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Chris Hill: Americans Should 'Do More Listening'

NEW YORK , May 30, 2008 - Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in a wide-ranging interview during the Asia Society's annual Williamsburg Conference in April in Bali, Indonesia, says that Americans need to be a bit more "humble" with respect to their position in the world.

In conversation with Asia Society's Nermeen Shaikh, Assistant Secretary Hill says all Americans, not just American leaders, need “to do a little more listening.”

Assistant Secretary Hill urges subsequent US policymakers to bolster engagement with Asia as the region builds a political and security architecture.

In response to a question about the different US responses to alleged nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran, Assistant Secretary Hill cautions against a “one size fits all” approach to the nuclear issue.

He suggests that the US, India, China and ASEAN need to work together to address problems in Burma, and expresses optimism about American relations with China.

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ASIA SOCIETY ONLINE : There has been much talk recently about the extent to which American foreign policy has been consumed by Iraq and also Afghanistan, and North Korea to some extent, although a lesser extent. What other areas and issues in Asia will the next administration have to confront?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, first of all, I think this administration has worked very hard on the relationship with China. And I think in many respects the relationship with China has taken off in recent years. It has taken off due to a variety of reasons – economic interaction between the US and China is enormous. I think any follow-on administration will continue to deal heavily with China.

What I would like to see are a couple of other things happen in the coming years. First of all is to deal with some of the emerging multilateral, political and security architecture in Asia. The US has been very present in APEC, but I think there’s clearly a yearning in Asia for more than just APEC. I think the East Asia Summit is an example of that, what we’re doing in the North Korea talks with the emerging Northeast Asia peace and security mechanism is another example. The US effort to have a free trade agreement with ASEAN is still another.

So I think a follow-on administration will probably be spending more time on some of these multilateral, architectural questions, and in particular, I suspect there will be greater effort to deal with some of our Southeast Asian friends and allies.

Some of the factors in Southeast Asia are changing; for example there is a relationship with Singapore that has grown a lot in recent years and that will continue. There is an emerging relationship with Vietnam that is very interesting. Vietnam is really quite a different place than it was a decade ago. So I see Vietnam as a growing player. Indonesia has continued to consolidate its political gains so I would see the US and Indonesia having a stronger bilateral relationship. A number of things like that but I think it’s very important that as Asian countries look to create architecture, look to create a sense of community, the US needs to be a part of that. We were not so much a part of it in the past, just with APEC; I think you’ll see a lot more of it in the future.

AS: I’d like to turn now a little bit to North Korea. What do you think the impact will be of the change in the South Korean administration on North Korea’s cooperation in the talks– or lack thereof?

HILL: Well I think as the weeks and months roll by, the Six Party process, what we’re seeing is an emerging pattern, where I think there is more and more consensus among the other five that North Korea needs to move, it needs to get out of this business of developing weapons of mass destruction, and I think everyone sees this as something that has to get done.

I sense in Asia less of a feeling that somehow the US is bullying North Korea. On the contrary I like to think that people see that the US is being patient and fair and reasonable in trying to approach this but clearly the North Koreans have to do more.

To some extent I think what we’re seeing in recent times with respect to North Korea’s relationship with South Korea is the frustration in North Korea with the fact that South Korea has grown so enormously and has grown not just economically but also in political terms. South Korea has had a number of successful elections and the new president has promised a somewhat different approach towards North Korea.

So the usual North Korea way of handling this is to belligerently threaten everyone, the South Koreans, as they tried to do in the early ‘90s, but in the early ‘90s, following their threats, many South Koreans went to the supermarkets to buy the last packets of ramen, but you’re not seeing that right now. You’re seeing a much more self-confident South Korea now, confident in its own abilities and its growing international perspective, confident in its good relations with its neighbors. So I think North Korea is going to be very frustrated in this approach.

AS: Apart from obviously trying to get the North Koreans to disclose the extent of their nuclear assets, are there other relations that North Korea has that the US is interested in--?

HILL: Oh you bet! We’ve got to tackle a number of things. One is to get them to give us the full dimensions of their plutonium program. How much plutonium they’ve actually produced and got stored away in some bunker. I think we’ve gotten an agreement with them that that will come.

We also need to know what they’re up to with Syria. And they were clearly up to some things. They know what they’re up to and we know, and they know that we know. So it’s really kind of time to put it out there. The trouble is we’re asking for transparency from a country which regards transparency as the enemy so it’s been a bit of a clash of cultures there, but we’re working on it. I’m confident that we’ll get through this.

The real question is what comes next? And whether North Korea will be prepared to finish the job, and truly denuclearize.

AS: What is the nature of the relationship that you suspect between Syria and North Korea?

HILL: Well I mean there’s a nuclear relationship there. We’re not talking in public about things we’ve discovered but there’s clearly a relationship that has involved the transfer of know-how; not the transfer of fissile material, I want to emphasize. Nobody is suggesting that they’ve sold or given away nuclear material, bomb-making material to Syria or to anybody else. But they certainly have transferred the know-how and frankly that has got to stop.

AS: There has been talk of the worsening food situation in North Korea. How will the US balance its humanitarian concerns for the North Korean people with sustaining pressure in order to get them to disclose--?

HILL: In our view, the North Korean leadership has made a lot of mistakes. Its nuclear policy is chief among them, but these are not mistakes for which North Korean peasants should suffer. So we are very concerned about the food situation in North Korea. To some extent, it’s the result of climatic issues; the weather problems that they’ve had have reduced the harvest. But to some extent these are manmade issues. When you construct a system that is that dependent on perfect weather conditions, you have to take some responsibility for it. That said, we are monitoring it closely, and the United States has continued to maintain that we will participate in food aid to North Korea when our overall conditions are met. By conditions I am talking about the fact that when you give food aid to a country, you need to be assured that the food aid is necessary in that country, that it is even more important than the needs in other countries, and that you have adequate monitoring because when you go back to your taxpayers, you need to be able to say, “Yes we gave food aid to country x, and yes, we insure that the food will get to the correct people.” We worked through those issues. It’s not easy with North Korea because again they pride themselves on staying very closed and refusing to let foreigners in their country.

AS: One of the things that’s been striking is the different way in which the US administration has dealt with the nuclear problem in North Korea versus Iran. Could you say a little bit about that? With Iran, there was quickly talk of a more threatening or military response, with the phrase “the military option cannot be taken off the table”, whereas that has never been the case with North Korea; this has never really arisen as a possibility. Could you explain why?

HILL: Well the Asia Society handles East Asia right through to Iran. Alas I don’t! I just have one bad problem on my plate, not the Iran issue.

I would caution people that, in looking at what we’ve been able to do in North Korea, I am first to acknowledge, in fact to take some pride in, some of the progress we’ve made, but we’ve got a long way to go too. I would caution against the idea that one size fits all, or that what we do in North Korea can somehow be applicable in Iran. Or vice versa.

I like to think that what we’re doing in North Korea is actually working but I would not make the assumption that what we’re doing could be immediately transplanted into Iran and find that that actually works as well.

Iran is a very different dynamic. It has a very different relationship with its neighbors than North Korea does. If you look at a map of Northeast Asia, North Korea is the smallest, weakest state and if you look at a map of the Middle East, Iran would not be described as the smallest weakest state. So very different dynamics.

AS: So let’s return to East Asia then: How do you think the US administration will deal with China and the growing problem in Tibet?

HILL: Well you know working with China is not easy. It’s an extremely complex country. It’s not quite the cartoon image that many people have of the quote “communist dictatorship”, that you just need to talk to one person, and if you convince that one person then everything will be okay. It’s far, far more complex than that. There are overlays of culture, and history, and anthropology there, so I think when you go into a relationship with China you should be a little bit humble about all the history that is there.

All that said I think there is a growing consensus within the United States that we need to pay a lot of attention to China. We need to understand that China is here to stay and that we can help shape the environment for China, and make it a positive relationship or we can engage in some self-fulfilling prophecy and say that China is the enemy and indeed we could end up with China as an enemy! Clearly that latter course should not be of interest to anyone who’s thought about the issue for more than ten seconds.

Clearly we need to have an approach that really is engaging, where we are dealing with China on issues, not only issues that we agree on with China such as some climate change issues, but also issues where, frankly speaking, we have some real disagreements. Stick with those and work them out.

China is a country with enormous growth and therefore an enormous appetite for international raw materials. Sometimes that appetite for raw materials colors some of their foreign policy and some of that foreign policy in our view is not politically sustainable. To be perceived in the world as supporting the Khartoum government and to be perceived as not being rigorous enough in dealing with the problem in Darfur frankly is not a sustainable policy. It is not for us to be wagging our finger at the Chinese and telling them that, they have to come to these realizations themselves.

I would add that with respect to Darfur, they have. They have made some changes there, and that they will get some credit for.

So we need to be engaged with China. We have an incredible number of dialogues, some 56 dialogues; you name it, whether it’s endangered species or climate change or bilateral political issues. We have got some 56 dialogues; one per week actually! So we are engaged with them and we need to continue to be engaged with those 1.3 billion people.