoming irrelevant, and how do you think these diplomatic discussions – what you heard today, how do you see these diplomatic discussions moving ahead?

FOREIGN SECRETARY YASAY: Let me answer the question first. The merits of the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal is a matter of concern between China and the Philippines, and China and the Philippines hope to engage each other in moving forward to the peaceful implementation of the arbitral award.

Insofar as your – the other aspect of your question is —

QUESTION: I asked if it wasn’t really a victory for the ASEAN countries.

FOREIGN SECRETARY YASAY: Okay, I think it was a triumph for ASEAN. If you will look at the joint communique and the statement, it covers all of the elements and fundamental principles on which ASEAN is based and which justify the existence of ASEAN. They have talked about the respect for legal processes and the democratic processes in resolving this dispute. It has talked about upholding international law and the 1982 UNCLOS. It has also expressed their concerns about the actions that have been taken that destabilize such as the reclamation activities that has been undertaken, and this is very important. And more importantly, it has asked all of the parties concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety towards the peaceful settlement of their disputes.

So this to me is a triumph for ASEAN because it makes ASEAN more credible to the international community and it makes it more efficient, effective, and relevant as a regional group.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, Lesley. I think that Secretary Yasay has given a very good answer. I’ll just add a couple things to it. I’d ask you to go read the communique paragraph for paragraph as I did before we approved it. And I was very satisfied that the communique clearly referenced all legal rights, all legal decisions, legal process, legal tribunal, legal decisions, without mentioning the arbitration. And sometimes, frankly, at a meeting like that and diplomacy, you don’t always have to – you don’t always have to include every single word that may, in fact, sometimes make it harder to get to the dialogue that you want to get to.

But every single principle, every single value of rule of law, was embraced in that communique. The communique said clearly that everybody supported the Law of the Sea process. Everybody supported the rule of law. Everybody thought that there must be a reduction of tension. Everybody thought that people needed to abide by what the legal requirements were under the law, and they had to be resolved by rule of law.

Now, I made it clear and I think the foreign secretary made it clear, as has everybody else, that the decision itself is a binding decision. But we’re not trying to create a confrontation. We’re trying to create a solution mindful of the rights of people that are established under the law. So whatever – as we encourage the Philippines and we encourage the Chinese and we encourage other claimants to engage in negotiations, that’s now new. I did that when I went to Beijing and China three years ago, and President Obama has said that. We are consistently, year after year, urging parties to negotiate, to work this through diplomatically, bilaterally, multilaterally, build up confidence-building measures. And when we say that we urge a negotiation, we do so obviously understanding that our friend and ally, the Philippines, can only do so on terms that are acceptable to the Government of the Philippines.

So my judgment is hopefully you shouldn’t be looking for the confrontation; you should be looking for the solution. And I believe that was a communique that helps perhaps to move people towards the kind of discussion that could bring about a conclusion. But it still is mindful of what we believe is the impact and judgment of that decision itself.

QUESTION: But Mr. Secretary, if you don’t mention the ruling publicly, if nobody admits it, then are you not afraid that it could become irrelevant?

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s impossible for it to be irrelevant. It’s legally binding and it’s obviously a decision of the court that is recognized under international law and it has to be part of the calculation. And I am confident our friends in the Philippines will make their judgments about what their negotiating position is and how they intend to proceed forward. What we want to do is urge people to not try to build up the tensions, don’t take provocative actions, leave a space here for people to be able to find a way forward that meets the needs of the region, of the nations, and also respects people’s rights and obligations.

Thank you all very much.

FOREIGN SECRETARY YASAY: Thank you.

Source: U.S. State Department