MODERATOR: Great. Thanks very much. Good afternoon. Thanks for joining us for this call to preview the Secretary’s upcoming travel to Tonga, New Zealand, and Australia. Our briefers today are State Department Official One] and [State Department Official Two]. Today’s call is on background, and our briefers can be identified as State Department officials. This call will be embargoed until the conclusion, and now I will turn this over to [State Department Official One] for some opening comments. Please, go ahead.
STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, [Moderator] and thanks everyone for joining us today. I’m really happy to speak about Secretary Blinken’s upcoming trip to Tonga, New Zealand, and Australia from July 26th to the 30th. And I just want to start by saying how deeply saddened we are by the tragic shooting in Aukland that took place earlier today. Our thoughts are with the victims, their families, and the entire community there.
As we announced this morning, the Secretary will travel to Nuku’alofa, Tonga to dedicate the new U.S. embassy and advance key discussions with our Tongan partners. He’s then going to continue to New Zealand to hold important discussions on chair priorities with senior government partners and, of course, cheer on the U.S. Women’s National Team at the FIFA World – Women’s World Cup. Australia is going to be the last leg of his visit to the region. In Brisbane, he’s going to join Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense Richard Marles, and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong for the 33rd annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations, otherwise known as AUSMIN.
The Pacific region remains an enduring foreign policy priority for the United States. We have a deep and longstanding ties to the countries of the Pacific, which aren’t just our neighbors but also our friends. The administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is the guiding policy laying out our shared vision for a region that is free and open, and becomes even more connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient. And the U.S.-Pacific Partnership highlights the important role of the Pacific Islands. We’re delivering on our promises and stepping up engagement in Tonga and the Pacific writ large.
Secretary Blinken announced the Indo-Pacific Strategy in Fiji less than 18 months ago and leads our engagement with a region that will shape the trajectory of the world in the 21st Century. Secretary Blinken is the first Secretary of State to visit Tonga, and this is the Secretary’s third trip to a Pacific Island country, and his 12th trip to the Indo-Pacific region.
Our partnerships and alliances in the region have never been stronger. Secretary Blinken’s trip to New Zealand – the first by a U.S. Secretary of State since 2017, demonstrates our commitment to working with New Zealand as a close partner to advance our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. In Australia, the Secretary will continue to deepen our alliance, enhancing our ability to address regional and global challenges.
I’d also like to point out that a significant number of high-level principals are visiting the Pacific this month. Among them are the Second Gentleman Emhoff’s visit. He’s in New Zealand currently, and will be traveling to Samoa afterwards. Secretary Austin, of course, in addition to traveling to Australia, is going to visit Papa New Guinea. And Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland will be traveling to the Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. And you may see more on these and other visits soon.
So, thank you again for dialing in today, and now I’d like to turn it over to [State Department Official Two].
STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you so much, [State Department Official One], and thanks to [Moderator] as well. I would like to echo [State Department Official One]’s condolences to the people of New Zealand for what happened – the tragic event in Aukland yesterday.
Today, I would like to just hit on a few key points around sports and sports diplomacy. As you know, the Secretary is going to travel to Wellington in support of the U.S. Women’s National Team as it continues its quest for a historic third consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cup championship. In addition, he – his efforts there will help elevate the power of sports for good worldwide.
While in New Zealand, the Secretary will attend the women’s – U.S. Women’s National Team match against the Netherlands. And while he is in Wellington, he will say hello to the team, and thank them for their leadership – both on and off the field. As many of you know, sports are a vital part of American culture that the world finds appealing from our sports brands to our American athletes. But sports also help unlock opportunity for millions of people in the United States and around the world every single day, and that’s why the United States uses sport as a diplomatic tool.
Yes, sport brings us together, but also they can create lifechanging impact. According to the UN, sport can increase access to education for young people in both urban and rural areas. Sport can be a pathway to more economic equity. We’ve seen our own U.S. Women’s National Team lead the way on that front. And data show that when women and girls can play sport, go to school, and pursue a career, we are able to create societal opportunity and inclusion. So, the United States engages through sport, yes, at the most elite levels that the Secretary will be on hand to see next week, such as the Women’s World Cup, and through the support of Team USA and all of our national teams.
But we also focus our efforts at the grassroots level through international exchanges, which allows us to engage in meaningful ways in communities and countries worldwide. Among the department’s sports exchanges, Sports Envoys are elite American athletes who engage with marginalized communities overseas, both on and off the pitch. Sports Visitors are young people and coaches, including those with physical and intellectual disabilities, who travel to the United States to engage with their peers.
And the United States Department of State-espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program harnesses the power of the U.S. sports industry to mentor the next generation of rising women leaders in sport worldwide. This is a unique opportunity for the Secretary – I’d venture to say a soccer player in his own right – to highlight sports diplomacy and how sport impacts the world for good.
Thank you. Over to you, [Moderator].
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you both for those opening comments. Operator, if you could please repeat the instructions for asking a question.
OPERATOR: Okay. If you’d like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 at this time – 1-0.
MODERATOR: Great. Let’s first go to the line of David Brunnstrom with Reuters.
OPERATOR: Go ahead. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you very much. Thank you very much for doing this. I just wanted – will this trip be in part about firming up details for the – and preparing for the summit that President Biden has called, I believe, for September? And has any date yet been fixed for that? And you mentioned a visit of the Secretary of the Interior to Palau and Micronesia. Is there any particular reason why he wouldn’t be going to the other compact state, the Marshall Islands? Thank you.
STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll take that. This is [State Department Official One]. So, first of all, I’m sure the summit will figure in the AUSMIN discussions, but AUSMIN really stands on its own. This was planned long in advance. It’s an annual high-level engagement between the United States and Australia, and it’s an opportunity, frankly, for us both to review what we have accomplished together, but also look at broad-based cooperation, looking forward as well.
So, there’ll – in addition to AUSMIN, there, of course, will be bilateral discussions with counterparts. And of course, the summit would be part of the – that frame. But I don’t want to insinuate that this meeting is about the summit, because it’s – it really stands on its own two feet.
Regarding the Secretary of the Interior’s visit to Palau and Micronesia, I’ll just note that she is leading a presidential delegation to attend the inauguration of the new president of the Federated State of Micronesia. For any other questions related to her itinerary, I would have to refer you to the Department of the Interior. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great. Thanks for that. Let’s now go to the line of Michael Birnbaum from The Washington Post.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. So, I have, I guess, two separate questions, one about the Tongo leg. I know the – I mean, part of this effort to bolster ties and open the embassy there has to do with the broader question of China’s role in the region. And I just wanted to ask a little more about the staffing levels at the embassy, sort of what you’re expecting to be there, so that – if I understand correctly, the Chinese embassy is very large. They have a pretty big expat community in Tonga. So how do you sort of deal with the mismatch between the U.S. ties and potential presence versus China’s role in Tonga and elsewhere?
And then a question about Australia. I mean, are you expecting any kind of concrete news out of this AUSMIN? I mean, are there any developments on AUKUS? Or, like, what are you expecting to talk about, and are there any headlines for us out of it? Thank you. Appreciate it.
STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. Thanks, Michael. On Tonga, our embassy is not being set up to counter China. Clearly, China is – or sorry, I should strategic competition is an aspect, a reality in the region. But we are standing up an embassy to reflect our strong ties with Tonga and, frankly, our desire to be engaged in places like Tonga, in places like Solomon Islands, and in other countries on the ground.
We’re starting off – we’re doing this deliberately, and we will start with a small team. We already have people on the ground, temporary duty officers, but we will have our first directly assigned officer on the ground in a few short weeks. And the intention is to also have an ambassador accredited directly to and resident in Tonga.
So, we will be growing our presence. I don’t want to speculate where that will end, but I can guarantee you it will not be based on the size of the PRC embassy in Tonga as a measuring stick. We are – want to be on the ground to improve the contacts, the lines of communication, the cultural ties with the people of Tonga; explore ways that we can deepen our cooperation. Tonga is one of three countries in the Pacific that has a military. And so that mil-mil cooperation has been important and will certainly continue and go forward. So that’s basically what I would say on Tonga.
On Australia and AUSMIN, again, this is – it’s not an event that’s designed to – necessarily with a specific deliverable in mind. And I would also caution that the President has invited Prime Minister Albanese to Washington for a state visit later this year. And so clearly the deliverables, such as they are, would be mainly focused on that visit.
I think what you can see or will see is an expansion of areas where the United States and Australia are working together, deepening those ties. Again, this isn’t about AUKUS. AUKUS certainly is something that would come up in the context of the discussions, but AUKUS also involves the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom are not involved in this meeting.
So, stay tuned. I’ll let the press judge for itself in terms of announcement, but certainly it’ll be an opportunity for us to deepen our strategic coordination in the Indo-Pacific and globally.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Let’s next go to the line of Tom Minear, from News Corp Australia.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks for doing this, and thanks for taking our questions. Just a couple of Australia-related questions. One, the last couple of AUSMIN talks, we’ve seen announcements about increased U.S. rotational presence in Australia and bolstering the American force posture with land, sea, and air forces. Didn’t say much in the way of detail on these though, so I’m wondering whether you can give us any practical sense of what that rotation – rotational increases actually look like as a result of previous AUSMIN talks, and whether force posture will again be a focus in AUSMIN later this month.
And just on the state visit as well, which I know you just mentioned, I’m just wondering if you have any more information for us on timing around that, whether it’s likely to be positioned around APEC in November, or looking at a different time for that to occur?
STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Tom. I hate to disappoint you, but I’m going to have to defer to the White House on any summit-related news or announcements. All I can say now is the President invited the prime minister to Washington later this year. And we’re certainly working closely, and I know the White House is working closely with the prime minister’s office to nail down the specific timing.
Similarly, when it comes to force posture and rotation, really have to defer to my counterparts and colleagues at the Department of Defense on those levels of detail. I can speak to Secretary Blinken’s program or priority and overall broadly about AUSMIN – but that level of detail, I need to defer to DOD on. So, thank you.
MODERATOR: Great. And let’s next go to the line of Stephen Wright from BenarNews.
Do we have Stephen on the line?
OPERATOR: Possibly he has his mute button on.
QUESTION: Hello. Yes, I’m here. Sorry about that, but I still was muted. Can you hear me now?
MODERATOR: We sure can.
QUESTION: Okay, thanks. Recently, Australia’s defense minister said that the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu had expressed interest in developing their own defense forces. In terms of the geostrategic competition in the region, how important is it that countries such as Australia and New Zealand and the United States take the key role in facilitating that?
STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I saw the minister’s remarks. It sounds like they’re in preliminary discussions regarding Solomon Islands’ interest in developing defense forces. And I guess I would observe as a traditional security partner, we welcome Australia’s interest and involvement in supporting Solomon Islands and – as they go through that process.
I think generally speaking, when we look at the U.S. engagement in the Pacific, especially in the security realm, we very much believe in transparency in those efforts, and certainly endeavor to be transparent about our own security relationships – most recently, with the Defense Cooperation Agreement that Secretary Blinken signed in Papua New Guinea a short while ago with that country – and would hope that Solomon Islands and other Pacific Island countries follow that level of transparency in their own security arrangements.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you very much. That is all the time we have for questions today. As a reminder, this call was on background and is embargoed until the call’s conclusion, which will be momentarily. Thank you all very much for joining us today.