UNITED States Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken at a press availability in Bangkok, Thailand spoke about US on Covid-19. In the transcript made available to Foreign Press Centers members, Blinken also spoke about many other issues. Sadiq Yishau reports that the Secretary of State gave details about US-Thailand relations and its no-strungs-attached assistance to Asian countries as well as the fertiliser crisis induced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Excerpts:
It is wonderful to be back in Thailand. We had a trip that was planned a few months ago that was delayed because of COVID, so I’m finally glad to make it here. And I was reflecting, in conversation with the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don that the first time I was here was actually in 1980, so 42 years ago.
As I said at the signing that we had earlier today of the Memorandum of Understanding with the Deputy Prime Minister, the strength of the relationship between our countries lies in how we are constantly evolving to try to meet the needs of our people and to try and address the challenges we face.
We’re working together to revitalise our economies, a central topic in my meetings with the Prime Minister and with the Deputy Prime Minister. We share the same goal of not just driving growth, but trying to ensure that it creates opportunities for all our people.
We’re doing this together, bilaterally. The United States is Thailand’s largest export market and third largest investor, and through new efforts like the ones we launched today to shore up our supply chains, we’re going to be making our economies even more secure.
We’re doing it regionally, through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. As a founding partner, Thailand is taking a leading role in shaping that framework to position our workers, our businesses, our governments to lead in areas that are critical to our shared prosperity, like clean energy, like the digital trade. And we very much appreciate Thailand’s leadership of APEC this year; we look forward to building on that success when the United States takes over as host next year.
We also had candid discussions today on democracy and human rights – core values that we share. One of democracy’s unique strengths is the ability to acknowledge our flaws and work to address them. This spirit is reflected in the Communiqué on Strategic Alliance and Partnership that we signed today, which reaffirms our commitment to helping one another live up to the principles of free and open societies, such as an independent civil society and free and fair elections.
We’re also deepening what has been decades-long cooperation in public health. Thailand is a crucial partner in the COVID-19 Global Action Plan that we established to try to end the acute phase of this pandemic and leave the world better prepared to prevent, detect, and respond to future emergencies.
We’ve donated more than 2.5 million doses of safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines to Thailand – free of charge, no political strings attached – while USAID has provided significant assistance to communities that are facing the highest risks.
Our two countries partner in responding to regional challenges and regional crises. The United States is working with Thailand, and all of ASEAN, to push Burma’s regime to fulfill the five-point consensus, end its brutal violence, and put Burma back on the path to democracy.
This morning I actually had an opportunity to meet with some young leaders from Burma, who are committed as ever to building a democratic future. More than 91,000 displaced people from Burma are currently in Thailand, part of the nation’s proud tradition of welcoming refugees.
For decades the United States has provided support for those efforts here in Thailand, including $45 million in humanitarian assistance this year alone.
Finally, we’re deepening the bonds, the connections between our peoples.
Today I met with some Thai alumni from the Fulbright Program, the International Visitor Leadership Program, and the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. More than 5,000 Thais have participated in these programs over the years. They’ve been enriched by their interaction with Americans, just as Americans have benefited from their engagement with Thai students, scholars, innovators, and leaders.
Few people in history have done more to foster these ties than the great diplomat, Thanat Khoman. Among his many contributions, he pushed for Thailand to become one of the first countries to host Peace Corps volunteers from the United States. And when he was asked why, he said, “It is well that governments should come into contact with one another, but it is even more important for people to come into contact with one another, to have first-hand knowledge, first-hand experience, and also first-hand ideas about what we should do in this world to keep peace and develop friendly relations.”
So I’m grateful that, all these years later, that we continue to find new ways to bring our governments together but, more important even, to bring our people together to the benefit of all of us.
So I want to thank the government and people of Thailand for hosting us so warmly today, on a Sunday.
I think it’s unfortunately safe to say that we’ve seen no positive movement. And on the contrary, we continue to see the repression of the Burmese people. We continue to see violence perpetrated on them by the regime. We continue to see virtually the entire opposition in jail or in exile. And we continue to see a terrible humanitarian situation, exacerbated by the fact that the regime is not delivering what’s necessary for the people. And that’s also putting real pressure on Thailand as people flee from the violence, from the repression, in Burma.
On that note, I should say that we very much appreciate what Thailand has done to try to facilitate cross-border assistance, to try to expand cooperation on, for example, getting COVID-19 vaccines to people in Burma and to those displaced. I think there’s even more that we can do to make sure that humanitarian organizations have access to people along the border to make sure they’re getting the assistance they need.
But look, at this point I think a few things. One, all countries have to continue to speak clearly about what the regime is doing in its ongoing repression and brutality. We have an obligation to the people of Burma to hold the regime accountable. Regional support for the regime’s adherence to the five-point consensus developed by ASEAN is also critical. That has not happened, and I think all the ASEAN countries need to hold the regime accountable for that, to continue to demand an immediate cessation of violence, the release of political prisoners, and a restoration of Burma’s democratic path.
But to date, we have not seen positive movement in that direction. We will continue to look for ways that we can – and other countries can effectively put pressure on the regime to move back to the democratic path, and we’re doing that on a regular basis. That was part of the conversation that we had today.
I can’t speak directly to what China is or isn’t doing in Burma, but I think it’s also incumbent upon China, and in China’s interests, to see Burma move back to the path that it was on and it was so violently disrupted from by the coup.
I think this is something that we’re deeply focused on, even as we’re spending, of course, a lot of time on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. We haven’t lost sight of Burma, we haven’t lost sight of its people. I had an opportunity today to sit down with some remarkable young people from Burma to talk about what they see as its democratic future, and we are working with young people, we’re working with the National Unity Government, we’re working with other genuine representatives of the Burmese people, and we’ll continue to do that, including supporting the work of the NUG.
President Biden at APEC meeting
Well, we very much look forward to participating in the APEC Summit and, as I mentioned, we’ll also be taking the APEC baton next year. So we are – we spent some time talking to our friends here in Thailand about their leadership of APEC, what lessons we can learn as we take the baton. I can’t speak yet to who will be participating, but the United States will very much be present.
Sri Lankan crisis
With regard to Sri Lanka more broadly, this is something that we’re closely following. We’re looking at the political developments. We’ve seen now thousands of people of all backgrounds taking to the streets, looking for accountability, looking for transparency, looking for a better future.
I would note that the prime minister announced that he will step down when all parties agree to form a new government. We’ve also seen reports from the Sri Lankan parliament, the speaker, who said the president intends to step down on July 13th. We’re tracking all of that.
By the way, we would urge the Sri Lankan parliament to approach this with a commitment to the betterment of the country, not any one political party.
And then it’s incumbent on the government, whether it’s a new, constitutionally-selected government, the existing government, to work quickly to try to identify and implement solutions that will bring back the prospect of long-term economic stability, address the Sri Lankan people’s discontent, which is so powerful and palpable, over the worsening economic conditions, including power, including food – and I’ll come back to that in a minute – including fuel shortages.
At the same time, as we’re seeing this unfold, we condemn any violence against peaceful protestors and journalists. The Sri Lankan people have a right to peacefully raise their voices. At the same time, we call for a full investigation, arrest, prosecution of anyone involved in any protest-related violence and incidents of violence.
You asked about the impact of the Russian aggression in Ukraine on food insecurity and the impact, potentially, on Sir Lanka. Well, I think we are seeing that impact around the world, and it may be one of the contributing factors to what’s happened in Sri Lanka, although I think there were, as I’ve just said, many others that have come together.
But what we are seeing around the world is growing food insecurity that has been significantly exacerbated by the Russian aggression against Ukraine. And as we’ve had opportunity to discuss in recent days, there are more than 20 million tons of grain that are sitting in silos in Ukraine that can’t get out, can’t get out to feed people around the world because Russia is blockading Ukraine’s ports in Odessa, the Black Sea.
We have a fertiliser crisis that is having a real impact here in Thailand, a fertiliser shortage, prices that have gone sky-high. That is very significant, especially in a farming country, a vibrant farming country like Thailand, because in the absence of fertilizer, we know that means that next year yields will go down, prices potentially will go up. That’s one of the reasons that President Biden dedicated half a billion dollars a few weeks ago to incentivizing more production of fertiliser in the United States that we can share with the world.
So we’re seeing the impact of this Russian aggression play out everywhere. It, again, may have contributed to the situation in Sri Lanka. We’re concerned about the implications that it has around the world. We’re working very hard to address those implications, including by putting significant resources into addressing humanitarian needs from food insecurity right now, as well as investing in longer-term production and sustainability, so that countries have the wherewithal to produce the food that they need over time.
And then, with regard to President Xi and President Biden, our expectation is that they will have an opportunity to speak in the weeks ahead, and I can’t talk to what may happen in the fall.
U.S. Government role in Asia-Pacific
We have a commitment to and a vision of – that I think is shared with many other countries – of this region and its future, one that is free, one that is open, one that is secure. And that means, among other things, that people, products, investment can move about freely and go where it’s needed. It means that countries can make their own decisions about their own futures, their own policies, free from coercion by anyone else. It means that people in those countries can live freely, speak freely, and aspire to an even better life in the future. That is the future that we’re trying to build.
And we’re doing that in a variety of ways. We’re doing that by working, for example, very closely with ASEAN as well as within APEC. We’re doing that through some new initiatives that we’ve launched, including the so-called Quad that involves India, that involves Japan, that involves Australia, where, among other things, we’ve come together to be able to produce and distribute many, many vaccines to deal with COVID-19. We’re doing that through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that tries to address the most important factors of the 21st century economy in ways that affect the lives of citizens in all of our countries; the digital economy, which is increasingly important; secure supply chains; the rules that surround the use of technology, to make sure that technology is used in a way that protects privacy and advances freedom, not uses a tool of repression; to make sure that governance is effective and devoid of corruption. All of those things are part of our vision.
And the last thing I’ll say is that this is not about demanding or insisting that countries choose; it’s about giving them a choice. And that’s what we’re focused on.