2:13 p.m. EDT
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Happy Tuesday. A couple items at the top and then we’ll turn right to your questions.
First, I want to call your attention and reiterate what U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in her written statement related to recent arrests made in the alleged plot targeting Burma’s permanent representative to the United Nations.
We are grateful, as she said, that law enforcement moved swiftly to respond to the horrific alleged plot to seriously injure or kill Burma’s permanent representative to the UN. The United States stands in solidarity with Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who continues to demonstrate remarkable courage and bravery in speaking on behalf of the people of Burma who demand a return to democracy.
We are grateful this alleged plot, which was to have taken place on U.S. soil, was thwarted and that the suspected perpetrators were arrested and are now facing justice.
We unequivocally condemn this threat to Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, which fits a disturbing pattern of authoritarian leaders and their supporters reaching across the globe – including even into the United States – to persecute and repress journalists, activists, and others who dare speak or stand against them.
These acts of transnational repression must be met with the condemnation of the world and with full and certain accountability.
We will not stand for efforts by authoritarian regimes and their supporters and enablers to repress people on our soil or across borders, and we will continue to coordinate with allies and partners to stand against transnational repression everywhere.
And today, during her official visit to Thailand, U.S. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield announced more than $50 million in critical humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma, including for those forced to flee violence and persecution in the wake of the military coup.
This aid, provided by the State Department and USAID, will enable our international and NGO partners to provide emergency food assistance, life-saving protection, shelter, essential health care, water, sanitation, and hygiene services to the people of Burma.
In addition, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield announced $5 million in aid to help Thailand fight COVID-19.
This funding comes at a critical point of rising humanitarian needs, and will help mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on the lives of people of both Thailand and Burma.
We continue to urge other donors to generously support the urgent humanitarian needs of the people of Burma and to support the global efforts to combat COVID-19.
With that, I am happy to turn to your questions.
QUESTION: Thanks. Sorry, I was late. I was on the phone.
MR PRICE: Just in time.
QUESTION: Just in time. I have a – one housekeeping item that I want to start with and then go to Afghanistan. It’s now been a little bit over two weeks – 15 days, I think – since the swastika was discovered in the elevator. Secretary came out, obviously condemned it, said there would be an investigation into it. What’s the result of the investigation?
MR PRICE: Well, Matt, as you know, shortly after the swastika was discovered, the Secretary sent a note to the entire workforce. And he made clear in that note that hate has no home here. And nowhere is that tolerated, everywhere is it abhorrent, but here in this department, the – a department that stands for defending human rights, human dignity, the values of pluralism and inclusion around the world, that symbol is especially repugnant, and repugnant to the women and men of the department and to everyone who works here.
In the days after – and you heard directly from Secretary Blinken, I guess it was a week ago yesterday, on this – of course, President Biden has put forward a nominee for a special envoy to combat anti-Semitism, put forward a nominee for – to be an envoy for international religious freedom. And as Secretary Blinken noted in his message to the workforce, there is an investigation underway. I know this is a priority on the part of the investigators who are looking closely into this. I don’t have an update that I’m able to provide at the time, but if and when we do, I will certainly be able give you that.
QUESTION: Well, far be it from me to say that something is taking a long time or not taking a long time, because I – but an elevator is a pretty small place, right? This building has got controlled access. It would seem to me that two weeks is more than enough to come up with a – to come up with some kind of explanation. And while you’re correct in saying that this kind of hate has no place and that the Secretary said that, this building also stands for accountability and transparency. So —
MR PRICE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And —
QUESTION: So are you really telling me that two weeks after the fact, they can’t – they got no leads —
MR PRICE: The elevator is a small place. This building, as you know, is a large place.
QUESTION: I —
MR PRICE: So —
QUESTION: Yeah, but it’s not that big, Ned. Come on. It’s not that big. All right. If you don’t have anything, you don’t have anything.
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything to offer now, but we —
QUESTION: All right, let’s go on —
MR PRICE: — of course, do believe in the value of transparency. That’s why we’re out here every day.
MR PRICE: And, of course, as soon as we have an update, we’ll be able to share that.
QUESTION: Okay. Okay. On Afghanistan, I just want to make – get – does this administration believe that the Taliban is upholding its end of the deal that was signed in February 2020, the end of February 2020, in Doha?
MR PRICE: So let me take a step back and offer some broader context, and I will come to that. I take it you’re coming at this question in light of the escalating violence and Taliban aggression.
QUESTION: No, no, no. No reason at all.
MR PRICE: Okay, okay. Okay.
QUESTION: No, no. (Laughter.) It just occurred to me out of thin air.
MR PRICE: So let me first comment on that and then we’ll come to it. The – what we are seeing – what we have seen in recent days and recent weeks – the violence, the loss of life, the aggression – it is of grave concern. It is of grave concern to this department. It is of grave concern to the entire United States Government. What we are doing around the clock is seeking to find a way out of this, and here in this department, in the Department of State, we are focused on the diplomacy that can eventually see a just and durable solution to this conflict.
And as part of that – the latest example of that diplomacy, as we announced last night – Ambassador Khalilzad is currently in Doha. He is there to advance a collective international response to what can only be termed as a rapidly deteriorating security situation. He will and has already taken part in several rounds of planned meetings in the coming days. Those meetings, including one today, have and will include representatives from the region as well as beyond and from multilateral organizations to press for a reduction in this violence and a ceasefire and commitment by the part of these regional and broader governments and multilateral and international institutions not to recognize any government that is imposed by force.
And this is something that – you’ve heard me say this recently, but it is not just our contention that any government that comes to power in Afghanistan at the barrel of a gun will lack international support and international legitimacy. It is, in fact, the consensus that has emerged and that has been stated any number of times. Just last week, the UN Security Council put out a statement, the final line of which said, “The members of the Security Council recall[ed] Resolution 2513, reaffirm[ed] that there is no military solution to the conflict, and declare[d] that they do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate.” I went through last week a litany of countries, of international blocs and institutions that have signed on to this, this simple proposition that any government that comes to force in Afghanistan will lack legitimacy and, more practically, won’t have that international assistance that any government would almost certainly need to achieve any degree of durability.
So that is what Ambassador Khalilzad is there to seek to advance and seek to support. He will press the Taliban to stop their military offensive and to negotiate a political settlement. We, again, know that is the only path to stability, to development in Afghanistan. We also know the opposite is true, that if this violence continues, if the Taliban continues down this path, we are likely to see a prolonged, protracted period of violence, of instability. And that is not in anyone’s interest – certainly not in the interests of the people of Afghanistan and not in the interests of what the Taliban seek.
QUESTION: Well, I – yeah.
MR PRICE: Now, coming back to your original question, the U.S.-Taliban agreement – the application of it has been uneven. We have always – we have consistently said violence in Afghanistan – and this is perhaps clearer than it’s ever been – levels of violence are unacceptably high. That is true.
What is also true is that the Taliban has adhered to an important part of the U.S.-Taliban agreement.
QUESTION: But have they adhered to the whole thing?
MR PRICE: What we’ve consistently said is that levels of violence are unacceptably high. But —
QUESTION: Ned, if they haven’t adhered to the whole thing, do you have any recourse? Well, first of all, do you think that they are following their commitments, or are they in violation of that agreement? What’s happening right now on the ground?
MR PRICE: The levels of violence are unacceptably high. What’s happening on the ground —
QUESTION: But that – that means nothing. Is that a violation?
MR PRICE: — is unacceptable and is – it is not in the spirit —
QUESTION: Does that violate the deal that Zal negotiated? You’ve got him back there now, and if the Taliban are in violation of the agreement that they signed with him in – and Secretary Pompeo in February 2020, then why would you ever believe that they are – that anything that he could do there now would make any difference on the ground?
MR PRICE: There —
QUESTION: But the – the main question is: Are they violating the February 2020 agreement?
MR PRICE: Certainly the levels of violence do not appear consistent with what the Taliban pledged in that agreement. Let me make another point, though: There is another important element to that deal that is important for two reasons, and that, of course, is the proviso that they not target U.S. or coalition forces. The Taliban had not done so. That part of the —
QUESTION: So they’re adhering to that?
MR PRICE: That part of the agreement —
QUESTION: So are they in violation of any other part of the agreement?
MR PRICE: But let me —
QUESTION: It’s a very easy question, Ned.
MR PRICE: Let me get to why that’s important. That’s important for a couple reasons.
One, it suggests because the same people on the Taliban side and the same people on our side who negotiated that 2020 agreement are – have been engaged in dialogue, engaged in discussion. And so the fact that an important element of the U.S.-Taliban agreement has been upheld suggests that, contrary to some speculation, what happens in Doha does have an impact on the ground in Afghanistan. It does suggest that there is room for diplomatic progress to be made. And that is what we are seeking to do. We are going to exhaust every diplomatic avenue, because we know the stakes if we fail to do that. The Afghan people know the stakes if there is not a negotiated agreement and a ceasefire that is put in place.
But there’s another reason that element of the U.S.-Taliban agreement is noteworthy, and this gets back to the decision that you heard directly from President Biden. The idea that the United States could have maintained a significant military presence in Afghanistan and that we would have found and encountered conditions that were just as we would have found them on April 30th of this year going into May 1 or May 2nd – that was just not tenable. It was not in the cards, and it was not in the cards because, according to that agreement that was negotiated by the United States – not this administration, but the previous one – if our forces remain there in great numbers after May 1, they could again have become targets of violence.
This President places great priority – the greatest priority – on the safety, the security, the well-being of our service members. So the idea that a force of a couple thousand U.S. military service members either would have been able to remain in Afghanistan with the status quo, or frankly that a force of that size would have been able to stand in the way of what we are seeing now – both of those propositions are hollow, and they’re hollow for the very simple reason that —
QUESTION: They’re also unprovable. And I’ll stop, so – other people have questions.
MR PRICE: Follow-up, or joint —
QUESTION: Follow-up on Afghanistan.
MR PRICE: Okay. Sure.
QUESTION: An EU official has said the Taliban now controls 65 percent of Afghanistan. Given its rapid takeover, is there any hesitancy or second thoughts with the U.S. thinking over Turkey’s effort to run the Kabul airport?
MR PRICE: Taking – Turkey’s efforts to run the Kabul effort – airport?
MR PRICE: The – what that gets to, what the Kabul airport represents, is something more than – you might say most airports – it’s more about – it’s more than air travel; it’s more than commercial travel, certainly. A secure, operational airport we feel is integral to our ability to have a functioning diplomatic presence on the ground. So the safety, the security, the continuing operation of that airport – it is of high importance to us. We are grateful that our Turkish partners have indicated a willingness to play a role in protecting that. Of course, Afghan Security Forces have an important role to play, too. But nothing that we have seen diminishes the importance we place on a functioning, safe, secure Hamid Karzai International Airport.
QUESTION: Have you picked up any hesitancy from the Turks on this issue?
MR PRICE: This is an issue that we have discussed, including at the highest levels, with our Turkish allies. President Biden, of course, discussed it with his counterpart, with President Erdogan. The department has discussed it in multiple levels. It is now principally a discussion that the Department of Defense is leading. As we always do, we keep those discussions in confidence, but we do appreciate Turkey’s willingness to take on an important role.
QUESTION: Following up —
MR PRICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: — thank you – following up on the U.S.-Taliban agreement. Isn’t – to be more specific and try to get an answer – isn’t the Taliban violating the commitment not to attack cities and towns that was in the annexes of that agreement?
MR PRICE: That gets back to what we have consistently said. Levels of violence are too high. They are unacceptably high. That is why we are focused on diminishing the level of violence. We are doing this diplomatically; the State Department certainly is. But of course, the Afghans have a role to play, an important role to play – perhaps a more important role than they have had to play over the past 20 years.
And the other point is that yes, the Taliban have made gains; yes, the Taliban has inflicted horrific violence on their country, killing their fellow countrymen and women in the process, seemingly indiscriminately. At the same time – we’ve made this point before, but – the Afghan Government, the Afghan National Security Forces, far outnumber the Taliban – 300,000 – a capable fighting force of 300,000 troops, an air force that has modern weaponry, that has been trained by the United States, that just recently was provided with additional equipment. They have special forces. They have heavy equipment. So they have a capable fighting force.
For our part, we continue to support Afghan Security Forces. We’re committed to supporting those forces well into the future. You just look at what President Biden has requested in his budget request – $3.3 billion for the support of the Afghan Security Forces. That is a clear indication of our continuing support well into the future for these Afghan National Security Forces.
QUESTION: Was the withdrawal of the U.S. forces a condition-based withdrawal, and if yes, would you say that the Taliban are respecting their conditions of the withdrawal?
MR PRICE: Was our withdrawal conditions-based?
MR PRICE: No. Our withdrawal is not conditions-based, for the simple reason that it was preordained that a conditions-based withdrawal was essentially taken off the table. This administration could not – this President —
QUESTION: So why make a deal?
MR PRICE: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: So why make a deal if there was no conditions to the withdrawal?
MR PRICE: The deal closed the door on a conditions-based withdrawal. It’s a very important point. The U.S.-Taliban agreement stipulates a number of things. Among those things that it stipulates is that on May 1st of this year the United States was to withdraw its military forces. This was an agreement that was concluded in early 2020, a year before this administration came in. It was an agreement that – as President Biden said when he announced the military withdrawal, it’s a deal that this administration probably would not have made, certainly not in all the detail. But it’s a deal that we inherited.
And so that gets back to the point that it was never an option for the United States to maintain its forces. Or I should say it was never a viable option for this President, a president who prioritizes the safety, the security, the well-being of our service members, to maintain forces there in significant numbers after May 1, knowing that the status quo would not stand after May 1. From April 30th to May 1st, our service members would have become – could have become, once again – targets of violence. And that is something that had not happened since the U.S.-Taliban agreement. That was not a proposition this President, this administration, was willing to accept.
QUESTION: Just one last on Afghanistan for me. You’ve been issuing the same warnings to the Taliban for the last several days and weeks. They haven’t heard any of it. What makes you think that they will change their course now that they’re gaining and gaining cities and capitals?
MR PRICE: Look, we have been very clear where we stand, but also where the international community stands. You’re seeing this reflected right now in Qatar, where the Qataris are hosting a series of meetings involving much of the region, much of the international community, to discuss and to ultimately advance this diplomatic project.
I think there’s also a misconception that in order for negotiations, peace negotiations, to take place there is the requirement that there be peace on the ground. In fact, if you look back through history, very rarely have peace negotiations taken place when peace is present on the ground. What we’re seeing is levels of violence that are of grave concern. They’re certainly not within the spirt of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. But we know that diplomacy is the only way that we are ever going to achieve a durable solution and, insofar as we are concerned, a just solution.
And so we have made very clear that in order for us and for our allies and partners to be able to recognize any future government of Afghanistan and to provide assistance to it, it must emerge from a political settlement that meets five criteria. First, it must be inclusive; second, it must respect the rights of all Afghans, including women and minorities; third, it allows the Afghan people to have a say in choosing their leaders; fourth, it must prevent Afghan soil from being used to threaten the United States and its allies and partners; and fifth and finally, it must respect its commitments in terms of international law and international humanitarian law.
We’ve made these criteria very clear to the Taliban. President Ghani, Chairman Abdullah have accepted these criteria for their part. We have discussed these criteria with our allies and partners. And for us, this will be the roadmap for recognition and for assistance to any future government of Afghanistan. It’s not – again, not just us. It is the countries in the region and well beyond that espouse this.
QUESTION: Ned, just a quick follow-up. So is there any circumstance under which the administration would consider stopping or reversing the troop withdrawal? Is there anything that the Taliban could do that would force this administration to do that, or are troops coming out no matter what?
MR PRICE: Well, this gets back to I think what we were talking about before, but let me just say: Every commander in chief faces difficult choices. That’s really the nature of the role of commander in chief. If something reaches the desk of the president of the United States, any number of hundreds or thousands of people have probably mulled it over before with some degree of lack of consensus or consternation. President Biden made a very tough decision. He was clear that after 20 years of conflict, after our service members had accomplished the task that had been asked of them initially – the decimation of the network responsible for the 9/11 attacks, bringing Osama bin Laden to justice over 10 years ago – it was time for our troops to come home.
But the other relevant piece of this is that it gets back to what was in some ways preordained. The status quo was not an option. If we had announced a plan to extend our military presence or sustain it indefinitely, there was a risk, a not insignificant risk, that our service members would once again become the attempted targets of Taliban attacks and Taliban offensives.
QUESTION: But so in – I mean, in other words, what you seem to be saying is that it’s okay if the Taliban don’t abide by their part of the deal because you’re acknowledging that there’s – the levels of violence are too high, but then at the same time, you’re saying listen, we had to abide by our promises under this deal, even if the Taliban did not abide by their promises.
MR PRICE: No, what we’re saying is that President Biden decided very firmly that our military service members would not be bargaining chips, that their lives would not be used as leverage for what we would all hope and seek to achieve in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: So are you then – I mean, okay – I mean, the U.S. maintains troop presences in countries all over the world indefinitely.
MR PRICE: I would caution against comparing what U.S. forces Korea face and what our service members in Afghanistan would have endured after May.
QUESTION: Okay. So the – the final question for me, then, is – I mean, are – is there an assessment now in the administration that essentially the process of the peace negotiation with the U.S. was essentially a gambit by the Taliban to get U.S. troops out, and once U.S. troops out – were out, they recognize that you would have no leverage to stop their advance, which seems to be exactly what happening? I mean, do you still believe that they negotiated with you guys in good faith?
MR PRICE: Well, of course, this agreement was concluded in 2020, so – with the U.S. Government, of course, and that’s why – one of the reasons why it was important to honor it. But look, the idea that we don’t have leverage or that the Islamic Republic, the Government of Afghanistan doesn’t have leverage – that’s just not the case. The United States continues to have leverage, our – the international community, working closely with us, continues to have leverage, and the Afghan Government has tremendous leverage. Part of that is the numerical advantage that I spoke to before: 300,000 troops, an air force, special forces, heavy equipment, training, a commitment of partnership, continued support from the United States, $3.3 billion in the budget for continuing support to the ANDSF.
So the idea that the Taliban advance – continued Taliban advance is unstoppable, that there’s nothing that can stand in the way, that we’ll just have to watch it unfold, that is not the reality on the ground.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that, and two other questions? You can’t compare the situation maybe to South Korea, but we have U.S. troops in Iraq who are under near-constant rocket fire as well. And they’re there to keep the situation stable against ISIS, a terror group. So how is that any different from what’s happening in Afghanistan, and why pull U.S. troops out from one country but leave them in another?
MR PRICE: It’s very difficult and dare I say impossible to compare one country to the next. You’re right that U.S. service members are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Government in order – for one mission and one mission only, and that is in partnership for the counter-ISIS mission. We have similarly, when it comes to Afghanistan, been very clear – and this is one of our criteria that we have made clear to the Taliban; the President has made this clear to the American people and the international public – that we are determined that Afghanistan will never again become a staging ground for attacks against the United States. We believe and we are confident that we can do that through resources and capabilities that are so-called over the horizon, that aren’t stationed in Afghanistan but that we can call upon at a moment’s notice to disrupt a threat as it emerges.
The fact is that the security risks, that the danger that our service members would have been exposed to after May 1, when the Taliban would have deemed us to have been in violation of that agreement and our service members would once again – could well have once again become targets of attack, that is not a proposition this President was willing to accept. It wasn’t a proposition because this President prioritizes the security, the safety, the well-being of our service members, but this —
QUESTION: But why is that a proposition you’re willing to accept in Iraq, then, where they are under constant threat from rocket attacks as well?
MR PRICE: The dynamic is entirely different. There is not an analogous situation on the ground. There is not an analogous agreement that was reached between – and even the idea of it sounds laughable – between the United States Government and ISIS. There is no analogous U.S.-ISIS agreement.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) It was – it was pretty laughable not so many years ago that there would ever be a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban.
QUESTION: Just a second question, then.
MR PRICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: You talk consistently about the Taliban paying a cost in the future, that they would be an international pariah, there would be no international assistance. Why haven’t you imposed the costs on the Taliban now for what’s happening? Why haven’t you imposed some sort of costs on their leadership for the atrocities that you say that their group is committing, for the ongoing offensive?
MR PRICE: Yeah. It’s a good question. All tools – we have not taken any tool off the table except for this military presence on the ground. The Afghan Government continues to have a capable and highly numerically superior fighting force. They are imposing costs. They have the potential to impose even greater costs on the Taliban. Of course, there are other tools at our disposal that fall short of reintroducing U.S. forces. We have not ruled any of those out, and so if it’s appropriate for us to use them, we won’t hesitate to do so.
QUESTION: Just one last question: It’s three weeks now until the military withdrawal is supposed to be complete. The administration has committed to relocating 4,000 Afghan SIVs and their families, and that process hasn’t started. Do you realistically think – for the 4,000 who are going to third countries, do you realistically think that that is possible to complete within the next three weeks?
MR PRICE: What the President said is that relocation flights would begin by the end of last month, and they did for this first group of SIV applicants. And let me just give you an update on that, because I know there’s great interest in this. So far, as of today, six flights have landed in the United States. We have relocated almost a thousand special immigrants and their family members as of August 10th. That number is, in fact, 995, so when we say almost, we mean almost. We are, of course, unable to preview upcoming flight schedules, but we expect to surpass that 1,000 number very shortly.
To date, approximately 60 percent of the Afghan special immigrants who arrived at Fort Lee have departed Fort Lee to begin their new lives in the United States with assistance from the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
Let me mention one other point, because this will be important as to processing going forward: The State Department can now accept results of the so-called fit-to-fly medical exam that Afghan special immigrants participating in Operation Allies Refuge relocation flights must undergo for purposes of visa issuance. And so this accommodation has made it possible for more applicants to enter the United States with a visa in hand, conferring upon them lawful permanent residence status upon admission to the United States as a first-time arriving immigrant, and therefore negating the need for them to undergo additional processing at Fort Lee.
So, in other words, they are undergoing elements of this fit-to-fly medical exam in Afghanistan, in Kabul before they board, and so that will expedite their processing upon arrival in the United States. Many, if not most, of these special immigrants can now go directly to the relocation agencies to begin their new lives here in the United States.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, so it’s 995 SIVs and their family members?
MR PRICE: That’s right.
QUESTION: How many SIVs – like single applicants. Do you know that?
MR PRICE: I don’t have that number, but 995 is the aggregate.
MR PRICE: That includes the principal applicants and dependents.
QUESTION: And do you have any updates on flights to third countries or U.S. locations overseas?
MR PRICE: Well, this is something – so as – so just to distinguish what we’re talking about, these so far 995 of the total 1,000 principal applicants, or approximately 4,000 within the group that had completed the security vetting, they are coming directly to the United States. There is a second larger group that has not completed – completed the chief of mission stage but not the security vetting. And so, as the President announced, they will be going to third countries. We have engaged a number of third countries; we’re continuing to have discussions with a number of our partners. Don’t have any details to share at this time, but as soon as we do, we will.
QUESTION: And then I just have one question: So we reported today that there is some active discussions underway about a further drawdown from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and I understand it’s not going to be a major drawdown, but potentially a small drawdown is under consideration. And one thing that the department said is that the embassy in Kabul continues to pursue its full agenda of issues. And I’m just wondering, given everything that is unfolding on the ground there with the Taliban violence and gains, how the diplomacy and how the work that the embassy actually does on the ground has been impacted.
MR PRICE: Well, it’s a very good question. Let me first talk about the staffing and security piece of it. As you know, in April, Embassy Kabul went on ordered departure status. That was in late April – April 27th, I believe it was. So our posture has not changed since then. What we have been doing, as we do for every diplomatic post in a challenging security environment, is to evaluate threats daily and to determine what the staffing posture that is in the best interests for those serving at the embassy and how we might be able to continue to keep them safe.
And so, of course, we do want to minimize the number of employees in Afghanistan whose functions can be performed elsewhere. And we spoke about this in the context of the SIV process. Instead of completing the chief of mission stage, having that processing done from Kabul, we’ve been able to do that from Washington, for example, or the Washington, D.C. area.
So that’s what we’re looking at, our – the point in all of this is that we intend for our partnership with the Afghan people to be enduring. In order for that to be the case, it’s important to have a diplomatic relationship and a diplomatic presence on the ground to do those functions that can’t be performed elsewhere. And there are a number of functions: the political element, the consular element that is important for that face-to-face diplomacy to take place under the auspices of our embassy.
QUESTION: So everything that you would like to do on the ground you’re able to do on the ground?
MR PRICE: Obviously, it is a challenging security environment, and were we able, were we confident, were we comfortable having a larger staffing presence there, we would. But we are evaluating the threat environment on a daily basis. The embassy is in regular contact with Washington, with the most senior people in this building, who in turn are in regular contact with our colleagues at the NSC and the White House on this dynamic. But for right now, we have been able to continue those core activities that are important for us to conduct on the ground.
QUESTION: Sorry, if we can have a gradual break from Afghanistan —
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: — I have a question for – so I have two questions. First one is State Department’s willingness to promote freedom of the press outside the United States. So South Korea’s Moon government and the ruling party is pushing a new law that obliges media outlets to pay punitive damages for spreading fake news. And as you have seen in the United States, labeling critical news stories as fake news is a typical way of attempting to stifle criticism. So South Korean journalist associations expresses deep concern.
And so my question is: I understand Biden administration wants to show unity between the allies, but as the administration promotes freedom of the press and liberal democracy in the world, will the administration acquiesce this undermining of democratic values just to avoid presenting split between the allies? And if not, can you share State Department’s plan to address this issue with South Korean counterparts?
MR PRICE: Well, I don’t have a specific reaction to offer on this particular development, but I will say, broadly, freedom of the press, freedom of expression is a value that the United States supports the world over. And we’ve demonstrated that in the context of the Republic of Korea. When Secretary Blinken was in Seoul and he, of course, visited Tokyo and Seoul on his first physical travel overseas, we met with – he met with a number of emerging South Korean journalists – that is to say, young journalists working for some of the country’s biggest outlets – to affirm this – these enduring values and enduring principles that we share with our like-minded allies and partners. And so freedom of expression is something that we continue to stand for and will stand for in that context and every context.
QUESTION: So you want to avoid the specific – this mentioning about this development, but do you think there will be a private diplomatic discussion about this issue?
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to wade into what may or may not be conveyed privately.
QUESTION: So my second question is Chinese nuclear buildup. So last Friday, Secretary Blinken expressed the concern that China has deviated from its past strategy of minimum deterrence. Is it now the U.S. Government’s official assessment that China has discarded no-first-use policy and shifted to launch on warning?
MR PRICE: Well, I’m not going to weigh in on the PRC’s nuclear doctrine. I will leave that to them. What is – what we have said and I think what is becoming more and more obvious is that the PRC is building a larger and more diverse nuclear arsenal. Despite efforts to obfuscate this, this rapid buildup has become more difficult to hide, and it does suggest that China is deviating from decades of nuclear strategy based around minimum deterrence.
These advances at the same time highlight why we believe it is important that it’s in everyone’s interests that nuclear powers talk to one another, that we engage in nonproliferation dialogue directly to discuss reducing nuclear dangers and avoiding miscalculation. We encourage Beijing to engage with us on practical measures to reduce the risks of destabilizing arms races and conflict.
Of course, our Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman recently engaged in a round of Strategic Stability Dialogue with the Russian Federation. And it’s important that nuclear powers – China, of course, be among them – be open to professional dialogue and discussion, precisely to reduce the risk of these weapons.
QUESTION: Two new question about China. First one: Yesterday, the Secretary Blinken met Japanese new national security advisor Akiba and they reaffirmed the importance of the peace and the stability in the Taiwan Strait. So what kind of specific contributions or the actions do you expect Japan to take to keeping this stability?
MR PRICE: Well, stability across the strait is an important principle that not only we seek to uphold, but that we’ve discussed with our partners in the region, including Japan. For our part – and I wouldn’t want to speak to Tokyo’s approach to this; that’s for them to offer – we will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait relations, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan. We have urged Beijing – and you’ve heard similar statements from our allies and partners in the Indo Pacific – to cease its military, its diplomatic, its economic pressure against Taiwan and to engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan.
QUESTION: One more question is about Olympics. Now that the Tokyo Olympics are over – although we still have the Paralympics – but let me ask about the current stance of the United States on participating in the next Beijing Winter Olympic Games?
MR PRICE: Well, you’re right that the Tokyo Olympic Games have now concluded. Of course, the Paralympic Games are ahead of us. But it is still mid-2021 – August is still mid, I suppose – so we are not – don’t want to wade in just yet on 2022 Olympics. We are, as we have said, consulting closely with our allies and partners to, in the first instance, define those common concerns and to establish a shared approach. But again, I don’t want to get ahead of where we are, given that we still have some time to go.
MR PRICE: North Korea?
QUESTION: Six months.
MR PRICE: Six months away. Yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah. And also mid-2021? Eight out of twelve is not exactly mid. You know, you’re on the —
MR PRICE: Math was never my forte. But you get the point.
QUESTION: On North Korea, do you have any response to the comment from Kim Jong-un’s sister about the U.S.-South Korea military exercise, calling Seoul “perfidious” yesterday?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a specific response to the North Korean comments, but allow me to offer just a bit of context and – surrounding the policy from our side. First, let me reiterate that the joint military exercises are purely defensive in nature. We have made that point repeatedly, and it’s a very important one.
Second, as we have long maintained, the United States harbors no hostile intent towards the DPRK. We remain committed to the security of the Republic of Korea and our combined defense posture in accordance with our ironclad U.S.-ROK alliance. DOD may be able to provide additional details on these exercises, but the important point for us is that they are purely defensive in nature.
More broadly, and as we’ve said in recent weeks, we support inter-Korean dialogue. We support inter-Korean engagement, and we’ll continue to work with our ROK partners towards that end.
Yes. Let’s see, anyone who hasn’t – John, yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah, on Ethiopia. The prime minister is now calling for a national war effort and mass enlistment in response to battlefield losses to Tigray rebels. Does the administration have any response, coming just a week after Samantha Power was in the country calling for a ceasefire?
MR PRICE: Well, that continues to be our message. You heard it very forcefully. Ethiopian officials heard it very frankly from Ambassador Power. We have continued to call for dialogue and a cessation of hostilities. That is precisely what Ambassador Power said during her visit last week. During her visit last week, she also made the point during her press conference that enflamed rhetoric makes it more difficult for all parties to come to the table and negotiate an end to this conflict. The focus, as we see it, should be and must be on dialogue that is needed for an inclusive peace and importantly to end the suffering of the civilian people of Ethiopia.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering, on this China and Lithuania situation, do you guys have anything to say about China now demanding that Lithuania withdraw its ambassador from Beijing, after they opened this office, the Taiwan embassy?
MR PRICE: Well, we do stand in solidarity with our NATO Ally Lithuania and we condemn the PRC’s recent retaliatory actions, including the recall of Beijing’s ambassador from Vilnius and demanding Lithuania recall its ambassador from Beijing. We support our European partners and our allies as they develop mutually beneficial relations with Taiwan and resist the PRC’s coercive behavior. Taiwan is a global leader in public health and advanced manufacturing and democratic governance, to name just a few areas in which the international community – including the United States – benefits from engagement with Taiwan.
Each country should be able to determine the contours of its own “one China” policy without outside coercion. We have done just that. Of course, we have spoken to how this administration is engaging with the people on Taiwan in accord with our “one China” policy. But for further details on this, I would refer you to the Government of Lithuania.
QUESTION: And I just – I assume therefore that you support, if other countries are considering opening Taiwan embassies in their country, if they want to do that?
MR PRICE: We support engagement.
I’ll – we’ll do Tracy, and then Daphne.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Since we’re back on China, do you have any comment on or knowledge of, or better yet, confirmation of China’s supposed cyber-attack on Israel?
MR PRICE: I don’t have anything for you on that. Of course, we have seen and we have taken action against China’s – the PRC’s malign activity in cyberspace. We have taken actions to attribute even just recently when it comes to the attack against the Microsoft Exchange Server, and the details of that attribution we made public. But when – and of course, DOJ has previously charged PRC officials for activities, malign activities in the cyber realm, but I don’t have a specific response on that for you.
QUESTION: A collection of more than 90 organizations have written to Secretary Blinken urging him to recognize the atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar as crimes against humanity and genocide. You’ve been in office for nearly eight months now; why is the review of this determination taking so long? And then is this a policy question rather than just looking at the facts?
MR PRICE: So you heard – and I believe you asked Secretary Blinken for an update when he was here just a couple weeks ago. He said at the time that that evaluation of the facts and the law is ongoing. Of course, it’s important that we have a full understanding of the facts, of the law, and also the implications when it comes to any sort of designation.
What remains true, and what we’ve said before, is that many of the individuals who are now in leadership positions within the junta are and were responsible for the – for some of the alleged atrocities against the Rohingya. We continue to believe that they should be held to account for that, for their anti-democratic practices more recently, and we will continue to find ways to do just that. But I don’t have an update to offer on any – on that particular determination.
QUESTION: Follow-up, related on Myanmar. Last week, Wendy Sherman had a phone call with Zin Mar, who is the sort of acting foreign minister of the National Unity Government. Should this be taken as a sign that the Biden administration is considering recognizing the NUG as the legitimate government in Myanmar?
MR PRICE: Well, what we’ve said is that we engage with – first of all, we are standing with the people of Burma, who very clearly still aspire to see their democracy restored. As part of our strong support for the people of Burma, we are engaging with the full range of civil society and pro-democracy groups that seek to do that, that seek to restore democratic governance.
To date, it has not only been Deputy Secretary Sherman but EAP bureau leadership and our U.S. ambassador to Burma. They’ve met with NUG leaders. We continue to deepen such engagement. When Deputy Secretary Sherman spoke to Zin Mar Aung last week, they discussed ongoing efforts to return Burma to a path to democracy, including continued U.S. support for the pro-democracy movement. They also discussed the toll of COVID-19 in Burma and efforts to provide critical humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma.
Thank you all very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:06 p.m.)