Department Press Briefing – March 17, 2021

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MS PORTER: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining today’s briefing. I have one update at the top, and then I’ll resume to taking your questions. Today, Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale met with Afghanistan Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar and Tajikistan Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin for a virtual trilateral discussion on issues of mutual importance, including Afghanistan peace negotiations and regional security.

With Tajikistan’s and Afghanistan’s historical and cultural ties, overlapping political and security interests, including counterterrorism, and their shared eagerness for increased economic engagement, the meeting was an opportunity to collectively support the Afghan peace process and promote greater connectivity in Central Asia.

This meeting complements other trilateral engagements held separately last year between the United States, Afghanistan, and the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Now, I’ll give it a few minutes for others to join the queue, and we’ll start taking questions.

All right. Can we go to the line of Nike Ching?

OPERATOR: I’m sorry. I don’t see that line in the queue.

MS PORTER: Nike Ching isn’t in the queue – VOA?

OPERATOR: Oh, I’m sorry. Thank you. One moment. That line is open.

QUESTION: Hello.

MS PORTER: Hi, Nike.

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina, thank you very much for this call. I would like to ask about the Afghanistan peace process. How optimistic is the United States about the Moscow summit? Does the U.S. believe Russia can help the U.S. and allies with the peace process with the Taliban? And what are the priorities in Ambassador Khalilzad’s agenda for participating in the Moscow summit? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you for the question, Nike. You’re correct. Ambassador Khalilzad will travel to Moscow tomorrow. And he’ll be there to share perspectives on ways to bring about political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. And, of course, we’re hopeful that the gathering will be productive, and we certainly welcome international efforts aimed at accelerating progress towards a just and durable peace in Afghanistan. When it comes to engaging with Russia, again, we’re clear that we’ll engage with them in ways that always advance American interests, but we’re also clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses. When there are opportunities for our relationship with Russia to be constructive and it’s in our mutual interest to do work together, we intend to do so. And this simply will be our mindset going into the meeting tomorrow.

Can we go to the line of Rich Edson of Fox?

QUESTION: On the sanctions announcement that came out last evening, just given that it was less than two days prior to this summit tomorrow, was the timing of those sanctions meant to send a message ahead of tomorrow’s meeting?

MS PORTER: Thank you, Rich. So yeah, as you saw yesterday, the Secretary released a statement announcing the update to the Hong Kong Autonomy Act report. And that simply underscores our deep concern with the National People’s Congress March 11 decision to unilaterally undermine Hong Kong’s electoral system. And again, we’ll always advocate and promote for a stable and prosperous Hong Kong that respects human rights, freedoms, political pluralism, and that serves the interests of Hong Kong, mainland China, and the broader international community.

Let’s go to the line of Kylie Atwood, please.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. Two questions for you. On China and their vaccine diplomacy, they’ve obviously exported dozens of vaccines to other countries, secured vaccine production agreements with many other countries. Does the Biden administration believe that they can surpass China’s vaccine diplomacy after taking care of vaccinations at home? And then I have a second question, but I’ll let you do this one first.

MS PORTER: So let’s talk about your first question, Kylie. Thank you. When it comes to vaccine diplomacy, we’ll just keep that centered on our own goals. Again, as you know, President Biden has been strongly committed to ensuring that all Americans have access to safe and effective vaccines as soon as possible, and we’ve taken a lead role in beating this pandemic globally. As you know, we’ve provided $2 billion in COVAX with another $2 billion committed. At the same time, we know what work we had behind us with the amount Americans we’ve had lost, which has been half a million. But again, we’re also working with partners on ways that we can increase global capacity.

QUESTION: And then could I just ask one more question? There are reports that the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Ambassador Antonov, has been invited back to Moscow for consultations to discuss what to do and where to go in the context of U.S.-Russia relations. Do you guys have any response to that? And has Ambassador Antonov met with Biden administration officials? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Well, there’s certainly no meetings to read out. And we’re aware of Moscow’s recent announcement. But what we’ll say is that as we engage in Russia in ways that advance American interests, we also remain clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses. We can’t underscore that enough. And again, even as we work to – work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, we’ll be able to hold Russia accountable for any of their malign actions.

Can we go to the line of Simon Lewis of Reuters?

QUESTION: Hi. Hi, thanks. I have a question on Iran. There’s a report in The Financial Times that the U.S. is planning to continue enforcing sanctions from the Trump administration on Iranian oil exports even though the Chinese are ordering and importing a lot more oil, and quotes a senior administration official saying there’s going to be no tacit green light for Iran’s oil exports. So I wondered if this is a policy that you’re able to confirm, and if so, is this something that you can reasonably expect to be able to enforce given how difficult it is to track oil tankers? And it seems like this is already happening without any enforcement action being taken.

MS PORTER: Thank you for the question, Simon. We don’t have anything to report on that today, but we’re happy to take that question back and get back to you on that.

Let’s go to the line of Camilla Schick from CBS.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Hi, yes. I can hear you.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for this. Yesterday the NSC and State in a briefing previewed some of the priorities, the topics that would be discussed at the Anchorage meeting between Secretary Blinken and Jake Sullivan and the Chinese. On that list wasn’t included specifically COVID or the pandemic. I wanted to ask what is the State Department’s current or if there is a new line on what you expect to come out from the WHO COVID origins report that is expected this week or next and whether that will also be something that the Secretary would address with his Chinese counterparts in Anchorage. Thanks.

MS PORTER: Thank you for the question. Well, we certainly won’t get ahead of the outcome of the meeting. And when it comes to the WHO report directly, we expect transparency at the forefront of that report. And I’ll just reiterate that we’ll continue to press the PRC on issues where the U.S. and the international communities expect transparency and accountability; such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, pressure on Taiwan, human rights, South China Sea, the Mekong, and COVID-19, as well as other issues. And again, we’ll explore all other avenues for cooperation in both of our nations’ interests.

Can we go to the line of Casey O’Neill, Hearst?

OPERATOR: Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks so much. Thanks, Jalina, for doing this. I actually just had two quick questions regarding Israel and the Palestinian Authority. So I don’t know if you’ve seen, but some of our colleagues at The National just broke a story on an internal memo that they got their hands on vis-a-vis Israeli-Palestinian affairs. So my two questions, quickly, just – can you confirm the $15 million in COVID aid to the Palestinians? Can you confirm that amount, and if that’s actually going to be going to them? And also related to this, is there any talk of reversing the administration’s previously stated position and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv? Thanks.

MS PORTER: So to your last question, our policy hasn’t changed. And to your first question, we don’t have any comments on that specific memo.

Can we go to the line of Jennifer Hansler of CNN?

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif said in an interview today that there is no – they see no reason to talk with the U.S. at this point, and they want to see this coordinated action of a return to compliance with the JCPOA. And he also said that the – Iran is prepared to exchange the Americans who are detained there for Iranians who are detained in the U.S. And I was wondering if State has comments on either of those statements. Thank you.

MS PORTER: Well, of course we are always ready for – to engage meaningfully, in meaningful diplomacy with Iran, and we welcome them to join us at that table. And simply, this is just one of the many issues that we’d like to discuss with Iran and that we’re open to doing so.

Can we go to the line of Francesco Fontemaggi?

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you. Going back to Russia, is – more specifically, is the State Department considering recalling Ambassador Sullivan from Moscow for consultation as the Russians did with their ambassador? And also, after the President’s interview this morning saying that he does believe that Vladimir Putin is a killer, is that also the assessment of the State Department? Does the State Department thinks, considers that President Putin is a killer? Thank you.

MS PORTER: I have nothing to add – further to add on President Biden’s comments. Again, when it comes to your question on the recall to our ambassador of Russia, I’ll just reiterate what we said before. Again, as we engage in Russia in a way that advances American interests, again, we remain clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses, and even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, we’ll also work to hold them accountable. And so when it comes to any recall from us, we have nothing to comment on that.

Can we go to the line of Nadia Bilbassy?

QUESTION: Actually, Francesco answered my – asked my question. But let me follow up on Russia as well. You’re saying that you – that you will cooperate with Russia when there is interest to the U.S. national security, but you’re saying also that Ambassador Khalilzad will be in Moscow tomorrow. But do you believe that the language that the President used will complicate matters? And are you sure now that the Russians will receive Ambassador Khalilzad? And are you able to work on common ties of interests – like Syria, and Libya, and Iran – after these comments?

MS PORTER: Again, I have nothing to – further to add on what President Biden has already said. But I’ll reiterate that what he did emphasize is that, again, when there are areas of cooperation with Russia, then there are – especially when they come – of the interests of American national security, then we will cooperate with them.

And when it comes to Ambassador Khalilzad, he has been engaging in meaningful diplomacy and his – again, his meetings in Moscow are obviously important in the region and they’re important to us, and we’re clear-eyed about anything that they are capable of. But again, this is a good opportunity to – for the ambassador to talk about our relationship with Russia to be constructive, and again, to work in mutual interest that – interests that allow us to work together when we intend to do so.

Let’s go to the line of Michel Ghandour.

QUESTION: One on Yemen. Any update on the talks with the Houthis? And second, is the U.S. planning to send vaccines to the Palestinian Authority?

MS PORTER: I’ll take your second question first. Again, we absolutely welcome the reports of the arrival of COVAX shipments for the Palestinians. This is a part of the COVAX facility’s commitment to provide a total of 158,000 vaccine doses to the West Bank and Gaza, and as you know, the United States is COVAX’s largest donor.

And when it comes to your question about the Houthis and Yemen, we’ll just reiterate that, again, the United States is building on a UN framework and amplifying it throughout our own diplomatic engagement and expanded regional support. And again, we call on all parties to seize this moment and come to the table when it comes to peace and diplomacy in Yemen.

Can we go to the line of Conor Finnegan – excuse me – of ABC?

QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. I’m just following up on vaccinations as well. There are reports that the U.S. is holding up to millions of AstraZeneca vaccines that haven’t been approved yet by U.S. authorities. Why are there those – that surplus right now while they’re not approved in the U.S. and vaccines are so desperately needed elsewhere, like in Latin America or Africa? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Hi, Conor. I’m going to do my best to answer your question. A part of it had cut out, but I – I know it was largely due to vaccines. And I’ll just say that President Biden has made it clear that his current priority is to protect U.S. citizens from COVID-19. The accelerated vaccination schedule in the United States has been embraced under President Biden’s leadership and is making that a reality and a goal. At the same time, the President is also focused on the issue of expanding global vaccinations, including manufacturing and delivery, and we know that will be critical in – to ending this pandemic. We certainly look forward to ending this pandemic globally and, again, making sure that we have safe and effective vaccines.

Let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham.

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

MS PORTER: Yes, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Oh, hi. So on North Korea, Secretary Blinken said in Seoul that the authoritarian regime in North Korea continues to commit systematic and widespread abuses against its own people. So my question is how you are going to handle this human rights issue. The U.S. has been dealing with North Korea’s nuclear issue. So is this – human rights – something that you are trying to address as part of your efforts to achieve denuclearization of North Korea, or is it just a separate issue? Also, will there be a human rights envoy for North Korea in the State Department, which has been vacant more than four years? Thank you.

MS PORTER: Let me take your first question. So broadly speaking, we always center human rights at the forefront of our U.S. – our foreign policy and national security goals. We also remain concerned about North Korea’s nuclear activities and we are committed to denuclearization of North Korea.

When it comes to your second question, if we have an update for you later, we’ll be sure to announce that.

Let’s take one final question from Janne Pak of USA Journal.

QUESTION: Hello?

MS PORTER: Hi, I can hear you.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Recently, North Korean Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, criticized the United States, but will the U.S. continue to a diplomatic approach to North Korea?

MS PORTER: Thank you for your question. So we are conducting a thorough interagency review of U.S. policy towards North Korea, and that includes evaluation of all available options to address the increasing threat posed by North Korea and its neighbors and the broader international community. And we’re continuing to lead a structured and detailed policy process that has integrated a diverse set of voices from throughout the government, and also incorporated inputs from think tanks as well as outside experts.

This concludes today’s briefing. Thank you, guys, so much for joining us today. We’ll be back again tomorrow at the same time.

Source: U.S. Department of State