As the United States congratulated President-elect Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. on his election as the Philippines' next leader, the State Department said it would strengthen the enduring alliance between the two countries while continuing to promote respect for human rights and the rule of law
On Wednesday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jung Pak spoke to VOA State Department bureau chief Nike Ching to preview the upcoming U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington
Top leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc are scheduled to participate, except for outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and the Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.
Pak told VOA the U.S. would continue to "explore avenues" for pressuring Myanmar's junta "in various ways" so that the country would "return to a path to democracy." A military coup toppled the civilian government in February of last year.
When asked about reports that Marcos would set aside a 2016 ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that negates Beijing's sovereignty claims to the South China Sea, Pak said she would not "prejudge" Marcos' agenda.
The following are excerpts from the interview, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: Is South China Sea high on the agenda during the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit? How does the U.S. prepare to work with this regional bloc to push back on illegal activities in the South China Sea?
Pak: South China Sea is an issue of great concern. And it's certainly going to be one of the issues that we discuss at the special ASEAN-U.S. summit later this week. So we'revery excited, of course, to have all of the leaders come in to meet with President Joe Biden.
On the South China Sea, this has been an issue of great concern, given the PRC's (People's Republic of China's) increasingly aggressive actions there, and of course, this will be a part of the discussions that we will have with the ASEAN leaders. It's an issue that we have with our ASEAN counterparts throughout our government. So we're looking forward to that conversation.
VOA: How do you expect Bongbong Marcos' presidency in the Philippines will complicate the U.S. efforts to curb China's influence in the region?
Pak: We certainly look forward to working with the president-elect of the Philippines and congratulate its people for the election. As what we have been doing with President Duterte's government and his officials, we will continue to work with the president-elect's administration on the same types of issues that we deal with for the past several years.
VOA: Is the U.S. worried that Bongbong Marcos' government will set aside a 2016 international tribunal ruling in The Hague and pursue a bilateral deal with China over the South China Sea?
Pak: I'm not going to prejudge the president-elect's agenda or whatever agenda that he has, but I personally — and we at the State Department — very much welcome working with his administration.
VOA: Does the U.S. see any new worrisome activities in the South China Sea?
Pak: I think you will see some of the trends where we we've seen increasingly aggressive and coercive actions by PRC against claimant countries. And, you know, we continue to work with all of our allies and partners in the region and beyond to make sure that the South China Sea is free and open.
VOA: On Myanmar, also known as Burma, Malaysia is calling on ASEAN to open informal channels with the shadow government NUG (National Unity Government). What is the U.S. position on Malaysia's proposal?
Pak: We continue to look at Burma with deep concern, given the escalating violence there. And we have continued to work with our ASEAN friends to figure out a path for Burma to return to democracy. So we welcome any proposals, and we continue to work with all stakeholders to make sure that we support ASEAN's five-point consensus on Burma, calling for an end to the violence there and for a facilitation of humanitarian aid to the Burmese people, who were the biggest victims of all of this.
VOA: How is the U.S. sending a clear message to the military junta during the summit? Would there be an empty chair (for the civilian leader)?
Pak: We want to make sure that we support the ASEAN's decision to invite nonpolitical representatives to high-level events. We want to make sure that at the same time, we support the Burmese people and continue to call for Burma's return to a path toward democracy.
VOA: But in reality, how does the U.S. ensure all-inclusive dialogues for a political solution in Myanmar?
Pak: We continue to press for an end to the atrocities that are occurring there. … The Burma crisis has been a focus of all of our dialogues, (not only) with our ASEAN friends and allies but also with our European friends and beyond. This is something that comes up all the time in our conversations, encouraging dialogue, encouraging the special envoy from Cambodia to engage with all stakeholders and all partners.
We will continue to encourage the junta to return to a path to democracy. At the same time, we'll continue to explore avenues to press the junta in various ways.