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We’re certainly seeing countries engage in so-called vaccine diplomacy: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

What we saw in Myanmar was a tragic step back to what had been a historic democratic transition, and of course, that was a transition that brought its own challenges, including the egregious treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. But the democratic transition itself was a very positive development in the world, and that’s been interrupted by the military coup.

QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, welcome.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So good to be with you.

QUESTION: You just joined President Biden at the virtual G7 meeting, and, of course, there’s been the Munich Security Conference. What is America’s message to friends, allies, and adversaries?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think you heard the President say it: America’s back. It’s interesting. He was – he last spoke at the Munich Security Conference two years ago in 2019 as a professor, and he said America would be back. And now he’s President and America is back. But what does that mean? It means that we’re determined once again to engage in the world, to show up again, because in the absence of American engagement, in the absence of American leadership, then one of two things happens: either some other country tries to take our place and probably does so in a way that doesn’t advance the common interests and values of the democratic world, or no one does and then you may well have a vacuum and chaos that fills it before anything good does.

But it’s also imperative that American engagement and American leadership be for the purpose of finding new ways to cooperate among countries, because every single one of the major challenges we face, Yalda, the ones that affect the lives of our citizens, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s this pandemic, whether it’s the spread of a dangerous weapon, not a single nation acting alone can deal with them effectively. We have to find ways to work together. The G7 today is a very strong manifestation of that – the world’s leading democratic economies coming together to tackle COVID-19, to deal with climate, to deal with other challenges to our democracy.

QUESTION: Well, top of the agenda at the G7, Secretary, is the global vaccination effort. President Biden has, of course, pledged $4 billion to COVAX. But what about allocating actual vaccines as a matter of urgency?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, you’re right, we made a major contribution to COVAX, $4 billion with the initial 2 billion coming very, very quickly. We’re determined to be a responsible international actor, an international leader on vaccinations. And I think you’re going to see the G7 and other countries working closely together to make sure that not only are our own populations vaccinated but that the entire world is, because here’s the challenge we face: Unless and until everyone in the world is vaccinated, then no one is really fully safe. Because if the virus is out there and continuing to proliferate, it’s also going to be mutating. And if it’s mutating, it’s going to come back and bite people everywhere.

So we have a strong incentive to try to work together to make sure that vaccines are getting out there as best we can everywhere, and that’s what some of these facilities are designed to do, whether it’s through the COVID program – through COVAX – through the work that we’ll be doing with the G7.

QUESTION: Well, President Macron has said 5 percent urgently. Is that something you are going to consider?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think Boris Johnson, who was leading the effort today to bring the G7 together, has said that we’ll look at all of these proposals to see how ultimately we can be effective in making sure that vaccines get out, get out to the world. We’re focused, of course, on making sure in the United States that folks here are vaccinated. We’ve made major progress in the last few weeks in doing that, but we still have a long ways to go.

QUESTION: There is, of course, the concern that Russia and China are filling that gap, and some are calling it a war of influence. Is the COVID vaccination a feature of rivalry with Russia and China?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, we’re certainly seeing countries engage in so-called vaccine diplomacy. Look, on one level, the single-most-important thing for all of us as human beings is to make sure that vaccines are out there, that they’re safe, that they’re effective, that they’re distributed, and ultimately, shots wind up in arms and people are safe. And of course, we’re in a bit of a race precisely because of these mutations. As we see variants develop that may be somewhat more resistant to vaccines or at least vaccines may be less effective, it’s imperative that we get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we can so that we cut that off, we stop it. But for sure, countries are engaging in (inaudible).

QUESTION: I suppose a bit of a race with China as well, given your extreme competition.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, with regard to China, one of the most important things going forward is that we get full transparency, full information sharing, a full understanding of how this virus emerged in the first place for purposes of making sure that we can prevent the next one from hitting us.

We’ve seen the devastating impact that COVID has had. We don’t need this to be repeated. And the way we prevent it from being repeated is to make sure we have a better overall global health security system in place to spot pandemics before they fully emerge and to take the necessary steps, and that requires a few things: It requires countries to be transparent; it requires them to share information; it requires them to give access to international experts at the beginning of an outbreak – things that, unfortunately, we haven’t seen from China.

My hope is going forward that China becomes a full participant in these efforts to make sure that we can prevent the next pandemic even as we’re dealing with the current one.

QUESTION: The President, as you say, has laid out a pretty forward-approaching message on both Russia and China. But is the G7 united on this?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Oh, I think – look, I think we – I think we are. And I think what I heard today in the G7 meeting was a tremendous sense of common purpose, a real sense of unity, and frankly, a real pleasure that the United States was back and fully at the table. And we have a lot of common challenges. We have challenges internally to our own democracies that we have to contend with, and obviously, the United States is not immune to that. But we also have challenges coming from outside our democracies that are targeting those democracies, and they’re coming in different ways, from China, from Russia. And I think what I heard today was a strong desire and strong incentive to work together.

QUESTION: Last week, the BBC World News was banned in China for our report on the sexual abuse of Uyghur women in the re-education camps. You said that you plan on holding Beijing accountable for its abuses, but we’ve obviously heard that from other administrations. What will that actually look like in practice in your State Department?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first with regard to the BBC, we very much condemn the action that China took. And it is a striking thing to see China have one of the least open information spaces in the world; and yet, of course, it takes advantage of the fact that many of our countries have fully free and open information spaces, and China uses that to spread misinformation and propaganda. That lack of reciprocity, I think, ultimately is unsustainable, and it requires countries coming together to stand up for free and open information space. And we’re looking at ways to do that more effectively.

But at the same time, the bottom line is that the biggest losers in all of this are the Chinese people. They want free and open sharing of information. That’s being denied to them by their own government.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you’ve also said that you consider what’s happening to the Uyghurs as genocide. Some are saying in light of this that there should be a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games. Is this something that you’re considering?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Across all these issues we will be consulting very closely with our partners, with our fellow democracies, and of course, here at home with our Congress and other interested stakeholders. We’ll come to that question at the appropriate time, but the main thing is across all of these issues it’s really important that we consult closely and we work closely together with like-minded countries and our partners.

QUESTION: But the Olympic – the boycott of the Olympics is not off the table?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Again, that’s something we’ll come to at the right time in the right moment. But the most important thing as we approach it and as we approach any other issue is that we’re doing it in close consultation with other countries and our partners.

QUESTION: Let’s discuss Iran, Mr. Secretary. You’ve been speaking to European foreign ministers on rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. Can you clarify what has been agreed with your European partners?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think what’s striking about the conversations with our European partners is that we’re once again on the same page; we’re not working at cross-purposes. And that in and of itself is very important. We share the same objectives.

President Biden has been clear for some time that if Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement, the United States would do the same thing. But then we would work with our partners both to lengthen and strengthen the agreement and to confront other issues, other challenges posed by Iran, including its destabilizing activities in the region, its ballistic missile program, that need to be addressed.

And what I found from my conversations with the European 3, as they’re called, is that we’re exactly on the same page. We now have an invitation from the European Union to have an informal meeting of the so-called Joint Commission of the Iran nuclear agreement. So the United States, the European partners, Russia, China, and Iran have all been invited, and we intend to be there. That, if it happens, would be the opening steps on a diplomatic path to seeing if we can resolve this issue. The —

QUESTION: The New York Times is reporting that you’re taking limited steps to let up pressure on Iran to get them to the table. How do you respond to criticism that these are upfront concessions?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: There are no upfront concessions. What we have is this: We have a policy in recent years of so-called maximum pressure on Iran that has not produced results. In fact, the problem has gotten worse. Iran is now much closer to being able to produce on short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. That so-called breakout time had been pushed past one year by the nuclear agreement. It’s now down, based on published reports, to just a few months. And meanwhile, Iran has been not standing down but acting up in the region with various destabilizing actions, attacks on our own forces in Iraq and elsewhere, on our partners.

And so the problem has gotten worse, not better. And President Biden believes strongly that strong, principled diplomacy is the best way to try to deal with these issues, to put the nuclear problem back in the box and to push back on Iran in other areas.

QUESTION: But I suppose the question is: Why will Iran agree to more restrictions after you’ve given up your leverage?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Oh, I don’t – we haven’t given up our leverage at all. As you know, all of the sanctions remain in place. In fact, our leverage has now increased because we’re now, once again, on the same page with our European partners. Because they very much disagreed with the United States pulling out of the nuclear agreement, they were expending most of their energy on trying to keep the agreement alive, not in exerting pressure on Iran for some of the other egregious actions that it takes in the region and beyond. We’re now all in the same place and we’re united in purpose, and that’s a very powerful thing.

QUESTION: You spoke to President Ghani this week and reiterated America’s commitment to the peace process. The U.S. Treasury Department said last month that al-Qaida influence is growing in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban. Isn’t this just a clear breach of the Doha agreement?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yalda, we’re in the midst of a very rigorous review of the policy toward Afghanistan, and in particular we needed to review carefully the agreements that had been reached between the United States and the Taliban and then the work that we had done with the Government of Afghanistan. And all of that work is ongoing, but what we do know already and the initial conclusion we’ve come to is that it’s vitally important for us and others to press the parties to make good on the commitments that they’ve already made. And when it comes to the Taliban, they’ve made clear commitments to disassociate themselves from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, not support them in any way, as well as to engage meaningfully —

QUESTION: And I suppose – but the Treasury’s saying that they continue to allow al-Qaida and protect them to remain in the country.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, we’re taking a very hard look at that right now, and as I’ve said, I think the most effective thing and necessary thing that we can do now along with partners in the region, including neighbors, is to press the parties, starting with the Taliban, to make good on commitments that they’ve made, including the commitments they’ve made under the U.S.-Taliban agreement.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, we know that the world is a complex place, but often it’s a simple phrase that sums up a strategy, so whether that’s containment, the war on terror, or “America First.” So I suppose my question is: What is your foreign policy bumper sticker? What are the words we should think of when it comes to American foreign policy under President Biden?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I don’t think there’s a simple bumper sticker. To some extent, Yalda, the problems are too complex to be summarized or simplified in a slogan. Having said that, look, I think the President believes in a few very fundamental principles. And maybe you can’t confine them to a bumper sticker, but it is American engagement and American leadership, it is cooperation, and it is democracy at the foundation of our own country and the partnerships that we have around the world. And when you put those things together – American engagement and leadership, trying to build stronger cooperation to tackle the issues that actually affect our people’s lives, and working closely with fellow democracies – I think you have the makings of an effective foreign policy.

QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, I’m told I have to let you go, but I’m just going to squeeze in one question about Myanmar before I do that. The administration has called on the military in Myanmar to immediately restore power to the democratically elected government. The administration has also imposed sanctions, but the generals just don’t seem to be listening. Has American influence in Myanmar waned to the point where no matter what you say or do, it’s unlikely to make a difference?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: What we saw in Myanmar was a tragic step back to what had been a historic democratic transition, and of course that was a transition that brought its own challenges, including the egregious treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. But the democratic transition itself was a very positive development in the world, and that’s been interrupted by the military coup. That coup triggered sanctions from the United States, very targeted and focused on the perpetrators of the coup and companies that support them. We’ve been working overtime to work with other countries to condemn the actions of the military, to call on it to restore power to the democratically elected government, to release political prisoners from jail, and certainly not to use violence against those standing up for their democratic rights.

And we’ll see where that goes, but pressure takes time to be felt, to be exerted, and my hope is that as more and more countries come together in making clear that this is not acceptable, we will see a change from the military. But the hard reality is that democratic transition has been interrupted against the will of the people of Myanmar, and the international community needs to speak clearly with one voice that that’s not acceptable.

QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, thank you so much for your time.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Great to be with you. Thanks, Yalda.

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