SECRETARY BLINKEN: Mike Allen.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, welcome back.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good to see you.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for welcoming Axios on HBO into the State Department, the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
QUESTION: So you’ve said that job one for you is restoring partnerships and alliances. That’s been harder than it sounded.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, it was a challenge, especially in the first couple of months. Hard to travel because of COVID, so a lot of it was getting on the phone, starting to re-engage with partners. We’ve finally been able to travel, and I’m finding that there’s been a real thirst and a welcoming of U.S. engagement. I think it’s a reflection of the fact that our partners see the same thing that we do. If you’re looking at all of the really big problems that we’re trying to solve that actually have an impact on our people’s lives – like the pandemic, like climate change, like emerging technologies that are changing lives in different ways – no one country can do it alone. We have to find ways to cooperate, to collaborate, to do it together. So there’s a lot of welcoming of the United States being back in the game.
QUESTION: When you say back in the game, the implication is the previous administration, out of the game.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, look, I’m focused on looking forward. When we’re not engaged, then one of two things is likely to happen. Some other country is likely to try to engage in our place —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: For example, and maybe not in a way that advances are interests and values.
QUESTION: And is that already happening?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’ve certainly seen that. We’ve certainly seen —
QUESTION: With China?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: — China try to fill voids where we’ve been relatively disengaged. Or maybe just as bad, no one does it and then you are likely to have chaos before you have anything else – nature, of course, a vacuum.
QUESTION: Naftali Bennett, who is poised to be the next prime minister of Israel, has said that he’s opposed to a two-state solution. He says that based on security concerns, it would be suicide for Israel. So what’s the path?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, let’s see what actually happens in Israel in terms of the government —
QUESTION: But you agree that that’s expected?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That seems to be expected, but again, I’m not doing politics, I’m going to focus on the policy, so we’ll see. We will work, as we always have, with whatever the Israeli government is. When it comes to two states, our President’s been very clear about this. We see a two-state solution as the best and probably only means to ensure that, going forward, Israel remains not only a secure but a Jewish and democratic state, and the Palestinians have the state to which they’re entitled.
But the conditions right now are not – are not there. We’ve just come off of the violence in Gaza and elsewhere. We’re working very hard not only to make sure that the ceasefire stays in place, but to start to deal with the humanitarian situation in Gaza. And over time, if we can build a little bit more hope, a little bit more trust, a little bit more confidence, maybe then the conditions are in place to re-engage on two states.
QUESTION: The department said in May that you hadn’t personally seen the evidence Israel says it has that Hamas was occupying the tower in Gaza – that they’d took down – that had news organizations including the AP in it. What happens if there turns out to be no smoking gun?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Two things. First, President Biden has been very clear Israel has the right to defend itself and it was on the receiving end of indiscriminate rocket attacks coming from Gaza going after Israeli civilians. And —
QUESTION: So you were fine with that building being taken down?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Any country would defend itself and Israel has the right. However, having said that, Israel as a democracy I think has an added burden to make sure it is doing everything possible to avoid civilian causalities. And that’s what is expected of us; it’s expected of Israel. We have our own experience with this, and I think one of the things that we found ourselves, speaking only for the United States, is that the more transparency you can provide, the more legitimacy you’re going to have.
QUESTION: So based on that, do you think that we’ll see clear evidence?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: All I can tell you is we’ve had information shared in intelligence channels, which I can’t, for obvious reasons, comment on.
QUESTION: Did you find it convincing?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I can’t comment on it. But I do think from our own experience, the more transparency, the better.
QUESTION: China. Can we win an open-ended arms race with Beijing?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, we don’t want to be in an arms race with Beijing or anyone.
QUESTION: We are. We are.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: What we want – no, we’re in a very stiff competition. Look, the relationship with China is both the most complicated and most consequential that we have. There are adversarial aspects to it, there are competitive aspects, there are cooperative aspects. And we have tremendous sources of strength when it comes to each one of those aspects. We have our allies and partners, but most important, we have ourselves.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, what are the implications if Beijing is found to have been covering up a Wuhan lab leak?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We have to get to the bottom of what happened. There’s accountability, but from my perspective the most important thing, and the most important reason we have to get to the bottom of this, is that’s the only way we’re going to be able to prevent the next pandemic, or at least do a better job in mitigating it. What the government didn’t do in the early days and still hasn’t done is given us the transparency we need, the international community – access for inspectors and experts, the sharing of information in real time. That has to happen.
QUESTION: So to get those answers, to do a proper investigation, you’re going to need – the U.S. is going to need access to the labs. Will you demand that? Will you put teeth on it? Will you even go as far as sanctions on China if they keep inspectors out?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think the international community is clear that we have to have – the international community has to have access, it has to have information, it has to have meaningful international —
QUESTION: So what’s the real pressure the U.S. will put on China for access to the lab?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: If China denies the information, denies the access, denies the transparency that’s needed, it is —
QUESTION: And you kind of expect that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, let’s see. Because —
QUESTION: That’s been the history.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Mike, at the end of the day it’s profoundly in China’s interest to do this as well, because, look, it suffered too in the outbreak of this pandemic. It presumably has an interest as well, especially if it purports to be a responsible international actor, to do everything it can to provide all the information it has to make sure we can hopefully prevent this from happening again.
QUESTION: The Trump administration had a number of executive orders cracking down on people who were tied to the Chinese Communist Party – we’re talking about export bans. How are you thinking about that and will you be tougher?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, I think the Trump administration was right to look at that. And we’re —
QUESTION: And to act on it?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And to act on it. And we’re reviewing all of that as we speak. And for example, it’s very important that we not – American companies or individuals – aid and abet, for example, China’s ability to use surveillance technology to repress its own people, or to export that technology to allow other autocratic or authoritarian governments from doing the same thing. I think that’s very important.
QUESTION: Last stop on the tour, Russia. With these cyber attacks, President Putin is thumbing his nose at the U.S. – blatant disrespect. What is the U.S. going to do about it?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, what we’re going to do about it is to do what President Biden has already done, which is to make very clear —
QUESTION: But it’s not working. We’ve had our food supply threatened, we’ve had our energy supply threatened, now transportation threatened.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, there are – we would prefer to have a more stable, predictable relationship with Russia. We’ve made that clear. But we’ve made equally clear that if Russia chooses to act aggressively or recklessly toward us or toward our allies and partners, we’ll respond.
When it comes to these ransomware attacks, of course, we’ve already talked to the Russians about this. One of the things we’re seeing is that criminal enterprises seem to be engaged in these attacks. And it is an obligation on the part of any country, including Russia, if it has a criminal enterprise acting from its territory against anyone else, to do what’s necessary to stop it, to bring it to justice.
QUESTION: And yet, Mr. Secretary, Putin is clearly completely undeterred.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: One of the reasons that the President will be meeting with President Putin in a week’s time is not in spite of these aggressions, these attacks, it’s because of them, to tell him directly and clearly what he can expect from the United States if aggressive, reckless actions toward us continue. Equally, though, to make clear that if Russia by its actions chooses a different course, we would prefer a more stable, predictable relationship. There are things we can do together that would advance the security of our people, the Russian people, people around the world – strategic stability, arms control. So we’re going to explore that. We have to test the proposition, and the best way to do that is for the two presidents to meet face to face.
QUESTION: Are you optimistic that after that summit that there will be a, as you put it, “more stable” relationship?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: This is going to be a test of that proposition. I can’t tell you whether I’m optimistic or not about the results of that test, but it’s important to do that. And also, I don’t think we’re going to know after one meeting, but we’ll have some indications and we’ll see. We’re prepared either way.
QUESTION: What do you mean by prepared?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, as I said, we’re prepared if Russia chooses to continue reckless and aggressive action – we’re prepared to deal with that, as we have – on the other hand, if it chooses a different course, we’re prepared to engage.