Daily Press Briefing - January 10, 2017
Index for Today's Briefing:
1:37 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Greetings, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. A couple of things briefly at the top, and then I’ll move on to your questions, if you have any.
First off, I just wanted to note the United States is deeply saddened by the passing of former German President Roman Herzog. Doctor Herzog led Germany with foresight and courage, helping to bring economic modernization and social change to make German reunification successful. His commitment to the rule of law and the pursuit of justice was evident in his approach to facing Germany’s past as well as his long service to Germany’s constitutional court. The United States extends its condolence to Doctor Herzog’s wife – or widow, rather, Alexandra, as well as his two children, as well as the German people.
Also, I wanted to note our strong condemnation of this morning’s terrorist attack on the parliamentary buildings in Kabul that killed 38 Afghans and wounded more than 70 people. An attack on parliamentarians is, frankly, an attack on democracy. We extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those killed and injured.
We’re also – and you’re probably all of you tracking as well – we’ve also seen reports of an additional attack in Kandahar. We’re still gathering all the facts, looking into it. I don’t have anything to confirm at this point, but as we do get more information in, we’ll obviously share that with you. But in short, I can say that the United States stands strongly with the people of Afghanistan and remains firmly committed to building a secure, peaceful, and prosperous future for Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Yes, hey.
MR TONER: Hey. How are you?
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry said today in his remarks that he had not met with Rex Tillerson yet, but he sort of implied that he would soon. Do you have any indication of whether that meeting would be this week or next week, or when that might happen?
MR TONER: I don’t. I think they’re still looking into it and looking at the logistics, frankly. The Secretary’s been very busy himself, and obviously Mr. Tillerson’s in town for his confirmation hearing tomorrow. But obviously, both individuals – well, I can’t speak on behalf of Mr. Tillerson, but I know Secretary Kerry’s very willing and eager to sit down with him and talk more. They’ve spoken once by phone already. So I don’t have anything to confirm. Obviously, when we do, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Is there – so there’s nothing on the books right now? No --
MR TONER: Nothing on the books right now. Still trying to figure it out.
QUESTION: Okay. And what would Secretary Kerry hope to accomplish in a meeting with Mr. Tillerson? What does he kind of want to impart?
MR TONER: Sure. I think in – I know Secretary Kerry’s spoken about this. I think it’s just a chance for him to have a one-on-one conversation to consult with him on what he views as the major issues, and to share with him his viewpoints on some of these major issues. I mean, all of you have heard how he feels about some of the major muscle movements of this Administration in terms of foreign policy, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s the Iran nuclear deal. But I think the Secretary certainly would value the opportunity to sit down one on one with Mr. Tillerson and really talk about some of the challenges that he sees going forward.
QUESTION: Is it simply a question of scheduling, or is there some reluctance --
MR TONER: No, I think it’s – I mean, as far as I know, it’s simply a matter of just aligning the two schedules.
QUESTION: But if there isn’t a meeting today, it won’t happen before the nomination hearing?
MR TONER: Without divulging the Secretary’s schedule, he may be out of town for a few days, so they would have to align all of that. We may have more to say about that in – later today, but at this point it’s just trying to align the schedules of two very busy individuals.
QUESTION: Do you have any plans to divulge the Secretary’s schedule?
MR TONER: (Laughter.) As soon as I have something to announce, I will forthrightly announce it.
QUESTION: Thanks very much.
MR TONER: Yeah, no worries.
MR TONER: Afghanistan.
QUESTION: I have one on Kerry real quick.
MR TONER: Oh yeah, sure. Of course. We’ll stay on it.
QUESTION: If that’s okay.
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead. Of course, sorry.
QUESTION: He mentioned at the talk that there hasn’t been a lot of high-level exchange between the transition team and the State Department. Is the Secretary worried about that, about the transition, how smoothly it might be going?
MR TONER: I don’t think, John. I think you saw from his response he didn’t seem particularly concerned about it. I think he was just remarking that – which is not uncommon with these kinds of transitions. But as a nominee is confirmed and certainly that process is moving forward – as I said, he’ll have his hearing tomorrow – then the rubber hits the road and transition in earnest can – those kinds of exchanges can begin. I think what we’ve seen thus far – and I’m hesitant to speak in too much detail; I’d refer you to the transition team itself – but what we’ve seen thus far is the transition team trying to get a sense of the breadth and scope of what the State Department does in terms of personnel, in terms of budget, in terms of different bureaus and what activities and programs they’re doing. But I think you’re going to see that obviously intensify over the last 10 days or so – or next 10 days or so.
Yeah, Steve, go ahead.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- attacks in Afghanistan, I’m assuming you have no reports of any U.S. personnel wounded in either of these attacks. Looks like we have some dead diplomats in the Kandahar blast and this apparent targeting of parliamentarians and a guest house where there were diplomats. Does this seem to indicate a further escalation in the sophistication of the attackers? And are you more concerned now about the safety of diplomats and NGO workers and others in Afghanistan?
MR TONER: Sure. And I can, I think, without being able to speak to the situation in Kandahar, I believe all chief of mission personnel are accounted for and were not harmed in the Kabul attack. To my knowledge, there was no – there were no – chief of mission personnel, rather, on the ground in Kandahar. But again, if that – any of that changes or as we get updates, we’ll certainly let you know.
And in response to your broader question, I think we’re always concerned. Look, there has been a consistent trend of these kinds of senseless acts of violence on the part of the Taliban. I know they’ve claimed responsibility for the attack in Kabul earlier today and we don’t have any reason, frankly, to question that claim. But we’re always mindful of the security threats not just to chief of mission personnel, not just to diplomats, but certainly to any NGO personnel or individuals who are living and working in Afghanistan. Can’t speak to any change in our posture. That’s something we’re always assessing, always fine-tuning, certainly mindful of these attacks. But it is concerning, to be frank.
QUESTION: The war in Afghanistan’s --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- gone into its 16th year and for eight of those years, President Obama has been President. He leaves office now. How content is he with the situation on the ground in Afghanistan? Is this in the success column?
MR TONER: I think it’s in the work in progress column and I think the President and indeed the Secretary have spoken frankly about the fact that we don’t want to see Afghanistan slide back into what it was. We – and by “we,” I mean not just the U.S., but the international community, NATO, and its partners on the ground, and indeed, the Afghan Government and the Afghan people have worked far too hard to see those gains slip away. It’s about building the capacity of the Afghan security forces and consolidating their strengths. I mean, ultimately, much as we’re trying to do now in Iraq, we’re trying to build the capacity of the Afghan security forces to determine and to provide for the security of the Afghan people, we’ve also, as you know, worked hard to foster a Afghan-led peace process, which, again, ultimately is, we believe, the way forward, and we encourage that.
Are we always – I don’t think that we can possibly look at it, though, and say mission accomplished. We would certainly not say that. But at the same point, we’re not going to say – we’re not going to encourage any kind of walking away from the situation there.
QUESTION: And you say you don’t want to see it slide back into what it was. Do you mean in the sense of a threat to United States interests outside of Afghanistan because of a base of terror?
MR TONER: I think you could – look, you can make the argument --
QUESTION: Or do you want it to be --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- a stable, nice place for Afghans to live in?
MR TONER: I think the two are mutually reinforcing. I think we don’t – from purely a national security viewpoint, we want to see a strong, stable, democratic Afghanistan that can never again be – provide a safe haven for al-Qaida or any other terrorist organization.
QUESTION: Just to follow up?
MR TONER: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Mark, these attacks are coming just weeks before the new administration comes in. You think somebody behind them or the terrorists are sending some kind of messages to the current Administration – I mean this building – and also to the upcoming administration?
MR TONER: It’s a fair question. I just can’t get in the minds of the kinds of people who carry out these senseless attacks. I don’t know if there’s been – I’d have to look in – whether there’s been an uptick in these attacks coming up to inauguration. I think you’ve still got at least a segment of the Taliban who are dead-set on carrying out terrorism as a way to achieve political gain. And again, it speaks to, I think, the importance of our resolve, of the international community’s resolve, and the Afghan Government’s and security forces’ resolve to not let that happen.
QUESTION: Any message for the upcoming administration as far as these attacks in the region are concerned?
MR TONER: Well, I have no doubt that the – that the incoming administration understands the stakes in Afghanistan. I don’t think any American who’s been around for the last 15 years cannot be aware of the stakes in Afghanistan.
Yeah, go ahead.
MR TONER: We’re going to stay in Afghanistan. Okay, let’s finish up.
QUESTION: Okay, so Government of Afghanistan say that these terrorists are able to strike at whenever they want to because of the existence of safe havens – terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan. And do you agree with their view? And secondly, do you acknowledge that even after eight years from this podium U.S. has been insisting Pakistan to close down these safe havens, they continue – that U.S. hasn’t been able to convince Pakistan further?
MR TONER: Well, it continues – so the short answer to your first question is yes, and I think we’ve been very frank and very open about publicly saying to – to Pakistan that it needs to not provide any safe haven to groups that will or are intent on carrying out attacks on Afghanistan. We’ve seen some progress, we’ve seen them take some steps to address these safe havens, but clearly the problem persists and it’s something that’s part of our ongoing conversation, our ongoing dialogue, our ongoing cooperation with Pakistan. We’re willing to help them. I mean, it’s part of – and again, we’ve talked about this before – the realization that Afghans – Afghanistan’s security, Pakistan’s security, indeed India’s security, they’re all interconnected. And so as much as they can work in tandem or work in a partnership on counterterrorism operations, I think it’s for the betterment of the region.
QUESTION: But given that the Pakistan’s reluctance to act against these safe havens, do you think there’s need for the – to review the U.S. policy itself towards Pakistan because it’s not working?
MR TONER: I don’t want to – I’m certainly not going to announce anything. I don’t have anything to – in that regard to speak to except to say that it is an ongoing issue of concern. It’s something we raise regularly with Pakistan’s leadership. Part of it is, one could argue, the difficulty of going after some of these safe havens given the remote areas that they’re in and providing – or ensuring that the Pakistan military has the capabilities to do so, but it’s a persistent problem.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah.
MR TONER: It was Kirby who did that.
QUESTION: Well, I mean in general.
MR TONER: He’s smarter on that stuff than I am. No --
QUESTION: The – the plural you. Okay.
MR TONER: Yes, that’s right. (Laughter.) The royal you.
QUESTION: Yes, because you’re royal folks. Okay.
MR TONER: Go ahead, I’m sorry.
QUESTION: But the second part of the question, there was – there’s a problem in the answer, because it is – and that question, just to remind ourselves, was what assurance was there that the Kurdistan region would receive its fair share. And the answer assumed an agreement on budget sharing, but Iraq’s national assembly – Kirby explained that this budget law had referred to sharing revenues, but there is no real agreement on the budget sharing, because when the national assembly passed that law, it changed the language in such a fashion as – so as the Kurdistan region will receive more revenue if it does not reach an agreement with – does not abide by this agreement with Baghdad. If it just sells oil on its own it’ll get more revenue from that. So why get less money from Baghdad? So there is in reality no agreement about budget sharing, which means that the Kurdistan region won’t see any part of any loan that the Iraqi Government might conclude which the U.S. has guaranteed.
So my question: Are you involved in any effort to resolve this dispute between Baghdad and Erbil and are you hopeful of a resolution?
MR TONER: So these discussions between Baghdad or between – well, frankly, Baghdad and the KRG on budgetary issues are an internal matter – an internal Iraqi matter – and so, I have to refer you to the Government of Iraq. I think we’re encouraged by what we would view as the unprecedented cooperation that’s been shown between Baghdad and the KRG in the fight – in the overall fight against Daesh and the liberation of Mosul, which is ongoing, as you know. And we believe that the sovereign loan guarantee will help the Government of Iraq meet its – the needs of all Iraqis, and by all Iraqis I mean including those in the Kurdistan Region.
So to sum up, internal matter for them to discuss, but we hope that this – as I said, this arrangement would benefit and meet the needs of all Iraqis, including those in Kurdistan Region.
QUESTION: Well, if one had a less benign view of the – what Baghdad might – might do and was not hopeful that it would share the money with the Kurdistan Region, are there other ways to address this problem? Because the need of the Kurdistan Region is not less than that of Baghdad, and maybe something like guaranteeing a loan to – would you consider guaranteeing a loan to Erbil just like you did to Baghdad?
MR TONER: I don’t think we’re at that point. I don’t think that’s something we’re necessarily looking at. Look, I mean, as I said, we’ve signed this loan. We believe it should be to the benefit of all Iraqis, and that includes the citizens or the people of the Kurdistan Region. But as you well know, the United States has also taken measures to help the Kurdistan Regional Government and the people there. I think we’ve provided over $1 billion in humanitarian emergency assistance through the – our Bureau of Population, Migration, and Resource – or Refugees, rather. And the majority of those funds have gone to the Kurdistan Region.
But we’re not talking about another loan guarantee at this point that I’m aware of. We expect this to be resolved internally.
QUESTION: Well, let me formulate – last way of formulating it.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Because, as the United States did guarantee this loan, assuming that Baghdad will, in fact, get a considerable loan from someplace guaranteed by the United States, is it your intent to use your influence with Baghdad to make sure that that money is also shared with the Kurdistan Region?
MR TONER: Well, as you note, it is an – it is a loan, and that does give us some degree of influence on how it’s used. I think I would just stay where I was, which is I thought I was very clear on the fact that we believe that this money should be shared and should be available to all Iraqis, and that includes the Kurdistan Region. Okay? I’ll stop there.
MR TONER: Yeah, please. Yeah.
QUESTION: During yesterday’s briefing on the context of political transition in Syria, Kirby said that it’s a UN-led process, and opposition and the regime begin to have a discussion about what a political transition can look like in Syria. I was wondering where PYD stands for State Department in this process.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Like, do you consider PYD as a part of opposition? And also if State Department would support PYD to take part in any meeting organized by UN-led process.
MR TONER: Okay. Sorry, so just to make sure I heard – so you’re talking about how the PYD would fit into any kind of a political process.
QUESTION: If it’s opposition and the regime --
MR TONER: Yes, of course. And then the other question was whether we would participate in that.
QUESTION: Whether you would support PYD taking part --
MR TONER: -- if we would support --
QUESTION: -- in this process.
MR TONER: Ah-ha, of course. I see. Well, look, first of all, as we’ve said very often over many, many, frankly, years, we believe that a UN-sponsored political solution is the only way to resolve the conflict in Syria and end the now six-year-old war there. And our position has not changed. So we would like nothing more than to see this political negotiations back up and running in Geneva, because ultimately, as I said, that’s what’s going to, we believe, lead to some kind of process and political transition that is in the interests of the Syrian people.
Now, who participates in that, that’s really for the groups involved and the Syrian people to determine. What our position has been, broadly speaking and addressing your specific question, is that the Syrian Kurds – that this process has to include all Syrians, and that includes the Syrian Kurds.
QUESTION: So you are saying the PYD can take part on the table?
MR TONER: At some point, they have to be a part of this process, is our consideration.
QUESTION: And one more question.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Washington Post published an article couple days ago on training program of Syrian Democratic Forces.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The article points that during the training program, recruits must learn the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, who is the leader of the terrorist group PKK. I would like to know if State Department aware of how these classes on this training program have been designed.
MR TONER: Sure. So I’m not aware of the – I’m aware that the – of the article, and the different vignettes or stories conveyed in it. I can’t speak to whether in fact that’s the case or not. I can’t verify that. What I can say is – with regard to the question of whether we provide support to the Kurdish military groups, the YPG and the PYD, we provide some support, but it’s tactical support to Syrian Democratic Forces, and that’s focused on defeating Daesh – nothing else.
QUESTION: But the article also points that during the classes, the American advisers also present the same. So basically, the American advisers that are being sent by the Washington also takes part in the class, during the class.
MR TONER: Well, again, what I can say is that we do have advisers on the ground. We’ve talked about that before, and they are working – I said, as providing support, some of it tactical support, for these different groups who have been very effective at going after Daesh and destroying it and dislodging it from the territory it’s holding in northern Syria. But – and I think Kirby was very clear on this the other day – we regard the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization, and we support Turkey in its efforts to confront that organization. And we strongly condemn the PKK’s actions to harm or kill Turkish security forces.
QUESTION: One last one.
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Have you received any report from these advisers that during the classes, very strong anti-Turkish rhetoric is used in these training programs? Have you received such reports?
MR TONER: I have not. I’m not aware of it personally. I just don’t have that sense of it. Again, I think it’s important, and I just want to make very clear that – because – and it’s not just some of the things in this article, but other things we’ve been seeing circulating – we do not provide weaponry, weapons to the YPG. We provide them with tactical support, air support for some of their operations. We do that out of our belief that they are a very capable fighting force, as are other Syrian groups, like the Syrian Arabs and the Syrian Turkmen, in going after ISIL and going after Daesh. There is no other secondary reason for any kind of support we would offer these groups. And we’re mindful – sorry, just to finish – and we’re mindful of the sensitivities. Obviously, we’re mindful of Turkey’s concerns about this group. Sorry, go ahead.
QUESTION: And no weapon, but is State Department also aware of the curriculum of these training programs, I mean, what’s being taught to recruits?
MR TONER: I’m sorry, one more – one last time?
QUESTION: I was wondering if State Department aware of the curriculum, the schedule of these training programs, what’s being taught to the --
MR TONER: I wouldn’t be able to speak to that. I just don’t know. It might be a question better directed to the Department of Defense.
MR TONER: I’ll get to you. Yeah. I’ll get to you, I’ll get to you. Yeah, please.
QUESTION: Thank you. Follow-up. Few months ago, Secretary of Defense, Mr. Carter, was on the Hill. And he was basically telling I think Senator Graham that U.S. ended giving weaponry support to Syrian Kurds. Do you think there is some --
MR TONER: No, I’m sorry. I don’t have his testimony in front of me. I think what we have done is we’ve provided equipment to some of the vetted Syrian Arab elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces. And that equipment has included ammunition, other tactical equipment, to assist in their counter-Daesh operations. But those are vetted Syrian Arab groups. We’ve not provided that I’m aware of any military hardware of weaponry to Kurdish forces.
QUESTION: On Syria. Turkish forces and Turkey-backed forces are still sieging al-Bab.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: It has been I think four weeks now. Do you have any update on the coordination with the Turkish forces around --
MR TONER: Sure. I do – actually, a little bit more detail I think I can provide. As you know and you noted, we have been supporting Turkish operations in northern Syria to help secure its border, to help counter the flow of foreign fighters, and that’s been pretty successful. In fact, the Secretary was citing this in his remarks earlier today. And that’s been through airstrikes, intel – critical intelligence – and we’ve also partnered with Turkish forces on the ground. But specifically with regard to al-Bab, the coalition has now provided intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support – what we call ISR support – to Turkish – to our Turkish partners, but to Turkish forces. And we’re poised now to provide additional support as these operations continue.
We’re consulting with our Turkish counterparts on this, how to do it on a regular basis and to maximize, I guess, the overall effect of our operations to counter ISIL on as many fronts as possible, because that’s part of it. We want to put as much pressure as we can collectively on Daesh or on ISIL to ensure their rapid military defeat. So we’re committed to defeating ISIL in al-Bab and helping support Turkey and Turkish forces as they conduct those operations.
QUESTION: Final question on Turkey: There’s a – these wide-ranging constitution changes right now are being debated at the parliament. I think so far one or two articles passed, and there is a criticism that this is basically changing the system but also the regime of the country, especially on the separation of powers. What’s your view on those changes?
MR TONER: I would say that obviously we’re watching it closely as a partner and as an ally of Turkey’s, but I’m not going to wade into what is an internal matter between the Turkish parliament and the people to decide.
QUESTION: A question about (inaudible)?
QUESTION: But if the --
MR TONER: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: The criticism is that basically the regime change in Turkey – the democracy is about values, and as far as we know, the partnership between Turkey and U.S. and NATO and the Western community is based on also the values. If these changes are changing and basically making a different country, isn’t that something about universal values and --
MR TONER: I mean, sure, and we’ve talked about this before. The value of Turkey’s democracy, as we’ve said, matters to us, and I think it matters to the Turkish people, and we’re mindful of that. And I also don’t want to – we don’t want to attempt to sway what is a democratic process right now, a debate ongoing in the country, but of course we’re mindful of Turkey’s democratic values and our desire to see those maintained.
Please, go ahead.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- what you were saying before about the support for the Kurdish fighters and the SDF.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: If the PYD is not the PKK, why won’t you arm them? You’re arming the --
MR TONER: It’s a fair question.
QUESTION: You’re arming the Arab elements of the SDF --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- but the majority are Kurds. You’re not arming them --
MR TONER: It’s a fair question.
QUESTION: -- so you must have concerns about them.
MR TONER: Sure, sure. Sure, sure. Well, a couple of points, but I think overall – and we’ve said this all along – is that while we believe that the focus of the YPD is on defeating Daesh, and we’re helping them as we – as they take that on, as I said, through tactical support, we’re also mindful of others’ views – and by “others” I mean the Turkish Government’s viewpoint – and the sensitivities around the YPD.
QUESTION: An additional follow-up to that?
MR TONER: Of course. Please. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Yeah. You answered the question earlier about the PYD involvement in the Syrian political process, and you said there needs to be all Syrians involved in this political process --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- including the PYD. Are you aware or what’s the position of other members of the Syrian support group, like Turkey, Iran, Russia on that issue of PYD representation? Is it the same or is it different?
MR TONER: I don’t want to speak on behalf of or on the part of other members of the ISSG. Look, they weren’t part of this vetted Syrian opposition, moderate opposition that was put forward. You remember early on in the ISSG process there was this group that was put forward. But I think it’s always been our consideration – and, frankly, it’s just kind of, if nothing else, a realistic assessment of the fact that the YPG is – YPD, rather – is a force on the ground, is a representative group, and their voice will need to be heard in any kind of long-term solution to the situation in Syria. And it’s in that spirit that we say that if there’s going to be…a political process that leads to a political transition, a more democratic one, that’s going to have to be accepted by all of the Syrian people.
QUESTION: But have you discussed this with any of the other members of the ISSG yet?
MR TONER: I mean, I – I can imagine it has been talked about, yes.
QUESTION: Mark, can you --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: -- Asia, please?
MR TONER: Sure, sure.
MR TONER: No hurry. I’m here all week. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) On the China, South Korea, Japan.
MR TONER: Of course.
MR TONER: On – I’m sorry, what were you talking about? The --
QUESTION: Chinese military aircraft, they infiltrate nation’s – the Air Defense Identification Zones of South Korea and Japan yesterday.
MR TONER: Yeah, I think we’ve seen reports about this. I don’t have any particular comment on it. Obviously, we’d have to look more into the incident and to determine who was at fault.
QUESTION: Do you think that this is the military demonstration against U.S., maybe China --
MR TONER: Do I think it’s what? A Chinese --
QUESTION: Do you think, yeah, this is a Chinese military demonstration against the United States and Japan?
MR TONER: Again, I’d have to look more into the incident to find out what exactly happened. Again, I’m aware of reports. Look, I mean, I would hope not. As we’ve been very clear about our operations in the Pacific, we believe in freedom of navigation, we believe in the right for any government to fly, sail, whatever, in international waters, but we also don’t want to see any kind of escalation of tensions in the region. In fact, just the opposite; we want to work with all parties and all governments in the region to try to de-escalate and create mechanisms by which any kind of assertion of territorial aggression or whatever would be determined through a diplomatic process.
QUESTION: Why United States didn’t look at it clearly? Because this is very serious issue because China is actually --
MR TONER: Again, I just don’t have – I apologize, I just don’t have details in front of me. I’m aware of it; I just don’t have any reaction for you. If we do, I’ll let you know, okay?
QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: May I have another follow-up?
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: Yeah. There’s also another report said that the Chinese aircraft carrier is heading back to its base, but sailing through, passing through, the Taiwan Strait. Are you aware of it?
MR TONER: You’re talking about the aircraft carrier that --
QUESTION: Yes, the Liaoning.
MR TONER: Yeah. Again, I’m not particularly aware of that. I would just almost say the same thing, which is that the United States recognizes the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and the airspace that’s guaranteed to all countries in accordance with international law. So provided they’re in accordance with those laws and operating within international waters, we wouldn’t have a problem.
QUESTION: Do you see this operation as escalating or de-escalating tensions?
MR TONER: As I said, I hope not. Part of our overall strategy within that area of the Pacific and Asia is to try to de-escalate, is to – we want to, as I said, create mechanisms for governments, for countries, to talk through some of these issues that they have with – regarding claims and whatever, and to try to create, as I said, diplomatic mechanisms to deal with these issues. We certainly don’t want to see shows of force or any kind of escalation.
QUESTION: Is Taiwan Strait sort of the international sea, from your perspective?
MR TONER: I’m not sure.
MR TONER: Yeah. Please, yeah.
QUESTION: One final on North Korea.
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: At the event this morning that Secretary Kerry spoke at, former Secretary of State Albright, talking about North Korea, referred to Kim Jong-un as, quote, “a nutcase.” How does the current Administration characterize the North Korean leader?
MR TONER: I’ll refrain from that kind of colorful assessment, but I think, obviously, we’re very concerned about both the North Korean leader’s behavior, but the behavior of his regime writ large, its intent on pursuing nuclear capabilities that is creating instability, to put it mildly, in the region, and raising the concerns – legitimate concerns of not just along the Korean Peninsula, but among other countries, notably China, indeed the U.S., Japan, and others. And so we’re – it’s one of those issues that, when this Administration transitions to the new administration, is going to remain a serious concern and a serious challenge that we need to address.
QUESTION: No, one more on North Korea.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: North Korean high-ranking officials, defectors – his name is Thae Yong Ho – recently, he confessioned and have also a news conference in South Korea. He said the Six-Party Talks is not working for the – remove – give up North Korean nuclear weapons. Do you think we need still Six-Party Talks? Is --
MR TONER: Do I think we need to --
QUESTION: Six-Party Talks for the result of the nuclear --
MR TONER: I’m sorry, just the nut of your question: You’re saying do I think we need to move beyond that --
MR TONER: -- or to leave it behind as a – as kind of a --
QUESTION: For – to Six-Party Talks --
MR TONER: Yeah. I don’t think any – I don’t think we’re quite there yet. I don’t think we’re ready to do that. I think that we’re trying to address the challenge of North Korea along multiple lines of effort, one of which, as you know, is sanctions. We’ve now got the most rigorous sanctions regime in place against North Korea ever, but as we often say too, it’s – they’re only as strong as they are implemented, and so that’s what we’re working specifically with China to address, but with all countries so that these very strong sanctions – they feel the pinch, so to speak.
We’re still hoping – the Six-Party Talks are a mechanism that could potentially bring North Korea back into discussions about its – addressing international concerns about its nuclear program. So I don’t want to claim that structure as – is dead and needs to be shelved; far from it. But I think – and then again, of course, providing for the security of our allies and partners in the region and sending a clear message that we’re committed to providing that security. I think all of these efforts are worth pursuing. Which of them may ultimately turn North Korea around and convince the regime that it’s in its interest to address the international community’s concerns, I can’t say.
QUESTION: He also said that Kim Jong-un is the nuclear weapon, so – Kim Jong-un never give up nuclear weapons, never give up to develop the nuclear weapons.
MR TONER: I mean, again, I just – we’re very concerned about North Korea’s bad behavior and --
QUESTION: Therefore we have wasting time for the Six-Party Talks because we give them – they have plenty of time to develop nuclear weapons since 1993.
MR TONER: Well, again, I think we’re – I wouldn’t say we’re wasting time. We’re looking at a variety of ways to make them see the light, but thus far, we’ve been unsuccessful. I agree.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Mark, Madam Nisha Desai is in India meeting with high-level Indian officials, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the President of India Mukherjee. And she praised the U.S.-India relations and also, because of her efforts and hard work as far as relations between U.S.-India, she was today – actually, India time – confirmed or awarded for the highest award anybody can receive under the administration.
And also, yesterday, at the Indian embassy, Ambassador Sarna and the panelists, they praised the Indian and U.S. relations and also what they said, that Rich – Ambassador Richard Verma also doing a great job. My question here: Any comments as far as her award from the Indian Government and also her efforts or the Ambassador Verma’s efforts? And where do we go from here, after two weeks, as far as U.S.-India relations are concerned?
MR TONER: I’m sorry. Who received the award? The person – I didn’t hear the first --
QUESTION: Madam Nisha Desai, Nisha Biswal.
MR TONER: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Look, I mean, it’s – that’s wonderful that she was given that award. I think that U.S.-India relations have been strengthened throughout these past eight years of the Obama Administration. It’s obviously a key – a core relationship for the United States. And I think in terms of where that relationship goes, the sky’s the limit, both economically, security, what have you. I think Ambassador Verma’s done a tremendous job as well. And I think the new administration was clearly recognizing – you’ve even seen some comments from the president-elect – of the importance that India plays not just in the region but in the global mix. And as I said, it’s resource-rich. It’s playing an outsized role in global issues. And so I think we’re going to continue to work hard to strengthen that relationship going forward, no matter who’s president.
QUESTION: And finally --
MR TONER: Yeah. Let’s --
QUESTION: -- Ambassador Verma also, in his end of the year or review of the year relations, also he emphasized how important the two countries have gone during this Administration and during his leadership at the U.S. Embassy in India. Any word for him or his leadership?
MR TONER: As I said, I know Richard. He’s a very good man and a very good ambassador. And I can’t think of anyone who could do a better job at strengthening that bilateral relationship.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Russians, obviously, protested angrily. The – I don’t know whether you want to counter-protest their protest, but two of the names that you – on the list, Mr. Lugavoi and Mr. Kovtun, were accused by the British Government of having poisoned Mr. Litvinenko, a freelance former spy in London 10 years ago. The British inquiry also named the man who ordered – or it said approved of the assassination – Mr. Vladimir Putin. Was any discussion made about putting Mr. Putin’s name on the Magnitsky list? This is your last chance. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: So as with all designations, the U.S. Government relies on multiple credible sources of information. Look, I think – how will I put this? – I think we’ll continue to examine this and other cases involving gross violations of human rights, determine whether we have any – enough sufficient information indicating that other individuals linked to these cases meet the Magnitsky Act’s criteria.
QUESTION: But they’re acting on behalf of a Russian Government, which has --
MR TONER: I understand. I think I’ll leave it there. I think we’re going to continue to look hard at – and as you noted, we did publish I think five new individuals added to the list yesterday.
QUESTION: And that’s like an annual update, isn’t it?
MR TONER: It is. It is.
QUESTION: So that’s the last --
MR TONER: It is.
QUESTION: -- batch that this Administration will put on.
MR TONER: It is. It is. It is. I mean, I’m tempted to be – to respond to the first aspect of your question, which was – you had mentioned – well, you had mentioned the Russian Government’s – I think the Kremlin’s --
QUESTION: And the individuals themselves in Moscow.
MR TONER: -- indignation about the state of U.S.-Russia relations and the kind of implication that we’re just doing this, striking out at Russia, to further harm U.S.-Russian relations. And frankly, I find this kind of like look back in sorrow act and rhetoric a little bit overblown and hard to stomach. I mean, we’re carrying out sanctions – the Magnitsky Act, the actions we took a week ago, two weeks ago, regarding Russia’s cyberattack on U.S. electoral processes and continued harassment of our diplomats, and then going back further, the sanctions that we have about – or have still in place regarding Ukraine and Crimea are all taken for a reason. And it’s not just to poke a stick at Russia. It’s meant to draw attention to some of their actions that we believe run counter to international law and the international community’s standards. And we’re not backing away from any of those actions that we’ve taken. And in fact, it’s been Russia that has taken actions specifically that have damaged bilateral relations, and we talked a little bit about them when we took – when we announced some of the actions two weeks ago – that they’ve closed down all of our American spaces; they’ve harassed our diplomats; they’ve shut down some of our bilateral exchanges, like the Flex Program, which was a hugely successful high school student exchange program, for no reason other than, I think, just to strike back.
And so I don’t want to overplay this or whatever, but – or overstate this, but I think it’s a bit hard to listen to some of the rhetoric that we’ve heard from various Russian spokespeople about our intentions here. Our intentions, as I said, are to use these sanctions, to use some of these actions, to call attention to Russia’s bad behavior but also to respond to Russia’s aggressive actions in the cyber area and against our diplomats. So I’ll leave it there.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:24 p.m.)