Ben Franklin room, Washington DC

  • Transcript
Subjects: US-Australia alliance; Australia-China relations; COVID-19 recovery;
13 May 2021

Secretary Blinken: Good afternoon, everyone. Before talking about our meeting, I'd like to just touch on what's happening in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. I spoke yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as well as with Palestinian President Abbas, and as you know, President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu as well. This is part of a comprehensive, ongoing outreach and dialogue at all levels of the U.S. Government to our respective counterparts, with the objective of achieving an end to the violence, which continues to claim the lives of innocent children, women, and men. We've been very clear that rocket attacks must cease. We've been very clear about Israel's right to defend itself. We're also engaging our regional partners with urgency to see to it that calm prevails, and our heartfelt condolences go out to the loved ones of those lost.

We're also deeply concerned about the violence in the streets of Israel. As Muslims celebrate Eid and Jews prepare to mark Shavuot, Israelis and Palestinians deserve to take part in these celebrations without fear of violence. We believe that Israelis and Palestinians deserve equal measures of freedom, security, dignity, and prosperity. That recognition will continue to drive our approach.

Having said that, let me turn to what brings us together here. I am delighted that Foreign Minister Payne is here. I'm delighted to be able to host her on her first visit to the United States during the Biden-Harris administration. We had the opportunity to spend some time together in London at the recent G7 meeting, and we've been on the phone multiple times, but nothing really replaces having the chance to talk about an incredibly broad array and range of issues and interests that bring our countries together.

We had a chance today to reaffirm our unshakeable commitment to the U.S.-Australia alliance, which has been an anchor for peace, security, and stability in the Indo-Pacific for decades. As President Biden made clear, reaffirming and revitalizing America's alliances and partnerships around the world is going to help us ensure that we have a foreign policy that actually delivers for the American people. As we mark the 70th anniversary of our alliance with Australia, we find strength not only in how vital and dependable the relationship has been, but also in how it has continued to evolve to meet the challenges we face and that our citizens face.

We work together across virtually all facets of foreign policy – national security, health security, countering disinformation – the list goes on. And we covered a lot of that today in our meeting. It's evident in the range, as well, of senior officials whom the Foreign Minister has met with during her visit, including National Security Advisor Sullivan; Secretary Kerry, the President's Special Envoy for Climate; Ambassador Power, our new administrator for USAID; as well as leaders in both parties on Capitol Hill, which I think is further evidence of the deep, bipartisan commitment in the United States to the relationship and partnership between our countries.

We also do quite a bit of multilateral collaboration, for example, through the Quad. Our countries are working with India and Japan to advance a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. We're tackling big, complex challenges, like ensuring international law is respected in the East and South China Seas, and increasing global access to safe, effective vaccines for COVID-19. President Biden was very proud to host the first-ever leaders' summit of the Quad back in March; we look forward to doing a great deal more through the collaboration among our countries in the months and years ahead.

In our conversations today, the Foreign Minister and I touched on a number of key challenges that we face together and where the United States and Australia are very closely linked, including our shared condemnation of the Burmese military's violent attacks against peaceful protesters and members of civil society, which continue to go forward with impunity, and our joint calls for the regime to allow for the democratically elected government to return to power.

I reiterated that the United States will not leave Australia alone on the field, or maybe I should say alone on the pitch, in the face of economic coercion by China. That's what allies do. We have each other's backs so we can face threats and challenges from a position of collective strength.

And we understand as well our shared commitment to UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea.

It's important to note that the friendship between Australia and the United States goes beyond diplomacy. Our troops have fought side by side in virtually every conflict of modern times, from World War I to current operations to combat violent extremism. Our business ties are vast. The United States is the top destination for Australian investment that's created nearly 100,000 American jobs. And I'm proud to say we're the biggest investor by far in Australia, which in turn has created more than 320,000 Australian jobs. Our countries collaborate on cutting-edge technologies, from quantum information sciences to artificial intelligence, cancer research, working to address critical vulnerabilities in our supply chains, and we're linked by vast people-to-people ties as well – unless, of course, we're competing in an Olympic pool, in which case there may be just a little bit of friction.

This relationship continues to thrive, ultimately, because it's rooted in shared values. We believe in democracy. We've seen how it makes our own countries stronger, and we see that democracies are more likely to be stable, open, secure, and committed to fundamental freedoms.

We're committed to reaffirming and strengthening of the rules-based international order. It's provided a foundation for stability and prosperity not only for the United States and Australia, but for people around the world. And we both recognise that human rights and dignity must remain at the core of that order.

At the very first meeting of the ANZUS Council nearly seven decades ago – we're celebrating the 70th anniversary soon – our then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson compared building the alliance and the newly established international order to the building of a great cathedral. He said, and I quote, “Each step is but one building block in the total structure of peace. We know this labor is hard and complex and long, but like a cathedral which is built by many hands over many years, this structure has a unity of spirit which flows from the common inspiration of these labors.”

Today it's in our hands, the building of these blocks. And we're fortunate, I think, to have inherited a great project between our countries, built through generations of cooperation, creativity, and also sacrifice. And so it's our responsibility, I think, not only to maintain it, but to strengthen and improve upon it so that we can continue to meet the great challenges of our time together, so that we continue to address the needs and aspirations of our citizens. I have no doubt that the unity of spirit between our nations and our people is as strong as ever and, I think, growing even stronger.

So I look forward, Marise, to working with you, to working with all of our colleagues and our teams in this vital effort, and it's wonderful to have you here. Welcome.

Minister Payne: Thank you very much, Secretary. Thank you very much, Tony, for your very warm introduction and for hosting us here today. Let me also thank the very many members of the Biden-Harris administration who have made us feel so very welcome this week, have made the time to meet with me and with my team here in Washington for what have been very productive discussions all around.

I'd like to also acknowledge the Secretary's words in relation to the current violence in Israel and in Gaza and the West Bank. We share those concerns and have made statements in relation to that, and I'm sure we will have more discussions in coming times on those.

I want to start with an important acknowledgment. In Australia just a very short time ago, Australia's Governor-General, His Excellency General David Hurley, posthumously awarded to Captain Ian McBeth, to First Officer Paul Hudson, and to Flight Engineer Rick DeMorgan, Jr., the Australian National Emergency Medal for extraordinary service. These three men were amongst the American firefighters who answered Australia's call and travelled a very long way from their own homes and families to help us during the catastrophic bushfires of 2020. They died while extinguishing a fire front with a heavy airtanker in the direct defence of Australian lives and Australian property. And on behalf of my government and on behalf of the people of Australia, I assure you that we will continue to honour them and to remember their bravery and sacrifice.

As the Secretary said, the Australia-United States alliance is marking its 70th year. I think the selfless service and sacrifice of those Americans profoundly exemplifies the spirit of that alliance.

We are, indeed, two nations who are bound by deeply shared values and experiences, and we each believe – as any sovereign nation and democratic nation should – that our foreign policies must serve the interests of our respective peoples. Yet we are so frequently in alignment, because our foreign policies are rooted in the hearts of our nations that are, in many ways, so fundamentally similar.

We have some different views; of course we do. We have some different laws. We certainly have some different sports and perhaps a few of our own cultural idiosyncrasies. But our values and our expectations are much alike. We expect to live freely under the rule of law; we expect to be able to work, to trade, to prosper under a fair and predictable system of rules. We expect safety and security for ourselves and our families, so that we can go about our lives without fear. We believe that governments should be accountable to the people. Those very basic values are reflected in our respective foreign policies, which in turn means that serving our own people is not mutually exclusive to seeking improvement for people elsewhere.

Today, in our discussions, we've addressed many of the most pressing challenges of our region and more broadly and how we can further our cooperation in tackling them. Australia particularly welcomes continuing United States engagement and leadership in the Indo-Pacific region and we appreciate the emphasis that the Secretary and the Biden-Harris administration have placed on partnerships and alliances.

Australia is sharing that considerable workload of upholding the rules and norms and of maintaining a secure and prosperous region. This week, for example, we've announced in our federal budget nearly $200 million in additional spending to strengthen our diplomatic efforts in promoting free and fair trade, in supporting our exporters, in delivering our Indo-Pacific priorities, and expanding our advocacy and our cooperation with partners internationally.

We are and will continue to work with partners to advance the region's health and prosperity particularly in response to COVID-19, to protect the region's security and stability, including by countering disinformation and malicious cyber activity. We have discussed our practical areas of cooperation, including as Tony said, on the supply and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines in the Indo-Pacific, on cyber and critical technology, on counterterrorism, on arbitrary detention, on human rights, and on climate change.

Together with our partners, including through groups such as the Quad, Australia and the United States can demonstrate that democracy delivers. Transparency and accountability matter. Indeed, lives and livelihoods depend on it, whether through rigorous approval of new COVID-19 vaccines and the report this week from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response or an empowered and reformed World Trade Organization that can distinguish between legitimate quarantine and customs concerns and thinly veiled economic coercion and take swift action accordingly.

In our meeting today, we have, of course, discussed our relationships with China. And Australia seeks a constructive relationship with China. We stand ready at any time, amongst all of my counterparts and colleagues, to resume dialogue. But we have also been open and clear and consistent about the fact that we are dealing with a number of challenges. We welcome the clear expressions of support from Washington as Australia works through those differences. It is hard to think of a truer expression of friendship.

I hope that the support Australia has received from the United States gives confidence to others. It doesn't matter where challenges to your sovereignty come from. All countries should know that there is a global community that can support one another in this most basic expectation of nationhood. As with the freedom of individuals, so with the sovereignty of states. Australia and the United States and the alliance that binds us are a bedrock for these shared values.

Thank you again, Secretary Blinken, for these talks that will take our alliance forward at this critical time for our region and for the world. You are right – in-person talks make a significant difference. They are a real value-add in the times of COVID-19 as well. I look forward to comparing pool notes with you over Tokyo 2021 and perhaps a bit of a discussion about how some of our football teams go on the field as well. Thank you very much.

Mr Price: We'll now turn to questions. We'll take two from each side. We'll start with Barbara Usher of the BBC.

Question: Thank you. There's a lot going on in the Middle East, so I hope you'll bear with me. Mr. Blinken, rockets have been fired from Lebanon towards Israel. Do you see this as an escalation, and does it change U.S. calculations in terms of your approach in any way? Secondly, do you accept the Israeli view that now is not the time for a ceasefire? President Biden has said he doesn't see a significant Israeli overreaction, which it would seem Israel could see as a green light. Thirdly, what evidence, if any, does the U.S. see of Iranian involvement in the attacks on Israel, given that Hamas has been using drones and long-range missiles? And if so, how do you respond to Republican calls for the administration to stop negotiations in Vienna because of that? Finally, according to diplomats, the U.S. stopped the Security Council meeting due tomorrow on the Middle East. Why does the United States not see this as useful if, indeed, this is the case?

And Foreign Minister Payne, do you think a Security Council statement calling for the cessation of hostilities in the Middle East and urging respect for international law from both sides could be useful? And if not, why not? Thank you.

Secretary Blinken: Thank you. That is a masterful demonstration of the art of packing in a few questions to one. And I'm happy to start.

A few things. As I noted earlier, we have been deeply and actively engaged across the board with Israeli counterparts, Palestinian counterparts, partners throughout the region in an effort to advance de-escalation and an end to the violence.

I was on the phone yesterday with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. As you noted, President Biden spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu. We've sent our senior official for Israel and Palestinian matters Hady Amr to the region. He's en route there to right now. And we are in very deep and regular contact.

Look, we've been very clear about the basic principles involved here, starting with the proposition that Israel has a right to defend itself from these rocket attacks and the fundamental difference between a terrorist organisation in Hamas that is indiscriminately targeting civilians and Israel, which is defending itself and going after those that are attacking it.

But we are deeply concerned with the loss of life among civilians, especially among children. Palestinians have a right to live in security and to live in peace, just as Israelis do, and so we are working hard to encourage all sides to stand down, to de-escalate, to return to calm.

As to the United Nations, we are open to and supportive of a discussion, an open discussion at the United Nations. I think we're looking at early next week. This, I hope, will give some time for the diplomacy to have some effect and to see if, indeed, we get a real de-escalation and can then pursue this at the United Nations in that context.

I don't have anything to offer on whether there is Iranian involvement or not in what's taking place, but I would only say that when it comes to any of the malign activities that Iran may or may not be engaged in, whether it is support for terrorism, whether it's efforts to destabilise other countries, whether it is other actions that we find objectionable, that only underscores the importance of doing everything we can to make sure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. An Iran with a nuclear weapon or with the capacity to have one on very short order is an Iran that's likely to act with even greater impunity when it comes to these other actions. So the talks go on in Vienna in an effort to see if we can return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA, and those will continue.

Minister Payne: Thank you very much, Tony. And I would agree with you, Australia would certainly welcome a discussion of these issues at the UN. Whether there is Security Council statement that flows from that discussion is ultimately a matter for the Security Council and its members. But to reiterate my remarks at the beginning of our statements today, the Australian Government has issued a clear statement about our deep concerns at the escalating violence in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. We have unequivocally called on all leaders to take immediate steps to halt violence, to maintain restraint, and to restore calm.

Our strong view is that violence is no solution – no solution. Whether they are rocket attacks, or indiscriminate acts that fuel the cycle of violence and bloodshed, they are also never justified. We have urged all parties to refrain from violent or provocative acts, calling for a halt to any actions that increase tensions. And if there is a discussion to be held at the United Nations, then Australia will be an active participant.

Mr Price: We'll turn to Greg Jennett of ABC News.

Question: Thank you. I may not master the multi-pronged question, but I will settle for a dual-pronged, if that's okay, directed mainly to Secretary Blinken. But no doubt, Minister Payne may choose to respond, as well. And both concern relations with China.

Firstly, on economic coercion, you made the point up in Anchorage, Mr. Secretary, as you have today, talking about not leaving Australia alone on the pitch. Minister Payne has spoken of a clear expression of support conveyed by you today.

The question is, can you explain how that finds practical expression across the breadth of this Administration? Not just through diplomacy. What might that support look like: third-party tariffs, sanctions on officials, perhaps departments, or Chinese companies, boycotts, supporting cultural, scientific, or otherwise? I wonder if you could flesh that out a little.

And the second is about the strategically significant port of Darwin. It is a matter of public record that President Obama had major concerns about this facility being leased to Chinese interests for 99 years, so much so that he complained directly to Prime Minister Turnbull about it. Do you maintain that objection today? And if so, could you tell us the reasons why?

Is it a done decision, in and of itself, or is it for potential conflicts with U.S. interests, which would include U.S. marine rotations in the north, and other U.S. interests in that part of the world?

Secretary Blinken: Thank you very much. A couple of things.

First, with regard to China and economic coercion, we've been very clear, both publicly and privately, about the concerns that we have when we see China exerting economic coercion generally, and also specifically with regard to our ally. We've raised these concerns across the government with Beijing. We've done so publicly; we've done so privately. And we've made clear to the PRC how such actions targeting our closest partners and allies will hinder improvements in our own relationship with China.

We are also working together to find new approaches to economic diversification, supply chain security – reliable and secure supply chains, in particular – and other means of being resilient to and being able to overcome efforts at economic coercion, something we talked about today, and I'm sure we will have more on in the future.

And when it comes to Darwin and issues related to Darwin, these are sovereign decisions for Australia, and we leave it to our partners to make those decisions.

Minister Payne: Greg, I would say good to see you, and just broadly, in relation to the issues of economic coercion, to be very clear in terms of our relationship with China, we want a constructive relationship, where we can discuss our differences, where we can work together for mutual benefit. But we won't compromise on our national security or our sovereignty, and we'll continue to act to protect that.

As I think I said, or acknowledged in my opening statement, we have a range of issues to work through with China at present, and we'll continue to engage China to resolve those outstanding issues, those outstanding trade issues, and use appropriate mechanisms that are available to us if we need to. And you will, of course, note that we have taken action in relation to the barley issue in the WTO. We expect to be dealt with in a fair and timely manner on those. And most importantly, we will continue to offer the opportunity to talk together to resolve these issues with constructive dialogue. We stand ready and willing to do that.

Mr Price: Rich Edson, Fox News.

Question: Good afternoon, Secretary Blinken and Minister Payne. Thank you. Building off a bit on our Australian colleague, yesterday the climate envoy testified that the administration is assessing whether to sanction China's solar industry. Will there soon be a determination, Mr. Secretary? And can the United States realise President Biden's 2035 power generation targets while also ensuring that it's not financing solar panels made with forced labour in China? There was also some discussion of this last month, but since that talk and with these discussions today with the Minister, has there been any consideration of an Olympic boycott or any gesture short of a boycott to highlight human rights abuses in China?

And then to Minister Payne, the question to you is: Beyond the Olympics, is the Australian Government pursuing new coordinated sanctions with the United States to address human rights abuses in China? Thank you very much.

Secretary Blinken; Thank you. Thanks very much. I don't have anything to offer on the solar panels question. I defer to colleagues who are focused on that. What I can say is this just as a general proposition, and it goes to what the Foreign Minister was saying a few moments ago. When it comes to the way we're approaching the relationship with China – and I've said this before, but it's important to emphasise it – we're not seeking to contain China; we're not seeking to hold China back. We are seeking, resolutely so, to uphold the rules-based international order. And in a practical way, that means insisting that countries make good on their commitments and play by the rules that we've all agreed to.

And whether it's in the trade or commercial space, whether it's in the maritime domain, whether it's in many other areas that we can talk about, that's what we're focused on. And so particularly when it comes to trade, we want to make sure that everyone is playing by the rules, and that includes China. And when it's not, we will work together through the legal mechanisms that we have, through the rules that we've agreed upon, through the organisations that are there to help enforce those rules, to make sure that China abides by them.

With regard to the Olympics, that's not something that we talked about today. We're still some many months away from the Winter Games. We've – we certainly hear concerns around the world, and we'll be, I'm sure in the months ahead, talking to allies and partners about their views on the Olympics.

Minister Payne: Thank you. And in relation to Xinjiang in particular and to those human rights issues, Australia has been very clear and very consistent in terms of the deep concerns that we hold about the credible reports that have been received in the international community that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance and detention, forced labour, forced birth control, including sterilisation, the systematic abuse and torture of women in particular. We don't have the same sanctions regimes, and that is a matter which is under consideration in Australia following a reference that I sent to one of our parliamentary committees to explore options for a Magnitsky-style system of sanctions in Australia. And Government will respond to that in due course.

But whether it is through the United Nations or in fact directly in our engagement with China, we have consistently called on China in relation to Xinjiang to respect the human rights of the Uighur people and other minorities, religious and ethnic minorities in the region. We have firmly underscored the importance of transparency and accountability and reiterated our strong call for China to grant meaningful and unfettered access to appropriate international observers in Xinjiang. I was in Geneva on Friday last week and met with United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, and that is a matter that we discussed in Geneva last week. Australia continues to make that call, and we have strongly supported and welcomed measures announced by Canada, by the United States, by the European Union and the United Kingdom where they do have those sanctions mechanisms in relation to Xinjiang as well.

Mr Price: We'll conclude with Annelise Nielsen of Sky News.

Question: Thank you. We just wanted to ask about the investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Secretary Blinken, were you satisfied with the results of the Clark report, and would you support further investigation?

And to Minister Payne, the same, but would you also consider further investigation, given the economic ramifications Australia has faced?

And on that point of human rights abuses in China, we have still got two Australians detained in China, Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei. There are serious ramifications for this. In light of that, do you still continue to support investigations of the origin, given we were so early to call for it?

Secretary Blinken: No and yes. No, not satisfied with the original investigation; yes, support an ongoing investigation to get to the bottom of what happened with COVID-19.

And look, this is so important, because we need to understand what happened if we are going to have the best possible opportunity to prevent it from happening again, and to make sure we can put in place an even stronger global health security system, to make sure that we can prevent, detect, mitigate future pandemics. And that has to start with understanding exactly what happened.

And, look, the issue is less about assigning blame, and more about understanding what happened so that we can take effective action for the future. There needs to be accountability, but there needs, especially, to be understanding.

And we do know that, in the early days of the pandemic, there was a failure on the part of the PRC to allow timely access to international experts, timely sharing of information, real transparency when it mattered most. And those have to be features of this system going forward. And all countries have a responsibility to sign on to them.

So, we need to see more to get to a real understanding of what happened. And then, together, including with China, we need to take actions to strengthen the international system, to make sure that all of our people are better protected so that, if there is a next time, it's not like this time.

Minister Payne: Thanks. And I think there are two points that are part of your question.

First of all, there is the WHO-convened global study into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, as it was entitled, which was the report that was released on the 31st of March. And I think that our response then was to say we certainly appreciated the efforts of the scientific experts who participated in leading that work in very difficult circumstances - including an Australian expert, Professor Dominic Dwyer - but we are concerned that that mission itself was significantly delayed, and lacked access to both complete and original data and samples.

And we, at the time, joined a statement with a number of other concerned countries, including the United States, in expressing those concerns about those delays. That is unchanged. And, in fact, it reinforces the importance of Australia's suggestion in April last year that there should be an independent, international, objective review into COVID-19, its origins, and its impact.

Secondly, though, the release of the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response report, which was led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - we welcome that very comprehensive report.

I met with Helen Clark in New Zealand just three or so weeks ago – perhaps a month ago now – and again, its frank assessment of the global community's preparedness, the management of the pandemic, as well as the recommendations that it contains for action - we absolutely support those being taken very seriously. There is a number of recommendations, including in relation to the international health regulatory structure, as Tony referred to, recommendations around strengthening the independence and the authority of the WHO.

Interestingly, also observations about the fact that the WHO was underpowered in terms of its ability to do the job expected of it, including the recommendations about increasing the independence and authority of the WHO, so that they have explicit powers to investigate pathogens with pandemic potential, and to publish information about those potential outbreaks with immediate action, without prior approval of national governments. There was some discussion at some stage last year about what inspection and report powers WHO should have. And I think that finding by the independent panel is a very important one, in terms of the way forward, for ensuring that we avoid the experience that the world, this country, our country, so many countries, have had to deal with in recent times, and the extraordinary loss of life that it has caused.

Secretary Blinken: Thank you very much.

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