October 26, 2021

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Department Press Briefing – March 8, 2021

43 min read

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

Washington, D.C.

2:43 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon. One element at the top today, and that, of course, is in celebration of International Women’s Day. Today, for International Women’s Day, Secretary Blinken was proud to host the 15th annual International Women of Courage Awards with a virtual ceremony. We were especially honored that First Lady Dr. Jill Biden also delivered inspirational remarks at today’s ceremony.

The 2021 class of awardees are truly international, from Venezuela to Iran to China. These women exemplify everything this award means – strength, leadership, and courage. Following today’s ceremony, the 2021 awardees will embark on an International Visitor Leadership Program virtual exchange to engage with and meet American leaders in their fields from across the United States.

Over the last 15 years, the United States has proudly bestowed the International Women of Courage Award to more than 155 extraordinary women from over 75 countries. These women have shown exceptional courage in advocating for peace, for justice, human rights, women’s empowerment, and the substantive change in their communities – sometimes at great personal risk.

We know that when countries that promote gender equality and empower – we know that when countries that promote gender equality and empower women to be meaningful participants in civic, political, and economic life are more just, they’re more peaceful, and they’re more prosperous. It has been a privilege for the United States to recognize these courageous women, and we will continue to advance gender equality and the global status of women and girls from all backgrounds and across all sectors as a foreign policy and national security priority.

So with that, Matt.

QUESTION: Oh. That’s it? Nothing else for the top?

MR PRICE: That is it.

QUESTION: Okay. Just very briefly on that, on the IWOC Awards, as they’re known around here, back in 2019 there was a bit of controversy about an award being offered or given, and then rescinded, to Jessikka Aro, who was the – this Finnish journalist. And I’m just wondering if – there was an IG report about this that came out last year, and I’m just wondering if there was any thought in the consideration of this year’s awards to giving her one again, because – she wasn’t, but I’m just wondering if there was any thought to it.

MR PRICE: No, Matt. The awardees that were put forward today, these are extraordinary women. We are —

QUESTION: I’m not trying to suggest that any of them are not deserving. I’m just wondering if —

MR PRICE: I don’t have anything for you on the many, many women who were not honored today but who would be up for such an award.

QUESTION: All right, fair enough. Can I just on – like, on policy now, Afghanistan. So you will have seen, I’m sure, the letters that were published in the Afghan media letter yesterday – or letter. And then a eight-page – an eight-page outline of the peace plan that were purportedly sent from the Secretary to Afghanistan leaders. Do you have anything to say about those? Are they accurate? And where do you see things going from here?

MR PRICE: Well, let me say a couple things, and I’ll start with the obligatory fact that I’m not going to be able to comment on any reported private correspondence. What I would say is that Special Representative for Afghanistan Khalilzad visited Islamabad today, March 8th, where he met with Pakistani officials, including the Chief of Army Staff General Bajwa. In those discussions, Ambassador Khalilzad thanked Pakistani counterparts for their assistance and asked for Pakistan’s continued commitment to the peace process.

Now, to your even broader points, I think it is true that Ambassador Khalilzad’s trip to the region, his first after – since January 20th, represents a continuation of American diplomacy in the region. As we have said, we are working with the international community, including in Pakistan; including the actors in Doha, where Ambassador Khalilzad has been; of course, in Kabul, where he was before that; and with our partners in Kabul, of course, to encourage progress on the Afghan peace process, including progress towards a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire.

This was in many the goal of the last administration. This is the goal that we continue to work towards today. This is precisely the set of issues that Ambassador Khalilzad and his team have been discussing.

It is true that they are consulting and the department more broadly is consulting closely with allies, with our partners, with countries in the region, with how all of us collectively can support that peace process. And it is true that collectively, the collective we, the United States included, we’re considering a number of different ideas to, again, accelerate that process.

But at the same time, everything, every idea we have put on the table, every proposal that is out there, certainly any proposal that we would endorse, we understand that this process at its core must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. What Ambassador Khalilzad understands, what his team understands, what this administration understands and requires is the knowledge that it is ultimately the right and responsibility of Afghans to determine their political future. The United States has a support role to play. The international community needs to support that process, needs to be constructive. And that is precisely why Ambassador Khalilzad has been in the region undertaking this important diplomacy.

QUESTION: All right. So I don’t want to draw this out, but when you say that you’re not going to talk about any purported – you’re not going to get into any of the specifics of – because there – it’s quite specific what has been put out there, and it looks to be genuine. It does not look like it’s a fake. So can you at least, without getting into any of the details, confirm that those are actual – those are genuine copies of the letters? And if you can’t, it seems like you’re – you are at least confirming that you have put ideas out there, and so why should we not think – or why should we not – why should we not think that these are the real deal?

MR PRICE: Well, it’s – I would say generally speaking, it is often important for our diplomatic efforts that they’re – we’re able to conduct them in private. We seek to bestow upon all our initiatives, whether it’s in Afghanistan or anywhere else, the greatest chance for success. And oftentimes that success, and at least in the first instance, some degree of private back and forth oftentimes do go hand in hand.

To your second question though, it is absolutely true that the United States has sought out ideas to advance the prospects for peace, the prospects to galvanize a durable peace, and again, a durable peace that must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. So it’s certainly not that we’re trying to be prescriptive. We are trying to support and doing everything we can to support the parties, doing everything we can to bring our international allies, to bring our international partners, to bring others in the region together to make clear that all of us have a stake in Afghanistan’s future security, stability, ensuring the durability of the gains, including the important gains for women and girls that have been achieved in recent years. But ultimately, this is an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process, and we are there to support that.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MR PRICE: Kylie.

QUESTION: So just generally then, how would you describe how these discussions, negotiations, however you want to characterize them, are going with the Afghan Government, with the Taliban, with folks in the region? How is the process going?

MR PRICE: Well, look, it is not uncomplicated. It is a priority for this administration that we engage in constructive diplomacy to try and bring about our ultimate goal. And again, that is a peace process, including political settlement and a comprehensive ceasefire. That is what we are working towards. I think it’s too early, again, to offer any sort or render any sort of judgment on how things are going. We have continued to encourage all sides to take part constructively and with a degree of alacrity, knowing that this is a moment in time where progress is possible. We want to do everything we can to facilitate that progress, to support the dialogue, the inter-Afghan dialogue, between the various parties. That’s precisely why we’re there. We are continuing to engage in that diplomacy with the parties there.

QUESTION: And on Ambassador Khalilzad’s meetings in Doha, can you give us any readout of the meetings with the Taliban? Because he tweeted about his visit to Kabul, but we haven’t seen anything from him about the visit to Doha yet.

MR PRICE: Well, look, Ambassador Khalilzad is – remains in the region. I understand it was a very quick trip to – a relatively quick trip to Pakistan. I understand that he will be based in Doha for some time, so wouldn’t want to – or for some time longer. I wouldn’t want to prejudge how things may unfold in coming hours and coming days, but if his team has a readout to share, I’m sure they will.

Yes, Will.

QUESTION: Yeah, just following up on – does it make sense for – you said all sides should participate constructively in this process. Does it make sense for the Afghan Government and the Taliban to have a future role in governing or security in Afghanistan or just for one or the other?

MR PRICE: Well, what we have said is that in order for any sort of peace, any sort of ceasefire to be effective, it needs to be just and it needs to be durable. So we are looking at ways and we are supporting efforts that would allow the negotiating parties to arrive at a peace process, including a political settlement and a comprehensive ceasefire that is just and durable.

At the same time, what I said before remains operative, that we are not seeking to be prescriptive. This is an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process. Our interest in this has been our interest throughout, and it wasn’t – it’s not just this administration, it wasn’t just the last administration, it’s been, in fact, two administrations before that – to find a means to quell the violence and to find a political settlement to arrive at, a political settlement that is not fleeting but, in fact, is durable and is as just as it is durable.

Yes.

QUESTION: Can I move on to Yemen?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) one more question?

MR PRICE: Let’s do one more quick question on Afghanistan, sorry.

QUESTION: Just on the government, when you say that you want all sides to engage constructively and with alacrity, do you believe the government is doing that so far?

MR PRICE: When you say “the government,” you mean the Government of Afghanistan?

QUESTION: The Afghan Government, yeah.

MR PRICE: Well, what I would say is that of course the Afghan Government remains a close and indispensable partner. We’ll continue to work closely with President Ghani, with Chairman Abdullah. It’s also important that we have a unified approach from the Afghan Government interlocutors. We are supporting and encouraging all sides to take advantage of this moment. That includes the Taliban negotiators, and that includes the Islamic Republic negotiators as well.

Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, on Yemen. So what is the U.S. assessment on where Sunday’s attack on Saudi Arabia came from? The Saudi energy and defense ministry said yesterday the drone launched at Ras Tanura came from the sea. Do you have any information or evidence to suggest that it came anywhere else from Yemen?

MR PRICE: Well, I —

QUESTION: Aside from Yemen?

MR PRICE: Yes. So to your first question, we believe this was a Houthi attack that originated in Yemen. There is an investigation ongoing, so we’ll defer to that investigation. Broadly speaking, I would say that we condemn the egregious Houthi drone and missile attack against Saudi Aramco’s facilities in Dhahran and Ras Tanura and other civilian sites, including Khamis Mushait and in Jeddah. These attacks are unacceptable. They are dangerous. They put the lives of civilians at risk, including the lives of U.S. citizens.

We are and remain deeply concerned by the frequency of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. Attacks like these are not the actions of a group that is serious about peace. We call on all parties to seriously commit to a ceasefire, to engage in negotiations under UN auspices in conjunction with our Special Envoy Tim Lenderking, who in turn is working closely with the UN’s envoy, Martin Griffiths. The Houthis, in our view and in the view of our allies and partners, have to demonstrate their willingness to engage in a political process. They need to, quite simply, stop attacking and start negotiating, and only then will we be able to make progress towards the political settlement that we’re after.

Said.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. Happy International Women’s Day to everybody, and there are dozens of Palestinian women who languish in Israeli prisons. Most of them are there under something called administrative detention. Some of them are nursing babies, some are grandmothers, some are girls, and I wonder if you have a position on this continued awful administrative detention that is being practiced against the Palestinians.

MR PRICE: I don’t have a specific response for you. If there’s anything we would want to offer specifically on that, we’ll follow up. I think generally what I would say – and I’ve had an opportunity to speak to this in recent days – look, our goal is a two-state solution, a two-state solution in which Israel lives in peace next to a viable Palestinian state. And we stand by that two-state solution because it’s not only consistent with our values and in our interests, but it’s actually consistent with the values and interests of those in the region. A two-state solution ensures Israel’s continuing identity as a Jewish and democratic state, just as it fulfills the Palestinians’ legitimate and rightful aspirations for dignity and for self-determination in a state of their own.

QUESTION: But until then, I mean – fine. I mean, that – but until then, what – practices like these – I mean, I can go on and on and on. Last June, for instance, a young cousin of mine was shot dead in cold blood – Ahmed Erekat – on June 22nd. His body is still there. The Israelis have not turned back – this to his family just to torment them. There are 67 cases like this. I just want to ask you, I mean, what are you doing different than, let’s say, your predecessor? The embassy remains in Jerusalem despite being against international law, the office remains closed, resuming aid to UNRWA has not taken place, and I can go on and on and on. So how are you different from the previous one?

MR PRICE: Said, we as an administration do indeed look forward to deepening our engagement with the Palestinian people and the Palestinian leadership. I’d rather not make comparisons, but I will say that is our priority. That is our policy. As part of that, we are reviewing the diplomatic presence that you alluded to. We are ensuring that it will enable us to fully conduct our complete range of activities, including engagement with the Palestinian people, with the Palestinian authorities, public diplomacy, assistance, diplomatic reporting. We’ve talked about our commitment to – for funding for Palestinians, including Palestinian refugees. We are committed to all of that. It is – I think you will see concrete manifestations of that going forward.

QUESTION: Last one on this —

QUESTION: Could you just —

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: When —

MR PRICE: I don’t want to —

QUESTION: When are we going to see these demonstrable —

MR PRICE: I – we have said consistently that these are priorities of ours. It is the policy of the Biden administration and you will see it going forward.

QUESTION: Sorry, you said we’re reviewing the diplomatic presence you’ve alluded to. Do you mean the – where the embassy is based?

MR PRICE: I mean in – look, there are final status issues, but the details of our diplomatic presence in Israel, including in Jerusalem, those are the details we’re looking at.

QUESTION: Are you reviewing where the embassy is based? Are you thinking about moving it back to Tel Aviv?

MR PRICE: No, I’m sorry, I did not intend to suggest that, yes.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: The former administration took the word or the designation as occupied territory for the West Bank. Do you stand by that? Are you maintaining the same thing? What are the – what is the – what is the status of the West Bank in your view?

MR PRICE: Well, as a historical matter, I think it is undeniable that Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem during the 1967 war.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PRICE: Again, our policy is a two-state solution, a two-state solution in which Israel – Israelis and Palestinians live side by side in peace and security in states of their own.

QUESTION: But when do you expect these moves that you were talking about when I just said when? I mean, sometime soon in the – or is there really no timeline on it? Because I mean, if you’re looking at this from the Palestinian perspective, they’ve been waiting decades, right, for some kind of – so —

MR PRICE: We certainly understand the urgency of it. You have seen this administration’s commitment to humanitarian assistance in key arenas, and you – we have spoken of our commitment to humanitarian assistance for Palestinians as well.

Move back there. Yes.

QUESTION: On China?

MR PRICE: China? Sure.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Chinese foreign minister said new coast guard law does not target no specific country and it is in accordance with international law. Do you have any response to that statement?

MR PRICE: Well, we issued a statement on the coast guard law. It was several weeks ago now – I believe it was two or three weeks ago. We would stand by that statement at the time.

QUESTION: Can I stick with China?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Was it really two or three weeks ago?

MR PRICE: I believe it was two weeks ago.

QUESTION: I have a few questions on the ongoing genocide in China. I know that the Biden administration is reviewing their China policy. But are you guys planning to impose a cost on China more so than the Trump administration did for carrying out this genocide that you guys have declared is a genocide against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China?

MR PRICE: Well, to put a fine point on it, the Secretary has made clear that in his judgment, genocide was committed against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The PRC also has committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs who, of course, are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups, and that includes imprisonment, torture, and forced sterilization and persecution. These atrocities, we have made the point, shock the conscience. They can’t be ignored, and they must be met with serious consequences.

You asked what the United States will do. I think the question that we are posing to likeminded allies and partners around the world is: What collectively can we do not only to impose costs on China for what has transpired, but in order to ensure that these – seek to ensure that these atrocities do not continue going forward?

Again, our China policy is predicated on our core sources of strength, and we’ve talked about those sources of strength from this podium before. An important one – two important ones I would flag in this context – but number one, our values. They give us, together with our international partners and allies, a comparative advantage. But two, it is that system of partnerships, that system of alliances that in many ways is the envy of countries, especially our competitors and our adversaries the world over, because our competitors know that our system of partnerships and alliances is unrivaled. And it gives us a unique system of what DOD might call force multipliers, and that is precisely the tool that we seek to leverage going forward in imposing costs on China for this behavior and making clear that these sorts of atrocities must not continue going forward.

QUESTION: Okay, sorry, bear with me. I have two more questions. Ekpar Asat, I don’t know if that – you know, he was a Chinese national and a Uyghur. He came to the United States for a State Department program in 2016, and then he was detained right when he went home. Do you have any update on his whereabouts, his health status? And previously, the U.S. Government has called for his release. Do you continue to do so?

MR PRICE: I am not familiar with that case. So rather than wade in it from the podium, we’ll get back to you on that.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Go ahead. Do you have one more?

QUESTION: I have one more. Can I —

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Okay. My last one is —

QUESTION: Let it never be said —

QUESTION: Growing – thank you, Matt. Growing calls for the U.S. to boycott the Olympics in Beijing in 2022, is that something that is under consideration?

MR PRICE: Well, this is an issue that we’ve addressed before. And it’s also an issue that we’re consulting closely with those same allies and partners at all levels to define our common concerns and establish a shared approach to China. Obviously, we’re talking about 2022, so I don’t have any specifics to share at the moment, but we are engaged very much in those consultations as we establish that shared approach.

QUESTION: Can I ask you a grammatical question just about your response to the – Kylie’s first question when you said that genocide – that the Secretary’s determined that genocide was committed? Is it the administration’s belief that this is not an ongoing thing?

MR PRICE: So Secretary Blinken, in his confirmation hearings, made that judgment.

QUESTION: No, no, no – I get. The question is the tense. Do you think – do you think it only happened in the past, or is it continuing now?

MR PRICE: So the Secretary made clear that, in his judgment, genocide was committed against Uyghurs, and we’re using that tense.

QUESTION: That’s exactly my question.

MR PRICE: We’re using that tense because the Secretary was speaking in the context of his confirmation hearings at that moment in time.

QUESTION: Well can you say now, today? That was a month ago.

MR PRICE: These – the questions of genocide, questions of crimes against humanity, these are always questions that our bureaus are looking at – it’s not only the Department of State but also our interagency partners – are looking closely at to form an assessment as to whether these are ongoing.

QUESTION: Well —

MR PRICE: At that moment in time, it was the judgement of Secretary Blinken that genocide had been committed in Xinjiang, just as it was the judgment of Secretary Pompeo, as I understand it, that genocide was committed.

QUESTION: Yes. So is it fair to say that the situation that is happening right now is under review, and so it is not —

MR PRICE: It is —

QUESTION: Like, you have not determined that it is continuing to happen?

MR PRICE: I would – I would make the point that these reviews are always ongoing. It is not that we have to formally initiate a review. Relevant entities, whether it is GCJ, whether it’s EAP, whether it’s our Legal Adviser’s Office, are always evaluating information as we get it. And so, of course, we are closely evaluating, analyzing what may be going on in the ground in Xinjiang, elsewhere in China, elsewhere around the world.

QUESTION: Lebanon question? A Lebanon question?

MR PRICE: Let’s move around the room a little bit. Rich.

QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. On Iran, the IAEA has told member-states that Iran is enriching uranium with a third set of advanced centrifuges at Natanz. Your comment on that? And also, is there a point where the administration’s offers to Iran for outreach expire with these escalations?

MR PRICE: Well, look, what we have said about this is that, of course, our patience can’t be unlimited, and our patience can’t be unlimited because of the nature of this challenge. It is the nature of this challenge, where every day that it goes unaddressed our concerns grow. And that is why from the early days of this administration, we’ve set out about the task of first, in the first instance, consulting with partners, with allies, with members of Congress, to share ideas, to synchronize approaches, and ultimately, to execute on that approach. And we did that on a tactical level just a few weeks ago when we made clear that the United States would be willing to engage in direct dialogue with Iran if the EU offered to host such a meeting, as it subsequently did, in the context of the P5+1.

We continue to believe, as we have said from the start, that Iran’s nuclear program is a challenge best addressed by diplomacy. From our side it will be clear-eyed, it will be principled diplomacy, conducted with – in lockstep with our partners and allies towards our end goal, and that is a permanent, verifiable prohibition on – permanent, verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program, ensuring that Iran can never acquire or obtain a nuclear weapon.

We have spoken about the steps that Iran over the past two or so years has taken away from the nuclear deal. Of course, those steps are concerning. The IAEA has spoken about those steps as well. Director Grossi has engaged in discussions with the Iranians. The IAEA, its Board of Governors meeting recently addressed them as well. We have, as we have said, full faith and confidence in the director general as we continue to leave the door open for diplomacy. Again, we are not dogmatic about the form these discussions or talks or exchanges of information might take, but we are – what we are dogmatic about is that end goal, and that is a – permanent verifiable limits to ensure that Iran can never obtain a nuclear weapon.

QUESTION: In the administration’s not-unlimited patience, can you quantify what that means, what that – what that means?

MR PRICE: I wouldn’t want to quantify that beyond the broad point. What I would also reiterate is that we have made an offer. We have made an offer to engage in good-faith discussions in the context of the broader P5+1 setting. We have seen various public comments from the Iranians on this score. We are awaiting a constructive proposal from Tehran.

Yes.

QUESTION: I have a question on the Central America migration. You’ve talked about the need to work with countries in the region to deal with the drivers of migration. But I wonder if you think President Hernandez in Honduras is an appropriate partner for the U.S. or if he’s making matters worse.

MR PRICE: Well, what I would say, and this applies to Honduras, of course, is that we are committed to fighting corruption around the world. Corruption and impunity are endemic in some countries in the Americas. We believe that we have to work with partners to address broader governance challenges first if we want to solve poverty, inequity, lack of representation in government.

And so we’ll use all tools at our disposal to fight that corruption and impunity and to fight to combat that transnational crime that often goes along with it. And we do that not just to be virtuous – of course, we believe in anti-corruption, we believe in doing everything we can to combat transnational crime – but we also do that knowing that these same forces tend to be drivers of the sort of irregular migration that we have seen from the region.

So our approach is one of partnership with the broader region, it is partnership with countries of the Northern Triangle, it is partnership with our partners in Mexico, of course, knowing that we have to fight and combat these forces of corruption if we are going to make progress on the broader challenge of irregular migration.

QUESTION: Is he a partner, Hernandez?

MR PRICE: Look, we understand that we need to work constructively with countries in the Northern Triangle. I would hate to put – I would be hesitant to put a label on it. I think what we understand and what we are confident in is that unless we make progress on these underlying challenges, we’re not going to make progress on the challenge of irregular migration.

QUESTION: Staying in Latin America, is it fair to say that the Biden administration is pursuing regime change in Venezuela?

MR PRICE: It is fair to say that the Biden administration supports the democratic aspirations of the people of Venezuela. Our overriding goal is to support a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela through free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections, and to help the Venezuelan people rebuild their lives and their country.

We know at the root of much of the misery and the suffering of the people of Venezuela stands one individual, and we have been very clear that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator. His actions have not been in the best interests of the people of Venezuela. It hasn’t just been the United States that has been saying that. It has been the United States and many of our closest partners both in the region and well beyond.

QUESTION: So it’s basically – it’s basically a nicer way of saying Maduro must go?

MR PRICE: We believe and we support the democratic aspirations of the people of Venezuela. That is why we are committed to supporting the people through humanitarian measures and also targeting regime officials and their cronies involved in human rights abuses and corruption.

Yes.

QUESTION: On Myanmar, does the State Department have any comment on reports that five media companies have had their license revoked? Is the State Department doing anything to ensure that independent reporting can continue on the ground? And then I have a Japan question.

MR PRICE: I missed the first part of your question that —

QUESTION: Reports that five media companies had their licenses revoked. And is the State Department doing anything to ensure independent reporting can continue on the ground?

MR PRICE: Absolutely. So we have spoken – we have voiced our support not only for the people of Burma, who have been demonstrating and taking to the streets peacefully to show their support for their democratic government that has since been deposed to make clear that they stand with the democratically elected civilian government; but, as we have said from this podium before, we have very strongly condemned the junta for the, in many cases, violent crackdowns on those peacefully taking to the streets and on those who are just doing their jobs, including independent journalists who have been swept up.

In many cases, these individuals have been imprisoned for doing nothing more than attempting to exercise their rights and to make sure that citizenry both in Burma and around the world remain, and so we have voiced our strong condemnation of their arrests. We have voiced our strong concern for the fact that peaceful protesters, journalists, and other elements of civil society have been – have been subject to this in many cases violent crackdown that we’ve seen from the part of the junta.

QUESTION: And then quickly on Japan, over the weekend there were reports that Prime Minister Suga could visit as early as April. I was wondering if the State Department is aware of any plans of his visit. And also, would Secretary Blinken want to meet his counterpart in Japan before any meeting between Prime Minister Suga and President Biden?

MR PRICE: Well, I believe the White House said over the weekend that President Biden looks forward to meeting his Japanese counterpart before long. I don’t believe they have confirmed any such meeting at this point. When it comes to Secretary Blinken, he has been fortunate to have had a couple conversations with his Japanese counterparts since Secretary Blinken was sworn in. He’s, of course, done that in the bilateral context. He has done that in the context of the Quad as well. We have demonstrated our commitment to the Indo-Pacific in any number of ways and forms, and I expect you’ll continue to see that in the days and weeks ahead.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR PRICE: Please.

QUESTION: So when he goes to Japan next week, what kind of message does Mr. Blinken will give it to Japan in terms of against China? What can Japan do?

MR PRICE: So we haven’t confirmed any travel. What I would say, however, is that we have confirmed both in word and in deed our commitment to the Indo-Pacific. It is a commitment to our treaty allies in the region. It is a commitment to our partners in the region. Knowing for the United States, for our allies and partners, it’s a region of tremendous opportunity. It is a region of tremendous opportunity, but also one of challenge.

And of course, you mentioned China being a challenge for our allies and partners, and knowing that, again, if we are going to confront that challenge for our part, if we are going to compete and ultimately to out-compete with Beijing, we need to do that in tandem – in lockstep, in fact – with our partners and allies in the region. That has been at the core of some of the discussions that Secretary Blinken has had. President Biden has had opportunities to discuss that as well, and it will be at the core of discussions, exchanges, and potentially meetings going forward as well.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on —

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Could I ask a question on Lebanon?

MR PRICE: Yes. Sorry, back there.

QUESTION: Sorry, I know not everyone cares about Australia, but we’ve had phone calls now from the President and the Vice President to Australia and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Both emphasized climate change as being key issues for the region. The discussion in Australia now is that the key metric that the U.S. Government’s going to ask for is net zero emissions by 2050. Was that raised in these phone calls as being a key metric that Australia should be committing to, or will that likely be a request of the U.S. Government?

MR PRICE: Well, I know that climate has been at the center of many of the phone calls that not only the President has made, but also that we have seen from Secretary Blinken as well. Of course, Foreign Minister Payne was one of the first counterparts that Secretary Blinken called upon his swearing-in at the State Department. I believe it was January 27th when they had their first conversation. We issued a readout of that call, and in fact they did discuss climate change, but I wouldn’t want to go beyond the details of that readout.

QUESTION: So was the 2050 net-zero emissions target raised in that phone call?

MR PRICE: I – again, climate change was discussed. As you know, it is often discussed in the Secretary’s calls, in the President’s calls, because it is a core element of our foreign policy. It’s at the center of our foreign policy, knowing that it is in fact an existential threat. But I wouldn’t want to discuss any specific targets or any additional details beyond those that are mentioned in the readout.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that?

QUESTION: On Myanmar?

QUESTION: Could I just follow up on (inaudible) question? It’s the first question about Myanmar.

QUESTION: Can we go to South Korea?

MR PRICE: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Is anyone else going to ask about South Korea? No?

QUESTION: I can, after just – on Myanmar, quickly. There were reports that three more protesters were killed today. There were reports that at this hour, security forces have essentially trapped protesters in Yangon, about 200 of them or so. And the UN special envoy for human rights in Myanmar said that the security forces must end what he called an escalation of terror tactics. I wonder if you would agree with that characterization of what security forces are doing. Would you consider them terror tactics?

MR PRICE: Well, we have said the violence that security forces have inflicted on innocent Burmese civilians is abhorrent, it’s repulsive, and it must stop. We have been appalled by the violence perpetrated on the people of Burma in response to nothing more than their peaceful calls to respect their rights and to restore their democratically elected government.

QUESTION: Just one more on Burma?

QUESTION: Lebanon?

QUESTION: On – European Union is preparing some sanctions on the military businesses MEC and MEHL. U.S. has put them in the entity list last week of Commerce Department, but that’s a little bit toothless, to be honest. Are you guys going to try to, like, match those sanctions? Like, are you thinking about designating those military businesses as well?

MR PRICE: We are always looking at ways that we can hold the junta to account for the coup that they perpetrated for their anti-democratic actions. As we have noted before, several of our closest allies and partners have enacted their own policy responses to this. We have mentioned the Canadian sanctions, the British sanctions. I wouldn’t want to get ahead of others who may be planning their own policy response. We, of course, have announced, I believe it is, two tranches of sanctions in addition to the Commerce announcement last week, the additions to the export control list.

We know that our response and our efforts to hold the junta to account for its coup will be most effective when we act in close coordination with our partners and allies around the world. We continue to discuss these and we continue to look for ways to work together to ensure that their measures, our measures of accountability are most effective.

A couple of final questions.

QUESTION: On Lebanon, on Lebanon. Really quick on Lebanon. I mean, as the country is delving into chaos and total paralysis, my question to you: Has there been any conversations at the level of the Secretary of State or maybe – other than the embassy, what kind of conversations are you having either with the president of Lebanon, Mr. Aoun, or with the Prime Minister-Designate Mr. Hariri?

MR PRICE: Well, I don’t have any conversations to read out, but as I mentioned, I believe it was last week now, we of course are monitoring very closely the situation in Lebanon. Together with other international partners – and you probably remember the joint statement that we issued some weeks ago – we have repeatedly underscored, both publicly and privately, the urgency for Lebanon’s political leaders to finally act upon the commitments they made to form a credible and effective government. We support the Lebanese people, as we have said, and their continued calls for accountability and reforms needed to realize economic opportunity, better governance, and an end to endemic corruption.

QUESTION: Can I – I actually got two really, really brief ones. One, do you have anything to add about yesterday’s announcements from Political-Military Affairs on the SMA with South Korea?

And the second one is on Afghanistan, but again, it’s very brief.

MR PRICE: Okay. So to your first question, on March 6, yesterday, the United States and the Republic of Korea negotiators did reach a consensus on a proposed text of a new six-year Special Measures Agreement, or SMA, that will strengthen our alliance and our shared defense. The United States and the Republic of Korea together, we’re now pushing the final steps needed to conclude the agreement for signature and for entry into force.

QUESTION: And do you think, from this administration’s perspective, that your demands or your negotiating stance was less strict – is that the right word – less harsh than the previous administration’s with the South Koreans on this?

MR PRICE: I would say that the South Koreans are our allies, so in the context of a relationship with a close ally, with a treaty ally like the South Koreans, I don’t think the United States would make demands. And certainly, I don’t think that would help to strengthen the underlying alliance. We have engaged in good faith, constructive negotiations. I think you’ll be hearing more about them. And I imagine the details of this, you will soon learn, to be an agreement that benefits both sides.

QUESTION: Okay. And then just on Afghanistan, in response to the earlier questions, you repeatedly referred – and I think you were referring – well, you repeatedly referred to what I think was the Taliban as the, quote, un-quote, “Islamic Republic.” That seems to be a change in the phrasing, even in the peace deal that was signed —

MR PRICE: I was intending to refer to the Afghan Government with that nomenclature.

QUESTION: Oh, the Islamic Republic, not the Taliban?

MR PRICE: Not the Taliban, yes.

QUESTION: All right, okay. Thank you.

MR PRICE: Okay.

QUESTION: I have one more final thing, sorry. I was going to ask about this earlier, but British Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been freed from house arrest in Tehran but she still can’t travel. She’s got another court case next week. Is the U.S. doing anything diplomatically to secure her release? And how is this complicating your potential talks with Iran?

MR PRICE: Well, I believe Foreign Secretary Raab issued a statement. He made the point that the British Government welcomed the removal of her ankle tag but added that Iran continues to put her and her family through a cruel and intolerable ordeal, noting that she must be released permanently so she can return to her family in the United Kingdom. So we would point you to the British Government for that reaction.

Similarly, we have continued to make the point that we have no higher priority than the safe return of Americans who are unjustly held – held against their will – overseas, including the Americans in Iran. As we have said very clearly, the Iranians know precisely where we stand on this. We have left no doubt in their minds that we will continue to prioritize their safe and expeditious return going forward.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Really quick question on Russia? Just —

MR PRICE: I’m not sure a question like that is going to be very quick.

QUESTION: Describe U.S.-Russian relations over the last 150 years.

QUESTION: It’s minor, come – it’s just – I wanted to see if you had any comment on the report in the Journal over the weekend that Russia is waging a disinformation campaign against U.S. vaccines, including Pfizer.

MR PRICE: Well, the report you’re referring to noted and we can in fact confirm that our Global Engagement Center has identified four Russian online platforms that are directed by Russian intelligence services and spread disinformation. These sites have, in fact, included disinformation about two of the vaccines that have now been approved by the FDA in this country.

It is very clear that Russia is up to its old tricks, and in doing so is potentially putting people at risk by spreading disinformation about vaccines that we know to be saving lives every day. The Global Engagement Center, other entities here is focused on countering disinformation and propaganda globally, not only in the Russian context, but, of course, the Russians have been engaged in this effort for some time now, as we know.

Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:33 p.m.)

 

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