State Department Press Briefing, June 21, 2023
The State Dept held a presser on June 21, 2023 with its Principal Dy Spokesperson Vedant Patel fielding questions on a wide range of subjects. His questions on India and Pakistan are tweaked to appear upfront.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. My question is on Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who just arrived in Washington after addressing the 180 nations marking the ninth anniversary of International Day of Yoga in New York at the United Nations. Here at the Freedom Plaza, he was greeted by hundreds of Indian-American community members.
My question is, here, that what are we expecting. And also at the same time, when Secretary was in Beijing, China, was there any discussion about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington at all? And second, what are the expecting triangle – U.S., India, and China – when Prime Minister Modi meets with the high-level officials at the White House, including, of course, President Biden?
MR PATEL: Thanks, Goyal. Let me try to unpack that. First, happy International Day of Yoga to any and all who celebrate. I certainly don’t have any other specifics about the Secretary’s meetings in Beijing to share beyond what we read out, but if you’ll allow me, also as it relates to Prime Minister Modi’s state visit, I’m going to let the scheduling of the state visit play out, and certainly don’t want to get ahead of that. But I know that the Secretary is looking forward to taking part in these high-level engagements tomorrow and Friday both at the White House and here at the State Department as well.
But this visit, it celebrates the U.S.-India partnership as one of the most important bilateral relationships that we have in the 21st Century. And this is about our partnership and deepening our relationship with India. And after years of strengthening ties, the U.S.-India partnership is deeper and more expansive than it’s ever been. We now work cooperatively to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific. We drive innovation and jointly tackle global challenges. Together, we’re working with other likeminded partners. Our countries will shape the future working towards a world that is open, prosperous, secure, stable, and resilient. And I know the Secretary, the President are very much looking forward to engaging with Prime Minister Modi, his team, and other members of the Indian delegation on this visit.
QUESTION: Just quickly. How this visit will be different than in the past? Prime Minister Modi was also at the White House, and he met with the Secretary and also the President on several occasions, including in different countries – Quad and all that. So how this visit will be different?
MR PATEL: So first of all, this is a state visit, and so those of course are a little different than previous bilateral visits. But really, this isn’t about comparing this visit with any other. What this is about is deepening and broadening and strengthening our relationship with our Indian partners, and that’s why we very much, we’re looking forward to welcoming them today – starting today.
QUESTION: Thank you. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Washington, D.C. already. Prior to this visit, Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, met with Ajit Doval, the security advisor of India. And at that meeting, Ajit Doval stated it is important for India to all countries to refrain from taking any initiative in neighbouring countries that may have negative impact on their national interest. Leading Indian daily quoted him as saying U.S. should not do anything that disturb the balance and stability in the region of South East Asia. For example, in the time of Khaleda Zia’s regime in Bangladesh, there was 10 truck – military grade arms was about to smuggle to ULFA, the terrorist organization in Assam, and it was that main issue about the security. So, yeah, your comment on that, please. Thank you.
MR PATEL: A comment on – what’s your question specifically?
QUESTION: That the U.S. should not do anything that disturb the balance and stability in the – in this Southeast Asia.
MR PATEL: Well, I will say two things. First, broadly, the U.S. will not hesitate to act and engage on issues and areas that are in its interests. But what I will also say is that as it relates to the region, India is an important partner on a lot of these pursuits. As I said, we work cooperatively with our Indian partners to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific. We jointly tackle global challenges, and we look forward to deepening our relationship with our Indian partners to continue to work towards a world and an Indo-Pacific region – including Southeast Asia – that is open, prosperous, secure, stable, and resilient.
All right, Jalil, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Patel. My first question is about 57 congressmen and 18 senators have written a letter to President Biden about the human rights violation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I know the relationship with India – very consequential, is an – important and broadening and stuff, but just particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi – and they have written that about the human rights violations, about the way he treats Muslims, especially journalists, and I’ve never heard you, State Department, condemn it.
MR PATEL: That’s – we have talked about human rights at the nexus of a number of countries around the world. We’ve done so clearly. The Secretary’s done so, I’ve done so, others have done so from behind this podium. And as we do with other nations around the world, we regularly engage at the senior levels on our human rights concerns, including freedom of religion and freedom of belief. Our view is that a secure, prosperous, and democratic and pluralistic India is a natural partner for the United States, and that I am sure is something our Indian partners view as well.
We also regularly meet with civil society representatives, both in the United States and in India and in other parts of the world where we raise these issues as well. We value their perspective and we think that it’s critical to help them to inform our work as well.
QUESTION: One follow-up, please.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Today, the ambassador – the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, (inaudible) Blome, had a meeting with finance minister. Do you have any insight as to what was that meeting regarding?
MR PATEL: The Pakistani finance minister?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any specifics as it relates to that meeting. I’m happy to check, but of course, we engage regularly with Pakistani officials, and you’ve heard me say this before: Our engagement is critical to our ultimate goal, which is a stable, secure, and prosperous Pakistan. But I’m happy to check for details.
QUESTION: So just one small thing: When ambassador level meet the other finance ministers and stuff, I’m sure that it’s probably because of the financial situation Pakistan is in, and the ambassador gets a little profile of the finance minister in the – ahead of the meeting. So does the – will the ambassador ask the finance minister that in last 20 years the economic situation of the country has deteriorated but his own personal accounts have multiplied like 200 times?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to speculate on the comments and what was discussed in the meeting. I’m happy to look into it. But again, our view is that our engagement with Pakistani officials is important because it is in line with our broader goal, which is a stable, secure, and prosperous Pakistan, which is not just in the interests of the region but it is also in the interests of the United States as well.
QUESTION: We heard the news that the Philippines in talk with the U.S. to temporarily host Afghan refugees, especially those who worked for the U.S. in Afghanistan. Can you elaborate on this?
And also, this is almost two years that Afghan girls above sixth grade and also women are banned from going to universities. We were a witness of pressure and condemnation, but we haven’t seen any changes. Is there any new policy, any new strategy for this to pressure the Taliban?
MR PATEL: So first, on your first question, the United States greatly values our alliance with the Philippines, and we are aware of a draft resolution in the Philippines senate to conduct an inquiry into the proposed temporary housing in the Philippines of SIV applicants for Afghanistan. We regularly talk to our partners on a number of issues of local, regional, and global importance, and we remain committed to the thousands of brave Afghans who stood side by side with the United States over the course of the past two decades, but I’m not going to get into an active process.
On your second question, we continue to have a number of tools at our disposal to hold the Taliban accountable. We’ve – you’ve heard us – heard me say this before as it relates to the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls. It is a key piece as it relates to their stated desire of international acceptance and legitimacy, and until they allow half of their population the same rights, benefits, and access as the other half, not only are they holding Afghanistan’s future back, but they also continue to stand in the way of their own desired – desire for international acceptance and legitimacy.
QUESTION: I want to ask you about this – today’s attack on a Palestinian village, Turmus Ayya. Most of the property – in fact, probably 90 percent of the homes – are owned by U.S. citizens. These – this is property is owned by American citizens that live in America part of the time, live in the West Bank part of the time and so on and go to school and they have businesses and so on. I mean, is the U.S. really taking any tangible measures to ensure that this does not happen again? I mean, according to all Israeli reports, the settlers were attacked in the village while the soldiers were watching.
MR PATEL: Said, we continue to engage on this issue directly. We take steps through dialogue, through our engagement in the region, through raising this directly with Israeli officials as well as officials on the Palestinian Authority. We’ve been very clear that any kind of activity or actions that will incite tensions will take us away from our ultimate goal of a negotiated two-state solution. We find those to be unproductive, and you’ve heard us say so.
QUESTION: Following up on that, today Prime Minister Netanyahu said he was planning to go ahead with a thousand new homes in Eli. I know you guys have recently condemned the settlement expansion. What’s your reaction to that? He also said that his response to terrorism is to build up our country. Of course, settlements are theoretically not in Israel but in what would be a Palestinian state.
MR PATEL: Well, we’ve been very clear about this, that unilateral actions such as this one, such as settlement advancement, will only incite tensions and undermine the prospect of a two-state solution.
MR PATEL: Okay, I’m going to – let me do Iran. I’ll come back to you, Jenny. Go ahead in the back
QUESTION: Okay. Washington Post reported yesterday on U.S.-Iranian direct talks, citing an EU official that European partners are not entirely sure of the contours of the current discussion. So my question is that why is this? Because Mr. President and Mr. Secretary always have emphasized on how this administration is close to U.S. allies and they want to revive ties which they believe were hurt during the previous administration. But now, why your close allies are not aware of what is exactly going on between you and Islamic Republic of Iran?
MR PATEL: So we are in constant touch with our partners and allies, including those in the E3, on issues related to Iran. I’m certainly not going to detail those conversations or give you specifics from here, but we absolutely are in touch with our partners and allies on this.
QUESTION: Okay, I have one more.
MR PATEL: Uh-huh.
QUESTION: House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mr. McCaul wrote an open letter to Joe Biden about re-engaging with Iran again. In the letter, he says that the House Foreign Affairs Committee has had a request pending with the State Department since April 11 and special – that Special Envoy for Iran Mr. Malley testified before the committee, which the State Department has not fulfilled. Why?
MR PATEL: So, we remain deeply committed to continued close engagement with Congress in a bipartisan manner, and department officials engage with Congress on a regular basis on U.S.?Iran policy. I will also note that it was only a number of weeks ago that Deputy Secretary Sherman was on the Hill talking about this very exact topic. So, we engage with Congress regularly. I’m not going to get into specifics and don’t have any visits to Congress to specifically preview, but this is, of course, something we’re going to continue to remain deeply engaged on.
QUESTION: And my last question on Syria. What’s your comment on the current situation in northwest Syria, that Türkiye has increased their drone strikes and the other day – yesterday, they strike at a car in Qamishli and they killed civilian people. Then what’s your comment on that? Have you engaged with Türkiye to stop these attacks on your local partner?
MR PATEL: Well, let me say a couple things. First, Türkiye, of course, is an important NATO Ally, and we continue to consult with them on a number of issues broadly. As it relates to that region, one of the key areas of priorities for the United States continues to be ensuring that efforts and work that’s been done to degrade the influence of ISIS is not impeded on. And so we continue to be very clear that any activity taking place that puts civilians at risk, that puts at risk our efforts to degrade ISIS or puts American personnel at risk, we – certainly, we would take issue with.
All right. I’m going to work the room. Jenny, you’ve had your hand up patiently. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, on China. Following the President’s comments last night likening Xi Jinping to a dictator and saying he had no idea about the balloon traversing the United States, does this building agree with that assessment that he did not know about the balloon? And have there been any conversations between U.S. and Chinese officials in the wake of those comments to explain them? And are you concerned that this is going to set back the progress the Secretary said he made on his trip to Beijing?
MR PATEL: So I will let the Department of Defence and Department of Justice and ODNI speak to any information that they have as it relates to the surveillance balloon program and any intelligence assessments there. I’m just certainly not going to speak to that from here. And also, I don’t have any specifics about any diplomatic engagements to read out.
What I will say is that it should come as no surprise, of course, that we have differences and disagreements with the PRC. And the President believes that diplomacy, including this recent trip undertaken by the Secretary, is a responsible way to manage tensions, clear up misperceptions, avoid miscalculations. And all of this is in our interests to do that.
That does not mean, of course, we will not be blunt and forthright about our differences. You all, I know, tuned in to the Secretary’s press conference in Beijing at the conclusion of his trip where he talked about a number of important issues and the progress that was made in a number of areas in conversations with senior PRC officials. And we look forward to continuing to engage on a number of issues as it relates to the complex relationship that we have with the PRC.
QUESTION: So in – President Biden’s comments – Secretary Blinken said in an interview when he left China that the chapter on the spy balloon was closed. Do Biden’s comments run counter to that assessment?
MR PATEL: Not at all. As I said just answering Jenny’s question, that the President believes diplomacy, including the visit that was undertaken by the Secretary, are a responsible way to manage tensions, clear up misinterpretations, and avoid miscalculations. The – again, the important thing to remember, and the Secretary spoke about this a little bit in his press conference, is that this – it is important, and you’ve heard him say this before, about de-risking and not decoupling as it relates to our relationship with the PRC.
And again, there are a number of issues at the nexus of our bilateral relationship with the PRC, whether it be addressing the climate crisis, whether it be the provision of fentanyl and fentanyl precursors, that we believe that we have an opportunity to cooperate with the PRC on to address these very important transnational issues.
Additionally, I will note, is that throughout all of – throughout a number of the bilateral engagements that the Secretary has had in his time as Secretary, a consistent theme continues to be that as it relates to the PRC, the international community expects the United States and the PRC to manage this relationship responsibly. And that’s something that the Secretary, the President, and this administration intends to do so.
QUESTION: Just (inaudible), Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said that China called the United States political provocations. How do you respond to this?
MR PATEL: The President and the Secretary have been very clear – is that we will continue to responsibly manage this relationship, maintain open lines of communication with the PRC. But that, of course, does not mean we will not be blunt and forthright about our differences. The President, the Secretary – we have been very clear about the areas in which we disagree, including the clear differences we see when it comes to democracies and autocracies. And so we have been very clear that we will not hesitate to stand up for issues and stand up for our values when it’s in our interest.
QUESTION: Do you think the United States and China relationship will be relaxed enough for China to help regarding North Korea’s nuclear and missile program eventually?
MR PATEL: Well, this is something that the Secretary raised directly on his travels. He made clear that PRC officials – that they and the PRC writ large has the capability and responsibility to use its influence with the DPRK to encourage Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table and to cease its provocative acts.
QUESTION: Chairman McCaul issued a fairly scathing statement following the Secretary’s trip, saying that it had yielded nothing substantial except a mere promise of meetings in the future. I wondered if you had any response to that and, more specifically, to his criticism that there has been no lack of – or there’s been a lack of progress on the Americans who are detained in China.
MR PATEL: Thanks for your question, Abbie. I have seen Chairman McCaul’s statement on the Secretary’s successful and productive trip to the PRC. Broadly speaking, we strongly disagree with the majority of the chairman’s conclusions and would point out that, candidly, there are several inaccuracies. It almost feels as if the chairman and I observed two different trips from back here.
First, it said that the chairman – he said that it “appears [that] the State Department is stopping export controls and sanctions.” This is absolutely false. One of the reoccurring points in the Secretary’s engagements with PRC officials was PRC officials expressing their concerns on export controls and sanctions, with the Secretary repeatedly telling PRC officials that we would continue to do what is needed to advance U.S. interests. This is also something that the Secretary spoke about publicly as well in his press conference and other engagements when in Beijing.
The chairman, as you so noted, also mentioned a lack of progress on several issues, including wrongful detained individuals, fentanyl, and Cuba. Again, I would point you back to the Secretary’s comments and our very clear readouts of this trip, where we discussed how the U.S. repeatedly raised these issues with the Secretary’s PRC counterparts.
The facts are this: The Secretary raised the serious concerns the U.S. would have about any intelligence or military facility in Cuba, saying that we will continue to defend our interests here. The Secretary also raised that the safety and security of American citizens who are wrongfully detained continue to be a top priority, and he directly raised those cases, those subject to wrongful detentions and exit bans.
This is also true as it relates to the fentanyl crisis. This is one of the chief concerns that we raised in our engagements with the PRC, and we secured an agreement with the PRC to work on addressing the illegal flow of fentanyl into our country. Again, this is something that was publicly remarked by the Secretary and reported on by many of you and your colleagues that were on travels with the Secretary.
And as it relates to Taiwan, the chairman again put forward inaccurate information, saying we failed to address this issue. This is uniformly inaccurate. The fact is that the Secretary directly raised China’s actions towards Taiwan in his meetings and pointed out that it is the PRC who has sought to upend the status quo. We have been very clear-eyed from here and in our engagements that cross-strait peace continues to be a top priority for us.
But I want to address a broader point, and then I – we’ll move on from this – is that the broader point that the chairman made is that somehow dialogue with China isn’t productive. And we take strong disagreement with that. The facts are – is that it is irresponsible not to engage, and it is counterproductive to our interests to not engage. An open dialogue is the best way of maintaining communications, the best way of avoiding misunderstandings that could lead to conflict. Dialogue is also the best way to avoid – to stand up for human rights. Dialogue is the only way we will get detained Americans home. It’s the way we will secure cooperation on fentanyl and to defend the economic interests of U.S. workers and companies.
So again, it’s our view that the chairman’s comments were not only inaccurate but unfortunate. But we’ll continue to act in good faith and engage with Congress, and I know that members of our team would be available to discuss the Secretary’s travels with the chairman and the committee should they want it.
QUESTION: State had said the primary purpose of the Secretary’s trip to Beijing was to stabilize the relationship, and the PRC is calling the President’s comments on Xi “absurd,” “irresponsible,” and a “political provocation,” as Janne mentioned. So how does that stabilize the relationship?
MR PATEL: Nick, the important thing to remember is that it also should come as no surprise that we have differences and disagreements. The President, the Secretary, they believe in diplomacy. They think that this trip that was recently undertaken – it was a responsible way to manage tensions, to clear up misconceptions, to avoid miscalculations, all of which could lead to further risk. But as I said in answering Janne’s question and Jenny’s is that we won’t hesitate to call out areas where we disagree or to be blunt and forthright about some of these differences, and of course, one of those areas that the President and the Secretary have been clear about is the differences between democracies and autocracies and what they have.
So again, I don’t think that the President’s comments need to be clarified any further or to be interpreted any further, but we’ve been quite clear about this, and it is consistent with our approach as it relates to the PRC.
QUESTION: A very quick follow-up just on that specific point, because the rhetoric aside, does this – do the President’s comments – have they done anything to derail what we expected was future travel by senior U.S. officials to China? Are the – is planning for those travel – that travel still in the works? And do you still expect senior Chinese officials to be visiting the U.S. and is planning for this?
MR PATEL: Right, so you saw the Secretary speak about this in his press conference, and we continue to fully expect that future engagements, in due course, when the time is appropriate, we’ll continue to plan forward accordingly.
QUESTION: Do you have a timeline for when one of those senior-level visits might occur?
MR PATEL: Obviously there’s been a lot reported about others in the administration, and I will let their spokespeople and those offices speak to that.
QUESTION: There were reports last week as well as statements by a Ukrainian ambassador that Australia, the U.S., and Ukraine are considering providing F-18 fighter jets – U.S.-made, Australian-owned. So, you don’t have to confirm or comment on that, but I bring it up because I think it illustrates kind of this continued – as each week goes by in this war, there’s sort of a push of the Overton window on what we, the U.S., are willing to provide. It’s often weapons that were previously deemed even by this administration to be too escalatory. Last year, Joe Biden was asked whether the U.S. would provide F-16s to Ukraine, and he said no because, quote, “that’s called World War III.” And now, of course we are providing F-16s and maybe even F-18s, which are the more powerful model. This Monday, Biden reportedly told donors that the risk of Putin using a tactical nuke is a real possibility.
So my question is: Why do we casually continue down this path of providing stronger and stronger weapons when even the President himself is acknowledging the risk of nuclear war?
MR PATEL: Well, that was, like, five questions when I said a brief follow-up, so let me try to unpack that.
I don’t have any news to share or specific updates as it relates to any security assistance. Broadly though, throughout the course of this conflict we have, in close coordination with the Department of Defence, of course, and Secretary Austin has done immense, important work and shown great leadership through the Ramstein process – we have made assessments by – in close coordination with our allies and partners about the types of technologies and systems that we feel our Ukrainian partners need. And so I will let that process play out. I don’t have anything to speak to on that. And that has been our strategy as it relates to security assistance for our Ukrainian partners.
QUESTION: Anything on his comment Monday on the risk of nuclear war?
MR PATEL: So again, you saw the Secretary speak about this in his press conference with his Singaporean counterpart. We’ve seen those reports of the Russia-Belarus agreement and we’ll continue to actively monitor the situation and how it unfolds and its implications. We’ve not seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture, but again – and this is something that the President has spoken about also – this kind of rhetoric about nuclear weapons is reckless and irresponsible from President Putin. It also underscores President Putin’s hypocrisy on this.
QUESTION: On South Sudan. I don’t know if you addressed the South Sudan issue. The UN envoy, Nicholas Haysom, spoke to the Security Council, and he warned of an impending catastrophe in South Sudan as a result of 115,000 men, women, and children going into South Sudan, compounded, of course, by the chaotic and the lack of a sharing power. I wonder if you have any comment on what is going on in South Sudan as it relates to the Sudan crisis.
MR PATEL: I’ve not seen those comments, Said, so I’d have to check in on that for you.
All right. Go ahead, and then we’ll wrap after that.
QUESTION: So – yes. So U.S. officials reportedly have gathered information, intelligence information, about Huawei and ZTE staff members going in and out of the Cuban – the Chinese intelligence facility in Cuba. So I’m wondering if you can confirm that information, if you’re aware that the Chinese telephone companies are involved in surveillance work for China in Cuba.
And secondly, there are reports saying that China and Cuba are actively working on another joint military training facility in Cuba. So can you confirm that information? How do you respond?
MR PATEL: So, I’m not going to speak to any potential intelligence from up here. It certainly would be inappropriate to do that. But broadly, we are monitoring and responding to any PRC attempts to expand its military or security presence around the world, and we watch how potential PRC actions may impact the United States. Our experts assess that our diplomatic efforts have slowed the PRC down, and there of course continue to still be challenges, but we continue to be concerned about the PRC’s longstanding activities with Cuba. The PRC will keep trying to enhance its presence in Cuba and we will keep working to disrupt it. But I’m certainly not going to get into more from here.
All right. Thanks, everyone.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:23 p.m.) # # #
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