MR PRICE: Great, thank you very much. And good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining. Thanks for joining this call to discuss the upcoming trip by Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin to Tokyo, Japan and Seoul, Republic of Korea.
With us today, we’re really fortunate to have two speakers. We have Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Sung Kim. We also have with us Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey.
As a reminder, this call is on the record. We are embargoing the contents of this call until the completion of the call, but you are welcome to report the contents thereafter. You may enter the question queue at any time by dialing 1 and then 0. And with that, I will turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Kim.
Ambassador Kim, please, go ahead.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thank you very much, Ned. Good afternoon, everyone. Great to be with you. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy, and we are working to strengthen America’s relationships with our allies as well as the relationships among them. And none are more important than Japan and the Republic of Korea. To highlight the vital importance of our three countries – the United States, Japan, and Korea – in promoting peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin will make their first overseas visit to Tokyo and Seoul from March 15th through 18th.
In Tokyo and Seoul, Secretary Blinken will work with leaders to expand cooperation on tackling COVID-19, strengthening deterrence against regional threats, and addressing climate change, as well as enhancing trilateral cooperation on a broad range of global issues, including denuclearization of the DPRK.
He will also discuss our efforts to promote high standards for human rights and fundamental freedoms, establish effective international rules, and promote accountability for countries like China when they fail to adhere to their international commitments and obligations.
On March 16th and 17th in Tokyo, Secretary Blinken will meet with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and other senior officials. Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin will attend the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee 2+2 meeting hosted by Foreign Minister Motegi and Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi. Secretary Blinken will also meet virtually with business leaders and women entrepreneurs to highlight the importance of U.S.-Japan economic ties.
On March 17th and 18th in Seoul, Secretary Blinken will meet with Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and other senior officials. Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin will attend a U.S.-ROK Foreign and Defense Ministerial, or 2+2, hosted by Foreign Minister Chung and Minister of Defense Suh Wook. Secretary Blinken will also meet virtually with Korean youth leaders to discuss the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance in promoting peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and across the globe.
In both capitals, Secretary Blinken will meet virtually with journalists to discuss the Biden-Harris administration’s vision for America’s place in the world as well as the role of a free press in promoting human rights and defending democracy.
The American, Japanese, and Korean people share deeply rooted values of defending freedom, championing economic and social opportunity and inclusion, upholding human rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity. Our cooperation with both Tokyo and Seoul to promote these universal values is vital to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
This trip is an important opportunity to engage on critical national security issues and to strengthen our engagement with our key allies. Secretary Blinken looks forward to his trip as we work to build a future of peace, prosperity, and security together with our allies and partners.
So with that, I am pleased to turn the telephone over to my good friend, Assistant Secretary Helvey. Thank you.
MR HELVEY: Well, thank you. And good afternoon, everyone. As my colleague Ambassador Kim has described, the Biden administration has made clear the criticality that attaches to promoting peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond through engaging with and investing in alliances and partnerships; and strengthening our foundation at home to maintain our innovation edge and to rebuild our industrial base.
The upcoming trips by the Secretaries of State and Defense signal the importance of our alliance and partner relationships, which are a real force multiplier in advancing our shared interests in the United States commitment to a rules-based international order, an order that places all nations on a level playing field and holds them responsible for preserving the principles that underpin it.
As our department’s priority theater, we’re committed to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific region where all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty and pursue economic opportunity, resolve disputes without coercion, and have the freedom to navigate and fly consistent with international rules and norms.
At a time when the region is facing mounting pressure from People’s Republic of China and the continued threat from North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, this trip sends an important signal of resolve to work with allies, partners, and like-mindeds to promote a peaceful, stable, and resilient order that benefits us all.
Secretary Austin will be joining Secretary Blinken for the Security Consultative Committee meeting, or 2+2, in Japan, the highest platform for alliance management that we have with Japan. Our alliance is the cornerstone for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. In addition to the 2+2, Secretary Austin will meet with Minister Kishi and other officials to discuss the continued transformation of this critical alliance and deepen our interoperability.
Secretary Austin, likewise, will join Secretary Blinken for a 2+2 meeting in the Republic of Korea. Our alliance with South Korea is the linchpin of peace and stability not only on the Korean Peninsula but across the region.
In addition, he’ll meet with Minister Suh Wook and other officials to review alliance priorities and the readiness of forces there to ensure that we maintain an effective combined deterrence and response capability.
From there, Secretary Austin will travel onward to India, an important strategic partnership that involves cooperation with likeminded nations committed to protecting the rules-based international order. In India, he’ll meet with Minister Rajnath Singh and others to discuss operationalizing the major defense partnership that we have with India, including through enhanced information sharing, regional security cooperation, defense trade, and cooperation in new domains.
And so to second Ambassador Kim’s point, this is a critically important trip and an opportunity to advance our alliance and partner relationships in our priority region at a very early time in this new administration. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Okay, thank you both. Just a reminder, you may ask a question by dialing 1 and then 0. We will start our questions with the line of Humeyra Pamuk from Reuters.
QUESTION: Hello. Can you hear me?
MR PRICE: We can. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, Ned. Thank you for doing this. My question is for Acting Assistant Secretary Sung Kim. I was wondering, in your talks with Japan specifically, is Myanmar going to come up? Because, I mean, Japan has put out a couple of statements, but in terms of action so far, they haven’t done a whole lot. And Japanese investments are quite big in Myanmar, so I was just wondering how forcefully are you going to push them to be more vocal about what’s happening in Myanmar? And also, in your talks with – secondly, in your talks with Japan and South Korea, how forcefully you will encourage them to be more vocal about what’s happening in Xinjiang and human rights? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thank you very much. I expect that Burma will be an important topic in Secretary Blinken’s discussions with his Japanese counterparts. In fact, we have stayed in very close touch with our Japanese colleagues from the very beginning of the coup and the difficulties that the Burmese people are facing in Burma.
I think Japanese colleagues share our concerns, and they have tried very hard to engage the military leaders in Burma to try to persuade them to restore democracy, refrain from violence against peaceful demonstrators, and to release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners that they’re holding. And we expect that the Japanese will stay closely aligned with us and will continue to work with us to change the course in Burma.
Regarding Xinjiang, I think you have heard on many occasions the Secretary express his deep concerns about the egregious human rights violations that are happening in Xinjiang. I believe our partner – our allies share our concerns, and so I expect that the topic of Xinjiang will come up in both Seoul and Tokyo.
MR PRICE: Thank you, Ambassador Kim. We will go to the line of Lara Seligman from Politico.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for doing this. This question is for both of you, kind of a broad question. Many administrations have tried to pivot to Asia. What is your – the Biden administration’s strategy to do this? How is it different from your predecessors, and how does this upcoming trip fit into that effort?
AMBASSADOR KIM: Well, thank you. I’ll start first, and then I’m sure David will have additions. I think just the fact that the first cabinet-level overseas trip by the Biden administration is to our two close allies in the Indo-Pacific region reflect the depth of this administration’s commitment to promoting our relations and interests in the Indo-Pacific region. As you might have noticed, both the President and Secretary Blinken reached out very early to our close allies and partners in the region in their series of phone calls in the early weeks of the administration.
I think the commitment is quite clear. I expect that through rebuilding our alliances and partnerships with key countries in the region, and being engaged in regional efforts of great concern to both the United States and our partners in the region, that we will clearly demonstrate our strong commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.
MR HELVEY: I would have little to add to what Ambassador Kim has said. I think for Secretary Austin’s part, he likewise also has engaged with our key allies and partners across the region very early on in his tenure, having phone calls with him, and has now committed to do this first trip, his first cabinet-level trip of the administration to the Indo-Pacific.
The Secretary, as you know, has also signaled a very early interest in focusing the department on China. He has identified China as the pacing threat and the pacing challenge for the department. He’s done things like establish the task force that Dr. Ely Ratner is running to look at that. And I think his initial steps kind of demonstrate that this is going to be an area of continued focus, and the participation in this trip, follow-on travel to India, will provide an opportunity for exchange of views early on with key allies and partners about how we can work together and expand cooperation to support a regional – pardon me, a rules-based international order, and continue developments of these critical relationships which enable us to do that.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Christina Ruffini from CBS.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Ned, we asked you about this earlier in the week, but I was wondering, for anybody who’d like to answer it. If – we asked if China was going to dominate the conversations on this trip, and Ned, you’ve said, well, no, there’s so many other topics to talk about – economics, trade, the environment. But in that region, doesn’t China kind of underly all of those issues, and isn’t it fair to say that even when you’re addressing other issues, China, for better or worse, will dominate a lot of these bilats and a lot of these meetings? And what is the objective in that vein that you want to come out of it?
And then I don’t know if you guys can answer this, but when it comes to the meeting in Alaska with China, were there any preconditions to that meeting? And can anybody say anything about how exactly that came about and why that location was chosen? Thank you so much.
AMBASSADOR KIM: I’ll start. You are absolutely right that China will come up prominently, but I wouldn’t say it would dominate the conversations in Tokyo also. There is a whole host of issues of importance to our partnerships with both Korea and Japan – cooperation on COVID-19, climate change, coordination on our North Korea policy, our efforts to promote human rights and rule of law, as well as our efforts to hold countries that violate obligations and challenge our interests and values accountable. And in many these issues, obviously China will come up. But I think it would be – I don’t think it would be accurate to say that China would dominate the dialogue in Tokyo or Seoul. There are just so many other issues of importance to our countries, our countries’ partnerships, and to the region.
I think in terms of objectives, I mean, obviously how we cooperate with these close partnerships have direct impact on our national security and interests. And so through this very first overseas trip to our allies, I expect that our coordination on all of these important issues will strengthen.
And with regards to Anchorage, I mean, I think the purpose of today’s call is to focus on the upcoming trips to Japan and Korea, and I believe that there will be opportunities in the coming days to talk about the various aspects related to the Anchorage meetings.
MR PRICE: Great. We will go to the line of Dan Lamothe.
QUESTION: Sort of a two-part related question, but the first is: Do you anticipate anything that needs to be buttoned up or that might be expanded upon when it comes to the cost-sharing agreement on the military side in South Korea out of this trip?
And then relatedly, there obviously are long-term tensions at times between South Korea and Japan. What’s the message for those two nations coming out of this trip given the shared concerns about China? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thanks very much. So we’re very pleased that U.S. and Korean negotiators have reached agreement on a proposed text for a new special measures agreement. We believe that this new agreement will be fair, reasonable, and equitable. I think it’s also a positive that it would be a multi-year agreement, which gives the alliance more predictability and stability. So we’re very pleased with the effort so far. I think what remains is to some procedure or requirements that need to be met by both sides in order to fully finalize the agreement. But I commend the work of the negotiators from both sides to come up with this fair agreement.
On Japan and Korea, I think Secretary Blinken has been very committed in not only improving our relations with our allies, but also relations among them, and obviously relations within Japan and Korea are critically important for our security and stability. And so we would like to see an improvement in the relations. I think in terms of what our message to them is that we will try to create opportunities for us to enhance trilateral cooperation, and that we know that there are some very difficult issues between them, but we also know that there is a great deal of mutual respect and affection between Koreans and America and Japanese, and very strong interest in both Tokyo and Seoul and working with us and also strengthening our trilateral cooperation.
So I remain hopeful that our two close allies will maintain very strong relations going forward. Thanks.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Lara Jakes.
QUESTION: You’re both talking about the importance of these partnerships with Japan and South Korea, and I’m wondering if you could each characterize the state of those alliances after the last four years; i.e. both from the diplomatic and the military perspective.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thank you. I mean, I think the President and the Secretary have made it very clear that one of our goals in our foreign policy is to restore confidence, trust with our allies and partners not just in the Indo-Pacific region, but globally. That is obviously an important responsibility for us to carry out. And because diplomacy’s back at the center of our foreign policy and because we are reaching out early to our allies and partners on a whole host of issues, I am quite confident that we will be able to restore confidence and trust with our allies and partners in the region and beyond.
MR HELVEY: Well, thank you. I think obviously we’re – Secretary Austin is very much looking forward to getting out early to meet and interact with our two most critical allies in Northeast Asia and supporting Secretary Blinken and the efforts of this administration to truly invest in and engage actively with our – with all of our alliances and partnerships. And these two are – there are no more important than these two.
We do have strong alliance relationships with both, and this trip and future interactions will be opportunities to continue developing, improving, and transforming these alliances to ensure they’re oriented on the types of challenges that we and all others face in the 21st century.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Jack Decsch, Foreign Policy.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
MR PRICE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Great. I’m just curious to get both of you on how you specifically hope the allies will improve on regional defense when it comes to deterring China. Specifically, are you hoping for more defense activity in the Quad, exercises, or more access agreements for the U.S.? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Dave, I think I’ll defer to you.
MR HELVEY: Sure. What I’d like to do is obviously let the Secretary kind of have the space to talk to his counterparts and engage in the upcoming meetings. And I’m sure we’ll have more to be able to talk about after the meetings are done, but certainly talking about the range of alliance cooperation and where we can look to deepen and enhance not only our dialogue but how we can operationalize this cooperation to our mutual benefit and to the benefit of the region is an important part of the discussion.
MR PRICE: Let’s go to the line of Jennifer White, NHK.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Secretaries discuss the Host Nation Support Agreement with their counterparts in Tokyo? The U.S. and South Korea reached a multi-year deal with the 13.9 percent increase in contributions. So does the U.S. anticipate negotiating a similar deal with Japan?
And second, I was wondering if you could discuss the details about the Secretaries’ itineraries in Tokyo. You discussed the 2+2 meetings, but will Secretary Austin visit U.S. troops stationed near Tokyo, and will Secretary Blinken have any other items on his itinerary while in Japan?
AMBASSADOR KIM: So we’re pleased that we made progress towards a one year SMA agreement, Special Measures Agreement, with Japan. The two sides are starting discussions for a multi-year agreement following the current agreement. And I think that would be a very good thing for the alliance because as I mentioned in the Korea context, having a multi agreement gives more predictability, more consistency, and more stability to the alliance management. So we hope that we will be able to accomplish a multi-year agreement in the near future.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Hyn Young Park with Joongang.
QUESTION: Am I online?
MR PRICE: Yes, we can hear you.
QUESTION: Yes. Yes. Sorry. Yes. To what extent will the topic of Quad plus be discussed between Secretary Blinken and Minister Chung? And in relation to that, to what extent was it discussed this morning during the Quad summit. And my second question is you’ve mentioned that you will be discussing the denuclearization of North Korea. Where are you in the process of this full review of North Korea policy? Have you come up with some kind of interim assessment that you would be able to have a concrete discussion with the Korean counterpart? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thank you. As you mentioned, the Quad summit took place just this morning. And I believe Secretary Blinken will be pleased to offer Foreign Minister Chung a readout of those discussions when they meet in Seoul.
With the North Korea policy review, as you know we’re conducting a thorough review – a thorough and comprehensive review. We’re not finished yet. But throughout the review, we have stayed in very close touch with our colleagues and friends in both Tokyo and Seoul because we wanted to make sure to incorporate their input as I – as we review all of the important aspects of our North Korea policy.
And in fact, when the Secretary is in the region, I think this will be another great opportunity for our allies to provide senior-level input into our process. I don’t have an exact timeline for the completion of the review, but we’re working expeditiously, and I think maybe in the coming weeks we’ll be able to complete the review.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line Sangmin Lee with VOA.
QUESTION: Yeah. So you mentioned that the nuclearization of the DPLK will be discussed during this visit. So can you tell me specifically which issue or topic will be going to be focused on when it comes to the denuclearization of the DPRK?
AMBASSADOR KIM: Well, and I don’t – I don’t want to get into too much detail of what the Secretary – what the two Secretaries will be discussing with their counterparts. But obviously, in the context of dealing – of cooperation on regional challenges, the topic of the North Korea nuclear program will come up, and I think the Secretary will give them an update on where we stand with our North Korea review – North Korea policy review, and have a good exchange about how we can cooperate together.
I should mention that even as we conduct this comprehensive review of our North Korea policy, our commitment – and this is a commitment shared by both Japan and Korea – our commitment to seeking a compete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula or the DPRK has not changed. So I think that will obviously be a central feature of our North Korea policy going forward.
MR PRICE: We have time for a final question or two. We’ll go to Mitch Tanaka with Kyodo News. Do we have Mitch Tanaka?
OPERATOR: Mitch Tanaka’s line is open.
QUESTION: Hello? Can you hear me?
MR PRICE: Yes, go – go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, I was muted. So I have a question with Mr. Helvey. Can you elaborate a little bit more about Mr. Austin’s other trips, other events that he’s scheduled to conduct during his visit to Tokyo and Seoul other than on 2+2?
MR HELVEY: Thank you. As I indicated, he will – in Tokyo, he will be having a meeting with Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi in addition to the – in addition to the Security Consultative Committee meeting. He’ll also have an opportunity to meet with the Commander of U.S. Forces Japan Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider and be meeting with other officials there in Japan.
In Korea, in addition to the 2+2 meeting, he’ll be meeting – engaging in with Secretary Blinken, he will also meet separately with the Minister of Defense Suh Wook, as well as he’ll have an opportunity to meet with General Robert Abrams, who is the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, and he also is dual-hatted as commander of the Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command.
MR PRICE: Great, and we’ll conclude with the line of Sylvie Lanteaume with AFP.
QUESTION: Hello. Do you hear me?
MR PRICE: Yes. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay, good, good. This week, Admiral Davidson said that China could invade Taiwan within six years, and I was wondering what makes the administration think that China has accelerated its ambitions about Taiwan that much. Do you have any – can you elaborate on that date of six years?
AMBASSADOR KIM: I defer to Dave.
MR HELVEY: Yeah, I think the focus of our conversation today is about the upcoming trips to Japan and Korea for the 2+2 meetings and other meetings. If you do have questions about Admiral Davidson’s statement, I would respectfully refer you to our OSD Public Affairs Office or the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Public Affairs Office and they’ll be able to help you out.
MR PRICE: Great. Well, thank you to everyone for joining, especially thank you to our two speakers. As a reminder, they were Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Sung Kim and Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey. This call was on the record and the embargo is now lifted.
Thanks very much and we’ll talk to you all soon.