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A Conversation with Senator Jim Webb

Speaker: Jim Webb, Chairman, Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Presider: Jim Sciutto, Senior Foreign Correspondent, ABC News
June 14, 2011

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JAMES SCIUTTO (ABC News): I'd like to welcome everyone to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting.

Just a quick reminder before we start: I know you're all familiar with this, but please turn off -- don't just silence -- your electronic devices. We learned a couple of weeks ago they're taking years off our lives anyway. (Soft laughter.) So it will probably be saving us.

Also, just a reminder: This is an on-the-record meeting.

And before we begin today's program, an announcement -- brief announcement that on Wednesday, two days from now, June 15th, another half-day symposium, "The Future of U.S. Immigration Policy: Next Steps," which will feature a keynote address from New York by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as panel discussions here. There's a lot more information on that in your pamphlets today and also on the CFR website.

It's a particular honor for me to introduce Senator Webb today. I felt in my reporting these last few years I've been shadowing you -- (chuckling) -- you might not know that -- for issues very close to your heart, from Iraq all the way to Myanmar, on the ground. And it's always struck me that you have taken very public, firm positions that often are not in line with the conventional wisdom, from your early opposition to the Iraq war to your support for engagement with the military junta in Myanmar.

And we're lucky today that there are a lot of issues right in your wheelhouse that are very much in the news today, from a(n) alleged North Korean shipment to Burma with possible missile technology, intercepted a couple weeks ago by a U.S. Navy warship, as well as your recent public comments on China's military activity in the region and on Afghanistan and on Pakistan. But the focus today on East Asian policy -- and I know you'll have some introductory remarks to give.

SENATOR JAMES WEBB (D-VA): Good. Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here with all of you. I guess I'll come up here, as instructed.

There are a lot of people in this room who have an enormous amount of experience in this issue. I'd like to start off by saying that I'm really gratified that we actually can have a discussion that focuses principally on Asia and specifically East Asia and Southeast Asia, because so much of our discussion in this part of the world has been drowned out in recent years by events that have taken up so much of our time and emotion elsewhere.

And before I start, I'd like to recognize Chuck Robb, who's here with us today, who -- a fellow Marine but also a great governor and a great senator and a great friend. And it's good to see you, sir.

I have been continuously involved in different ways in East and Southeast Asia for my entire adult lifetime. It's hard for me to think about this, but I first went to Southeast Asia as a Marine more than 40 years ago, as a young Marine. I was on Okinawa and then in Vietnam. I've returned in many different hats, which I think has helped me to form my own views about policy out there. I've spent a good bit of time in this region as a journalist. I brought American businesses into Southeast Asia at point. I traveled there as a novelist doing research. I've done film projects there. I was the principal negotiator for the Department of Defense, when I was secretary of the Navy, on the issue of Toshiba technology concerns with American submarines. I've been there -- been to this part of the world very recently, during my time here in the Senate, and I'm very privileged to chair the East Asia Subcommittee on the Foreign Relations Committee.

And so this is a part of the world that I have a great deal of affection for, and I can't state strongly enough how vital this region is to our country and how vital our country is to the well-being and the strategic balance in this region.

And when I look at what's going on in East and Southeast Asia today with respect to the interests of the United States, I always return to the historical turbulence that has attended so much of this region's history. We tend, because of things that are going on elsewhere, to sort of take for granted the reasonable measure of stability in the region right now.

But we should all remember that Northeast Asia is the only place in the world where the direct interests of China, Russia, Japan intersect, and in the middle of all that is the Korean Peninsula. And the addition at the end of World War II of the United States as a balancing force, I think, has been enormously valuable. If you recall what this region looked like just after World War II, with Japan returning back to Japanese territory, after many years of military campaigns, and also with the European colonial powers largely deciding to reduce their presence and in most cases to give up the colonies that were in the region, there was an enormous amount of instability. And the United States was required, because of a number of issues resulting from this instability, to interject itself as a balancing force.

I am reminded, as someone who has been very proud to serve my country as a United States Marine, of the price that American military people paid in this region. During these decades we lost more than 100,000 American military people, in Korea from 1950 to 1953 and in Vietnam after that. I'm not here to debate the history of those engagements, but I will say that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who I think has one of the great minds of this generation, likes to point out that our efforts in Vietnam allowed this region to gain a stability, to create governmental systems in other countries and to generate economic success in a way that would not have happened if we had not stepped forward and made the attempts that we made in Vietnam.

Since that period, we've seen a shift in terms of attempting to maintain the balance in the region, first caused by the rise of the Soviet Union in East and Southeast Asia following the Vietnam War, largely following the Vietnam War.

When I was in the Pentagon in the mid-1980s, when I was secretary of the Navy, the Soviets 370,000 ground troops in East Asia. They had 85 Backfire bombers, 2,400 combat aircraft. Their largest fleet at this time was their Pacific fleet. They had 600 combatants in their Pacific fleet. They had two aircraft carriers operating in the Pacific on any given day. During that period in the 1980s, there were 25 Soviet combatants operating out of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam.

This obviously was a great concern for the United States in terms of the stability, again, of the region. And it was one of the reasons, quite frankly, that we counterbalanced this strategic advance by the Soviet Union with a deepening of our relationship with China, in many ways enabling the economic rise; and over time, because of momentum of some other issues, becoming in many ways vulnerable to the same economic rise that we helped to create -- or to enable rather than to create. Let me be more specific.

A series of recent events have given cause for, I think, a lot of concerns from the United States' perspective and from the perspective of many other countries in East Asia with respect to the stability of the region. We all know when the Soviet Union fell, with the advancement of the Chinese economy and other influence in the region, specifically a growing and more sophisticated military that we're seeing especially in naval activities and the distraction of the United States after 9/11 with respect to our positions in Asia causing many of these relationships to take a back burner to some of the more immediate and emotional issues in Iraq, Afghanistan, et cetera, we have been working, I think, very hard over the past -- particularly over the past five years, I think, to turn this around, to make sure that the countries in the region -- all the countries in the region -- know how important the involvement of the United States is, for us and for them and for the health and the viability of even countries that we may be sort of competing with on one level, in terms of maintaining this kind of stability.

It's very important, as everyone in this room I'm sure knows, for the United States to maintain our influence, our strategic partnerships, economically, culturally and militarily. I mentioned to Jim when we talked last week that I would like to address briefly three different areas where I believe that the United States needs to focus and to remain strong.

The first is in our basing systems in East Asia and specifically the adjustment of our basing systems in Japan and in -- specifically there, the Okinawa and the proposal to move some of our bases down to Guam. Ironically, I first started working on that issue in 1973. I worked as a military planner out on Guam, taking a look at all of the military lands on Guam, Tinian, Saipan, up in Okinawa, and wrote a military land use study in terms of how the United States could adjust our military presence and still remain strong in this region and maintain our communications with other countries that we intend to remain in the region.

What is being proposed -- what has been proposed and debated for the last 15 years has, in a very serious way, caused domestic difficulties in the political situation on Japan itself because of the inability of both governments to actually implement a plan that they had agreed upon. I went to Tokyo, Okinawa, Guam, Tinian and Saipan about a year and a half ago -- nearly a year and a half ago -- and examined the mechanics of what they were proposing and came back with some recommendations. Chairman Levin on the Armed Services Committee looked at this, and we both returned in April and had more discussions.

And we came forward with a proposal that I believe is a workable proposal that would be able to be implemented in a shorter period of time with less money and would retain the viability of our presence in this part of the world. There's been some debate on this, but I just wanted to lay it out, since there has been debate on this, that I believe that we can come up with an answer. Senator McCain joined us. So Senator McCain, Senator Levin -- the chairman and the ranking Republican on the Armed Services committee both joining in on this proposal. And I think that resolving this in a timely way will strengthen our defense posture in that part of the world.

The other two issues that I believe the United States needs to remain very strong and active on are the sovereignty issues in the South China Sea and what, for lack of a better term, could be called the water sovereignty issues on the Southeast Asian mainland. And we have worked from our office on both of these issues very vigorously. For many years -- those of you who are active in the region know this -- there have been a series of spats, for lack of a better term, military spats where the Chinese have claimed sovereignty in a wide area, geographic area, very far away from the Chinese mainland -- the Spratley Islands, the Paracels. They've become more vigorous over the past year and a half than they have been in a very long time.

About 14 or 15 months ago, they had an incident with the Japanese in the Senkaku Islands, which have -- are legally administered by the Japanese. Like many island areas in this region, they're claimed by China, Taiwan and Japan, but they are legally administered by the Japanese -- has caused a two or three-week serious diplomatic row between the two countries. I looked at that, and actually, I have to say I went back to my campaign -- my Senate campaign in '06 when, in my last debate with my opponent, we were allowed to ask each other one question. And I asked him, what do you think we should do about the Senkaku Islands? (Laughter.) And there was an interesting moment, and I could see the -- behind the audience, there was the media room, and all of the computers lit up. I could see the reporters out there Googling "Senkaku Islands" -- (laughter) -- know what I'm saying?

But it's a very -- you know, it's a very serious and ongoing issue, and it erupted about a year ago. We've seen a similar problem with sovereignty issues with the use of Chinese military -- or maritime security vessels in the Philippines. And then very disturbingly, between May 26th and June 9th, we saw two of these incidents with maritime security vessels combined with sophisticated fishing vessels in waters that are within the internationally recognized economic zone of Vietnam.

I intend to introduce a resolution later today calling on the Chinese to cease these types of military actions and to come to the table in a multilateral way and work to solve these sovereignty issues. I think we in our government have taken too weak of a position on this when we say the United States' government doesn't have a position on sovereignty issues.

Not taking a position is taking a position. We should be working in a multilateral forum to solve these problems. These are not only security issues; there's a lot of economic future out there in those waters, and we need to do our part as a balancing force to bring these issues to the table.

There's a similar problem with respect to water sovereignty issues on the Southeast Asian mainland. The most graphic example of that the Mekong River delta. Everyone who looks at this region, and particularly at China, knows that there are serious water problems in the region. Water is going to be -- or the proper resolution of water issues is going to be an issue equally as strong, I believe, as these sovereignty issues out here.

We've worked from our office very hard on this. I think Secretary Clinton has worked very hard on our Mekong River initiative. And actually, when I leave this meeting today, I'm going to be meeting with the Mekong River Commission delegation that has come here to the United States.

But again, this is an issue where -- for instance, with the Mekong River, in the lower Mekong we have about 70 million people whose livelihoods and environmental health as they know it today are being threatened by hydroelectric dams that are being built upriver, that is drawing down the water flow, increasing the salinity and seriously threatening the historic manner in which these people have lived.

It's made more complicated by two realities. The first is, China is one of the few countries in the world that does not recognize downstream water rights -- riparian water rights. So there is no commonality for discussion. Then the second is, China on these types of issues prefers to deal in a bilateral way rather than a multilateral way. And there's no country in this downstream part of Southeast Asia that has the power to come to the table face to face simply with China and talk about water rights.

So again, it's a very important issue for us as the United States to step forward in a way to provide leadership and to bring multilateral solutions to problems that could have extreme difficulties in the future if they're not dealt with.

So our purpose -- our future in the region is to encourage multilateral engagement -- I believe the growth of ASEAN has been one of the most encouraging signs that I've seen over the past 10 years -- of 650 million people in the ASEAN countries; they are -- they are becoming much more important in different diplomatic and economic formulas in the region -- and to make sure that other countries in the region know, as Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates both said last year, that we are not only going to stay involved in this region, but to increase our involvement because it is in the vital interests of the United States and to the benefit of the other countries in the region.

So with all that, I am ready to sit back down.

SCIUTTO: Thank you. I get the privilege to ask a few of my own questions first. I'll start with a tough one. Is U.S. -- does U.S. foreign policy treat China principally as an adversary or a partner in the region; and how should it treat China?

WEBB: Well I don't -- I don't think there is a clear United States foreign policy with respect to China. And one of the issues that I've raised on the Foreign Relations Committee, and I raised it when Secretary Locke came for his confirmation hearing, is, you know, it is in our benefit to develop a workable, positive formula with China. But we have to begin with the clear understanding that it's a totally different system of government.

People here tend to think because of the economic interchange that we have that we're simply talking to a government that is like our government. In fact, when I came out of Burma in '09 and had a press conference in Thailand, the first question that I received was, how can you support a flawed election in Burma when you know that the military is going to be retaining most of the power? And I said, when is the last time China has had an election?

So as long as we continue to move from the assumptions that run our governmental system and to understand we're not dealing with a like system, then we can work out a formula. Another piece of that, by the way, is if you look at the reports on press freedom, the last one that I saw, in all of Asia -- I think there were 40 countries on that list -- the only two countries that were below China in terms of press freedom were Burma and North Korea. So we just have to deal realistically with their government and to work towards solutions that can maintain stability in the region.

SCIUTTO: Does "realistically" mean tougher? I mean, you expressed grave concern, as you referenced in your speech on Friday, about the repeated use of force by China not just with respect to the Senkaku Islands, but also the Spratlys, Vietnam, Philippines -- they're coming up into conflict with a number of our close allies in that region.

WEBB: I think we have to send very clear signals to the Chinese on that. And I don't -- I think there's some hesitation. Part of it, perhaps, because our economy is so vulnerable and part of it because, you know, you develop personal relationships -- it's unavoidable -- and in a diplomatic sense you don't want to offend someone with whom you're working. You know, a lot of diplomacy boils down to that.

But the region doesn't benefit, we don't benefit, unless we clearly articulate the principles on which we are governing ourselves and our foreign policy.

SCIUTTO: Do you sense -- do you sense from our allies, particularly in Southeast Asia, that they are eager for a clearer expression of American priorities but also a clearer expression of American power; that they're looking to the U.S. for a stronger leadership, as you describe?

WEBB: Here's what I'm seeing right now. There was a time four or five years ago when the -- I don't want to call them the second-tier countries, but the countries other than China in East and Southeast Asia were worried that we weren't going to stay. Our military posture had receded. You know, the size of our Navy, the way that we'd communicate our national interests in that part of the world, dramatically shrunk. We had 930 combatants in the Navy when I was commissioned. We had 568 when I was secretary of the Navy. We've gone down to 282 ships with a, you know, broad swath of activity in the Pacific.

So they were -- they were looking at us as so focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, not communicating economically in the same way that other countries -- China being the greatest example -- were communicating in terms of the long-term interests in the region.

And so the question was, is the United States going to stay, and if not, how do we accommodate this emerging power coming out of China?

I think we've been able to turn that around in terms of the signals that have been sent. I think the statements that were made by Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates last year were very important. They basically say we have a national interest out here and the region has an interest in our being here.

That didn't go over very well with the Chinese when it was made, and now we have a moment where we need to really reinforce that, with these incidents that have happened, and particularly the two incidents that have happened with Vietnamese exploration vessels where the cables were cut just doing basic oil exploration, deliberately cut -- not once, but twice.

I think Vietnam and I think some of these other countries are looking to see whether we're going to back up those words with substantive action. It doesn't mean, you know, military confrontation per se, but we have to make -- give clear signals.

SCIUTTO: You speak a lot about the alignment of bases and how we allocate our forces out there. How do you -- how do you rectify that goal, maintaining a strong, vibrant, visible U.S. presence across the region, with the push for reducing costs, reducing presence? Is it about a smarter application and distribution of forces there where you can maintain the same or arguably smarter influence with fewer troops, fewer ships, fewer bases?

WEBB: We can be smarter, and that's actually what I was writing about in 1973 -- (chuckles) -- in terms of how you define your strategic presence in a region.

We are also -- we also tend, when we have long-term ground commitments, to sort of rob Peter to pay Paul in terms of the defense budget in terms of the defense budget. We need to make sure that our strategic -- the strategic components of our military -- and I put the Navy as a part of that -- grow. In fact, when Director Panetta was before the Armed Services Committee last week for his confirmation hearing, he agreed that we should see a 313-ship Navy.

You're going to see the Army and the Marine Corps draw down when we are finished in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the really good leaders in our military who are operating in Asia -- guys like Bob Willard out at PACOM -- are seeing that we can become more involved with places like Indonesia, perhaps north of Australia, Singapore -- in terms of positioning our forces. So you can do -- you can communicate credibly without 930 ships, you know, but we have to make sure that we back that up with actions too.

SCIUTTO: So fewer forces, better distributed?

WEBB: Clearly better distributed and -- but at the same time, I don't want to be misunderstood here. I think what we're doing in -- with the Okinawa, Guam and Korea situation is making sure that people in that region know we're not withdrawing from Northeast Asia.

History shows that you can't -- you can't have security in Southeast Asia without security in Northeast Asia. It's just the reality. So we don't want to be sending a signal by withdrawing or drawing down our military in Northeast Asia. We need to -- we need to put it in a smarter way, so that the people in Okinawa can accommodate our presence, and we can reduce some of these tensions.

SCIUTTO: You've had a number of examples recently of where the U.S. wants -- needs, arguably -- Chinese help to accomplish our security goals in the region and nearby the region, if you're talking about the Iranian nuclear program, stability in Afghanistan certainly going forward, but even something like a North Korean ship intercepted a couple of weeks ago, allegedly with nuclear technology from North Korea going to -- going to Myanmar, our old stomping grounds. Are you seeing China fill that role more today than they did a few years ago?

WEBB: I think they now have the opportunity, and I -- one of the things that I've been saying for the last several years is that we should be encouraging China to take part in solutions in a way that is at the same level as the influence that they have accumulated with the growing economy and the more sophisticated military, and they basically haven't done that.

They've been kind of comfortable taking a step back -- whether it's Iran or Burma. They've got a tremendous strategic advantage in Burma, what with the leverage that they have here and with us not being there. I was hopeful that they would do this in Korea with Cheonan incident, and then I actually began calling on or trying to communicate my belief that the Pakistan situation would give the Chinese the opportunity to demonstrate that they can step forward and help us resolve some of these issues. They've got a long-standing relationship with Pakistan.

When Chairman Kerry left Pakistan recently, as soon as he left, the prime minister of Pakistan went to China and said: China's our greatest friend.

SCIUTTO: Yep.

WEBB: They're going to benefit from stability in the region if we bring about stability in Afghani situation. So they have an opportunity here to show that they can help us resolve some of these complicated problems, and I hope they'll step forward and do it.

SCIUTTO: But you haven't seen it yet.

WEBB: Not yet.

SCIUTTO: It's 1 (o'clock), so I want to give time to others besides myself to ask questions. You know the rules. There are microphones on either side of the room. If you could just -- I'll pick you out, and just wait until the microphone comes to you.

Maybe over here on the left side.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Jeff Price (sp) -- (inaudible) -- Georgetown. I wonder if you could say a little more about the influence that China has on the nuclear weapons postures and programs of its immediate neighbors. China has a tremendous degree of influence, directly or indirectly, over Russia with the tactical nuclear weapons, over India with a past adversary, over Pakistan, North Korea as patrons. So how can China be engaged to move those nuclear programs in a more constructive direction?

WEBB: Well, you made a really important point that I probably should have mentioned also when I addressed China's relationship with Pakistan because, I think as we all know, Pakistan wouldn't have acquired nuclear weapons if it hadn't have been for Chinese assistance. There were a number of us who were trying to talk about that as it was taking place. But if I had one area where I would hope we could see China step forward, it would be in the North Korean situation.

SCIUTTO: Over here in the front.

QUESTIONER: Jonathan Broder from Congressional Quarterly. Senator -- oh, I'm sorry -- you were talking about the bases, and General -- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mullen has talked about the upcoming two-plus-two talks. And it sounds, even though he hadn't really sort of embraced your recommendations, that he sounded a bit more open to them.

I was wondering if you might give us your realistic assessment of what we might expect from the two-plus-two talks regarding your recommendations, and what sort of political pressures Prime Minister Kan is under. I mean, he is going to -- he has agreed to step down later this summer. How successful can those talks be, given the political restrictions that he's under right now? Thank you.

WEBB: Thank you for the question. And let me -- I didn't want to belabor the -- you know, the mechanics of the basing proposal while I was giving this overview. But just to review what has happened: The pressure point in the U.S.-Japan defense relationship when it comes to bases is Okinawa. We've been working on this now for 15 years. The first briefing I received on the Okinawan adjustment plans actually was in 1997, when I was on Okinawa as a guest of the command for an activity.

The -- there are three different components that we're looking at in terms of Okinawa. The first is to see if they can move -- particularly the Marine Corps -- but see if they can move forces onto the north of the island, which is less populated, and to relieve the pressures on the -- on the more populated areas of the south.

The other is to see if you can reduce the size of the military presence to some extent. The recommendation's been to take 8,000 -- to reduce the Marine Corps presence by 8,000, putting them on Guam. And then the third is to resolve the issue of Futenma -- Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is a base that mostly has helicopter activities on it, but it is now completely surrounded by dense population. It is the most emotional issue on Okinawa.

The United States and Japan signed an agreement in '06 where they -- as a part of this process of moving troops forward, moving some Marines to Guam, they would build a contiguous facility mostly offshore up at Camp Schwab in the north, to -- as a replacement facility for Futenma. This is a monstrosity. And the cost estimates, as you know, would -- at CQ are wildly variant in terms of how much it would cost. And there's an enormous amount of opposition to the idea of disturbing the sea there. As you know, Okinawa is famous for, you know, its snorkeling and those sorts of things. So the issue became stuck on what do you do about Futenma. You can't leave it, and the resistance to moving it up at Henoko is very strong.

So at the same time, just in terms of diplomacy, what happened is the United States and Japan signed this agreement in '06. And they're -- it's -- because there's been so many years of negotiation on it, it's very difficult to change -- for them, diplomatically to change an agreement unless they have something concrete to move toward. And you know the old first rule of wing walking: You don't let go of what you have until you've got a firm grasp on where you're going.

So we came in, Senator Levin and I, on my return visit. We listened to all sides on Guam, Okinawa, Tokyo -- the American military side plus the other sides. And my recommendation -- and the proposal went forward -- was that you can address this situation in a timely and more cost-effective manner if you take the Marine Corps aviation assets on Futenma, put them at Kadena Air Force Base, but -- and this is something that got missed in a lot of the Japanese media -- reduce the size of the Air Force at Kadena. You can disperse them to, potentially, other bases in Japan and also to Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, which is not even 50 percent utilized right now. So you could see a net reduction. It's important for the Marine Corps to have its helicopter assets next to its ground assets just for the way that it conducts its activities.

So on the one hand, the diplomatic position has remained the same, and I fully understand that. On the other, we've been talking with leaders in both countries about the potential to change this. And then the final point on that is that we are moving forward this week with the markup of the Armed Services Committee bill, on the National Defense Authorization, and I'm pretty confident that we're going to have some specific language in the authorization addressing the way to move forward on this. And Admiral Mullen has been helpful, by the way.

SCIUTTO: Just in the middle of the room here, on the -- right by the aisle.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Alan Wendt. Senator, in view of the growing tension between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea -- and it's all over the newspapers as we speak -- how do you see this situation affecting U.S. relations with Vietnam in a strategic context?

WEBB: Thank you. I think the American relationships -- relations with Vietnam right now are extremely good. And you know, I say that as someone who fought there and didn't particularly support the outcome -- (chuckles) -- that resulted from our fighting there, returned to Vietnam in '91, been continuously visiting Vietnam since '91. And you could see a really -- you can see several different places where the relationships began to get better, but the last four or five years they have really gotten better.

A big piece of the formula for me has always been the Vietnamese here in the United States who suffered after the war. We all -- you know, lots of people suffered during the war. But they suffered from when the communists took over after the war -- they're very, very -- they had been in the past very opposed to the communist regime. And I think -- I've worked very hard -- I think we've made a lot of progress in trying to mend that relationship as much as it's going to be mended.

So the relationship is good. The situation with the sovereignty issues in the South China Sea has actually helped our relationship in a sense that they understand that they have a commonality of interest. I think that Secretary Clinton's comment last year, which she made in Hanoi, was very well received.

And so the key -- to go to your specific question, the key to whether our relationships are going to remain good is whether we find a way to back up what we said in this situation, which in my view's clearly an interference by China into proper activities by Vietnam. And you know, they -- as you may know, I think this morning the Vietnamese conducted live-fire drills -- Vietnamese navy conducted live-fire drills off of Da Nang.

The Vietnamese have a long history of opposing (sic) what they believe is their territorial rights, and I think they're moving forward in that direction.

So we should be able to come in and make the right gestures and hopefully defuse that issue. But to make sure they understand, we -- we're going to back up what said about that region and about our commitment to sovereignty.

SCIUTTO: (Off mic) -- try to get in the back of the room, maybe just down on the aisle there -- in the blue shirt.

QUESTIONER: I'm Thieu Do (ph) with the Vietnamese embassy. The U.S. position has been long that it does not take sides in the dispute in the South China Sea. I wonder if you have a position on China's claims of the U-shaped line. Thank you.

WEBB: (Where? It's ?) --

SCIUTTO: On the -- can you replete -- repeat the end of the question?

QUESTIONER: On China's claims of the South China Sea.

WEBB: Do you mean the -- you'd -- are you just talking about these recent incidents?

QUESTIONER: Yes.

WEBB: Yes. Well, I -- as I was saying earlier, I am introducing a resolution in the Senate today condemning the Chinese activities and calling for multilateral solutions to these problems. I believe that the actions of the Chinese naval vessels -- maritime security vessels was inappropriate.

SCIUTTO: Go just right here in the --

QUESTIONER: Ken Lieberthal from the Brookings Institution. Senator, it's very long-standing American policy, as you know, not to take a substantive position on territorial disputes between two countries where we aren't a direct party to that dispute. I'm not clear whether you're suggesting that we abandon that long-standing U.S. posture or whether you're suggesting something else, and would appreciate your clarifying.

Secondly, you commented repeatedly that we need to take account of the fact the Chinese government is not a democracy -- very different from our own. You know, no one who's dealt with China would have any other view of China. I'm therefore wondering what concretely you're suggesting we do, recognizing that they have a different government. We've -- you know, that's not a new revelation. So what adjustment in our policy are you calling for by focusing on that issue? Thank you.

WEBB: OK. With respect to your first question, with respect to sovereignty, I would invite you to look at the testimony from the hearings that we did. For my first hearing I held as chairman of the subcommittee was on the sovereignty issues, and Scott Marciel and I had a long discussion on this issue of sovereignty.

And my position is simply to say that you have no position doesn't work toward resolving the problem. That doesn't mean we have to take sides, but we should be calling for a different kind of forum where we can resolve these issues in a multilateral way. Otherwise, they're never going to be resolved.

With respect to the Chinese political system, I just find it highly ironic in the discussions that we have in the Senate and elsewhere, that people don't really talk about the nature of the system. I actually held a hearing on this, that we -- what is our standard in terms of how we deal with countries when we have sort of situational ethics, when it comes to so-called human rights issues in one country versus another. Let's just have a common standard in terms of how we are either accepting it or not accepting it. And I think the Burmese example is probably the clearest one when -- and that's part of the world, you take things incrementally.

That's what -- this was the great success, I think, in our relationship with Vietnam. You take -- you take things one at a time and try to build on them. We recognize that there are different governmental systems out there, but you can't -- you can't condemn one country and not mention another country that basically has the same kind of activities. I mean, that doesn't -- that doesn't get done in the Senate. You can -- or in a lot of our governmental debates.

SCIUTTO: But how liberally can you define "incremental," when you think of the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and the violent response and certainly the repeated delays in -- as you well know, having met Aung San Suu Kyi -- in democratic reform there. I mean that's pretty darn incremental, right, in terms of positive progress.

WEBB: I would not want to be in a position of defending the actions of the military junta. At the same time, if you take a look at what's happened in Burma since this last election, and very, very thoughtful people like Myint Thant, who is the grandson of U Thant, who's in and out of the country a lot, has worked -- you know, worked in the refugees camps years ago, trying to move forward to a process through which we can open up this country, have it re-engage in the international environment.

There are -- from this last election, flawed as it was, there are some very good signals coming out in terms of openness and receptivity to different kinds of dialogue. My colleague John McCain, who's been very tough on the situation there, came out from this last visit saying, these people do -- they want to try to have some sort of engagement.

So you don't have to -- you don't have to give up on the standards that we have in terms of human rights, democracy, repression. At the same time -- but you can, at the same time, create avenues -- "confidence-builders" is what we used to say with the Cold War and the Soviet Union -- be -- create confidence-builders, open up that society of the outside world, and that's the best thing you can do to bring about change. You can't simply cut a country completely off economically and otherwise and believe that you're going to be able to have the kind of change that we would like to see.

SCIUTTO: I'll surrender the floor. (Chuckles.)

Again, just maybe go further back this time -- the green tie there?

QUESTIONER: Hi. Juan Garcia, Department of Navy. Senator, you alluded earlier to an incident widely believed to be the torpedoing of a South Korean ship by a North Korean vessel earlier. I wonder if you could offer any insight into a possible rationale and/or the timing of this incident. Thank you.

WEBB: I think one constant in the North Korean regime is that they are inherently unpredictable.

I'm not sure, you know, what exactly motivated that. Although probably the strongest logic that I've seen and the events that were occurring at that time were looking at the transformation of power that is going to happen at some point -- we don't know when -- and testing the credibility of different leaders there in terms of the actions that they might take, but I -- that's speculation.

My -- you know, the one hope that I had after that incident was that we might see China more actively becoming involved in helping to resolve the process. I was there; I met with the leadership in South Korea, shortly after that -- about six weeks after that incident. And then coupled with the attack on the island on the other side of Korea, there's, you know, an awful lot of concern in South Korea about how things are going to move forward. And China clearly is the key in North Korea. North Korea is a buffer state of China. Their leadership regularly communicates; they are the people. As -- in a -- in a very different sense, but as in the Pakistani situation, this is a place where we can see a lot of good from China.

SCIUTTO: A lot of fears about confrontation with this warship confronting the North Korean warship about how easily that could spark something else, I know.

Right here.

QUESTIONER: Senator Webb, I am --

WEBB: Mr. Ambassador.

QUESTIONER: -- the Philippine ambassador to the U.S.

I'm glad to hear your views regarding the position the U.S. should take with regard to the conflicting claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and the other countries with conflicting claims against China would like to see the U.S take a more active role in ensuring peace and stability in the region.

However, recently the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines publicly stated that the U.S. will not get involved in the disputes between China and the Philippines, China and Vietnam, and so on. So that seems to be the official position of the U.S. government. So you -- your views seem to be somewhat different, Mr. Senator.

Thank you.

WEBB: Well, first of all, it's always a benefit not working for the State Department. (Laughter) I feel free to speak my mind.

There are -- there are two different issues at play here, as the -- as the gentlemen mentioned a couple of questioners ago. One is whether the United States should take a diplomatic position on sovereignty per se and who's right, who's wrong. And I believe that we should -- on that issue, we should step forward and try to create the right forum for these issues to be resolved, because if people think they're going to be resolved bilaterally with China, I don't see it as being possible. Not one of these countries has enough leverage to have that type of a solution, absent the commitment of the United States to try to bring about an environment -- a multilateral environment where these issues could properly be discussed.

And they are only going to get worse because -- as you know, because there are a lot of economic reasons as well as sovereignty -- you know, security reasons that these issues are in play. That's why the Chinese cut two Vietnamese cables on these exploration ships.

The other issue, though, is that when any of these countries uses military force improperly, we do have a commitment to say something, and -- or else we have no credibility in that -- in that part of the world. And that's my reason for introducing this resolution with respect to what happened with the two Vietnamese exploration vessels.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Is what the ambassador referenced an example of the failure you described earlier to delineate and express and exercise a more robust U.S. foreign policy in the region?

WEBB: I think, actually -- the best way to say that is we now have the burden to demonstrate the credibility of the words that were said last year. And ironically, I was -- I spent time as a journalist in the Philippines in 1996, 1997. And that was the first time that the Chinese were really showing up in the Spratleys in any major way. And there were some concerns at the time, but I think, you know, people weren't connecting all of these pieces like they are today.

SCIUTTO: In the way, way back, just before the cameras there, the woman.

QUESTIONER: Hi, my name is Hannah (sp) with Radio Free Asia. I have a question with you -- you said just before that the U.S. should send a stronger signal to China with regard to the South China Sea. But some experts say that the U.S. is not really willing to work on a common mechanism in the South China Sea. And we had problem with COC because the COC we signed in 2002 until now, it hasn't finalized yet. So can you be more specific what kind of stronger signal that U.S. should send out?

Thank you.

WEBB: I'm not sure what --

SCIUTTO: Are you asking for -- are you -- are you asking whether the U.S. will have stronger comments regarding China's actions in the -- in the South China Sea?

QUESTIONER: He said -- yes, because the senator said that the U.S. should send a stronger signal to China with regard to the South China Sea. So I just wanted to be more specific, like what stronger signal the U.S. should send.

Thank you.

WEBB: Well, first from the legislative side -- you know, we're three separate systems of -- in our federal government -- from the legislative side, we have held hearings on my subcommittee on the issue of sovereignty in the South China Sea. And as I said earlier, I've introduced a Senate resolution with respect to this latest incident. I hope that we will get a unanimous vote in the Senate on this issue.

With respect to the State Department and the administration, I would just defer to their spokesman on that. It's not my place.

SCIUTTO: OK, I think we're going to have -- we have five minutes to go, time for two more questions. Start with one here.

QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm Esther Lee, Department of Commerce and a proud Virginia resident. Could you share with us a little bit about your decision not to seek reelection and maybe a little bit about your -- the next chapter in your very varied career? (Laughter.)

WEBB: It's been a tremendous honor to serve in the Senate, and we have -- six years -- I have another year and a half here so, you know, I -- sometimes I'll go out and people will say, well, what are you doing now? (Laughter.)

So you know, I've spent a little more than half of my life outside -- my professional life -- outside of public service and about half in. And that's just -- I've just found that's a good balance for me. And I think it helps me personally to -- you know, to go out and do other things and live in the world that the government tends to create.

But we have a year and a half here, and quite frankly, we're able to put more energy into these matters than we would be if I were out fundraising and campaigning. So six years is a good bit of time, and I really -- it's been an honor to do it.

QUESTIONER: What are you doing next? (Laughter.)

SCIUTTO: He wouldn't tell me either in private. So we'll have to -- we'll try that later.

So last question, we'll go right here.

QUESTIONER: My name is Stephen (sp) -- (off mic). You rightly stressed, Senator, the desirability of a multilateral disposition of maritime disputes. Would it not be desirable for the United States, after some 30 or more years, finally to ratify the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides for multilateral disposition of maritime disputes? And are you prepared to put your shoulder to the creaky wheel of Senate ratification? (Laughter.)

WEBB: I agree with you. And in fact I chaired that hearing when the -- when the treaty came up for ratification in the last Congress. And there are -- there are some people who have strong objections to -- you know, to this treaty based essentially on sovereignty issues, as near -- as near as I can tell.

But I think we need to have that treaty and will do what I can to get it done. The big problem with so many of these is getting them to the floor for a vote. But I take your point, I agree with you.

SCIUTTO: We're lucky. I think we could squeeze actually one more in. I've gotten -- let's see. We have two minutes left. Maybe just the gentleman here in the blue jacket.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Senator, I'm Garrett Mitchell and I write The Mitchell report. I want to see if I can take you back to Vietnam for a minute but from a slightly different perspective. Marvin Kalb has just written a book called "Hidden Legacy" (sic; "Haunting Legacy"), the thesis of which is to examine the ways in which the Vietnam experience has really been a driver of policy decisions in the foreign policy and national security arena subsequent particularly to 1975.

And given your wealth of experience in that realm, I'm interested in -- two questions -- a two-part question.

The first is do you think that's an accurate assessment, the implication of the book "Hidden Legacy" (sic; "Haunting Legacy") that Vietnam -- the Vietnam experience has been a driver? And second, do you think it's been a net positive or a net negative driver of policy decisions with regard to the use of force?

SCIUTTO: Tough in a minute. (Chuckles.)

WEBB: Well, yeah, I -- because, first of all, I would rather read Mr. Kalb's book before I would comment on it one way or the other. I don't think it's fair to -- you know, fair to him for me to -- for me to make that comment.

We got a lot of -- a lot of different things that are affecting our foreign policy decisions right now. And if I had to pick one, I will -- I will refer to a speech I made on the Senate floor last week about the decision to use military force in Libya, which gives me great concern -- not the fact necessarily that we used military force, but the fact that over the past 10 years, we have become so blase about the exercise of presidential power that you didn't even get a peep out of the Congress.

This was very unique situation where a president unilaterally decide -- decides to use military force in a situation where the United States was not under attack, was not under threat of imminent attack, was not being called upon to come to the aid of a treaty ally, was not being called upon to reciprocate on an attack that had occurred elsewhere, as with Libya in 1986, when I was in the Pentagon, when we -- you know, they -- their agents killed some people in Berlin and we retaliated.

The standard that was used was humanitarian assistance. Now if you stop and think about that, if a president of the United States can now decide on the basis of humanitarian assistance, where there's no Americans involved, to use military force and not get the consent of the Congress, where are we? This is really a breakdown in our constitutional system, and that's my greatest foreign policy concern.

Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to be with you.

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much to Senator Webb. (Applause.)

WEBB: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: I enjoyed it. It was great.

WEBB: Thank you.

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