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- As Delivered - 

WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today had the following question-and-answer session with Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken at the full Committee hearing on opportunities and challenges in Asia:

Rep. Engel: “I want to raise two questions in conjunction with my statement.  And it is, the first one is about India.  It’s been characterized by U.S. officials as an indispensable partner of the United States.  As I mentioned before, it’s the third-largest economy in the world by purchasing power parity and is the largest democracy in the Asia region.  The U.S.-India relationship’s important.  It’s growing, in particular on the defense side, and Prime Minister Modi will be coming to Washington again in a couple of months to meet with President Obama.

“From a strategic perspective, India is a potential counterweight to China’s growing regional influence in Asia.  They’ve become increasingly vocal on issues like freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean region.  Additionally, Central Asia occupies critical geography in Asia, sandwiched between China, Russia, and Iran.  The Chinese recognize this potential of Central Asia for what it has been historically: a strategic crossroads at the doorstep of the Great Powers and a transit point for trade and culture between the East and the West.  And the Chinese are aggressively seeking to expand their influence there.

“Yet in your written testimony, there’s only one mention of India in the context of a U.S.-Japan-India trilateral ministerial, and there are no other mentions of South and Central Asia at all.  So my question is: does South and Central Asia not fit with the Administration’s larger Rebalance to Asia strategy?  And how can we be rebalancing to Asia without a strategic framework that considers Asia as a strategic whole?  Thank you.”

Deputy Secretary Blinken: “Thank you very much.  We strongly share your view on the importance of India, both in and of itself, but also as part of the region and as an increasingly vital regional actor.  India has its own regional policy that dovetails very nicely with the work we’re doing on the rebalance.  So we are working increasingly to integrate India into these efforts.

“And you mentioned the one thing that I did point to in the statement. I think there may be more in the written statement, this U.S.-Japan-India trilateral effort at a ministerial level.  It was included, also, we included Japan in the Malabar Exercise, which was a significant development which we hope to continue to carry forward.

“But we’re doing two things. We’re building our own relationship with India, as evidenced by the extraordinary level of high-level engagement, including Prime Minister Modi’s return visit here, the President being received for the first time as the honored guest at Republic Day.  But also in very concrete collaboration across the board: everything from climate and smart cities to improving the business climate to defense cooperation to production cooperation, even, in the defense area.  But intelligence sharing, information sharing, counterterrorism, countering violent extremism.  Across the board, the relationship has been elevated. 

“But critical to this is exactly what you’re pointing to which is integrating India into these regional frameworks so that we’re working together jointly.  And again the example with Japan is a very good one.  But this is exactly the direction that we want to go in.”

Rep. Engel: “Thank you.  I’m wondering if you could comment on the South China Sea.  I just want to ask you.  The Philippines has brought an arbitration case against China’s claims in the South China Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  If the ruling goes in the Philippines’ favor as expected, and if China refuses to abide by it, what are the implications for the Philippines and other claimants in the South China Sea?  And how will this change the U.S. approach in the South China Sea?”

Deputy Secretary Blinken: “Thank you.  Well, first I’d say, this is, the South China Sea is incredibly important to us and to all of our partners in two ways.  First of all, 25 percent of all traded goods, 25 percent of all oil that travels by sea goes through the South China Sea.  And indeed, one-third overall of liquefied natural gas.

“We have no position, as you know, on these sovereignty claims.  We’re not a claimant ourselves.  But we have a very strong interest in the way these claims are prosecuted by any claimant and a very strong interest in maintaining freedom of navigation, in making sure that disputes are resolved peacefully, and that countries abide by international law.

“And these are the very interests that China has been challenging with some of its actions, including the massive reclamations and militarization of these land features as well as various assertions that are not justified under international law.

“The case that you referred to is a very important moment.  This is an arbitration case brought by the Philippines with China, and we expect a decision by the tribunal in the coming months.  China knowingly agreed to the provisions in the Law of the Sea Treaty when it signed up.  Five independent arbitrators said, unanimously rejected China’s claim that it wasn’t bound by the arbitration mechanism, that the jurisdiction was lacking.  And the convention provides that its rulings are binding on the parties to the convention. 

“So we have worked very hard to establish across the region an understanding that this is an appropriate mechanism—arbitration—to resolve these disputes, and that the ruling of the tribunal should be binding on the two parties.  We’ve said to the Chinese, ‘If you’re given satisfaction on any aspect of the decision, we’ll be the first to stand up and defend it.’  But of course, if the Philippines is, you have to respect that.

“China has a decision to make depending on how the ruling comes out.  It will either decide to abide by the ruling, and that gives us a great opportunity, I think, to narrow the scope of areas that are in dispute in the South China Sea.  That would be good.  To get countries to work cooperatively together, for example, joint ventures on the exploitation of resources.  And to then work to resolve their disputes that remain peacefully.  That’s one path.

“The other path is it ignores the decision.  And then I think it risks doing terrible damage to its reputation, further alienating countries in the region and pushing them even closer to the United States.  China will have to decide depending on what the results of the arbitration are.  We’re watching that very, very closely.”

Rep. Engel: “Thank you.”