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A Public Lecture on "U.S. Engagement with the Asia-Pacific Region in 2015”


“U.S. Engagement with the Asia-Pacific Region in 2015”

Monday, 26th January 2015 at 01.30 – 03.00 p.m.

Room 105, Maha Chulalongkorn Building, Chulalongkorn University


Co-organiser: United States Embassy, Bangkok; Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative


        Assistant Secretary of State
        Daniel R. Russel
        Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
           U.S. Department of State

Moderator: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak
                   Director, ISIS Thailand

                   Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Videos: A Public Lecture on "U.S. Engagement with the Asia-Pacific Region in 2015”: 

U.S. Engagement with the Asia-Pacific Region in 2015:


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Introductory Remarks - Assoc. Prof. Thitinan Pongsudhirak:

Assistant Secretary Daniel has been with the National Security Council and been Special Assistant to President Obama, in addition to his current position as Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. The topic is focussed on the U.S. and the Asia-Pacific in 2015 and beyond. Around here, we’re interested to focus on issues about U.S. foreign policy in the region, U.S. alliances, the Pivot/Rebalance, competing challenges in the global arena, as well as Thai-U.S. bilateral relations.


Assistant Secretary of State, Daniel R. Russel


It is good to be back in Thailand, and it’s an honour to be at Chulalongkorn University which is a great school.

first visited Thailand in the early 1990s as a junior officer and stayed for a week at the home of a Foreign Service friend who was staying here. Like all visitors to Thailand, I fell in love. The warmth and hospitality of the Thai people made a huge impression on me, and I experience it every time I come back. I also had the great honour working at the White House at the National Security Council to accompany President Obama when he came to Thailand in November 2012. The extraordinary experience of visiting Wat Pho, the honour of being received by His Majesty the King similarly made a profound impression on the President and has stayed with him.

Right now, I’m in the middle of a trip across Southeast Asia that also includes stops in the Philippines, Malaysia and Cambodia. I’m here for the same reason that President Obama came to Asia twice last year; the same reason ships and Navy call on your ports.  The United States is also an Asia-Pacific nation, a resident Pacific power.  America’s prosperity and security is inextricably linked with Asia’s.  Our communities are linked by travel, trade, and family ties.  And our fates are closely linked by many global challenges, from climate change to pandemic disease to violent extremism.

One thing I have learned is that no single nation, however strong, can solve these problems alone. So first, I’ll talk about the regional architecture that the U.S. and our allies and partners have built to meet them.  Then I’ll spend some time talking about U.S.-Thai relations and what we see as the pathway forward.

For many decades – in fact 2015 is the 70th Anniversary of the end of WWII and the creation of the United Nations – the U.S. has worked with Asia-Pacific allies, we’ve worked with partners like the ASEAN members to advance security, prosperity, and democracy throughout the region. Together, we’ve built an architecture, a system of regional rules and institutions that aim at strengthening the rule of law.  This architecture has helped keep the peace in the region, and many nations have taken advantage of the space provided by peace and stability to develop, both politically and economically.

We see this in the vibrant democracies that have risen in places as diverse and different as Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.  While significant challenges remain in Myanmar, we have seen the historic opening up of that country after decades of isolation.  And in Cambodia, the agreement between the government and the opposition last year has created a real opportunity for reform and democracy.

In all these places, democratic progress and economic progress have gone hand-in-hand, and we’ve often seen the success in one country inspire progress in a neighbour.

The Obama Administration has supported the region’s progress in many ways, such as increasing our direct engagement with ASEAN, a pillar of the regional order. He decided to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, appointed our first – and now second – resident ambassadors, and has personally and actively participated in the East Asia Summit.

The U.S. strongly supports building up that Summit as the premier forum for allowing leaders to address regional political and security issues, such as the South China Sea disputes.  And we support the ASEAN Economic Community set to launch at the end of this year as well.

We support and actively participate in APEC, the economic pillar of the Asia-Pacific region.  It has done much to further the recovery from the global financial crisis, to empower women economically, and to ensure that growth is inclusive – that its benefits are helping people out of poverty and helping to grow the middle class throughout the region. And at APEC this year in Manila, we intend to explore how we can help expand the practice of corporate social responsibility to promote more inclusive economic growth.

The oldest and most venerable pillars of the regional order are our alliances, including our alliances between the United States and the Kingdom of Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea.  This system of alliances and security partnerships is not a legacy of the 20th Century, it is an investment in the 21st Century.

Our alliance system is the backbone of cooperation in the region and around the globe.  And it stands for the rule of law when it is challenged, for instance by problematic actions to unilaterally change the status quo in the South China Sea. We work with allies regularly to make sure our forces can operate together in a crisis at a moment’s notice.  America’s enduring 182 year close relationship with Thailand is no exception. In fact, together we have addressed humanitarian crises, responded to natural disasters, combatted maritime piracy, advanced public health, protected refugees, and collaborated on counter-terrorism and law enforcement efforts to fight threats to international security. This cooperation is important to both of us, the region and the world and it will continue.

But our relationship with Thailand is defined by more than a number of years that we have been allies, or even more than our common interests and aspirations. Our friendship, founded so long ago, has been continuously refreshed over time; by Prince Mahidol’s time in the U.S. studying at Harvard; by the birth of His Majesty the King in Massachusetts, and by His Majesty’s significant contributions to American culture.

Our broad, enduring friendship is refreshed by the thousands of Thai students who come to the U.S. every year, and the Americans who come to study here.  For over two centuries, Americans have lived in and contributed to Thailand in various ways, just as the Thai have done in America.

We’ve stood as partners in WWII, supporting democratic ideals during conflict in Indochina, who have fought the scourge of terrorism as partners for decades and continue to do so today in facing the new and virulent threat of radical jihadism, and we’ve been partners who bring stability and prosperity to the people of Thailand and the region.

For over half a century, the Peace Corps and U.S. aid workers have helped with teaching and rural development.  Our health care workers and scientist collaborated on research to combat malaria and HIV/AIDS.  Our law enforcement officers tackle trafficking in persons, narcotics, and wildlife.


We have also enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial economic and trading relationship.  The United States is Thailand’s third largest trading partner.  American companies are major investors in Thailand, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs, bringing leading technologies and high standards. These companies show it’s not just the quantity of trade and investment that’s important, it’s the quality.  Doing business with America means more training and skills development for Thai workers, and better labor and environmental standards that promote growth, help you escape the “middle income trap,” and improve the lives of regular people.

I want to pick up on Professor Thitinan’s reference on the way we’re planting the seeds for the future of our relationship, today – through President Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, or YSEALI.  I understand we have some members in the audience today.  Let us know where you are…

I hope that the numbers will expand.

Not only is YSEALI a project that President Obama has personally invested a great deal of priority to, but as somebody who was a young person in Southeast Asia for a few years himself, he feels a very powerful connection and is a believer in this program.  He has hosted townhall meetings with YSEALI members here in the region that Thais have attended.  And we’ve brought YSEALI members to the U.S. as well, and do so on a regular basis.

It’s one more way we’re engaging with young leaders, and helping you engage with each other, and engage across borders within ASEAN countries to help promote an ASEAN identity. With your help, YSEALI is creating a cadre of young Southeast Asian leaders who work in partnership with each other and the United States to tackle what you have identified as your generation’s greatest challenges:  economic development, environmental protection, education, and civic engagement. YSEALI members have impressed President Obama, and me, and all who have interacted with them.

I’ve been impressed and I know that President Obama has been tremendously impressed by the quality of the YSEALI members, it’s great to be able to interact with you and I strongly support what you’re doing. So, while I have already spoken at some length about what defines our partnership – both historically and looking forward – I also need to say something about the political developments here in Thailand and the impact on U.S.-Thailand relations over the last year.

Unfortunately, our relationship with Thailand has been challenged by the military coup that removed a democratically-elected government eight months ago.

This morning, I held discussions with former Prime Minister Yingluck, former Prime Minister Abhisit, and with the interim Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tanasak. In each case, I have discussed the current political situation in Thailand with all of them.  All sides have spoken about the importance of reconciliation and their commitment to work to achieve Thailand’s democratic future.

I understand that this is an extremely sensitive issue, and so I bring it up with all humility and great respect for the Kingdom of Thailand and the Thai people.  The United States does not take sides in Thai politics.  We believe it is for the Thai people to determine the legitimacy of their political and legal processes.  But we are concerned about significant restraints on freedoms since the coup, including restrictions on speech and assembly. I’ve been very straightforward about these concerns.

We are also particularly concerned that the political process does not seem to represent all elements of Thai society.  Let me repeat: we are not dictating the political path that Thailand should follow to get back to democracy, or taking sides in Thai politics. But an inclusive process promotes political reconciliation, which, in turn, is key to long-term stability. The alternative – a narrow, restricted process -- risks leaving many Thai people feeling that they’ve been excluded from the political system.

That is why we continue to advocate for a broader, more inclusive political process that allows all sectors of society to feel represented.

Also, the perception of fairness is extremely important.  I’ll be blunt here: When an elected leader is deposed, then impeached by the same authorities that conducted the coup, and then targeted with criminal charges at a time when the basic democratic processes and institutions are interrupted, the international community is left with the impression that these steps could be politically driven.

That is why we hope to see a process that reinforces the confidence of the Thai people in their government and judicial institutions, and builds confidence internationally that Thailand is moving toward stable and participatory democracy.

Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions of speech and assembly, these are important steps as part of a genuinely inclusive reform process that reflects the broad diversity of views within the country.  We hope that the results of that process will be stable, democratic institutions that reflect and respond to the will of the Thai people.

The message I am bringing to the people I am meeting with today, to you, and to all Thai people is the same:

For the United States, Thailand is a valued friend and an important ally. Thailand is a country with whom we have a longstanding history of broad cooperation on a range of issues important not just to our two countries but also to the region and to the globe.  We care deeply about this relationship and we care deeply about our friendship with all Thai people, we care deeply about Thailand’s prospects for success and we wish you well.



Question and Answer Session

Thitinan: You have touched upon a gamut of issues; US engagement with the Asia-Pacific, ASEAN and bilateral alliances, and the domestic situation in Thailand. The flavour of the day is ‘youth,’ so the questions may have a ‘youth focus.’

Public Question (Student from Thammasat University): In your opinion, what are the skills needed in the 21st Century for young people?

Assistant Secretary Daniel R. Russel: What I tell young students and officers who join the State Department and Foreign Service is that the most important attribute to succeed is to have passion. You could argue that passion is not a skill, but what distinguishes people who are truly successful is that they are doing something that they believe in, something that is important and something that they love. It is certainly my experience that people who have a passion get good at what they’re doing, and people who are good at what they’re doing have a lot of fun.

More specifically, I think that in Southeast Asia, which is increasingly well wired electronically thanks to the IT revolution, the ability to master social media and high tech platforms is essential. Language skills are a major asset, and English remains the language of commerce and diplomacy. The United States has strongly supported English language training programs throughout Southeast Asia as it gives young people a competitive advantage.

I also believe that gaining a perspective on one’s own country and society comes most easily when you leave it. You don’t necessarily understand or appreciate your own country or culture until you have seen it from a distance.


Public Question: As an American living abroad, we receive many requests to represent and defend the United States’ actions abroad, particularly with regards to democracy. What makes America so sure that democracy is right for everyone?

Daniel R. Russel: There is a famous saying, often attributed to Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others.” There are many forms of democratic government and there will always be debates about the extent to which ‘elections mean democracy.’ But you cannot go anywhere on Earth and show me a citizen who says, “My voice doesn’t matter. I don’t care about the future of my family, community or country.” Every citizen has a voice, and those voices should be heard. There has to be compromise, and there has to be order and law. But democracy and the rule-of-law go hand in hand.

There’s another saying that “power corrupts.” My view of democracy is that it forces society, or allows societies, to build institutions that will regulate the behaviour of citizens according to compromise, not according to absolute principles.

Abraham Lincoln was famous for saying in the heat of the U.S. Civil War that we should dedicate ourselves to “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Democracy is imperfect, but it gives a voice to all of its citizens, it builds institutions that defend the weak, and it has a resilience and self-correcting mechanism to it that allows the voters to make their views known and to take a different route with consensus from the majority.


Public Question (BBC): Last week at the dialogue in Manilla, you and your Filipino counterparts said a lot about the South China Sea. After that, the Chinese spokesperson stated that third-party countries should not get involved and should not instigate tension in the conflict. What is your reply to that?

Daniel R. Russel: I have regular and constructive dialogues with my Chinese counterparts, as do Secretary Kerry and President Obama. We have been clear and consistent in conveying to the Chinese the areas where we are neutral, and the areas where we take a position with regard to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The United States is not taking one country’s side against another when it comes to the matter of how the dispute over sovereignty will ultimate be resolved. We fully agree that it is an issue that should be resolved among the claimants themselves, but we believe strongly that it should be resolved peacefully and through diplomatic means.

Where we do take positions is on matters of international law and international rights such as freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, and right to unimpeded commerce. We oppose unilateral actions that aim to advance a claim by changing the status quo or coercing another country or claimant. That’s a principle that the United States will always support.

Our encouragement of the parties to exercise self-restraint, ensuring universal laws apply equally to big and small countries, and our push for constructive and peaceful management of disputes is by no means interference. It is part of our contribution to the security and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.


Public Question (Student from Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University): Globally, there seems to have been a retreat away from democracy and a surge in authoritarian rule. In our region, there is increasingly a mix. In your opinion, what is the outlook for democratisation in Southeast Asia, with a special reference to Thailand and Myanmar?

Public Question (Bangkok Post): You have been talking about the non-necessity of martial law, and the need for compromise and rule of law. This morning you spoke to the current Foreign Minister, how did he respond to these issues?

Daniel R. Russel: I will leave it to the Foreign Minister to speak for himself. It’s a well established diplomatic principle that one does not either disclose details of diplomatic conversation, or speak for the other side. I have no hesitation in telling you that I got a serious hearing. I came to Thailand on behalf of my government both to listen to the government and political leaders, but also to convey our views and hopes for Thailand. I said to the Foreign Minister, and to the political leaders and in this speech, that the United States has a huge interest in Thailand’s success. A strong, economically thriving, influential, politically stable Thailand is an essential element of a thriving and growing region.

We believe that the curtailment of civil rights, the restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, don’t in the long run contribute to stability. We believe that taking steps to end martial law, allow for legitimate and peaceful voicing of views, and to promote an inclusive process in which all sectors of society feel that they have had a hearing will generate institutions and outcomes in which all members of society believe they have a stake.

Broadly, there is no on-and-off switch that takes you to democracy in one step. Democracy is about allowing the citizens to actively participate in shaping the decisions and future of their own country. It’s a tough job and all of us are constantly seeking to refine and improve our systems. No system is perfect, certainly not the system we have in the United States.

But the push for democracy, the push for justice, the push for accountability, the push for equality does not come out of a textbook.  It comes out of people’s hearts, beliefs and conviction that they can create a better system for their families and children. The push for justice and democracy is inexorable, unstoppable. There are obstacles and setbacks, but the fundamental quest for opportunity and justice is universal, not just an American or Asian value.

In the case of Myanmar, after more than 40 years of authoritarian rule, we have seen an extraordinary process of economic and political reform. It has been dramatic and it has been difficult. There are still significant challenges ahead. I don’t believe that the citizens of Myanmar who have received access to communications, found new opportunities, and shared experiences with neighbours and friends, will be willing to go backwards and retreat. It is an opportunity and responsibility for the international community and Myanmar’s neighbours to help them succeed.


Public Question: General Tanasak has briefed you on measures taken by the government to fight human trafficking. Could you please assess these measures, and could we hear your recommendations?

Public Question (ISIS Thailand): Apart from Cobra Gold, what new activities are planned for Thailand and the United States? Also, when is the new Ambassador coming to Bangkok?

Public Question (PWC): About this time last year, the U.S. Ambassador in Myanmar set a target to delist at least one person from the sanctions list in Myanmar. One year on there has been no progress on that. Is that an administrative issue or does it reflect a change in policy towards Myanmar due to the violence in Myanmar?

Daniel Russel: I am here to listen and communicate. The United States uses our Embassy to do the same thing on a day

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