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US Deputy Secretary of State: Disputes surrounding the South China Sea ought to be resolved by international law and not “a unilateral decision by one country”

Deputy Secretary of State of the United States of America John J. Sullivan has stated that ASEAN countries and the U.S. jointly believe that international law ought to be followed in disputes surrounding the South China Sea instead of "a unilateral decision by one country".

Speaking at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting at Lotte New York Palace Hotel on 27 Sep, Mr Sullivan highlighted the U.S.A.'s commitment to upholding international law, including the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as well as ASEAN’s efforts to fully implement the United Nations' Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on North Korea. 

In his opening remarks, Mr Sullivan noted: "We have enjoyed many successes during the past 41 years of U.S.-ASEAN partnership, and we’re fully committed to building upon this relationship at the upcoming U.S.-ASEAN Summit and East Asia Leaders Summit in Singapore on November 15th."

On South China Sea disputes: The U.S. and ASEAN nations are committed to "the rule of international law," not "unilateral actions by one country"

Touching on the issue of the South China Sea in light of Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad's statement at the Council of Foreign Relations forum on the same day -- and in response to a question regarding the expectations of the U.S. regarding the ASEAN countries' role in resolving the disputes -- Mr Sullivan expressed his belief that "what every one of those member-countries and the United States is looking for is resolution of those claims -- not unilaterally by one country, but under the norms of international law. 

Citing that the U.S.' opposition against China's intervention in the disputes is not rooted in challenging China's sovereignty over certain parts of the South China Sea, but rather in the desire for "international law to be followed," Mr Sullivan said that therein lies a great need "for there to be a peaceful process -- not a unilateral decision by one country to resolve those claims -- [but one] which involve a number of different countries [in the areas of dispute] – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, et cetera."

When a lack of consensus amongst ASEAN nations regarding China's intervention in the disputes was pointed out, Mr Sullivan responded:

"Well, [from] my discussions – for example, I met – I’ve met with a number of – bilaterally with a number of ASEAN countries during my week here at UNGA ... I would say that there is consensus, a commitment by ASEAN and the United States to the rule of law, the Law of the Sea treaty, that that should govern these claims, disputed claims to the South China Sea, and not unilateral actions by one country to develop features in the South China Sea and, even worse, to militarize them."

The U.S. working on characterising Rohingya mass persecution as "crimes against humanity"; declares total spending of nearly $400mil to remedy the humanitarian crisis

In response to a Southeast Asian media correspondent's query regarding the U.S.'s stance regarding the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, in light of the Secretary of State's meeting with Myanmar on the same day, Mr Sullivan revealed that "the State Department had issued a factual report on the horrific atrocities that were committed," and that the U.S. had announced a budget of "$185 million to try to address the humanitarian crisis that has ensued," which "brings our total up to almost $400 million that the United States has committed to address this horrific humanitarian situation that we see".

"And that’s a sign of our commitment to doing right by these people who have been so horribly treated and to bring those who are accountable to justice," added Mr Sullivan.

When probed as to why the report did not use the phrases "crimes against humanity" and "genocide," and was published without any press conference or media release, Mr Sullivan said:

I will ... I don’t have any comment on how it was released. 

I was ... have been briefed on its preparation.  It was a ... basically a forensic examination of what happened, a factual recitation of what happened.  There weren’t legal judgments expressed in it because that wasn’t the point of the report.  I know there’s been discussion about whether to characterize legal characterizations of what happened. 

There – I know that Secretary Tillerson had classified it as ethnic cleansing at a minimum, and the report that was issued is a factual description of what happened.  And we are working toward holding those accountable, including judgments like the one you offered, characterizing it as a crime against humanity or a genocide.

Maximum pressure on North Korea to denuclearise not "a judgement of the US," but "UNSC resolutions" that "need to be enforced"

Responding to a query from Bloomberg regarding the U.S. officials' plans in response to calls throughout Asia for the U.S. to lift nuclear sanctions against North Korea -- as a result of sharing China's view that there ought to be a gradual approach towards NK -- Mr Sullivan said that such calls are contrary to what officials from ASEAN countries have expressed to him on that day. 

"We discussed the continuing need to enforce the UN Security Council resolutions.  This isn’t a judgment of the United States that we’re talking about; these are UN Security Council resolutions that were adopted and need to be enforced. 

"There was no disagreement with the position I urged, which was all countries – all countries that are interested in world peace, in denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – should be enforcing these Security Council resolutions to the full," said Mr Sullivan.

In response to a question from Reuters regarding contradictory statements made regarding the timeframe of eventual denuclearisation -- while "the State Department put out a statement saying 2021," the President "seemed to indicate there is no timeframe" -- Mr Sullivan said that from his conversations with Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo, he could tell that "he [Pompeo] is working as hard as humanly possible along with our colleagues across the interagency to achieve denuclearization as soon as possible." 

"The President’s comments yesterday I think indicate the scope of the challenge we face. I will – the President has given you his thoughts on this, which I wholeheartedly endorse. I think it will be a substantial challenge," predicted Mr Sullivan.

When probed if it meant that ASEAN countries -- and the U.S. -- are actually opposed against China's talks about a more gradual approach towards denuclearisation of North Korea as well as Russia's idea of putting in place certain exemptions for certain projects that both North and South had agreed to, Mr Sullivan said that firstly, the "UNSC resolutions that we’re seeking to enforce don’t provide any of those exceptions.  We’re not in favor of those. 

The discussion that we had today with the – at the ASEAN ministerial, what I said was I did not hear from those member-countries any support for those exceptions or any exceptions, which is not to say that they then made affirmative statements to me that they would oppose across the board.  I don’t want to put words into their mouths, but that was not raised at the meeting that I co-chaired today."

When asked about whether the U.S. is prepared to offer anything in exchange for a declaration of assets as a part of its negotiations with North Korea, and how it intends to continue pursuing its campaign of maximum pressure through nuclear sanctions in the face of Russia and China's bid to the UN to ease said sanctions, Mr Sullivan has declined to comment regarding the issue.

"What I will reaffirm, though, is our commitment to the UN Security Council resolutions, multiple resolutions adopted unanimously by the Security Council – that all we’re doing is saying that those should be enforced," concluded Mr Sullivan on the matter.