Daily Press Briefing
Director, Press Office
Daily Press Briefing
May 26, 2015
Index for Today's Briefing
1:03 p.m. EDT
MR RATHKE: Hello. Good afternoon.
MR RATHKE: I have nothing for you at the top. (Laughter.) So – sorry for the dramatic pause. So, Matt, we'll --
QUESTION: Well, there's a surprise.
MR RATHKE: -- we'll go to you.
QUESTION: Nothing, huh? All right. Well, I'm going to let other people ask you about Ash Carter's comments, because I don't think you're going to say anything that we haven't heard from the White House already, so let me start with Israel. An Israeli official said over the weekend that Prime Minister Netanyahu had called Secretary Kerry on Friday, I believe, or Saturday, to express Israel's thanks for sticking to the U.S. commitment on the – as far as the NPT and the Mideast nuclear-free zone conference. Is that correct?
MR RATHKE: Well, they spoke, and that was one of the things they talked about. So with regard to the NPT Review Conference and the outcome, we remain unwavering in our support for the NPT. And they talked about the outcome, which I'm happy to get into in more detail. But I don't have further detail from the conversation itself to read out.
QUESTION: Do – well, that's unfortunate, because that would be the most interesting thing. This was the – just three days before, some unnamed Israeli officials had talked to a couple of reporters around town and complained bitterly that the U.S. is basically about to sell Israel out at this conference. The response to that from this podium and from the White House was that any suggestion like that was offensive. And I'm just wondering if you can find out, since you don't have anything more to read out, if this was part of the call in Secretary Kerry's conversation with President Netanyahu, whether the Secretary expressed disappointment or whatever with the original comments from Israeli officials about what the U.S. planned to do as it relates to the Mideast nuclear-free zone conference.
MR RATHKE: Well, if we – again, I'm happy to talk about the NPT Review Conference as an issue, but I don't think I'm going to have more detail to share from their conversation about those kinds of atmospherics.
QUESTION: All right. We'll just ask elsewhere.
QUESTION: Could I --
MR RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: -- just follow up on this, if it's all right with Matt, on this?
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Yeah. But you are not opposed in principle to having the Middle East be declared or be made nuclear-free zone, correct?
MR RATHKE: Well --
QUESTION: And including Israel? I mean, you would like to see a Middle East that has no nuclear weapons whatsoever?
MR RATHKE: So with respect to the draft document which was the conclusion document for the review conference --
MR RATHKE: -- we did not support the language in that draft which concerned a proposed conference for a weapon of mass destruction-free zone. We support holding a conference, but not on the term – not on terms that are unbalanced, or – and not on terms that would not allow for consensus-based discussions among all regional states.
QUESTION: So what is exactly the language that you oppose?
MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not going to get into --
QUESTION: Okay. Generally, what --
MR RATHKE: -- picking apart the language here. I think I've just said that --
QUESTION: What would be – I mean, what would sort of entice you to support a non-nuclear Middle East?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, I think as I said in my – in my previous answer, we support holding such a conference, but it has to be on terms that are balanced. And we would not support something that would not allow for consensus-based discussions.
QUESTION: And what would be the terms that are balanced, in your opinion?
MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not going to get into further deconstruction of that document, but again, it has to be balanced and have consensus-based discussions.
QUESTION: Can we stay on Israel for a minute?
MR RATHKE: We can, yeah.
QUESTION: The prime minister today – Prime Minister of Israel Netanyahu – suggested that the talks can be resumed provided that they agree on which settlements they can keep and which settlement they can expand. Have you heard of that? Are you aware of that proposal?
MR RATHKE: I haven't seen those specific reports, but go ahead. What's your question, Said?
QUESTION: My question is – I wanted to ask you: Was that something that he discussed with the Secretary of State when they spoke?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, these – I think what you're referring to are reports from the prime minister's meeting with a foreign official. I am not familiar with those – with the specifics of those reports, so – and I don't have anything from our contact with the parties to read out.
But go ahead, Ilhan.
QUESTION: On this?
MR RATHKE: Yeah, yes.
QUESTION: Do you support any talks between the two parties on settlements only, or resuming negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians to discuss the settlements and the borders of these settlements?
MR RATHKE: Well, as we've said for some time, we're looking for policies and actions, and I think our support, of course, for a two-state solution is clear. I'm not going to get into the modalities of that further, but we support direct negotiations between the parties that lead to a two-state solution. But beyond – beyond those details, I don't have more.
QUESTION: On Turkey?
MR RATHKE: Yes, go ahead, Ilhan.
QUESTION: A couple of questions. Over the weekend, New York Times editorial ran a piece called "Dark Clouds Over Turkey" and raised some concerns in the piece, especially fairness of the upcoming elections on June 7 since the government party – in the piece I am referring saying government party using all the state institutions. What is your reaction to these concerns?
MR RATHKE: Well, to which concern specifically?
QUESTION: Fairness of the elections, where the fairness of the election's in question right now.
MR RATHKE: Well, I think the article you're referring to was about freedom of speech in Turkey. We support freedom of expression, as we've talked about many times before, and we oppose actions to encroach upon the right of free speech because we believe an independent and an unfettered media is essential in democratic and open societies. So that's our point of view on that issue.
QUESTION: In the same piece also raised about the fairness. We know that the universal value fairness and freeness of the elections are important to you. Do you see only less than two weeks ahead of the elections in Turkey, do conditions seem to you fair?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think I've spoken about our concerns with regard to freedom of the media. I don't have – I don't have a comment to offer on Turkey's election.
QUESTION: I have one more.
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: About two months ago, Congressman Keating and some other leading congressmen sent a letter proposing dialogue with Turkey regarding the human rights issues. Does the U.S. Government agree with the notion of this letter that this such dialogue platform should be established regarding rule of law issues in Turkey?
MR RATHKE: Well, with respect to our response to letters of Congress, we don't generally publicize them. With – but your question about our discussions with the Turkish Government on these kinds of issues – we have ongoing discussions, including at high levels, with Turkey about – and with civil society representatives about these issues. So we address these in our diplomatic conversations.
Lesley, go ahead.
QUESTION: The Washington Post reporter has been held on trial behind closed doors. Has there been any kind of outreach from this building towards the Iranians about this trial? And were you notified that the trial was going to be held in secret?
MR RATHKE: So if I can say a word just more generally about --
QUESTION: Sure, go ahead.
MR RATHKE: -- about the trial to get into it. So we're aware of reports that U.S. citizen Jason Rezaian's trial has begun in Iran. We continue to monitor this as closely as possible, and we continue to call for all of the absurd charges to be dropped and for Jason Rezaian to be released immediately.
You asked about the closed nature of the trial.
MR RATHKE: It certainly adds to our concerns and it fits, unfortunately, into a pattern of a complete lack of transparency and the lack of due process that we've seen since Jason Rezaian was first detained. So while we call for his trial to be open, we also maintain that he should never have been detained or put on trial in the first place.
Now, you asked about contacts as well. We always raise the cases of detained and missing U.S. citizens with Iranian officials on the sidelines of the P5+1 talks and the other interactions that happen in that context, and we will continue to do that until all of them are home.
QUESTION: So anything specifically today that --
MR RATHKE: I don't have anything specific today to read out on that.
QUESTION: Can I ask a couple questions on this?
MR RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: One, you said that you're going to monitor this as closely as possible. How close is that, considering it's a closed trial, you have no – you don't have anyone there? So is your monitoring basically looking at the Iranian news agencies?
MR RATHKE: Well, as you said and as I said, the trial is closed, so that limits our ability to monitor it.
MR RATHKE: So we're --
QUESTION: So monitoring it as closely as possible basically means you're doing the same thing that the rest of us are doing, which is watching IRNA and Fars and --
MR RATHKE: Well, which I think anybody who is not --
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: But I just want to make sure that that's what we're talking about.
MR RATHKE: Yeah. No, that's right.
QUESTION: And then the second thing is that you said that the closed nature of the trial adds to our concerns, unfortunately, about the lack of transparency, lack of due process, that kind of thing.
MR RATHKE: Right.
QUESTION: Does that – you specifically mentioned this case. Does that apply to other areas of Iranian behavior?
MR RATHKE: Are you talking about U.S. citizens here or are you talking about --
QUESTION: Concerns about lack of transparency and lack of due process, lack of what you would consider to be international norms of handling things.
MR RATHKE: Well, if you're asking about Iran's behavior more broadly in its region and elsewhere, of course, we've got concerns. We've talked about those in a regional context with regard to Syria, with regard to Yemen. We've talked about those with respect to support for terrorism and so forth. So --
MR RATHKE: -- but I'm not sure what – are you trying to draw a connection there?
QUESTION: No, I'm just trying to find out if you – if those concerns about this specific case and the lack of transparency and the lack of what you say is due process, if that applies to other parts of the – of Iran, and if it does, why is it you guys are more broadly so confident in the negotiations that you're having on the nuclear front?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, I --
QUESTION: If this is a country that you say has been – shown a lack of regard for due process and basic norms of justice and – how is it that you're so confident that you're dealing with an up-and-up – with a government that's on the up and up in the nuclear talks?
MR RATHKE: Well, we distinguish the P5+1 nuclear talks, which --
QUESTION: No, I get this – I get --
MR RATHKE: -- and it's – and the Iranians have made commitments under the JPOA --
MR RATHKE: -- which they have kept --
MR RATHKE: -- which has been essential for that process to continue.
QUESTION: So the concern then in this case and the case of the other detained or missing Americans does not extend – those kinds of concerns don't extend to the negotiations?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think these are different types of cases. We're talking about --
QUESTION: Fair enough.
MR RATHKE: -- cases of American citizens who are either detained or, in this case, now on trial, and in those cases there is a standard of due process.
QUESTION: I understand, but you don't see a pattern of behavior here in these cases and in the support of terrorism in the region and in – and elsewhere and in its actions in Syria and Yemen? That's not a pattern of behavior that you think could be – or should be extended to other --
MR RATHKE: Well, we have concerns – we have a lot of concerns about Iran, which is why, of course, we insist that the verifiability of any commitments that Iran undertakes in the nuclear context is an essential part of it. Without that verifiability then there's – you don't have the adequate basis for it.
MR RATHKE: Sorry, same topic?
QUESTION: Yeah. Are you --
MR RATHKE: Okay, just a second. We'll come to you in a second, Said.
Go ahead (inaudible).
QUESTION: Will this trial affect the negotiations in a way or another?
MR RATHKE: Well, we've – as we've said, the nuclear talks are about the nuclear talks. We take the opportunity of being in the same room with the Iranians to raise our concerns about American citizens who are detained, missing, or on trial in that context. But I'm not going to draw a conclusion about – a connection to the talks continuing.
Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: No, I just wanted to ask very quickly --
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- are you in touch with his defense team or his family? His brother, for instance?
MR RATHKE: I have --
QUESTION: You cannot comment?
MR RATHKE: -- privacy considerations; I don't have a readout of that.
Same – also on Iran, Nicole?
QUESTION: New topic.
MR RATHKE: Okay. Anything else on Iran?
MR RATHKE: Yes? Okay, we'll go here and then we'll come back to you, Pam.
QUESTION: Same topic – related. As of today, the 2014 Human Rights Report is 90 days past its federally mandated deadline of February 25th. Why hasn't the State Department released that report yet, for one?
MR RATHKE: I can check and see if there's an update on that. I know it's – we've just been trying to find a scheduling opportunity for release, so I don't have any additional update on that.
QUESTION: Okay. Is the State Department at all concerned or the Administration at all concerned that releasing this report would interfere with the Iranian nuclear talks or with the TPT – or the TPP negotiations?
MR RATHKE: Not that I've heard.
Go ahead, Pam.
QUESTION: Jeff, you cited the lack of transparency from Iran in the Rezaian case. Is the United States considering any other action against Iran because of this case, cases like it, perhaps any punitive action? And then secondly, is there consideration for perhaps negotiating through a third party to get additional information about what's happening in this case?
MR RATHKE: What do you mean by through a third party?
QUESTION: A neutral country --
MR RATHKE: Well, we have – the Swiss Government represents our interests in Iran and the access – we've talked a lot about the access problems, and so I don't have anything further to suggest along those lines. Again, we call on the Iranian authorities to release Jason Rezaian immediately. This is independent of the nuclear negotiations. We also call for the release of Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, as well as for Iran to cooperate in locating Robert Levinson, so that they can all be returned to their families.
QUESTION: But in the wake of how this case has been handled – very little information coming out of Iran today except the initial announcement that there was some kind of proceeding today – is the U.S. looking at any additional efforts to perhaps put pressure on Iran to be more transparent?
MR RATHKE: Well, it's not a question of transparency. We – the charges against Jason Rezaian are absurd. They should be dropped; he should be released. So I don't have anything further for you than that.
QUESTION: Jeff, one --
MR RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: -- follow-up. Did you – were you aware that the trial was going to be behind closed doors?
MR RATHKE: I think the – there have been announcements about that, but --
QUESTION: Okay. I wasn't --
MR RATHKE: -- I don't have anything to read out --
QUESTION: I couldn't remember which one it was. All right.
MR RATHKE: -- about that.
QUESTION: No, different topic.
MR RATHKE: Roz, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about the apparent effort to retake Ramadi and thereby retake Anbar province from ISIL. First off, there's a lot of mixed messaging coming out of this Administration. The Defense Secretary basically said that Iraqi troops cut and ran, and his spokesperson basically repeated the same message today. The spokesperson also criticized the name of the mission that the Shiite militia used, which is quite provocative and perhaps offensive to Sunni tribes in Anbar province because of its religious nature. And yet, we have a senior State Department official telling reporters just a few days ago that the situation regarding Iraqi forces in Anbar province wasn't as dire as people were expecting, and we had the Vice President having to call the prime minister and basically say, "No, don't worry, we have your back." What's the message here that the Obama Administration is trying to send to Iraq?
MR RATHKE: Well, Roz, let me – you've packed a lot in that question.
QUESTION: Yeah, I know.
MR RATHKE: So first of all, with respect to the U.S. message to Iraq, I think the Vice President spoke to this in his call yesterday with Prime Minister Abadi, and that is we are standing with the Iraqi Government and with the people of Iraq as they try to push ISIL back. We have a strategy working with the Iraqi Government and with Prime Minister Abadi as he works across sectarian and ethnic lines in Iraq to push ISIL back, and that continues.
Now, as to some of the more specific questions, we can get into those in a bit more detail, but with regard to the situation around Ramadi, we are encouraged by reports that Iraqi forces have begun to consolidate, to reorganize, and the Government of Iraq is committed to ejecting ISIL from Ramadi. And we share their determination and are going to support them.
QUESTION: Well, what's concerning to observers is that when we were talking about the ability of the Kurdish Peshmerga to take the lead in the fight in northern Iraq, there was considerable pushback from Baghdad, which insisted that it have control. In this case, these are Shiite militia which are taking the lead, naming the mission; this is not being done specifically by Baghdad. How is that okay, at least from the U.S. perspective?
MR RATHKE: Well, we – it's our understanding that the Iraqi Security Forces, along with a mix of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, including Sunni fighters, have begun to consolidate and reorganize and counterattack against ISIL around Ramadi. Again, we are encouraged by the Iraqi forces mobilizing at the order of Prime Minister Abadi, and we will continue to support all efforts by Iraqi forces under the command and control of the Iraqi Government.
QUESTION: Do you dispute that – do you dispute what Secretary Carter and his spokesperson said, that the Iraqi military, the standing army, has not shown a will to fight, cannot be made to develop that will overnight, and that airstrikes, no matter how many the coalition launches, will not make a difference up until the Iraqi military decides that it's in there till the bitter end?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think everyone has acknowledged and recognized that the fall of Ramadi was a failure and was a setback. And we've talked over the last week about some of the circumstances, including suicide bombings and others that occurred. I don't have anything to add to that at this point, but I think the Iraqi authorities themselves have acknowledged that there were breakdowns in military command, planning, and reinforcement. Clearly, our strategy of supporting the Iraqi Government requires a well-equipped and well-trained partner on the ground, and we're helping to provide that support because we share the interest in Iraqi forces winning this fight.
QUESTION: But Jeff, very quickly a follow-up. Now the Iraqi Government and, of course, the Iranians are basically putting the onus on you guys. They're saying that you're not bombing enough, you're not giving the kind of aerial support that they needed or appropriate to defeat ISIS. Is that fair? Do you reject that?
MR RATHKE: Well, the United States has been very clear in our support for the Government of Iraq. We've – we have said that we share the determination of the Iraqi authorities to defeat ISIL. We have a multipronged strategy – which is not just military – to achieve that, including an international coalition of 60 countries, and we've got, I would remind, 3,000 U.S. forces right now deployed in Iraq in noncombat advisory capacities to help provide that assistance. So I think it's quite clear our commitment to --
QUESTION: Going back to Roz's original question on the contradictions of messages coming from the State Department – even from the White House – the President said that it was a tactical gain. It's not really strategic. Then others are saying quite the contrary, because they are really – I mean, a great deal of territory now is under ISIS's control. Do you agree?
MR RATHKE: I'm sorry --
QUESTION: I mean, what – to what do you attribute these conflicting messages from different areas – from the White House, from the Pentagon, from you guys?
MR RATHKE: Well, look --
QUESTION: Either the Iraqi military is capable or it's not. Which is it?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we've said that we support the Iraqis. We have been stepping up our efforts to train and to equip the Iraqi Security Forces. This is a central part of our strategy, and we, because we realize that we need partners on the ground, we continue to work with the Iraqis to that end.
QUESTION: Well, I just wanted to touch on one thing that he – I just wanted to touch on one thing that he brought up, this idea of the U.S. and the coalition forces aren't bombing enough. Does the U.S. fear that when the Iraqis make these kinds of complaints that they're basically trying to find a backdoor way to get U.S. ground troops in to at least call in these strikes, because they know that their own forces can't do it without putting civilian lives at risk?
MR RATHKE: You're trying to get me to ascribe a motivation to people, which I'm not going to do. We have been supporting our Iraqi partners with airstrikes, and we've conducted thousands of airstrikes in Iraq, also in Syria, against ISIL targets. We remain committed to supporting, again, Iraqi forces under Iraqi central government command and control as they fight to push ISIL out. I don't have further details to add on that.
QUESTION: The French parliament has --
MR RATHKE: Just a second, Said. Namo has been waiting and I want to give him a chance to ask.
QUESTION: Okay. Just related.
QUESTION: Just one question. I mean, after Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that the Iraqi forces didn't show any will to fight ISIS in Ramadi, now the key question actually from many Iraqis that I have received is that: Why does the United States keep arming a corrupt army that's willing to abandon its weapons for ISIS? Isn't that indirectly arming ISIS?
MR RATHKE: No, no. Again, I think we're talking about a particular episode here. We're focused on our Iraqi Government partners and in building their capacity. We remain committed to our strategy and we're going to continue forward to it – forward with it. Sorry.
Michel, go ahead.
QUESTION: Jeff, was this offensive coordinated with the coalition, international coalition, with the U.S., specifically, or not?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, as I said, we've been in – we remain in touch with the Iraqi Security Forces and their leadership, as well as at a political level. They've begun to consolidate and conduct a counterattack. So we are in discussion about how we can support. As we've always said, we are committed to supporting forces that are under Iraqi command and control. For details on their campaign, I'd refer you back to the Iraqi authorities.
QUESTION: Could I come back --
QUESTION: And is – one more, please.
QUESTION: Sorry, sure.
QUESTION: Is the coalition providing any air support to the Iraqi Army now in their offense?
MR RATHKE: I'd refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Defense about their day-to-day --
QUESTION: Yeah. I just wanted to ask you again --
MR RATHKE: -- operational engagement.
QUESTION: -- about the name of this effort to retake Ramadi – and I'm probably mispronouncing it – Labaik Ya Hussein, which is an allusion to the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who was killed in the seventh century, and that clash essentially created the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims. And it's considered a very provocative phrase, and the Pentagon says it's not helpful for this mission to have this codename. Does this building agree? Should it be named something else? Should there even be a name at all for this operation?
MR RATHKE: Well, I – from what I understand, this is – this has been one comment about such a name. I don't think we've seen an official announcement from the Iraqi authorities about the name of the operation, so I'd refer you back to them about that.
QUESTION: But certainly, the Pentagon thinks it's official enough for them to react to it. I mean, we got this comment an hour ago from their spokesperson.
MR RATHKE: Well, we've certainly said, and it would apply in this case as well, if we were talking about a name – which again, I'm – I think the Iraqis would have to confirm that – but we would urge all Iraqis who are involved in the fight against ISIL to avoid any action that would heighten sectarian tensions. That's certainly clear.
QUESTION: May I pivot to Asia?
MR RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: One more?
MR RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: I just wanted to know – one of the things in Roz's original question was the comment about the criticism from the Quds Force commander. Do you have any specific response to that, your ostensible ally, at least in this one small area of the fight against --
MR RATHKE: That's your word, not ours.
QUESTION: I'm sorry. You don't share the – you share the same objective here --
MR RATHKE: Well, "ally" is a different --
QUESTION: Well, fine. Your friend in this --
MR RATHKE: I think that --
QUESTION: -- in this particular endeavor, correct?
MR RATHKE: Well --
QUESTION: You share a goal with Iran in taking out ISIL.
MR RATHKE: Well, I'll let them speak for themselves. We certainly share that with the Iraqi authorities. And --
QUESTION: All right. Do you have any specific reaction to General Soleimani's criticism of U.S. action or inaction in the case of Ramadi?
MR RATHKE: Again, I think this is similar to Said's question. I think our commitment to Iraq and to supporting Prime Minister Abadi and his government and the Iraqi Security Forces as they fight ISIL is clear.
QUESTION: So the answer to my question is no, you don't have any specific --
MR RATHKE: I'm not going to make a – I don't have a specific reaction to everything said by --
QUESTION: Okay, all right. Fair enough.
QUESTION: Jeff, could I follow up before we move on?
MR RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead, Pam.
QUESTION: Prime Minister Abadi said in an interview regarding the current offensive to retake Ramadi that he believed that forces could retake Ramadi within a few days. Based on the U.S. assessment of the situation on the ground, is that realistic?
MR RATHKE: I'm not going to make a military prediction from here.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: The foreign minister of France, Fabius, just actually called for increased bombardment of that area. He's calling on you – on the coalition – to do that. So obviously, there is some sort of a gap in the bombardment. Do you agree?
MR RATHKE: Well, I haven't seen his comment, so I'm not going to – not going to kind of follow up on --
QUESTION: A follow-up?
MR RATHKE: Yes. Last one, and then we're going with Nicole to Asia.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. Given Secretary of Defense's statement, what is the United States going to do to make sure that things like that are not going to happen in the future again, like Iraqi forces abandon their arms so easily for ISIS and just leave the entire civilian population to the hands of ISIS?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think, again, if you look at the response of the Iraqi leadership, not only Prime Minister Abadi but the cabinet – the entire cabinet, by the way, across sectarian and ethnic lines has recommitted themselves to strengthening their response to ISIL and to pushing them out of Ramadi and indeed other territory.
QUESTION: Is the United States itself making any effort to make sure that's not going to happen again in the future?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we are partners with the Iraqi Government in this effort.
QUESTION: Have you voiced concern about that to the Iraqi Government?
MR RATHKE: Well, we remain in regular contact at multiple levels with them about our support for them.
So – go ahead, Nicole.
QUESTION: I actually do have a Middle East question first.
MR RATHKE: Yeah. Yes.
QUESTION: Sorry. I was wondering if the building has any comment on reports that Turkey's foreign minister has said that Turkey and Washington have agreed in principle to provide air support to Syrian rebels.
MR RATHKE: Well, there are ongoing discussions between the United States and Turkey about our cooperation across all the lines of effort in the fight against ISIL, but I don't have a specific – I'm not going to comment specifically on the content of those discussions.
QUESTION: Okay. I feel like Said wants to ask a follow-up.
QUESTION: Well, I just want – yeah – to follow up very quickly --
MR RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: -- on this.
MR RATHKE: You are --
QUESTION: Now are you changing your position on the no-fly zone? And if --
MR RATHKE: No, our position on that hasn't changed.
QUESTION: So you distinguish between giving a no-fly zone and giving – and air cover to rebels? Do you distinguish between the two?
MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not – again, in response to Nicole's question and to follow up on that, we have ongoing discussions with Turkey as with our other coalition partners. I'm not going to comment on the specifics of those discussions.
QUESTION: Okay, so China.
MR RATHKE: Yes. Yes.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask about this white paper issued by the Chinese army about its plans to expand its maritime presence – whether the building has any comment, and specifically on some of the language used. I think one of the colonels presenting the white paper talked about the maritime battlefield being broadened. So I'm wondering if you have any comment about these plans in general, and whether you have any concerns about the rhetoric being used around it.
MR RATHKE: Well, we're certainly aware of the white paper that was publicly released. We continue to monitor China's military developments carefully. We also continue to urge China to exhibit greater transparency with respect to its capabilities and to its intentions. So in conjunction with that, we encourage China to use its military capabilities in a manner that is conducive to maintaining peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region.
QUESTION: A follow-up?
QUESTION: Same topic.
MR RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. In the white paper, they also mention that – especially emphasize the active defense strategy. What's the U.S. strategy for it?
MR RATHKE: I'm sorry, can you repeat --
QUESTION: In the PLA's --
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: -- published the white paper, and then they also emphasized the active defense strategy. So I just wonder, what's the U.S. strategy for it?
MR RATHKE: Strategy for what?
QUESTION: For this active defense strategy.
MR RATHKE: Well, if you're talking about military matters such as that, I think my colleagues at the Pentagon would be better positioned to comment on it. But I think our strategy with regard to Asia, which is a focal point for this Administration, involves strengthening our alliances, which we've talked about a lot. It also involves political dialogue and military contacts. Of course, Secretary Kerry was just in Beijing and Seoul; we just had the Japanese prime minister here. So I think if you were asking about our strategy, then that's how we're focused.
QUESTION: One more follow-up.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Yes. And Taiwan's President Ma also proposed a South China Sea peace initiative, which the – he emphasized that resource should be sharing while the sovereignty cannot be divided. Do you have any comment on it?
MR RATHKE: Well, our position on the South China Sea is longstanding. It hasn't changed. We, of course, appreciate Taiwan's call on claimants to exercise restraint, to refrain from unilateral actions that could escalate tensions, and to respect international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention. With regard to the maritime claims and the claims to sovereignty over land features in the South China Sea, our position is that maritime claims must accord with the Law of the Sea. We have a strong interest in peace and security and in the manner in which claimants address their disputes.
Now, as to the question of sovereignty over islands claimed by Taiwan or other land features claimed by claimants, we don't take a position on the sovereignty of land features.
Go ahead, Guy, and then we'll come to you.
QUESTION: Yeah, particularly just to drill into that specific nugget --
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: -- that you're on right now, in announcing the paper in Beijing, Defense Ministry Spokesman Yang Yujun specifically said that construction by the Chinese Government of basically a naval base on the Spratly Islands was, quote, "no different," end quote, from other construction occurring all over China. So I understand that you don't take a position on the sovereignty claims over the Spratlys, but do you agree with that statement that the construction occurring there is no different than what's happening elsewhere in China?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think as we've spoken about over the last few weeks, China's extensive land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea have created to – have contributed – excuse me – to rising tensions, and I think this something also that countries in the region have spoken to. So we would take a different view of that. I would also highlight that under international law it's clear that land reclamation cannot change the maritime zones of a geographical feature. That would include a territorial sea or an exclusive economic zone. So it's only naturally formed land features that are entitled to maritime zones --
QUESTION: Not to --
MR RATHKE: -- so we would take a different view of that as well.
QUESTION: -- play translator here, but – so you're saying from this podium that the Chinese are violating international law by changing the shape of the Spratlys to --
MR RATHKE: No, no, I didn't say that.
MR RATHKE: What I said is that international law is clear that land reclamation does not change the maritime zones of a geographic feature. We can talk more about the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to get into more of those details if that's what you're interested in. But the point is that a – creating an island through reclamation doesn't change the maritime zone around it.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. Two question on China's currency. Just last Friday the Senate rejected currency provisions in TPA bill, which is of course a good signal for TPP. So what's the reaction of the U.S. Government about the exclusion of the currency provision in the TPA bill?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think we – Secretary Kerry issued a statement just after the passage of the TPA bill in the Senate, as has the White House. So I would refer you back to those for our view on that legislation.
QUESTION: And the other issue is, just today, IMF concludes that Chinese currency is no longer undervalued, yet last month, the U.S. Government still claims Chinese currency is significantly undervalued. So what's your assessment right now to China's currency?
MR RATHKE: Well, I haven't seen that IMF report. I think our colleagues at the Department of Treasury would have the most technically accurate answer on questions of currency, currency values.
QUESTION: One more South China Sea?
MR RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Sorry. You mentioned about the international law. Taiwan claimed that's the eleven-dash line, and then China is claimed that nine-dash line. I wondered, do you think that both of the claim is according to the international law? Or what's your position?
MR RATHKE: Well, so as I've said, we don't take a position on sovereignty of the land features in the South China Sea. We think those have to be resolved by the claimants in accordance – peacefully and in accordance with international law. We have consistently called on China to clarify its nine-dash line claim to explain its justification under international law, and we think that if China were to do that, that would be a helpful contribution.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. Russia and France.
MR RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: According to the report, Russia has given up on importing Mistral-class helicopter carrier. I believe you support the French decision, so what is your position? What is your comment on this?
MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not sure I've been the report to which you're referring.
QUESTION: Russia abandoned the plan to purchase --
MR RATHKE: Again, I haven't seen a report to that effect, so I wouldn't comment on that. I – we've commented before when France suspended or postponed the delivery that we thought that was a wise decision in light of the events in Ukraine – in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
QUESTION: One more thing. Also there is a report – this is kind of one of the rumor – but France would try to sell these two Mistral craft – warship to China. Are you aware of this report?
MR RATHKE: I don't have any information on that. I'd refer you back to the French, the French Government.
QUESTION: Sorry, just on the ships.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is it the U.S. position – can you remind us – that France shouldn't transfer them to Russia as long as the situation is unresolved in Ukraine, including Crimea? And once – if and when that situation or those situations are resolved to the satisfaction of everyone, that there's no problem, or is it with the sale of the ships? Or is it the position that even if Crimea didn't – or even if the Ukraine situation didn't exist, it's still a bad idea for France to sell them?
MR RATHKE: Well, our position on the sale hasn't changed. I'm happy to get – to come back with the specific details as we've articulated them.
QUESTION: Can we stay in the region?
MR RATHKE: Yeah, I think we'll go to you and then we'll come back.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just a quick one on the China white paper. Just generally, do you think the white paper is something the U.S. would welcome, since it's laid out the Chinese military strategy? And isn't it – China's taking one step further to answer your call to show its military build-up intention and transparency?
MR RATHKE: Well, I'm not going to issue a judgment on the white paper. We have certainly called on China to be more transparent about its military plans and procurements and so forth, but I'm not going to make a judgment of the white paper.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Bangladeshi citizens and Myanmar Rohingya citizens issue, do you have any update? It's been going a lot. So they agreed to give them shelter in government places in Malaysia. Do you have anything about Rohingya issue, Bangladeshi citizens?
MR RATHKE: Well, the United States has offered to assist governments in the region to improve their understanding of the situation in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal through U.S. maritime surveillance flights. And also thanks to the support of the Malaysian Government, over the weekend a U.S. Navy P-8 aircraft began conducting maritime surveillance flights to locate and mark the positions of boats possibly carrying migrants. The information that comes from those flights will provide an enhanced understanding of the situation at sea, and we stand ready to conduct additional flights as necessary to help provide support to regional governments.
So that's in terms of what the United States has been doing in the last couple of days to help address the situation. We're also pleased, of course, that Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to accept 7,000 migrants, and we're also pleased by reports that Malaysia will be conducting search-and-rescue operations for those stranded at sea as well.
And then my final point, I think, on this would be that we urge the international community to support this effort and to attend the May 29th conference which is being hosted by Thailand to address the situation.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR RATHKE: Yes?
QUESTION: Clinton emails. Today is the deadline for the State Department to submit a court filing outlining a timetable for proposed releases. Has State submitted that filing this afternoon?
MR RATHKE: To the best of my knowledge, that filing has not yet been filed. It will be filed today, so I don't have anything to preview. But of course, in conjunction with the court order last week, the filing is due today, so we intend to meet that deadline.
QUESTION: Can we go back to Asia Pacific?
MR RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: The governor of Okinawa prefecture Takeshi Onaga is planning to come to Washington this week to lobby the Obama Administration and Congress to get rid of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa. Do you know if Mr. Onaga has any meetings with any officials in East Asia Affairs, with other officials here at the State Department? Should he even try to get an appointment here?
MR RATHKE: I don't have an update on whether he's got any meetings here. I'm happy to check and see. Of course, our position on U.S. forces in Okinawa and the way forward that we have worked – worked out with the Japanese Government remains our policy. But I'll check into the question of whether there are any meetings happening here.
QUESTION: Is the siting of military bases specifically a DOD purview, or does the U.S. State Department have a consultative role, if that's a word, on the siting of these bases?
MR RATHKE: I mean, I'm not intimately familiar with the process, but of course, we have in the 2+2 talks and we have a political-military dialogue with Japan, including on issues related to our mutual defense treaty and our security partnership and our alliance with Japan. So – and it's in that way that we work through these issues with the Japanese Government, and it's – and that is how we've also arrived at the way forward that we and the Japanese Government are pursuing.
QUESTION: Jeff, a follow-up --
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- for the same topic.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: I believe Secretary Kerry spoke to Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida this morning or maybe today or yesterday. I believe he --
MR RATHKE: I think it was today.
QUESTION: Today. He talks about that issue as well.
MR RATHKE: I don't have that level of detail. They talked about a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues, so it was, from what I understand, a fairly wide-ranging conversation. But I don't have that level of --
QUESTION: According to Japanese --
MR RATHKE: -- granular detail.
QUESTION: -- ministry of foreign affairs, both of them – Secretary and Kishida – talked about Secretary Kerry's last trip to China and ROK and Russia.
MR RATHKE: Correct.
QUESTION: Particularly in Russia, as your colleague Marie and Assistant Secretary Danny Russel also mentioned, it's not the right time to pursue business as usual with Russia. So particularly this topic did they talk about, and how Secretary Kerry mentioned this topic?
MR RATHKE: Right. Well, as I said in the previous question, I don't have a lot of detail from the conversation to share. Our point of view with regard to Russia is that, as you know, Secretary Kerry has recently engaged the Russian leadership, urging Russia to fulfill its obligations under Minsk, to cease arming and training and supporting the separatists. We've also engaged on certain global security issues such as Iran's nuclear program and Syria's chemical weapons program. So we don't consider that to be bilateral business as usual. We see that as addressing pressing international security topics.
QUESTION: Jeff, one thing on China. As you know, Senator McCain and Reid oppose Chinese participation in RIMPAC next year. Do you support this opinion?
MR RATHKE: I don't have my RIMPAC encyclopedia in front of me. So I'm happy to look into that and come back to you.
Go ahead, Michel.
QUESTION: Yeah. Hizballah secretary general was quoted saying that his party might soon be announcing general popular mobilization to fight the takfiris or ISIS. How do you view Hizballah role in fighting ISIS?
MR RATHKE: Well, these remarks about Syria represent in our view a deliberate distortion of Hizballah's involvement in a foreign war against the will of the Lebanese people. Lebanon has – and the Lebanese people have spoken out for a policy of dissociation from the Syrian conflict. That's the commitment of the Baabda Declaration. Hizballah has engaged in the opposite, and those actions and Hizballah's alliance with the Assad regime itself is fueling the growth of violent extremism, and it's also fueling extremist terrorist threats to Lebanon.
And so our view on Hizballah and its destructive role in Syria hasn't changed. Hizballah's a designated foreign terrorist organization, and by carrying out military operations inside Syria, it's violating the commitment under the Baabda Declaration and Lebanon's policy of dissociation from the Syrian conflict.
QUESTION: And do you talk to the Iranians about Hizballah's role in Syria?
MR RATHKE: I don't have anything to read out on that, no.
QUESTION: I have two topics.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: The first one, Taliban Five. The one-year arrangement with Qatar is about to expire. Do we have any update? Is the deal going to be extended? Are the Taliban leaders going to be sent to another country, or should we expect their release in June?
MR RATHKE: I don't have any update on that one to offer right now. Yes, you had another one?
QUESTION: And then the second topic would be --
MR RATHKE: Yep.
QUESTION: -- the recent Travel Warning issued on Mexico. What prompted the warning, and is it safe for Americans to travel there?
MR RATHKE: Which date do you have on that?
QUESTION: It's – so I don't have --
MR RATHKE: I know we've updated it in the last couple of weeks.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
MR RATHKE: And in the warning I think it updates, because we try to make that as specific as we can, to conditions in particular parts of the country. So I would encourage you to look at --
QUESTION: Oh, okay.
MR RATHKE: -- the description of specific regions.
QUESTION: So I actually do have this specific – so I have a specific quote I wanted to follow up on. So in the Travel Warning, it says "the number of reported kidnappings in Tamaulipas is among the highest in Mexico, and the number of U.S. citizens reported to the consulates… as being kidnapped, abducted, or disappearing involuntarily in 2014 has also increased." Can you offer any specifics about the nature of that increase?
MR RATHKE: I don't have that in front of me. I'm happy to look into that and see if there's more we can share on that.
Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just a quick one, Jeff.
MR RATHKE: All right.
QUESTION: Can you explain why you can't have a judgment on the white paper?
MR RATHKE: Well, I haven't read the white paper. I think it's just been issued. And I think I've made our point of view clear about what our general desire is and what we encourage China to do with regard to its defense policy and its military development. But I don't have anything to offer other than that.
QUESTION: But will you have one after you read it?
MR RATHKE: (Laughter.) I'm not sure I'm going to offer one.
QUESTION: Can I get one in on --
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: -- on Burundi? The East African leaders are having a summit at the weekend. Do you think enough has been done – I mean, do you have a supportive role in that? Are you sending anybody? And do you think enough is being done to try to curb that violence?
MR RATHKE: Well, I would say even in the shorter term, we support the political dialogue that is being facilitated by the UN special envoy, Said Djinnit – that's occurring in Burundi now – and with – as I understand it – envoys from the African Union, the East African Community, and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. So we encourage all stakeholders to continue to participate in good faith in this dialogue and achieve a peaceful resolution.
We also call on the Burundian Government – and you may have seen our statement over the weekend on this. We call on the Burundian Government to provide political space for peaceful and a credible electoral process, including respect for freedom of assembly and expression. We also call on the Burundian Government to permit resumption of broadcasts by independent radio stations. And so I would highlight those steps now, and I think as we go forward this week, we may have more to say on the specific conference.
MR RATHKE: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:54 p.m.)
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