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Background Press Call on the Vice President's Visit to Southeast Asia

August 22, 2021

Via Teleconference

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us. We are going to go ahead and get started.

This is [senior administration official]. This briefing will be on background, attributed to "senior administration officials."

And the first part of this briefing will be immediately reported, and then the second half will be embargoed until tomorrow, Monday, August 23, until the conclusion of the Vice President's meetings with Prime Minister Lee.

So, to be immediately reportable, I will briefly go over the schedule, and then we will move to the embargoed portion.

If you have any follow-up questions, please -- we'll do some short Q&A at the top of this call, but please feel free to reach out to [senior administration officials], and we will facilitate getting what you need for your stories.

So, to briefly go over the schedule: In the morning, the Vice President will have meetings with Singaporean officials. She will have a brief meeting with Prime -- with -- pardon me -- with President Halimah Yacob.

She will then have a restricted bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Then, the Vice President and the Prime Minister will have an expanded bilateral meeting with their respective delegations.

Following that meeting, Vice President Harris and the Prime Minister will then have a joint press conference.

In the afternoon, Vice President Harris will visit Changi Naval Base where she will receive a briefing from Singaporean defense officials on the U.S.-Singapore defense relationship, and she will tour the USS Tulsa. Vice President Harris will also meet with U.S. sailors aboard the USS Tulsa and deliver remarks.

With that, I will hand it over to my colleague. And we are now moving to the portion of the call that will be embargoed until tomorrow, Monday, August 23, until the conclusion of the Vice President's meetings with Prime Minister Lee. And again, this will be attributed to "senior administration officials."

And I will just give one other point going forward: We will do two pieces of our nightly briefings. The first portion will be immediately reportable and will be a recap of the day. And the second portion will be embargoed information with the fact sheets and deliverables for the next step. So, with that, I will turn it over to my colleague.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, [senior administration official], and thanks, everybody, for joining.

Let me just outline some of the topics on the agenda for the Vice President's bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Lee. But before I do that, I would like to take a step back and sort of help explain why we came all over this way for these meetings, and to say that the Vice President really knows the importance of engaging in person and developing relationships with world leaders to advance U.S. interests, as she's been doing that since the start of the administration and that's why she's here.

She intends to make clear our vision for this region and exchange ideas with the leaders she meets and others, and to take steps to deliver on that vision.

As part of this approach, we thought it was important that she have a restricted meeting with the Prime Minister, which will give the two leaders an opportunity to get to know each other and share views in a really candid manner, and then also a larger bilateral meeting to include the wider delegation.

I think it's pretty certain that they will talk about how the Biden-Harris administration can move forward in our efforts to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific -- which you've heard us say before is a key priority of the administration -- and they'll talk about what that means in practice.

Let me just flag a couple of the specific topics that the Vice President will discuss with Prime Minister Lee and give you some sense of some of the deliverables that might be associated with these topics.

I'll start with the economy, front and center, for what we're doing.

The Vice President will make clear that we want to deepen our economic partnership with Singapore. We know that the $90 billion in two-way trade supports lots of American jobs and American businesses, and we know this whole region plays an outside -- an outsized importance on our prosperity and economic security. So, this will be a theme not just in this meeting, but throughout this whole trip.

The Vice President and the Prime Minister will renew -- review a number of areas of cooperation, including on the digital economy, infrastructure, and clean energy. She will also focus on supply chain resiliency -- another thing that we really emphasize at home and abroad, and on this trip -- and talk about ways we can work together with Singapore to strengthen our supply chain.

I think you know, on Tuesday, she'll be participating in a supply chain roundtable with experts from government and the private sector. And she will also be on this visit launching, together with the Prime Minister, the U.S.-Singapore Partnership for Growth and Innovation. It's a partnership between the Department of Commerce and Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry. It's really a framework for how our two countries can work together to promote growth and innovation, including on supply chains.

Another big topic is climate change. It's related to the economic partnership. They will certainly talk about it, talk about taking action to address the urgent issue of climate change.

And we also have some outcomes you can expect on this front: The Vice President will announce the launch of the U.S.-Singapore Climate Partnership, which will focus on increasing the regional ambition on sustainable financing mechanism and mobilizing private capital, and R&D efforts for climate mitigation and adaptation. It's really about setting standards and rules of the road for sustainable finance, where both of our countries, we think, have a lot to offer.

And she'll be announcing an expansion of our Smart Cities Collaboration and expanding the U.S.-Singapore Third Country Training Program to have a green element to it as well. It's a program where the United States and Singapore train others from the region, and we're adding a climate/environmental component to that as well.

My colleague will have more to say about the security relationship shortly, telling you about the visit to Changi Naval Base, and to stress that our close security partnership will surely be a topic of the Vice President's meeting with the Prime Minister as well. That will affirm the critical importance of this relationship and the enduring U.S. commitment to a robust presence in this region.

Thinking about deliverables on this front, I think you can expect them to make progress on the recommencing rotational naval deployments.

Global Health is another area of emphasis on this trip and for the meeting. The two leaders will discuss the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic and how we can work together to save lives now and prevent the next pandemic, including by strengthening global health security.

More specifically, the United States and Singapore will agree to work together to increase preparedness by increasing the capacity of Southeast Asian countries to identify new COVID variants and provide early warning. And they will also commit to deepen our research on treatments.

Yet another area that they'll discuss and we're going to deliver on is cybersecurity, which is a personal interest of the Vice President and a big focus of the administration.

After the meeting, we'll announce that the United States and Singapore have finalized three agreements that will expand cybersecurity cooperation with respect to the financial sector, military-to-military engagement, and regional capacity building.

They will also discuss regional issues, which I'm sure will include China and Burma and others. They'll talk about ASEAN and the importance of ASEAN and its essential role in the Indo-Pacific, and the United States' commitment to deepening our strategic partnership with ASEAN.

And then, finally, they'd like -- they will likely discuss space. As you all know, the Vice President is the chair of our National Space Council and she will want to talk about the importance of creating a safe and transparent environment that facilitates space exploration, science, and commercial activities. And the two countries will likely agree to expand their bilateral cooperation in this area as well.

And with that, over to my next colleague to talk about security cooperation.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon. Can everyone hear me?



So, on security cooperation, as my colleague said, the Vice President will be visiting the Changi Naval Base tomorrow afternoon. This visit will demonstrate our close security partnership and our appreciation for Singapore's support of the U.S. force posture in the region.

As I'm sure many of you know, the U.S.-Singapore partnership is the bedrock of America's military presence in Southeast Asia and an anchor for security in the broader Indo-Pacific region.

At its core, we have a shared commitment to upholding the rules-based order, and we will continue to work together on that front.

As for her visit, she will be engaging with Singaporean defense officials and U.S. sailors, and will be discussing the importance of our presence in the region and Singapore's support for it. She will also address U.S. sailors to underscore how our presence in the Indo-Pacific has long guaranteed peace and security and important principles like freedom of trade and commerce, as well as freedom of navigation.

The ship she's visiting and will be speaking on, the USS Tulsa, is a Littoral Combat ship, which is a fast, maneuverable ship that operates in coastal waters as well as -- blue water -- and also covers a range of missions that are appropriate for Southeast Asia.

With that, I'll hand it back to my colleague.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you both. So, we are going to take a couple of questions.

Again, for anyone that joined late, this call is on background, attributed to "senior administration officials."

The portions that we just ran through -- everything outside of the overview of the schedule for tomorrow -- is embargoed until tomorrow morning, until the conclusion of the Vice President's meetings with Prime Minister Lee.

So, with that, please use the "raise your hand" function, and -- okay, so, "raise your hand function," and we will call on you.

So, there are two people that have their hands raised, but I have no idea who you are because it just says -- we're going to go with "iPhone."

Q: Sorry. One of them is me. "205" is Zolan (inaudible).

Q: Hi. The other one is me. This is Nandita.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay, perfect. Perfect. So, Zolan, first you. And then, we'll go to you, Nandita.

Q: Thanks so much. I appreciate it.

So, just two questions. I mean, so, when the President went to Europe, he also -- he spoke to nations and talked about outlining a strategy to counter -- to counter China's Belt and Road Initiative. One criticism was that there was a struggle to manage the different priorities of each of the different nations. I'm wondering if you can outline how you approach these talks with Singapore, as well as Vietnam, to have a coordinated approach to counter that growing influence of China.

And then, secondly, you know, with the ongoing situation in Afghanistan -- I know that you've been asked about this; I know the Vice President spoke to it before she departed -- but with that ongoing situation, I'm wondering if you see that as a hindrance to forging these relationships, or if possibly the timing is actually rather beneficial, given the President said that one justification for pulling out of Afghanistan was to refocus efforts on other national security threats, such as China.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, Zolan. So, let's take the first part -- the second part of your question, first.

I will reiterate what Vice President Harris said before taking off on this trip to Southeast Asia: that America is a global leader, and we have partner -- and these partnerships are critical -- critical to America's prosperity. We have strategic interests, and that is why she's traveling here to the region -- to Singapore, to Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific, more broadly.

And as you all well know, this trip was previously scheduled. And there are real deliverables, as my colleagues just laid out for you, in Singapore. And there will also be real deliverables in Vietnam. And there is important work to be done on this trip. And I think many of you saw in some of the lead-up to the trip, in press reports and conversations that we've all had, there are -- there are many deliverables. One of the most important deliverables is strengthening our partnerships and deepening our relationships in the region.

And I will turn it over to my colleagues for the first part of your question.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me -- I'll just say one word for the -- a word on that part, and then maybe my colleague will answer the one about the regional issues, which is just to stress again what [senior administration official] just said.

Southeast Asia was important before recent developments in Afghanistan; it's important now, and it's going to remain important, as is the broader Indo-Pacific, which this administration has been making clear from the start.

So that -- that is simply the context I would look at this in. We have hugely important stakes throughout this region. I wouldn't tie it to other things happening that are going on in the world right now. We're pursuing the deepening of these partnerships for economic and security interests, and global health interests, and much more.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, on the first question, I think I'd say a couple of things. I think one is that -- I want to stress -- we have longstanding partnerships with both Singapore and Vietnam. Obviously, part of the goal is to expand them, and that's been a focus of the administration's efforts since we took office.

But I think that it's important to recognize that these are -- these partnerships are about strengthening our ability to work together on shared interests. They're not about countering any one country.

And our engagement is about bringing our partners along with us, and to work with them and listen to them as we try and have a more positive engagement in the region and try and promote our shared interests.

And, you know, we have deep interests in the region because our security and prosperity are intricately intertwined with Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific.

I think that in terms of the priorities, I think that we will be stressing and the Vice President will be stressing very much our focus on promoting a rules-based order that allows the countries in the region and throughout the Indo-Pacific to continue to prosper through adherence to shared norms and respect for security -- for sovereignty and shared common, such as freedom of commerce and freedom of navigation.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Nandita, I think we promised you the next question.

Q: Thank you, [senior administration official]. I have a couple of questions specifically about tomorrow's bilat. And -- so, overall, Singapore has encouraged greater U.S. engagement in Asia, but they've also warned that efforts to contain China's rise are counterproductive, and they've been saying that for some time. And so keeping that in mind, what specific concerns about China's role -- broadly in the region, and even in the South China Sea -- does the Vice President plan to raise with Singapore's Prime Minister tomorrow?

And the second part of my question is, how does she plan to address Singapore's diplomacy where the country has both wanted to maintain a relationship with China and then also have a relationship with the United States? How does she plan to address that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Maybe I can start, and my colleague will want to add.

First of all, as we said at the start, this will really be an opportunity for the two leaders to have a frank conversation about these issues.

I think, in terms of what you said about Singapore and its greater engagement in Asia and not wanting -- I think this was the gist of it -- to have to choose between China and the United States and wanting to avoid conflict in the region, I don't think those goals are different from U.S. goals. We've been pretty clear that we're not asking countries to choose; we're trying to develop these partnerships for a whole bunch of positive reasons that are in our mutual interest.

And we've also said that even as we stand for (inaudible) principles, like freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, we're also not seeking conflict. So this is an opportunity for the leaders to discuss those issues.

And when you say "how she will approach them," on some of the specific issues, I think this notion of the independence and sovereignty of the countries in the region and freedom of navigation, peaceful settlement of disputes, good governance -- these are principles the United States and its partners in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, firmly believe in.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. We will -- oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead, [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't have much to add to what was just said other than to stress that, you know, Singapore has long supported both the U.S. -- a strong U.S. role in the region. And that's the genesis of the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding that gave access to facilities in Singapore for the U.S. security presence, and also has long -- also supported China's -- greater engagement with China.

And so I think we recognize that, and we recognize, like every country in the region, Singapore has interests in a strong relationship with other countries. We're not asking Singapore to choose.

And I think that what we are trying to do is expand the range of areas in which we work closely with Singapore. I think the level of cooperation is already quite significant but that there still is potential to do more.

I think it's important to see this, that this is not in the context of just -- of China. We have been building a very strong relationship with a prosperous and independent Singapore since its independence, and we -- the interest that we have goes back a long way and I think will continue. And we have a great deal of shared vision of where we want to go.

So, I think that you'll see that there's going to be an opportunity to have a very candid conversation. And Singapore has long prided itself in its ability to have a very clear-eyed strategic vision for the region. I think that's something that will be of great interest to the Vice President.

But I think that they're also very interested in hearing from the Vice President about the U.S. vision for the region and the U.S. vision for further strengthening the relationship.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. We'll try to take everybody else's question. We have two -- oh, I see three more.

So, I'll go to Alex first, and then Jenny. Then Tarini.

Q: I just have a quick -- a couple of points of clarification. The meeting with the President -- is that a meeting (inaudible) call, or they'll be face-to-face meeting?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's a good clarification. It is a face-to-face meeting. I know in our original background, it is -- the official term -- and my colleagues can correct me if I'm wrong -- is a "courtesy call." That is a face-to-face meeting. It is a term of art for the Singaporeans.

Q: And then, the other one I had -- wait, is there any more detail that you can share on the cybersecurity agreements, or will there be factsheets that you guys might be able to get to us early so we can get a look on exactly what's coming on that front?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, we will send you the factsheets at the conclusion of this call. And the factsheets, just like all of the specifics on the meetings tomorrow and deliverables, will be embargoed until the conclusion of the Vice President's meeting with the Prime Minister.

Q: Thanks.


Q: Hey, sorry. Thanks so much for doing this. I have a couple questions on the economic front. You said she'll be launching the Partnership for Growth and Innovation. I'm curious if you can share a little bit more on what that entails and how that fits in the administration's focus on supply chain resiliency because you said it is one of the issues that will be on the agenda for tomorrow, of course, and also on Tuesday.

And then, the second question is -- Singapore, of course, was one of the original TPP countries; it's not the only one that would love for the U.S. to kind of return to that framework. But in the absence of a U.S. return to it, it's been widely reported that the Biden administration is looking to engage with these countries on a digital trade agreement. Is that something that will be on the agenda? Is that something that the Vice President will have a message for Singapore for, in terms of timing or willingness to seriously engage in -- you know, sit down and negotiate something like that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can share a few things on this issue. So, like on the cybersecurity MOUs, it'll be in the factsheet. So, I guess if [senior administration official] gets that to you, you'll see some of the details.

But as I think I noted, it's between our Commerce Department and the Ministry of Trade, and it will cover -- it'll improve dialogue on the digital economy. It'll be one -- one thing it will focus on, but also energy, environment, advanced manufacturing, and healthcare, and importantly, we think, supply chain resilience -- getting experts together to try to make sure that we can make them as resilient as possible.

But we've got some detail on that, and you'll see it in the factsheet.

I think you've heard us address TPP before. The President and the Vice President have been very clear that they are not going to be pursuing new trade agreements, really, of any sort until they first focus on getting our own economy going, which they've been doing pretty well, as you see in the growth and job creation.

But new trade agreements for now are not on the agenda, and they will only be on the agenda when -- if and when they're on the agenda, they will have a strong environmental voice and labor voice at the table, and they will have to be sustainable over the long term.

So there's not going to be a pursuit of TPP or any such arrangement on this visit, nor, frankly, on digital trade. And it is hugely important.

As I said, it's going to be part of the conversation of the partnership that we're launching. But I don't think we should be expecting the Vice President to be working on any sort of negotiation in that area.

Q: Got it. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay, great. Last but certainly not least, Tarini.

Q: Hey, guys. You mentioned global health as a -- you know, one aspect that there's going to be a focus on. Is there going to be any discussion or announcement on vaccines, whether it's, you know, giving -- sending more vaccines to Singapore or, you know, some sort of vaccine production agreement? Anything like that we can expect?

And then, also, just, you know, I understand the call is on background, but I'm curious if you guys can just say who everyone was on the call, since it's not really showing up for us, if that's -- just so we know who we -- who was on the call for just knowing purposes.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Of course, we would love for you to know who is on this call. I will -- I mean, we can read them down for you, but [senior administration official]; [senior administration official], who is the Vice President's [redacted]; and [senior administration official]. And [senior administration official] is the [redacted]. And I'm going to butcher [senior administration official]'s title, so I will email it to you. But he is very important and, obviously, very knowledgeable on the issue.

I will turn it over to my colleagues for the answers to your questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The one thing I think I did mention -- and again, you'll see it in the factsheet -- is -- in terms of deliverables on global health is this issue of fighting COVID-19 and preparing for the next pandemic. And it will have our two countries working together on variants and emerging diseases.

Beyond that, we don't have anything to announce for you here. I would just say that, you know, obviously -- because you mentioned COVID and vaccines -- we have been -- it's obviously a huge issue and we're very cognizant of the degree to which it is dominating this region and its attention. And it's, frankly, related to some of the things we've been talking about, like supply chains.

It's not only a humanitarian crisis and challenge for these countries, but it interferes with production and supply chains and has an effect at home. So, the United States has an interest in helping global health in this region, not just for the obvious reasons of helping people stay healthy, but because of our economic relationships. And we have already given more than 23 million doses of vaccine to Southeast Asia. So, it has been a priority for this administration from the start.

But beyond that, we don't have any announcements to make for you here.

For (inaudible) -- there was something else at the end there you said, even though we're on background. But if I missed something, please -- please raise it again.



SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you all so much. I just want to remind everyone that the first part of this call where we ran through the brief overview of the schedule was on background, attributed "senior administration officials" and is immediately reportable.

The second part of this call where we ran through the deliverables and the bilateral meetings for tomorrow is embargoed until Monday, August 23, until the conclusion of the Vice President's meeting with the Prime Minister.

I will also note, lastly, that we are joined on this call by the [senior administration official], [redacted], from the National Security Council.

And with that, everyone, thank you so much. If you have questions, please do not hesitate to shoot us an email and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

We will also send the embargoed fact sheets for your use. And I just hope everyone has time to take a nap.

Thank you so much for joining, and we'll talk soon. Bye.


Kamala Harris, Background Press Call on the Vice President's Visit to Southeast Asia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/352518

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