1:48 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: Good afternoon.
QUESTION: Do you need all that today?
MR PRICE: Absolutely.
MR PRICE: A few things at the top.
Secretary of State Blinken will travel to Tokyo, Japan, and Seoul, Republic of Korea, March 15th to the 18th to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to strengthening our alliances and to highlight cooperation that promotes peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world.
On March 16th through the 18th in Tokyo, Secretary Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin will attend the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee, or 2+2 meeting, hosted by Japan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi and Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi. Secretary Blinken will meet with Minister Motegi and other senior officials to discuss a range of bilateral and global issues.
Secretary Blinken will also meet virtually with business leaders to highlight the importance of U.S.-Japan economic ties and shared priorities, addressing climate change, securing supply chains, promoting and protecting emerging technologies, fostering digital trade, and recovering from COVID-19. He will have a discussion with women entrepreneurs on the challenges women face in building successful businesses. Secretary Blinken will also host a virtual roundtable with emerging Japanese journalists to discuss the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the role of a free press in promoting good governance and defending democracy, and the widespread benefits from advancing gender equity and opportunities for women worldwide.
On March 17th through the 18th in Seoul, Secretary Blinken will attend – Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin will attend a U.S.-ROK Foreign and Defense Ministerial, or 2+2 again, hosted by the ROK’s Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Foreign – and Minister of Defense Suh Wook. Secretary Blinken will meet with Foreign Minister Chung and other senior officials to discuss issues of bilateral and global importance. Secretary Blinken will also meet virtually with Korean youth leaders and host a virtual roundtable of emerging Korean journalists to discuss the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance in promoting peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the globe.
Next, as we announced yesterday, the State Department has taken decisive action against violent extremism by designating ISIS-Democratic Republic of the Congo and ISIS-Mozambique as Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Specially Designated Global Terrorists, or SDGDTs for short.
Seka Musa Baluku, leader of ISIS-DRC, and Abu Yasir Hassan, leader of ISIS-Mozambique, have also been designated as SDGTs under Executive Order 13224.
ISIS-DRC is responsible for many of the terrorist attacks across North Kivu and Ituri provinces in eastern DRC, and it’s notorious in the region for its brutal violence against Congolese citizens, as well as against DRC military forces and U.S. peacekeeping personnel. Attacks attributed to ISIS-DRC have killed more than 840 civilians in 2020 alone.
ISIS-Mozambique’s violent extremist insurgency has wreaked havoc in the country’s Cabo Delgado province and has killed more than 1,300 civilians. ISIS-Mozambique’s continued attacks have caused the displacement of nearly 670,000 persons within Mozambique.
This designation is an important step in the global fight to defeat ISIS. The United States will continue to expose and isolate terrorists, disrupt their support networks, deny them access to the U.S. financial system, and do everything in our power to preserve the security of the United States.
We remain decisively engaged with our partners to address security challenges and to advance peace and security in Africa.
And finally, as you saw yesterday with Ambassador Jacobson’s remarks at the White House press briefing and our media note, we are taking concrete steps to implement our comprehensive regional migration management strategy.
The latest step involves reopening the Central American Minors, or CAM, program, which reunites qualified children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras with their parents or parent who are lawfully present in the United States.
As directed by President Biden, we have initiated the first phase of reinstituting this program, reopening applications that were suspended when the program was terminated in 2017.
In doing so, we will provide a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to dangerous irregular migration. During the life of the program, the United States has reunited nearly 5,000 children safely and securely with their families.
The U.S. southern border, of course, remains closed to irregular migration and we reiterate that we strongly discourage people from attempting this dangerous journey to the United States.
The steps we are taking reflect our values as a nation and represent our continued commitment to ensure that we treat people with dignity and respect, and that we protect the most vulnerable people, especially children.
So with that, Matt.
Just on the first one – and I think this is going to be dispatched with kind of quickly – he was asked a couple times about Hong Kong, the situation there, and the last time he – the second time he was asked about it, he was asked specifically about this new election law that was going in and it hadn’t happened yet, so he didn’t give a very – he didn’t give a big answer about it.
MR PRICE: Right. Right.
QUESTION: So I’m just wondering, can you – do you have concerns about this latest move by the NPC to take away the ability of Hong Kong citizens to vote for —
MR PRICE: We absolutely do, and Matt, to your question, I expect you will be hearing from the Secretary – at least in the Secretary’s voice – on this later today. In the meantime, let me just say that we condemn the PRC’s continuing assault on democratic institutions in Hong Kong. The changes approved by the National People’s Congress today, on March 11th, are a direct attack on Hong Kong’s autonomy, its freedoms and democratic processes, limiting political participation, reducing democratic representation, and stifling political debate in order to defy the clear will in Hong Kong and deny their voice in their own governance.
QUESTION: I got one other, but it’s on a different subject if someone wants to – but it’s still from yesterday. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. On China – so this is going to be – next week is going to be the first time Biden administration in person will meet with Chinese officials. It’s safe to say that your bilateral relationship is at its worst in decades. What would success look like?
MR PRICE: Well, before we talk about next week in Anchorage, I think it’s worth underscoring for a moment the predicate of what you will see in Anchorage on March 18th. The predicate speaks —
MR PRICE: — I think – excuse me?
MR PRICE: Snow. You will see snow. It may be colder, certainly colder than it is here today. But I think the predicate speaks to the ways in which we plan to engage Beijing from a position of strength. Across every one of our sources of strength – and we’ve talked about these in recent days – you’ve seen us take concrete steps to revitalize them, in many ways to build them back better, to coin a phrase. And it’s no accident that we’ve taken these steps before we engage Beijing at a more senior level, as will happen in the coming days.
Let’s start with our alliances and partnerships, a core source of strength. Calls to our treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific were some of the first that the Secretary made upon his confirmation. He spoke to Foreign Minister Motegi, he spoke to then-Foreign Minister Kang, spoke to Foreign Minister Payne, Foreign Minister Mahuta, followed those by others in the Indo-Pacific. Those were some of the very first calls he made as Secretary. Of course, he attended the Quad ministerial on February 18th. We’ve seen a trilateral engagement with the Japanese and the ROK. We’ve had now, I believe, two sessions with the E3 that the Secretary has taken part in. The Secretary was invited to address the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council, or the FAC. And, of course, as I mentioned just a moment ago, we’ll be traveling to the region as our first physical trip next week when we visit Japan and South Korea, our two treaty allies.
In the same breath, I would mention our re-engagement in multilateral institutions: the WHO – we have re-engaged with the WHO in a constructive and we think productive fashion; we have re-engaged the Paris climate agreement and other institutions.
Third, our values, which we also consider a key source of strength. We have consistently and oftentimes in harmony with our allies and partners spoken up in defense of our allies and to condemn the PRC’s affronts to many of these shared and even universal values, whether that’s in Xinjiang, whether that’s in Hong Kong – as a moment ago – whether that’s in Taiwan. Anywhere around the world, we have spoken up, and we have taken in many cases concrete action.
And fourth, our domestic strength. The administration has taken steps to strengthen our own house, recognizing that our strength on the world stage is directly tied to our strength at home, our supply chains. The White House, of course, on February 24th rolled out an executive order to create more resilient and secure supply chains for critical and essential goods. And of course, we now have the American Rescue Act, which will be a key driver of American strength and vitality going forward.
So with all that said, we will engage – as we announced yesterday; Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – their Chinese counterparts, doing that from this position of strength that the predicate to all of this has allowed us to amass. It will be a – there will be some difficult conversations, I would expect. We will certainly not pull any punches in discussing our areas of disagreement.
But as Secretary Blinken has said, our relationship with Beijing is a multifaceted one: It is fundamentally competitive; it is adversarial in some ways; and there also are potential areas for collaboration. And so I suspect all of those elements will come up during these discussions on March 18th.
QUESTION: The Secretary said yesterday that any follow-up engagement with the Chinese officials after Anchorage have to be based on the proposition that we’re seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern. Can you describe a little bit what you’re expecting after this first meeting and what would make you say, okay, we can have further meetings and engagement?
And also to follow up on Hong Kong, you’ve been condemning and taking actions and sanctions for months, and yet China feels strong enough to change the Hong Kong electoral law, so isn’t this the proof that you have very little leverage to make pressure on them with pressure?
MR PRICE: Well, when it comes to next week, when it comes to this bilateral engagement, what we expect is for Beijing to demonstrate seriousness, to demonstrate seriousness regarding its own oft stated desire to change the tone of our bilateral relationship. As I’ve said before, this will be a difficult conversation. We’ll be frank in explaining how Beijing’s actions and behavior challenge the security, the prosperity, the values of not only the United States but also our partners and allies.
Now, on the flip side of that coin, we also will explore avenues that – for cooperation that are in our interest. When Secretary Blinken first spoke with Director Yang, when President Biden first spoke with President Xi, they made very clear that there will be areas for collaboration, or at least there will be the potential for areas of collaboration. But there has to be one common denominator – when it is in our national interest.
Of course, climate change I think is one of those that we can tangibly point to as undeniably in our own national interest for the world’s largest and the world’s second-largest emitters to be able to work productively and constructively together when it comes to climate change.
But the point remains that we’re not looking to engage in talks for the sake of talks. We are looking for Beijing, again, to demonstrate that seriousness of purpose, to demonstrate that it seeks to live up to its own oft stated desire to change the tone of the bilateral relationship. And Humeyra made a point about the tone of that relationship not only in recent weeks and months but for years.
QUESTION: Change of topic?
MR PRICE: Other China?
QUESTION: Yes. How would you characterize the current status of the U.S.-China relationship?
MR PRICE: Well, I would characterize it precisely how Secretary Blinken did. It is multifaceted. It is primarily and fundamentally a relationship that is predicated on competition. Our goal when it comes to our relationship with Beijing, our approach to Beijing, is to compete and ultimately to out-compete with Beijing in the areas that are competitive. And we’ve talked about them. The economic realms, the security realms are primarily competitive. There are, of course, areas in this relationship that are adversarial. And there are, as I was mentioning a moment ago, areas for potential collaboration. So I wouldn’t want to attach one label to it, because it truly is multifaceted.
We are going to discuss those more difficult areas with the Chinese. I have every expectation that when it comes to those more difficult issues – Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, pressure on Taiwan, broader human rights abuses, the South China Sea, the Mekong, economic pressure, arbitrary detentions, the origins of COVID-19, other issues – I have every expectation they will come up. But that doesn’t mean that these talks have to be purely adversarial or have to be purely predicated on issues of profound disagreement. I expect there will also be opportunities to raise potential areas for cooperation, again, when that criterion is met: when it is in our national interest.
QUESTION: That was a pretty long list. What are you going to – what do you have to agree on? Rainbows? I mean, that list that you just gave to Kylie is pretty long.
MR PRICE: It is a long list. And it is a long list because there are – it is a long litany of disagreements we have with the People’s Republic of China. The point is that it is not just a litany that we have. The predicate that I was referring to earlier —
QUESTION: They’re going to have a litany with you, too.
MR PRICE: Well, I’m sure they might. But my point was, Matt, that it is not just our litany. It is not just our list. We have spent much of the past six or seven weeks, certainly the time that Secretary Blinken has been on the job, conferring with those partners and allies, comparing notes, setting those priorities, ensuring that our approach with our closest partners and allies around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific but also in Europe for that matter, that we have a calibrated, coordinated approach to the Chinese, allowing us to approach these talks from fundamentally that position of strength.
Other questions on this? Yes.
QUESTION: This isn’t on China. It’s on Egypt.
MR PRICE: Okay, let’s finish up China. And I know we’re – we have a tight timeframe today. So yes.
QUESTION: One more on China?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: It’s not been too long since the Quad came back together in earnest in 2017, and it seems like a big deal to have this leadership level meeting so early on in the administration that you’ve having tomorrow. How central will the Quad be to your strategy on China, and what is the message that China should be taking from tomorrow’s Quad summit?
MR PRICE: I missed the last part.
QUESTION: Oh. And what’s the message that China should be taking from tomorrow’s summit?
MR PRICE: Ah, got it. Well, the Quad, as it’s known – the United States, Australia, and India and Japan – it was established not to counter one single threat or to focus on one single issue, but it was really established, and certainly how we seek to use it, is to showcase, to showcase what democracies can deliver together both for our own populations and for the broader world. We recognize that Quad members are uniquely positioned to help lead the region out of crises and to help move the region towards the more positive vision we all seek, both to address these crises and to seize these opportunities that are presented to all of us collectively.
So I would hasten to – I would dissuade you from the idea that the Quad is focused, again, on any single issue, to include China. It’s not. Of course, maritime security is a key focus of the Quad, but it is a grouping that is predicated on shared interests, and we certainly have shared interests with these three other partners and allies. We have shared interests in standing up for universal values and rights. We have shared economic interests. We have shared security interests. We have deep people-to-people ties with all of these countries. And that’s what the Quad is about. It’s about more than any one particular challenge.
MR PRICE: Afghanistan. Anything else on China? Let’s – we’ll take one more China question before we move on. Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you. Can you elaborate a little bit more about why he – I mean, the Secretary chose Japan and South Korea as his first overseas trip destination? And what is the meaning of having a high-level meeting with China right after his trip? And one more. And how would Biden administration’s approach to Japan and other allies in Asia be different from the previous administration, especially in terms of dealing with China? Thank you.
MR PRICE: Sorry. The last question was how will our approach be different in dealing with partners and allies?
QUESTION: Yeah, especially in terms of dealing with China.
MR PRICE: Dealing with China. Sure. Well, the Secretary is traveling to the Indo-Pacific to meet in person with our treaty allies, the Japanese and the South Koreans, primarily because we know that our global system of alliances and partnerships is, again, a core source of strength. The military might call our partnerships and alliances force multipliers. We call them necessary. We call them imperative to achieve not only our interest to stand up not only for our values but to achieve common interests and to stand up for universal values and universal rights.
Now, it is undeniable that over the course of recent years these partnerships and alliances in some cases have atrophied. In some cases, they have frayed. So Secretary Blinken, President Biden, Secretary Austin, they have all made a commitment to show both – and to demonstrate, both in word and in deed, that our partnerships and our alliances are – that we attach the value to them we say we actually do. And I think that is what this first physical trip demonstrates. Again, we have many common interests. We share many common values with these two partners.
You mentioned China. And of course, a coordinated approach to China is one of the elements that will be on the agenda in both countries. China, at the same time, is not going to dominate the agenda. We have a lot of business, we have a lot challenges, we have a lot of opportunities to address with these close treaty allies. And it’s precisely why Secretary Blinken is traveling there so early in the administration to begin those discussions.
QUESTION: Yeah, on the Gulf. Any comment on the Russian foreign minister tour in the Gulf and his talks in Saudi Arabia about acquiring S-400 missiles?
MR PRICE: I don’t have any specific comment on that. We have – when it comes to other contexts, we’ve made our position on the S-400 very clear, especially in the context of NATO. But I wouldn’t want to comment on Foreign Minister Lavrov’s —
QUESTION: One more on —
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Can we go to (inaudible)?
QUESTION: One more on Iraq?
MR PRICE: On Iran?
MR PRICE: Yes.
MR PRICE: Iraq.
QUESTION: Militia group called International Resistance claimed responsibility for an IED attack on U.S.-led coalition logistic convoy in Anbar province. Are you aware of that, and do you have any reaction to that?
MR PRICE: I don’t have any particular reaction to that right now. The Department of Defense may have something for you.
MR PRICE: On Egypt? Okay.
QUESTION: Okay. You’ve previously said that selling weapons to Egypt doesn’t interfere with your commitment to human rights. Do you not see the contradiction in saying that selling weapons to a dictatorship that openly oppresses its own people and that tortures its own people has got nothing to do with your commitment to human rights?
And on that, we’ve actually just returned back from Egypt. And whilst we were there, we documented a number of human rights abuses. We spoke to people who gave us accounts of how their family members and loved ones have been disappeared, detained, or arrested by the government because they posed some sort of threat to the Egyptian administration.
We also have the list – a list of at least 22 names of individuals who are either American citizens or people who have green cards or those who are related to American citizens that have been arrested by the Egyptian state or have been released and are currently facing politically motivated charges. On top of that, you already know that human rights organizations describe Egypt as one of the most oppressive regimes – Sisi’s Egypt as one of the most oppressive regimes in the country’s history.
Given all that information, and the fact that President Joe Biden back in July 2020 tweeted that there would be “no more blank checks” for, quote, “Trump’s favorite dictator,” Sisi, can you confirm that you will be freezing the $1.3 billion of funding that is given to Egypt in military aid every year?
MR PRICE: It is absolutely true that there will be no blank checks for any country – a close security partner, a competitor, an adversary. That is absolutely true. The United States will not check our values, will not check our principles, at the door in any relationship. Candidate Biden made that very clear; President Biden has made that very clear; Secretary Blinken has made that very clear.
When it comes to Egypt, it is true that Egypt plays an important role in promoting some of our key interests in the region: regional security and stability through the guardianship of the Suez Canal; counterterrorism cooperation; and its leadership in promoting Middle East peace. Secretary Blinken has had an opportunity to discuss some of these issues with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Shoukry, just as we raise human rights, just as we raise our values. These two things, they’re not separate. They’re inextricably linked. If we don’t stick up for our values, if we don’t stick up for human rights, we’re not sticking up for our interests. We recognize that, and we can do both.
We have deep concerns, as we have said, about the human rights situation in Egypt, including undue restrictions on civil society, undue restrictions on freedom of expression, some of the detentions you have mentioned. There is repression of civil society and human rights abuses. They undercut Egypt’s own dynamism and stability as a partner of ours. We will consistently raise these issues. We will not shy away from them. We’ll do that both publicly, as we have, and we’ll do it privately, too. We’ll also work and seek to find a partner in Congress to champion these same issues.
Look, when it comes to weapons sales and transfers, that’s precisely why this administration has put those back in regular order. There is now a process that involves the interagency to review especially sensitive proposed weapon sales and transfers to make sure not only that they’re consistent with our interests but also that they’re consistent with our values. Those two things will always go hand-in-hand for us. We can pursue our interests and we can stick up for our values. It’s precisely what we’re going to do in Egypt. It’s precisely what we’re going to do in every other context.
QUESTION: Will you freeze that going forward? Will you freeze that – sorry, just to follow up. Will you freeze the military aid that —
MR PRICE: I don’t have any announcement when it comes to —
MR PRICE: — when it comes to aid. As I said before, Egypt has been an important leader in promoting Middle East peace, but I don’t have any announcements.
QUESTION: Middle East?
QUESTION: Same thing.
MR PRICE: Please.
QUESTION: Thank you. So with the median age of below 20 in Africa, and knowing that about 60 percent of Africans are not yet 25, actually in the next decade you will have about 320 million of population in Africa. When do you expect to have an assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs to demonstrate that Biden is serious in nurturing relationships Africans beyond what past administrations have done from Reagan on? Such as joblessness in South Africa is at an all-time high. I’ll tell you that in Zimbabwe in the last three and a half years, more than 2,714 arrests of human rights activists, journalists, political opposition, women, and even students. You say that you will speak out in defense of countries anywhere. Will Biden do more in defense of small, fragile states like Zimbabwe beyond the Executive Order 13288? And anything more on maybe foreign direct investment for South Africans?
MR PRICE: This administration is committed to not only sustaining but also deepening the partnerships we have across the continent of Africa, all parts of the continent. We are committed to ensuring that we have an expert who will take the helm of the bureau of – the appropriate bureau of – the Africa Bureau. As you may know, the – all of these nominations for assistant secretary positions across all of our regional and functional bureaus, they are nominees put forward by the President of the United States. So there is a process that these all go through. We do not, as you know, yet have a nominee for the bureau, but neither do we have a nominee just yet for any other regional bureau.
Given the process involved here, we’re working very quickly – I know the White House is too – to see to it that some of these nominees are put forward in short order. But I expect when you see names attached not only to this bureau, but to our regional and functional bureaus across the board, you will see an elevation of expertise of professionals, of people with deep experience. And when it comes to Africa, you will see that commitment reflected in the assistant secretary that’s put forward and in the policies that this administration will put forward as well.
QUESTION: Can I ask a China follow-up question?
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Middle East.
QUESTION: Can I ask a China follow-up question?
QUESTION: Me – Middle East.
MR PRICE: Please, go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Middle East.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: But thank you to our colleague. We don’t hear much about Africa here, so thank you for that question. On the Middle East, yesterday Secretary Blinken was asked about the Abraham Accords and his willingness to profound those or make those deeper. And he said yes, it was a full-throated yes, that we’re really going to work on it. But then today, we saw Netanyahu was going to go to UAE, that was cancelled. So there seem to be a lot of issues still.
My question is: What concretely are you guys doing to expand the Abraham Accords? Are you talking to Saudi Arabia, for example, about them recognizing Israel? Could you tell us a little bit about what concretely you’re doing? Thank you.
MR PRICE: Absolutely. Well, when it comes to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s travel, we’d refer you to the Government of Israel regarding his travel. As we have said, as the Secretary said yesterday, we welcome, we support the normalization agreements between Israel and countries in the Arab – in – and the broader Muslim world. It is something that we will seek to build on. It is something that we have welcomed from the previous administration and something, again, we will seek to build on going forward. We have discussed it in the bilateral context with some of our partners in the Arab and Muslim world. It is something that we have discussed with the Israelis. I wouldn’t want to get ahead of where – of private conversations at this point, but I expect before too long, you will – we’ll be in a position to say more and you’ll be in a position to see more about how we are going to build on that.
QUESTION: From the Saudis?
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to get ahead of that.
MR PRICE: Okay.
QUESTION: Can you – thank you. Can you give us an update about special envoy trip to – Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad trip to Doha? Any readouts about his latest meetings there? How long does he plan to stay there? And on a related note, on the announcement by Russia that it will host a conference next week, would the U.S. Government consider participating in that conference? And also, I have another question about Yemen. Yesterday, the Secretary said that he stands strongly with the fact to deal with the Houthis, and in this regard, is there any update about Special Envoy Lenderking’s trip to the region? And can you confirm whether he is still in the Arabian Gulf or whether he returned to Washington? Thank you.
MR PRICE: Okay, lots of questions there. Let me start with the – with the last one. Secretary – excuse me, Special Envoy Lenderking has returned from his trip. I expect we’ll be in a position to share additional details of that trip later today. As we said, earlier in the week, Secretary – excuse me, Special Envoy Lenderking did have an opportunity to engage with all of the GCC countries during his time in the region. He visited all of them with the exception of Bahrain on the way over there. On the way over to the region, he did have a phone conversation with his Bahraini counterpart. He also visited Jordan, and I believe it was Jordan from which he traveled back to the United States and is now back in Washington, D.C., and I expect we’ll have additional details to share of that travel after the briefing.
When it comes to Afghanistan, you mentioned the Russian proposal. It is fair to say that we recognize Russia as well as other countries in the region – we recognize that they have an important stake in a secure and stable Afghanistan. We have met in the past with Russia in support of the Afghanistan peace process, but we don’t have anything to announce at this time when it comes to any meetings.
But this also gets to the point that we have been talking about, and that is the point that Afghanistan’s neighbors, other countries in the region have a role to play. They certainly have an interest in a peaceful, in a stable Afghanistan, and that is precisely what we are and Special Representative Khalilzad is in the region now, in Doha, seeking to bring about. He’s focused on bringing and achieving progress on a political settlement and a comprehensive ceasefire towards that end. He’s looking at ways to move the diplomacy forward, and as we have said, he has shared ideas with Afghans on both sides, with both negotiating parties.
Any proposal that the United States would endorse, that we would get behind, has one requirement: that it be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned at its core. We believe that is an essential component to a just and durable peace. We recognize that for any peace to be durable, it must be just, and for any peace to be just, in many ways, it must be durable. So that’s why we’ve never sought to be prescriptive. That is why you see the SRAR in the region offering ideas, seeking to support the dialogue, the intra-Afghan negotiations that is taking place. That’s precisely what he’s been doing in Doha. I don’t have an estimate as to how much longer he’ll be there, but as long as it’s productive for him to be there, to be engaged in that, he will.
QUESTION: Just a quick question on Egypt. Have you made a determination yet about whether the former prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, has diplomatic immunity in the lawsuit that has been filed by Mohamed Soltan, Mohamed Soltan being the American Egyptian citizen who says that Mr. Beblawi oversaw his torture when he was imprisoned in Egypt?
The former administration, the Trump administration, determined that Hazem el-Beblawi was – did have diplomatic immunity, I think as you know, but that was put on hold by the Biden administration, and you set a February 26th deadline for determining whether he was immune from prosecution. Have you made a determination?
MR PRICE: I don’t have any update for you there, but if we have anything to share, we will. When it comes to Mohamed Soltan, of course, we spoke out against the outrageous detention of his relatives. I understand his cousins have been released from Egyptian custody. Obviously, that’s something that we welcome, but I don’t have any update for you when it comes to the former foreign minister at this moment.
QUESTION: Hey, Ned. On Cuba, the White House says a policy shift with Cuba is not a top priority for President Biden. Does that mean that the administration finds value in the current policy, or is it quite literally just not a top priority and something that you imagine you’ll get to later?
MR PRICE: It is a policy that we are reviewing. Secretary Blinken spoke to this yesterday. He spoke to the core principles that animate that review.
First, support for democracy and human rights will be at the core of our efforts, because we believe it is the means to empower the Cuban people to determine their own future; and second, as we’ve said before, we also know that Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are in most cases the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba. We are committed to both of these principles. Our review is being animated by both of those principles. We have also committed – and you heard this from Secretary Blinken up on the Hill yesterday – to consult closely with members of Congress as we undertake this review. So it is not that – it is not that this is in any way on the back burner. It is something we’re looking at very closely, and as that review progresses, we’ll consult with members of Congress. And when we have something to share, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: On Syria —
QUESTION: Do you guys have a timeline at all?
MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to put a timeline on it.
Yes, in the back.
QUESTION: On Syria. Thank you so much. As we come up on 10 years of war in Syria, can you provide any insight into what this administration’s approach will be to the ongoing hostilities? Do you believe diplomats have a role on the ground there? And do you still believe Assad must go?
MR PRICE: Well, we continue to promote a political settlement to end the conflict in Syria. We’re doing that in close consultation with our allies, with our partners, with the UN special envoy. A political settlement, we believe, must address the factors that drive the violence, that drive the instability in Syria. We’ll use a variety of tools at our disposal to push for a sustainable end to the Syrian people’s suffering. We’ll continue to support the UN roles – the UN’s role in negotiating a political settlement in line with the relevant UN resolutions, including UNSCR 2254.
We also seek to restore American leadership when it comes to humanitarian aid. As we know, Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe. The Syrian people have suffered for far too long. They have suffered under the brutal rule of Bashar al-Assad. We must do more, we know, to aid vulnerable Syrians, including many displaced within Syria as well as the refugees who have had to flee their homes.
When it comes to Bashar al-Assad, he of course remains in power despite 10 years of civil war. If there is to be a sustainable end to this conflict, we recognize that the Syrian Government must change its behavior. We are in the process now of reviewing what we might do to advance the prospects for that political settlement, and we’ll consult, as I said before, closely with the UN, closely with our allies and partners in doing so.
QUESTION: That doesn’t sound like you’re —
QUESTION: But changed behavior, not leader.
QUESTION: Yeah, that doesn’t sound like you’re calling for his —
MR PRICE: I think it is fair to say that certainly, Bashar al-Assad has not done anything that would restore his legitimacy. He has been at the center of the suffering of the Syrian people, the humanitarian disaster I referred to before. We believe, we continue to believe, that we need to find a durable political settlement. That’s precisely what we are invested in.
QUESTION: Yeah, but you’re no longer saying, as we heard, that Assad’s days are numbered. I remember —
(Cell phone rings.)
QUESTION: That wasn’t me. That may have been a celebration of Georgetown beating Villanova just now, which is why I made that little outburst earlier.
But Assad’s days are no longer numbered?
MR PRICE: Matt, as I said before, Bashar al-Assad has done absolutely nothing to —
QUESTION: You’ve been saying that (inaudible).
MR PRICE: He has done absolutely nothing to regain the legitimacy that he has lost through the brutal treatment of his own people. There is no question of the U.S. normalizing relations with his government anytime soon. There is no question that we will stand, that we will seek to support the humanitarian plight of the Syrian people as we seek a political settlement that would end their suffering.
MR PRICE: Mozambique.
QUESTION: Yes. Beyond the designation yesterday of Abu Yasir Hassan, do you plan to do something about what Amnesty International has called patterns of abuse by Mozambique’s security forces who have been – had torture, ill treatment, and extrajudicial killings, and some of these serious abuses by private military companies that have ties to Zimbabwe and Russia? And in these meetings with the Quad, will Africa play a role since many countries in Africa are taking the “Look East” approach and increasing their relationships with China and Russia, where some might point a finger to the United States and say that you are lagging behind? Thanks.
MR PRICE: Well, we will continue to engage Mozambican authorities on the importance of respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms. We will urge the Mozambican Government to investigate allegations of human rights violations and abuses, and we will urge them to hold the perpetrators of any such abuses accountable. Any such allegations threaten the government’s ability to combat violent extremism. In this sense, it is not only consistent with our values but also consistent with our interests that Mozambique do everything it can to investigate and to ensure accountability for human rights violations.
I’ve said this in the context of this briefing already, but respect for human rights remains at the forefront of our cooperation with countries around the world. That includes the government in Mozambique. We will – of course, there is the Leahy Law. It’s the law of the land here. And we provide assistance to foreign security force units, only those that are fully vetted and where there is no credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.
QUESTION: Ned —
MR PRICE: Ethiopia? Sure.
QUESTION: Yeah. When the Secretary mentioned yesterday the acts of ethnic cleansing committed in western Tigray, was that a formal determination by the State Department? And if yes, how was it reached and by whom do you believe the – they were committed, and what does that require as – in term of action and sanctions or response?
MR PRICE: Well, the Secretary did speak to this yesterday. He spoke to our grave concern about the reported atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. We strongly condemn the killings, the forced removals, the sexual assaults, the other human rights abuses by several parties that multiple organizations have reported in Tigray.
QUESTION: Yeah, but he mentioned ethnic cleansing. Was that a determination? Was that just —
MR PRICE: What the Secretary said is that acts of ethnic cleansing took place in western Tigray. He made clear it’s unacceptable.
QUESTION: Ned, on Lebanon, the French foreign minister has said today that time was running out to prevent Lebanon collapsing and that he could see no sign that the country’s politicians were doing what they could to save it, and he added, “I would be tempted to qualify Lebanese politicians as guilty of not helping a country in danger.”
Do you share his concerns?
MR PRICE: We are concerned by developments in Lebanon and the apparent inaction of Lebanese leaders in the face of multiple, multiple ongoing crises. The Lebanese people, we believe they deserve a government that will urgently implement the necessary reforms to rescue the country’s deteriorating economy. We know that the Lebanese economy is in a state of crisis because of decades of corruption and mismanagement. Lebanon’s political leaders need to put aside their partisan brinksmanship. They need to change course. They need to work for the common good, the common interests of the Lebanese people.
As the International Support Group reiterated in its statement today, quote, Lebanon’s leaders must no longer delay “the formation of a fully empowered government capable of meeting the country’s urgent needs and implementing critical reforms.” The international community has been very clear that concrete actions remain absolutely critical to unlocking longer-term structural support to Lebanon.
QUESTION: Are you planning to put any pressure on them to do so?
MR PRICE: Well, we have demonstrated a long-term commitment to the people of Lebanon over decades, and we will continue to stand with them. We would not want to do anything that would in the first instance add to the plight of the Lebanese people.
QUESTION: Just one more on Iran?
MR PRICE: Yes.
QUESTION: And also related to oil, is the United States aware that Iran has been quietly moving around record amounts of crude oil to top client China? And also, India’s refiners are adding Iranian oil to their annual import plans, all in the anticipation that you will – that the U.S. sanctions will soon ease. The previous administration was enforcing these sanctions super strictly, going after shipping industry, calling captains of tankers, and all that.
So first, are you aware of this rise in the oil shipments? Are you worried about this? And is this, like, your way of giving Tehran the breather that it wants ahead of these talks without actually removing the sanctions?
MR PRICE: I don’t have a full accounting in front of me of the movement of oil in the region. I think the broader point, however, is one that is worth stressing, and the Secretary actually noted this yesterday. We will not offer any unilateral gestures or incentives to induce the Iranians to come to the table. If the Iranians are under the impression that absent any movement on their part to resume full compliance with the JCPOA that we will offer favors or unilateral gestures, well, that’s a misimpression. If and only if Tehran comes to the negotiating table would we be in a position, would we be prepared to discuss proposals that could help push both sides back on that path of mutual compliance to the deal. Ultimately, that is where we seek to go: compliance for compliance.
If Iran returns to its full compliance with the JCPOA, the United States would do the same. As I have said before, that would be a necessary but insufficient development, insufficient because we would then seek to lengthen and strengthen the terms of that deal, using it as a platform to negotiate follow-on arrangements to address these other areas of profound concern with Iran’s behavior in the region.
Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Wait, wait, wait. Wait, wait, wait. They had a couple here. (Laughter.) Yeah, I’m sorry, did someone ask about Burma?
QUESTION: No, we didn’t.
QUESTION: Because I missed it if we didn’t.
MR PRICE: We did not.
QUESTION: But there’s still a problem in Burma, right?
MR PRICE: There is.
QUESTION: Something that you would like – might like to address from the podium?
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: I don’t know —
MR PRICE: I am happy to address it. It’s important to address.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering if you have any comment on the latest developments —
MR PRICE: Well —
QUESTION: — if there’s anything we can expect coming down the pike since you guys are going to be going on an Asia tour, where presumably it will be among the things discussed, and the President is meeting with or having his virtual meeting tomorrow with Asian leaders.
MR PRICE: It absolutely will be on the agenda next week. And I would reiterate that we are appalled by the horrific violence perpetrated against the people of Burma in response to their peaceful calls to – for the military to respect their rights and to restore the civilian government that they themselves elected last November.
We condemn the security forces’ brutal killing of unarmed people, their attacks on journalists and activists, these ongoing unjust detentions that we have talked about in recent days. We condemn the attempted media blackout and efforts to silence the voices of the people by revoking the licenses of several local media organizations. We’re deeply concerned about the increasing attacks on the freedom of expression, including for members of the press.
We call for the release of journalists and for all others who have been unjustly detained. The people of Burma have clearly demonstrated that they want the release of those unjustly detained, and at their core, a return to democracy, a return to the civilian government they themselves elected, that the military junta overthrew in an anti-democratic coup on February 1st. The military cannot protect itself from the consequences of these actions if it continues down this path.
And when we talk about the various actions, you will note that the United States – we have announced, just yesterday in fact, additional measures of accountability for the military, sanctions against both individuals and entities affiliated with the military junta. Together with our partners and allies, we will continue to do that, and we will continue to find ways to hold the junta accountable for its actions.
QUESTION: Secondly, on Honduras, are you aware of any attempt by the administration to clarify comments that you and others have made suggesting that President Hernandez is not exactly an ally in the fight against corruption?
MR PRICE: I am not aware —
QUESTION: There are some reports that there was an apology made to the Government of Honduras because of some comments that were made.
MR PRICE: What I spoke to remains the policy of the United States Government. We know that corruption, that lack of respect for the rule of law, that endemic lawlessness in some cases – that it is ultimately not only not in the interests of the people of the region but it has reverberations for the United States. Again, as I spoke to the other day, these factors are key to the desire of some to flee their homelands, including Honduras, and to seek a better life elsewhere.
It’s precisely why we seek a partnership with the people of the Northern Triangle, including in Honduras; why we seek a partnership with civil society elements in the Northern Triangle, including in Honduras; why we seek a partnership with governments in the Northern Triangle, including in Honduras, as we seek to address these underlying challenges and ultimately to address the patterns of irregular migration that have posed a challenge not only for the region, not only for our neighbor in Mexico, but also for the United States.
QUESTION: Okay. And then lastly, yesterday in the hearing on the Hill – and then I presume – I don’t know because it was closed – but there was a Senate hearing that the Secretary was in. But yesterday, at yesterday’s public hearing, the issue of Nord Stream 2 came up several times. And the Secretary said several times that you guys were still looking into what other sanctions could be applied under the PEESA and PEESCA laws. And I am just curious if there has been any further determinations made on that since your report that came out, considering the fact that the Danish Maritime Authority has actually identified at least three other ships that are working on the pipeline, which would be sanctioned – they should be sanctioned – under U.S. law. I mean, they publicly identified them, and so I guess I’m – my question is: Why haven’t these other ships been sanctioned? And because they haven’t, I mean, is this something that’s in the works?
MR PRICE: Matt, I’ll read you what Secretary Blinken —
QUESTION: You don’t need to read – repeat what he said at the hearing yesterday.
MR PRICE: I – but I think it’s important. He made the point – and he said – “I’ve been on the job, I think, five weeks. The pipeline is 95 percent complete. It started construction in 2018, so I wish we didn’t find ourselves in this situation with a pipeline that’s virtually complete.”
All that notwithstanding, the President of the United States, Secretary Blinken, others in this government have made this administration’s view unavowedly – unambiguously clear that Nord Stream 2 is a bad idea. It goes against the own – Europe’s own stated energy interests. It goes against our interests in the region as well. That’s precisely why in the report that we submitted to Congress under the legislation that was passed and consistent with the legislation that was passed, we noted our sanctions on KVT-RUS and the Fortuna. As you know, Matt, these reports are due to Congress every 90 days. During that 90-day period, we will continue to evaluate the pipelaying activity that is ongoing in the region. If this activity meets the threshold for sanctions, I have no doubt – you should have no doubt – that this administration will follow the law. And if the law states that entities should be sanctioned for their pipelaying activity, I suspect you’ll be hearing more about that from us.
QUESTION: I will have no doubt. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:43 p.m.)
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