NEWS

Department Press Briefing – September 5, 2023


1:15 p.m. EDT

MR PATEL: Good afternoon.

QUESTION: Hey.

MR PATEL: How’s everyone doing? The flags are really close. I don’t have anything off the top today, Matt, so if you would like to start us off.

QUESTION: I don’t really have anything off the top that I expect that you’re going to be able to answer, so – but I do know that there’s a lot of interest in this idea that Kim Jong-un and President Putin are going to be meeting. What do you know, if anything, about that?

MR PATEL: So I would say a couple things to that, Matt. First, we have warned publicly for some time now that arms negotiations between Russia and the DPRK are actively advancing. As you all know, some of you reported that last month Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, traveled to the DPRK to try and convince Pyongyang to sell artillery ammunition to Russia. And we have information that Kim Jong-un expects these discussions to continue, to include leader-level diplomatic engagement in Russia. We urge the DPRK to cease its arms negotiations with Russia and to abide by the public commitment that Pyongyang has made to not provide or sell arms to Russia.

I will also just note that Russia has been forced to search desperately around the world for weapons it can use in its war in Ukraine because of our sanctions and export controls and the effects that those have had, which has made it harder for them to get material that they need. You’ve seen this with their attempts at a security relationship with the DPRK and the deepening relationships with the Iranian regime and their provision of drones that we’ve talked a great deal about as well.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR PATEL: All right.

QUESTION: Could I just press on that a little bit?

MR PATEL: Sure.

QUESTION: In terms of the information that actually leads the U.S. to believe this – I mean, obviously, I’m sure you’re not going to – intelligence here, but the Kremlin, for example, isn’t actually confirming that this would take place, but the U.S. is reasonably confident that it expects this —

MR PATEL: I’m not going to get into more of the details from here, Shaun, as you said. But again, we have warned publicly about this before, and it’s, of course, something that continues to be concerning and we’re paying close attention to as it progresses.

QUESTION: In terms of consequences, I mean, obviously, there are heavy sanctions through the United States in both countries. Is that something that – are there any risks involved from the United States perspective if they go forward?

MR PATEL: Well, we have been incredibly clear about the potential consequences of any country taking action to support Russia further its illegal and unjust war of aggression in Ukraine. And you have seen us take action in a number of these instances. I’m not going to preview actions from up here, but of course we will calibrate appropriately with our allies and partners, including those in the region, and take appropriate steps as necessary.

Humeyra.

QUESTION: Can I go to Iran? We reported yesterday and there was a Wall Street Journal report in August as well Iran’s stock of uranium enriched to – up to 60 percent purity. I’m wondering if you guys have seen this report, whether you have any comment, and will repeat the question that I had at the time: whether there is any understanding with the Iranians that they’re going to be taking these steps.

MR PATEL: So first, we’ve seen those press reports about the rate of accumulation of uranium enriched – enriched up to 60 percent, but not going to comment on an IAEA report that has not been made public yet. I will also note, as you’ve heard us say before, that we’ve been clear that Iran’s production of uranium enriched up to 60 percent has no credible peaceful purpose. No other country in the world today utilizes uranium enriched to 60 percent for the purposes of its claim. I have no other updates on discussions or talks on the nuclear issue with the Iranian regime, and so would leave it to when we spoke about this a number of weeks ago.

QUESTION: Have you been in touch with IAEA about this? And do you have any reason to believe that that report is not authentic?

MR PATEL: I’m just not going to comment on a report that is not public yet. But I will say that we have the full confidence in the IAEA and Director General Grossi, and, of course, they are a body in which we communicate with quite regularly. I’m certainly not going to speak to specifics of this case. Thanks so much.

Michel.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have a couple of questions.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: First, the report said that the U.S., UK, and EU are pressing UAE to halt shipments of goods to Russia that could help with war in Ukraine, including computer chips. Can you confirm that? And is there any U.S. official in the UAE at this time?

MR PATEL: So I don’t have a specific delegation list for you, Michel, but senior officials from the EU, the UK, and the U.S. are visiting the UAE this week to discuss the effective implementation of our sanctions in close coordination with our Emirati partners. This is part of our broader diplomatic engagement with a range of partner countries to discuss how collectively we can continue to hold the Russian Federation accountable for its war of aggression in Ukraine. But I don’t have any other specifics or updates on the talks to share at this time.

QUESTION: And what is your – what is your main concern?

MR PATEL: Again, this is, Michel, just a broader diplomatic engagement to discuss these issues with our partner countries, this issue and others, and so I’m not going to get ahead of that.

QUESTION: One on Saudi Arabia.

MR PATEL: Sure.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf is in Saudi Arabia with Brett McGurk to discuss the normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel?

MR PATEL: So Deputy Assistant to the President and NSC Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk will be in Saudi Arabia for routine consultations on a range of regional and bilateral matters. He is joined by Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf as well as Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking. This was a long-scheduled visit. Brett will also be stopping by to see the leadership of Bahrain before the visit to the Crown Prince to Washington next week as well. So again, as I said, this was a long-scheduled visit on a multiplicity of issues that – at the nexus of our bilateral and regional matters.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Patel. Two detailed question, one quick one.

MR PATEL: Okay. Let’s maybe do one question and then we’ll try and come back to you as I work the room. Go ahead, though.

QUESTION: Okay. So I hope you’re aware that now Imran Khan, the reason why he’s in jail is because of the case related to the cypher, so to the State Department. Has Congress asked State Department to do any investigation or anything with regard to this whole cypher scenario, or no, there is nothing?

MR PATEL: So we consult with our congressional partners on a number of issues. I’m certainly not going to speak to something like that to specificity. Again, though, as you’ve heard us talk about, we are continuing to monitor this case and monitor the situation closely.

QUESTION: Okay. One more thing. Yesterday, I had my first video log with this journalist from London, Adil Raja, and he raised a question about Pakistani Americans having their visas to their original motherland country being rejected. And has the State Department been approached by their – again, by – is the State Department is aware of this thing or has anybody approached the State Department with regard to this —

MR PATEL: I’m not aware. This obviously would be – if there were to any – be any issues that arise in this area, certainly would be something for Pakistani consular officials to speak to and not anything as it relates to the State Department, so we’ll just leave it at that.

Olivia, go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I —

MR PATEL: I’m going to work the room a bit. I’ll try to come back with you, Jalil.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) State Department because it’s a personal thing, something on your team that I think you should be aware of.

MR PATEL: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: I did find out that one of the staff members of the colleague of your State Department got fired because of sexual harassment, and you guys fired him. And I do want to give you congratulations, because in countries where I’ve been reporting from, women are working very pathetic conditions, so congratulations on taking the move for firing the gentleman.

MR PATEL: I’m not totally aware of the circumstance that you’re referring to, so I’m going to move on to Olivia, who’s had her hand up. Thank you.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Vedant. I have two separate questions for you too.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Back on North Korea.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: So as the U.S. is considering what steps it may take in response to this potential provision of aid to Russia, are there any updates on the well-being and whereabouts of Travis King? And does his case have any bearing on the U.S. response potentially here?

MR PATEL: So I unfortunately have no updates for you since when I last spoke about this a number of weeks ago. Our goal, our desire continues to be to try and ascertain as much information as possibly about Private King. That continues to be the case and have no updates on this matter since when we last spoke about it.

These issues are not related. I think first and foremost, as – in the matter of Private King, we’re just trying to get as much information as we can as it relates to this servicemember. But aside, there is – of course, continues to be this incredibly concerning deepening of relations between the Russians and the DPRK, specifically in the security nexus, and that’s of course something that we’re going to continue to pay close attention to and take appropriate steps as needed.

QUESTION: On separate matter but still involving American detainees.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Has the State Department had any additional contact with the Americans who were transferred to house arrest in Iran? Is there any update on their eventual transfer to the United States?

MR PATEL: So those five individuals, they remain on house arrest. We continue to monitor their health and welfare closely with the assistance of our Swiss partners. This is an ongoing process. The move to house arrest, of course, is a positive step, but we’re going to continue to work and do everything we can and won’t rest until the individuals are back in the United States, reunited with their families. But I don’t have any other updates for you on this at the moment.

QUESTION: You’ve been assured that their well-being is okay?

MR PATEL: We’re continuing to remain in close touch with our Swiss partners, which, of course – our protecting power in Iran, but no updates beyond that.

QUESTION: If I may just squeeze in one more –

MR PATEL: Sure.

QUESTION: Just because there was a Swedish citizen detained by the Iranian regime, and I’m just wondering if that individual’s detention has any bearing on the Americans’ cases.

MR PATEL: What I would just say, Olivia, is that I would widen the aperture a little bit. Of course the Iranian regime has a track record of wrongfully detaining individuals and nationals from a variety of countries. I am not aware of the specifics of this case. I have no reason to assume that it has any bearing on the circumstances regarding these five Americans.

We of course remain in close touch with our Swiss partners and are so thankful for their partnership and their – the role that they’ve been able to play in this circumstance. And we’ll just continue to monitor and assess the situation as it progresses.

Alex, go ahead.

QUESTION: Welcome back.

MR PATEL: Thanks.

QUESTION: A couple questions before I move on. Can you please expand a little bit on what you told Shaun and Matt about North Korea and Russia? What should we be bracing ourselves for if this – if this goes through? Are there weapons that could actually impact the course of the war? And secondly, in terms of accountability, you’re talking about a UN Security Council member. Are you trying to take any action within the UN if Russia goes with this plan?

MR PATEL: So first, let me just say we have not hesitated to take any actions against entities who have taken steps to support Russia’s unjust and unlawful war of aggression in Ukraine. And the best example that I would offer you that there is a very clear recent track record of is the provision of drones to Russia from Iran. We of course have taken multiple steps to continue to hold not just the Russian Federation but the Iranian regime accountable for this kind of relationship. And as I said to Shaun, I’m certainly not going to preview actions from up here, but of course we will continue to monitor and watch this space very closely and take appropriate steps to support our Ukrainian partners as we need.

As it relates to the specifics of the security relationship, I am just not going to speak to that, Alex. It’s something that we also are continuing to pay close attention to, and we’ll have more as the situation progresses.

QUESTION: Thank you. Separately, do you have any reaction to Putin’s today’s claims targeting President Zelenskyy and the West? I don’t want to dignify everything he said, but basically he was talking about the West installing Zelenskyy to cover up Ukrainian actions.

MR PATEL: Well, President Zelenskyy was elected to his role in Ukraine in the previous administration, if you’re looking at the calendar correctly. So it’s – again, to not dignify the – many of the false accusations coming out of the Russian Federation, it’s hard to even make sense of that false claim.

So, Julia, you had your hand up.

QUESTION: Yes.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Well, first, quickly, does the State Department have a comment on Zelenskyy replacing his defense minister?

MR PATEL: So this is – this is a decision for Ukraine, and it’s a perfect segue from Alex’s question – a decision for Ukraine and its democratically elected leadership to undertake. We have a strong and deep partnership with our Ukrainian partners, and we will continue to stand with Ukraine. It’s of course up to President Zelenskyy and his government to make his own personnel decisions.

QUESTION: Then if I could get your response to a recent report that Chinese nationals sometimes presenting themselves as tourists have attempted or accessed military bases and other sensitive sites as many a hundred times in recent years, and U.S. officials calling those potential espionage threats. How does that affect diplomatic relations with China, with the fact that a hundred times they’ve accessed sensitive sites in the U.S.?

MR PATEL: So first, we’ve seen those reports, and we of course are incredibly concerned by them. And of course, our colleagues at the Pentagons and the Department of Defense can speak to any specific comments or questions. But I think collectively across the interagency, the security of our installations remains a top priority, and physical security standards of our installations take in a wide variety of potential threats. But again, I will let our Pentagon colleagues speak to this in more specificity.

Yeah, go ahead. I can come back to you, Julia, after. Go ahead, yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you for that, Vedant. Appreciate it.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: I was just wondering if you could confirm that Acting Special Envoy for Iran Abram Paley did in fact speak with the son of Shahab Dalili, I guess two weeks ago, and he told him that there was no progress, that his father was still not deemed wrongfully in prison.

MR PATEL: So that is accurate. Abram had the opportunity to speak with members of the Dalili family. Again, would reiterate what we’ve said previously – that he has not been determined to be wrongfully detained – but yes, we’ve been in touch with the family and we will continue to remain in touch with them, as we would in any consular situation like this.

QUESTION: Just to be clear —

MR PATEL: Yes.

QUESTION: Is that something you’re still looking into, whether to deem him wrongfully —

MR PATEL: I am just not going to speak to the specificity of these cases. What I will say broadly is that of course in any circumstance when an American citizen is detained or an American national is detained in this circumstance, we are – of course assess the situation for indicators that would be consistent with a wrongful detention designation. That work is always ongoing, and when we have updates to share as it relates to someone’s status, we of course will share those.

Diyar, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. A few questions about Iraq. The first: What’s your comment about the recent events in Kirkuk, which is disputed area in Iraq? There were protesting between the Kurds and Arabists. Four protesters were killed and dozens were wounded and arrested. What’s your comment on that, and what is the U.S. view about the current tension between Kurds and Arabists in Kirkuk?

MR PATEL: So we’re closely monitoring the tensions in Kirkuk. We condemn the violence that took place and express our condolences to the families of those killed. The U.S. calls on all parties to resolve any disputes through dialogue and through the activation of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.

QUESTION: One more question between – the disputes between Baghdad and Erbil over the budget and also revenue sharing. There are still the Baghdad refuse to disburse the KRG shares, and the KRG accusing Baghdad that they are – they have an intention to fuel the current financial crisis in KRG just to have some to get more gains, strategic gains in the Kurdistan region. Have you any engagement with both Baghdad and Erbil on this?

MR PATEL: We of course engage regularly with partners in Baghdad and Erbil, and I will let our missions in both of those cities speak to this engagement with any more specificity.

Nick.

QUESTION: Sorry if I missed this earlier, but —

MR PATEL: No, you’re good.

QUESTION: The Cuban Government says it disrupted a scheme aimed at recruiting Cuban citizens to fight in Ukraine. The Cuban foreign minister called the plan last night a human trafficking ring. Are you aware of these reports? Do you have any comment on them?

MR PATEL: So we’re aware of these reports and we’re currently just trying to assess some additional information. I don’t have anything to offer on the veracity or any of the information offered in that statement, but we are continuing to look into it.

Shannon, go ahead. I’ll come – on this, Kylie?

QUESTION: Yeah, just —

MR PATEL: I’ll come to you right after.

QUESTION: I’m just wondering if you have guys had been tracking that Russia has been carrying out such human trafficking efforts in multiple places around the world, or if this is the first that you guys are hearing of any possible effort like this?

MR PATEL: Well, Kylie, there has – there is of course a reported track record of the Russian Federation having citizens specifically from Ukraine participate in forced relocation efforts, so certainly this kind of activity would not be new.

Specifically as it relates to Nick’s question though, we’re still looking into those reports and trying to get additional information. And in – additional circumstances I just don’t have more specificity to offer from up here.

Shannon, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’d like to ask about Travis Leake, the American detained in Russia. He was in court the other day and he said that Russians are starving him while he’s in prison. Now, the NSC says the State Department has had some consular access to him. I was just wondering if you can give an update on if that is in fact the case, that he’s not getting adequate nutrition. And also, is there any updates on whether he is considered a wrongfully detained American or where that evaluation process is?

MR PATEL: So we are monitoring the ongoing detention of Michael Travis Leake in Moscow. We are continuing to seek consular access to Mr. Leake and continue to insist that the Russian Federation allow consistent, timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees consistent with the consular conventions that we have in place.

Embassy officials have the – attended his arraignment on June 10th as well as hearings on August 3rd and 21st and are closely monitoring the developments, including the recent hearing yesterday. We’re remaining in close touch with his family and we’ll continue to monitor his case.

As it relates to any update and designation, as I said to the earlier question, in cases, broadly, we review the circumstances surrounding the detentions of all U.S. nationals overseas, including those in Russia, for indicators that that they could be wrongful.

QUESTION: Just one quick follow-up.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: On consular access, can you say when you last were able to obtain that in this case?

MR PATEL: So that’s what I’m saying: We are continuing to seek consular access for Mr. Leake. That has —

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR PATEL: Correct. We have not been granted consular access to Mr. Leake yet.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: President Erdogan and Putin met in Sochi yesterday, and it seems like Russia has demands including a return of agricultural bank to the SWIFT payment system and insuring the ships involved in the grain initiative. Any comments on Russian demands?

MR PATEL: So Russia’s decision to terminate its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, it hurts communities vulnerable to food insecurity around the world. And we welcome the efforts of our Turkish partners, including President Erdogan, to try and convince Russia to return to the deal. And we are continuing to engage with the UN and Türkiye, both of which have worked very hard to make the BSGI possible, previously, and functional. We also thank our NATO Ally Türkiye for its important role in the efforts to try and get the Black Sea Grain Initiative back on track.

QUESTION: Follow-up on that?

MR PATEL: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: So, Vedant, can you confirm the reports that the U.S. is proposing the Danube River route as an alternative to the Black Sea grain corridor? And if so, have you evaluated the risks it may carry, including the risks of further military escalations there? Like, how are you planning to protect those ships from Russian attacks?

MR PATEL: So thanks for your question. I spoke a little bit about this a number of weeks ago. The one thing that I can say clearly is that it is our goal and our hope that Russia re-enters the Black Sea Grain Initiative so grain and food product can get to the places that it needs to go. We of course are continuing to assess and look at what other options are available to make sure that the flow of food product can get to the places that it needs to go. I don’t have any announcement to offer, and I certainly am not going to read into deliberative processes that are ongoing. But again, we of course want Ukrainian grain to get to the markets that it needs to get to. We think that’s incredibly important because we saw the Black Sea Grain Initiative have a track record of success of getting a food product where it was needed.

QUESTION: Can I have a quick one on Niger?

MR PATEL: Let me come back in case there’s anything else on —

QUESTION: One more on Ukraine?

MR PATEL: Yeah, on Ukraine. Go ahead.

QUESTION: There are local reports in Ukraine right now that the Secretary is going to be visiting there. Do you have any announcement on his travel to make?

MR PATEL: I have no updates on any official travel from the department.

QUESTION: Okay. And then as Americans are, like, heading back to work and back to school, what is the department’s message to them about the status of the war in Ukraine right now and how long this is going to last? President Biden was elected promising that there wouldn’t be for-forever wars, and now this is going on on almost two years now. Just what is the message to the American people from the administration right now?

MR PATEL: What I would say, Kylie, is that I think the American people recognize the importance of ensuring that countries cannot act without[1] impunity, and what we have in this instance is Russia trying to totally subjugate and erase the borders of its neighbor. And you see the Russian Federation doing so with immense aggression and there continue to be immense follow-on impacts of Russia’s war in Ukraine. We just spent a couple of minutes talking about them – food prices. There are global impacts to the ability of Ukrainian grain being able to flow to the places that it needs to go. And that of course is something that’s going to affect kitchen tables all around the world, including in the United States.

QUESTION: Do you – does the administration believe that a peaceful resolution to the war is any closer now than it was, say, six months ago?

MR PATEL: I’m just not going to speculate or prognosticate on something like that, Kylie. The important thing is, for us, is to continue to stand with our Ukrainian partners as they endure this. I will note to anybody asking questions about things like a conclusion or a negotiation, is that the Ukrainians and President Zelenskyy have very clearly laid out a proposal for a just and durable peace and a conclusion to this war. President Putin and the Russian Federation have continuously not been interested in engaging in these kinds of discussions. And so what the United States is going to continue to do – is going to stand with our Ukrainian partners and ensure that they have the ability to defend themselves, defend their territorial integrity, and their sovereignty as well.

QUESTION: Can I quickly follow up on Ukraine grain deal?

MR PATEL: Sure.

QUESTION: Does yesterday’s meeting between President Erdogan and Vladimir Putin – does the U.S. – did you guys see that as progress?

MR PATEL: It’s hard to put an exact pinpoint on it, Humeyra, because ultimately the conclusion that we and our allies and partners want is re-entry into the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and I don’t think it is helpful for me or anybody to be up here offering play-by-plays on – as these diplomatic engagements progress. What I can say is that we want the Black Sea Grain Initiative to be up and running again. We know that it worked. And we also are incredibly thankful for the UN and our Turkish partners for the role that they played previously in getting this deal together and the role that they continue to play to try and convince Russia to re-enter.

QUESTION: And what did the U.S. think about President Erdogan’s suggestion that Ukraine soften its stance on that —

MR PATEL: I – again, I’m just not going to get into the specifics of the diplomatic engagements. What I will just say is that we know countries around the world, including our Turkish partners, recognize how important this deal is, and that’s why you see collectively us, the Turkish – our Turkish partners, the UN, and others working to try and get this deal back on.

Go ahead. Yeah.

QUESTION: Change of topic?

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: The Secretary today spoke both to Palestinian leader Abbas and Israeli leader Netanyahu, and the readouts from the State Department – the one about the Abbas call mentioned continued support for a two-state solution, but the one about the Netanyahu call did not. It omitted that terminology. And I just want to know if that’s now the policy, not even to talk about the two-state solution when communicating about Israel (inaudible)?

MR PATEL: There is – there has – there has been absolutely no change in policy when it comes to that region of the world. Our viewpoint continues to be that a negotiated two-state solution is the best path forward, something that we believe will help bring stability and further peace to the region. So I would not read too significantly into the discrepancy.

QUESTION: Do you know why it wasn’t included? Just —

MR PATEL: I don’t. I have no doubt that things like that are discussed quite regularly with our Israeli counterparts, and it’s something we speak about from up here quite regularly. So.

Shaun, go ahead.

QUESTION: Sure – also involves ships and wheat/grain, Russia.

MR PATEL: Fun.

QUESTION: South Africa.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: President Ramaphosa said that South Africa —

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: — launched an investigation into the allegations that the Lady R ship had carried weapons to Russia, said that there’s no evidence to that, for that. Does the U.S. have any reaction to this and whether it still backs the assertions made by the ambassador of what the ship was doing?

MR PATEL: So we appreciate the seriousness with which the panel of inquiry in South Africa undertook to investigate irregularities surrounding the Lady R’s presence in South Africa in December of 2022. We’ve been in some – in direct communication with the South African Government on this matter and will continue these bilateral conversations via diplomatic channels, and we appreciate President Ramaphosa’s commitment to investigating this matter and look forward to advancing our relationship with our South African partners on a number of shared priorities, including trade and health. But as it relates to the specific findings, Shaun, I will just let the South African panel speak to the specifics of that.

QUESTION: Sure. But does the United States still back the initial allegation that was made there, or does this clear it up at all? Does this – does the U.S. still stand by what the ambassador said previously?

MR PATEL: So I – no change in policy or anything like that. We had raised our concerns in December and had continued to raise our concerns about the presence of this vessel and certain irregularities around it. But again, we appreciate the seriousness that – which the South African Government has acted and taken this.

Alex, go ahead.

QUESTION: I want to move to South Caucasus, but before that, just want to make sure I understood your response to Humeyra correctly.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Does the administration believe that BSGI is revivable, or was President Erdogan shooting in the dark?

MR PATEL: We have no reason to think that diplomacy is not possible to getting some of these done. Again, Alex, I think it is deeply unhelpful to – for me to offer diplomatic play-by-plays from up here. So our viewpoint is that the Black Sea Grain Initiative was incredibly helpful; it was a good thing. It was a good thing to the tune of millions of metrics – of tons of grain getting to the ports and markets that it needed to get to. And we will continue to work with partners to try and get the Russian Federation to rejoin. But we are also continuing to work with allies and partners to assess what other options may be available to get grain to the places that it needs to go.

QUESTION: Thank you. On the South Caucasus —

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: — Armenia and Azerbaijan. Matt had a statement last week on the current state of play in the region and the current situation of the conflict. Has the situation been developing since the statement, or what is your observation? Is it worsening? And has there been any communication with the sides? I know that Armenian ambassador was in this building. Besides that, has there been any communication?

MR PATEL: So first, on the matters of communication, Alex, I will just say that this is something that we are going to remain deeply engaged on. I don’t have specific engagements to read out to you, but we are deeply concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh resulting from the continued blockage of food, medicine, and other essential goods. The U.S. has worked continuously with the sides over the past several weeks to allow humanitarian assistance to reach the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, and we reiterate our call to immediately reopen the Lachin corridor to humanitarian, commercial, and passenger traffic as well.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have one more on Georgia, if I may.

MR PATEL: Sure.

QUESTION: Georgian pro-Russian Government is now going after their own president who is trying to pursue European pathway, and they’re trying to impeach her. Does the U.S. have any comment on this?

MR PATEL: So we’ve been clear, as have the Georgian people, and we’ve been clear on what we’ve been seeing, which is that the Georgian people have been clear that they see their future with Europe and the European Union, and has given Georgia a clear roadmap to achieve a candidate status. And we urge the Georgian Government and all stakeholders to come together now and work towards that objective, especially to implement the reforms required to achieve EU candidate status, and the need of a unified Georgia has never been more urgent.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: One on Syria, Vedant.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Deputy Secretary Goldrich is still in Syria? And what was his message to the SDF and the tribal forces?

MR PATEL: So Deputy Assistant Secretary Goldrich and OIR Commander Major General Vowell met in northeast Syria with the SEF and the SDC and tribal leaders from Deir al-Zour. They agreed on the importance of addressing the grievances of the residents of Deir al-Zour, the dangers of outsiders interfering in Deir al-Zour, and the need to avoid civilian deaths and casualties, and the need for de-escalation of violence as soon as possible. Deputy Assistant Secretary Goldrich and Major General Vowell reiterated the importance of a strong U.S. partnership with the SDF in the D-ISIS efforts.

QUESTION: Is he still there?

MR PATEL: I don’t have any specifics – updates on his status. I believe so.

QUESTION: What was that line? You talked about the dangers of outsiders —

MR PATEL: Interfering with Deir al-Zour.

QUESTION: Okay. And outsiders you define as?

MR PATEL: People from outside of the region.

QUESTION: Oh, like the United States?

MR PATEL: That’s – I take your point, Matt. That’s not —

QUESTION: You do?

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: I don’t think you do because it’s not all outsiders that you’re opposed to, quote/unquote, “interfering.” And I’m not saying you are interfering, but I mean, you would admit that the United States is an outsider in northeast Syria, correct?

MR PATEL: Certainly, and I think that statement is —

QUESTION: Okay. All right. That’s all.

MR PATEL: What I am referring to, Matt, is outsiders not committed to the convergence and joint partnership as it relates to the degradation of D-ISIS efforts.

QUESTION: Okay, just – okay.

MR PATEL: Go ahead in the back.

QUESTION: What is the State Department’s view on China’s ban on Japanese seafood after the release of the treated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant? And do you think this can be classified as economic coercion from China?

MR PATEL: So I don’t have any specifics as it relates to that policy from the PRC. But what I will just say – and you saw the Secretary speak to this a little bit when he was down here – is that we are satisfied with Japan’s plans, which are safe and in accordance with international standards, including the IAEA nuclear safety standards. Japan has coordinated proactively with the IAEA on its plans, conducting a science-based and transparent process. We also understand that our Japanese partners have consulted scientists and partners from across the Indo-Pacific region on this matter.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Recently, China has released a new official map that lays claim to most of South China Sea and as well as contested parts of India. What’s your comment on this?

MR PATEL: We note that the PRC recently released national map has elicited a wave of protests from countries that reject the territorial and maritime claims depicted on it. With respect to the dashed lines in the South China Sea depicted on the new map, like many countries, we reject the unlawful maritime claims reflected on that map and call on the PRC to comport its maritime claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere with the International Law of the Sea, as reflected in the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea. China’s expansive and unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea were determined to be inconsistent with international law by a unanimous tribunal in the Philippines China arbitration brought under the dispute settlement provisions of the convention.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. So the Biden administration has articulated its commitment to partners in Southeast Asia, but several Southeast Asian leaders expressed disappointment that President Biden wouldn’t be attending the ASEAN summit. Do you have any comment on this?

MR PATEL: I would say that the administration and President Biden are committed to Southeast Asia and ASEAN. President Biden and Vice President Harris have visited six ASEAN member states, and the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Treasury, Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Secretary of Energy, the U.S. Trade Rep, Special Envoy Kerry have all visited the region. Many of those were travels related to ASEAN meetings.

The engagement with ASEAN and ASEAN member states enjoys strong bipartisan support. In the past year, 85 different members of both parties of Congress have visited ASEAN member states. It’s also very clear that the President is interested and invested in what is happening in the region broadly, as he recently hosted the Republic of Korea and Japan at Camp David for a trilateral summit. This is a region that we will continue to engage in deeply, and I know that the Vice President looks forward to attending and representing the United States.

QUESTION: Well, okay, just along those lines —

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: — do you have any comment on neither President Xi nor President Putin going to either one?

MR PATEL: To ASEAN or —

QUESTION: Or the G20.

MR PATEL: These are sovereign decisions for —

QUESTION: Or apparently the UNGA. And —

MR PATEL: These are decisions for countries and their leadership to make.

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But the question was raised that Southeast Asian leaders are apparently upset that President Biden is not going to the East Asia Summit. The Vice President is going. However, neither the Russian president nor the Chinese president are going to that, nor are they, either of them, going to the G20, nor are they going to the UN General Assembly. So I’m just wondering if you think the question – questions along these lines are little bit misplaced.

MR PATEL: Well, I think what is clear is that the United States has a pretty stellar track record of not just investment prioritization and engagement in Southeast Asia but also certain multilateral fora. And we look forward to continuing to conduct our foreign policy in that manner. And I will let the Russian Federation and the PRC speak to their own reasoning.

All right. Thanks, everybody.

QUESTION: Can I just one more —

MR PATEL: Oh, Shaun. And then we’ll wrap up.

QUESTION: Just war in Gabon.

MR PATEL: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Just the new – I’m sorry – the new military leader says that he’s committed to elections and releasing prisoners. Does the U.S. have any take on these promises? Do you see any positive inklings to this?

MR PATEL: Well, we’re, Shaun, concerned by the evolving events in Gabon and remain strongly opposed to military seizures or other unconstitutional transfers of power. And we urge those responsible to release and ensure the safety of members of the government and their families to preserve civilian rule. And we call on actors to show restraint and respect for human rights, to address their concerns peacefully through dialogue following the announcement of the election results.

You had your hand up. Why don’t you go and you – one more and then we can wrap.

QUESTION: Just had one quick follow-up.

MR PATEL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Would you say that President Biden’s decision to visit Hanoi instead of attending the ASEAN summit reflects a preference for bilateral meetings in Southeast Asia as opposed to larger summits?

MR PATEL: Absolutely not. As you just heard me say to Matt, the United States has a commitment to, of course, not just Southeast Asia but multilateral fora as well. You needn’t look further than the long litany of international travel that President Biden has undertook since coming into office, and I will just leave it at that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PATEL: Thank you, everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:56 p.m.)


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