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Secretary Antony J. Blinken and Tongan Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku at a Joint Press Availability – United States Department of State

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAVAMEILIKU:  (In Tongan.)

It is a great honor to warmly welcome to the Kingdom of Tonga the Secretary of State of the United States of America, Mr. Antony Blinken.  The visit today by Secretary Blinken is historic.  It is the first visit by a sitting U.S. secretary of state to Tonga.  It is the highest-level visit we have received from the United States Government in our recent history.  There is a clear indication to us of the desire and commitment by the United States of America to strengthen relations between our two countries.

Mr. Secretary, once again, thank you for visiting Tonga.

Ladies and gentlemen, Secretary Blinken and I have just concluded a rich but also very frank exchange on key areas of partnership.  Our partnership is grounded on our shared respect for democracy, the rule of law, and the rights and freedom of others.  We covered many aspects of our partnership, including the need for countries to raise commitment to tackling climate crisis.  We agreed that education is an important component.  In addition, we acknowledged a changing global landscape, the impacts of conflict, and the strategic importance of Pacific Island region.  We agreed that working together, guided by strategies such as the Pacific 2050 Strategy, would be key to ensuring that our – ours remain a region of peace, security, and prosperity.

The United States and the Kingdom of Tonga enjoy a longstanding and enduring partnership.  A strength of that partnership is the people-to-people links, and we appreciate and acknowledge the important and valuable contribution from the United States Peace Corps.

Last year we celebrated a milestone – 50 years of diplomatic relations with the United States – and welcomed the announcement by Vice President Kamala Harris of the United States decision to establish its first diplomatic mission here in the kingdom.  Today I congratulated the Secretary for their work undertaken together with our officials and who worked tirelessly, might I add, to ensure that the U.S. embassy was set up in record time.  In May this year, we hoisted for the very first time the flag of the United States in Nuku’alofa, at a remarkable and historic event marking the establishment of the embassy.  Secretary Blinken is in Nuku’alofa to preside over the dedication ceremony for the embassy.

I told the Secretary that the establishment of the U.S. embassy and his presence here today is a testament to the fact that our partnership is growing from strength to strength.  The people of the Kingdom of Tonga and his majesty’s government are deeply grateful for the United States Government assistance towards our recovery efforts, especially for the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption and the ensuing tsunami.  We’ll proceed to the dedication ceremony of the U.S. embassy, another milestone in the Tonga-U.S. relations.

Our partnership enjoys a strong defense component.  Tonga has contributed significantly to international peace and security, particularly in support of the United States troops, firstly deploying soldiers to Iraq, and then, in 2010, Tonga deployed the first contingent of 55 soldiers to Afghanistan in support of the British armed forces’ efforts in the International Security Assistance Force.  But our defense relations go back even further.  World War II – Tonga hosted U.S. military forces on the main island.  We became a major transit hub for Allied shipping lanes during the war.  At one point there were more U.S. Marines in Tonga than there were Tongans.  (Laughter.)  And this is a testimony to how two countries, whether big or small, can and must work together to pursue our shared values for freedom and democracy.

More importantly, it is a reminder of the enduring links Tonga and the United States share.  The Secretary and I had the opportunity to look at a range of renewed and strengthened areas for our partnership.  I asked the Secretary to expedite the visa processing facilities here in Nuku’alofa.  The high cost associated with visa applications to the United States during the process (inaudible) puts great strains on Tongan families.  We also discussed working together to mitigate problems with IUU, deportees, and also trafficking in persons, and of course cyber security.

Finally, we agreed to continue high-level dialogue between our Pacific leaders and President Biden.  This will be key to ensuring our partnership and shared agenda for our region continue to be strengthened.  And I look forward to our second U.S.-Pacific summit between our Pacific leaders and President Biden in September.  This is very important given the fact that Tonga will be taking up the chairmanship of the Pacific Islands Forum for the next year.

Mr. Secretary, once again, thank you for making time in your very busy schedule to visit Tonga, and I look forward to our continued efforts to achieve shared goals for the benefit of both our peoples.  (In Tongan.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAVAMEILIKU:  And now I’d like to invite the Secretary to make a statement.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much.  Good morning, everyone.  And let me first thank the Honorable Hu’akavameiliku for his hospitality.  It’s no surprise, Honorable Prime Minister, that your country is known as the “Friendly Islands.”  We’ve experienced that even in the brief time that we’ve been here already.

I am very happy to return to the Pacific Islands – this is my third time in the Pacific Islands as Secretary of State – but to make my first visit to Tonga and to make my first visit to Tonga.  And indeed, as the honorable prime minister said, this is actually the first visit by a member of the U.S. cabinet to visit Tonga.  We are fellow Pacific nations with an incredibly rich history, as you’ve heard the prime minister allude to, but, as important, a shared future.

President Biden is fully committed to working with Tonga, and with all Pacific Islands, to usher in a new era of even closer collaboration to deliver on the issues that matter most to our people – rooted in mutual respect and mutual trust.

This partnership is vital to making real a shared vision for the region and the broader Indo-Pacific – a region that’s open, that’s free, that’s connected, that’s prosperous, that’s secure, that is resilient.

When we talk about “free and open,” we mean a region where all countries are free to choose their own path and their own partners; where problems are dealt with openly; where rules are reached transparently and applied fairly; where goods, where ideas, where people can move freely and lawfully.

Last year, President Biden launched the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Islands Summit, to bring the voices and perspectives of Pacific Island leaders – including the honorable prime minister – directly to the Oval Office.  And we look very much forward to continuing that work by hosting a second summit in Washington later this year.

At last year’s summit, our countries issued the U.S.-Pacific Partnership Declaration, committing us to work together to address the challenges of our time and to seize the opportunities of our partnership.  As part of that commitment, we announced over $810 million to support programs in the Pacific Islands like Tonga.  That includes nearly half a billion dollars to manage the growing effects of the climate crisis – an immediate, existential challenge in the Pacific; a daily reality in Tonga.

We’re strengthening our partnership on other priorities for Tonga and for the region, including on clean energy and sustainable infrastructure so that we can reach a net zero future; maritime security so that we can ensure a peaceful and stable future for the Pacific; digital transformation so that we can build open, interoperable, reliable, and secure online infrastructure and connect people better; and what we call people-centered development so that we can drive inclusive economic growth that lifts everyone.  These are all areas of focus of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.

To better understand the needs of our Pacific partners and to carry out our shared efforts, we’re building up our diplomatic capacity in the region.  In May, we took a major step in that direction by opening our embassy here in Nuku’alofa, which the prime minister and I will formally dedicate today.  We also set up our embassy in the Solomon Islands.  We’re working to establish posts in Vanuatu and in Kiribati.

Today, as you’ve heard the honorable prime minister say, we discussed concrete ways to carry forward this momentum.  That includes building on our work to strengthen our bilateral relationship, none more significant than opening the new embassy.  We also talked about the importance of the return of the Peace Corps to Tonga.  For over half a century, volunteers have worked alongside local communities to bolster the capacity of teachers, to conserve rainwater, to combat ocean pollution and the erosion of coral reefs, and even turn trash into construction material that can be used for sustainable building.

What’s so powerful about the program, too, is that it has built lifelong bonds between Tongans and thousands of American volunteers, and later today I’ll have an opportunity to meet with the newest cohort of Peace Corps volunteers.

The honorable prime minister and I also talked about how we can strengthen the engagement of other partners on shared Pacific priorities.  Another initiative last year launched by President Biden is something called Partners in the Blue Pacific, to better coordinate efforts on issues that matter most to communities across the region.  When I travel after here to New Zealand and then to Australia, I’ll discuss with my counterparts ways to advance that work, including on maritime security and on illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.  We know that this is in many places devastating livelihoods, doing terrible damage to ecosystems, and together with our Partners in the Blue Pacific an area where we’re going to intensely focus our efforts.

Later today, when we dedicate the new embassy, the United States and Tonga will mark a new chapter in our relationship.  I look forward to continuing to build a closer, stronger future between our countries so that we together can deliver for our people not just now but for generations to come.  Thank you very much.

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAVAMEILIKU:  And now we’re going to open up the floor for questions.  We’re only going to take four questions, two from the Tonga press and two from the foreign press.  And with that we’ll probably alternate, one from the Tonga press and then the foreign press.  And so the first one, give it to the local press if you want to.

QUESTION:  (In Tongan.)  Mr. Secretary, Mr. Prime Minister.  My question is directed at the U.S. Secretary.  How confident are you with your relationship with Tonga in light of other interests from other countries in the Pacific?  And then coming to what you just said, you are opening up or you are witnessing the opening of the embassy of the United States in Tonga.  Then after that you’re going to appoint a permanent ambassador to Tonga, resident here in Tonga.  What will be your priority after that to Tonga, politics or immigration?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much for the question.  First, with regard to the embassy, we very much look forward to having a permanently confirmed ambassador to Tonga.  That’s something we’re very actively working on now.  My expectation is we’ll have someone to nominate in very short order, and then, of course, we have to work through the United States Senate to get that person confirmed.  But you will see someone as ambassador permanently running the embassy here in Tonga.

And I have to say the very fact of that embassy is both symbolic and practical – symbolic in that it attests to the importance that we attach to the relationship between the United States and Tonga; practical because in terms of doing so much of what you’ve heard the honorable prime minister and myself talk about today, that will happen through the day-in, day-out contact that we’re able to have as a result of having an embassy here.  The prime minister referenced the historic summit meeting that we had in Washington with President Biden over three days where we had leaders from Pacific Island countries come together in Washington, but as I shared with the prime minister, as important as those three days are, it’s the 362 days that follow in the year that make all the difference in terms of actually following through on the work that we’re doing together.

What President Biden is intensely focused on is listening – listening to our partners, understanding what it is on a very practical level that we can do as partners to help make a difference in the lives of people in the Pacific Islands.  And that’s the agenda that we have and that’s the agenda that the embassy will carry out.

We’ve talked about the imperative of combating climate change.  The United States is determined to be a strong partner in that effort.  We’ve made in the United States the biggest historic investment in combating climate change – through something we call the Inflation Reduction Act – in history, but the benefits of those investments will be felt around the world.  We’re also making sure that we’re doing our part in contributing to the necessary funds so that countries are able to help pay for adaptation and build resilience.  We talked a lot about that today and the need to do even more here in the Pacific Islands.

We’re the – historically the largest emitter in the world.  We’re now the number two emitter, so we take very seriously our responsibilities both to take the steps necessary to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius but also to make sure that our partners have the resources they need, the technical expertise and the technology that they need to confront this challenge.  Through the partnership in the Blue Pacific as well, bringing in other countries, we’re engaged in initiatives that also will help deal with climate change.

We talked about the challenge of illegal fishing – unreported, unregulated fishing.  As I mentioned, this is something we know is doing terrible damage to people’s livelihoods, to ecosystems.  It also is potentially a threat to security.  We’re building up abilities to deal with that, to identify it, to deal with it, to build what we call maritime domain awareness so that all countries in the Pacific have an understanding about what’s going on in the waters that surround them so that they can protect the livelihoods and protect their security.

We’re looking at ways to strengthen our education partnerships.  We talked about that as well today.  We’re gratified that we have 70,000 Tongans living in the United States.  We have that powerful connectivity as well.

But the most important thing is through our diplomacy that we really understand what it is that is a priority for people here throughout the Pacific Islands, and what we can do as partners in a very concrete way to help meet those needs and meet those priorities.  We had the terrible disaster with the volcanic eruption and the tsunami.  We were gratified to be able to be of assistance.  But now, as a practical matter, one of the initiatives we have is to do what we would call humanitarian warehousing, to make sure that the supplies and other things that are – that might be needed in a future emergency are readily available on hand so that a response can be immediate and doesn’t have to wait.

Anyway, there are a long list of things that we’re working on together, but it’s all driven by focusing on what’s concrete, what can really make a difference in people’s lives.  I was recently in Indonesia, and there’s a proverb in Indonesia that says God has given us one mouth but two ears.  And that emphasizes the importance of really listening to each other and making sure that we understand what it is our friends need and how we can help.

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAVAMEILIKU:  And then I’ll take the first one from the foreign press.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Vivian.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary.  (Inaudible), thank you for hosting us in your beautiful country.  I’ll start with you, a quick question.  The Secretary mentioned the Solomon Islands.   The Solomon Islands entered into a security pact also with China last year.  Tonga has one of three militaries here in the Pacific Island region.  And so can you talk about whether or not our country is exploring deepening its security relationship with China, whether or not a security pact similar to the one the Solomon Islands struck last year is on the table here, or whether or not you’ve chosen to align more with the U.S. and its regional allies like Australia.

And for you, Mr. Secretary, two questions, if you will.  Chinese President Xi Jinping removed his hand-picked foreign minister after less than seven months on the job.  How might this impact efforts to build on the recent progress you made during your trip to Beijing last month?

And secondly, Israeli protesters were met in the streets this week by water cannons after Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began overhauling the country’s judicial system.  The U.S. has long praised Israel as a valued democratic partner in the region.  What do the recent events in Israel tell you about the state of Israel’s democracy?

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAVAMEILIKU:  I’ll start and then —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Please.

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAVAMEILIKU:  We recognize Solomon Islands sovereignty.  With regard to the security arrangement or agreement, we haven’t had any discussion on actually having such an agreement in place.  Our relationship is basically right now about development issues such as infrastructure development and so forth.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Vivian, with regard to China, of course it’s China’s sovereign decision to decide who their foreign minister is.  Qin Gang was ambassador to Washington.  I got to know him when he was ambassador.  I had constructive conversations with him in his role as foreign minister, and I wish him well.  But I’ve also known Wang Yi for more than a decade.  I’ve met with him repeatedly in my current capacity as Secretary of State and including, as you know, just recently in Jakarta, and I anticipate being able to work well with him, as we have in the past.  We’ll continue to engage him.  We’ll continue to engage other Chinese officials.

As we’ve said, it is important for us to manage this relationship responsibly.  That starts with diplomacy.  That starts with engaging.  And I will work with whoever the relevant Chinese counterpart is.

And I’m sorry, on Israel.  Look, I think what we’re seeing is an extraordinarily vibrant democracy, and we’re seeing that on a daily basis.  We’re seeing people make known their views.  As a great friend of Israel’s we’ve made known our own views, and as President Biden has said, when it comes to something as significant as the reforms that they’re engaging in, it would be preferable to do it in a way that builds consensus, that brings as many people along as possible.  That’s the way to have something that’s genuinely sustainable.  But I think what we’re seeing in Israel now remains a reflection of its very strong, very vibrant democracy.

QUESTION:  Greetings, Mr. Secretary.  My question is on the current geopolitical climate in the Pacific.  It’s a given fact that the U.S. is very much more present now in the Pacific, the Pacific Partnership Strategy, the newly established U.S. embassy in Tonga, the official visits.  My question is:  Why now?  Some are thinking or even saying that it’s more of a U.S. agenda and less what Tonga wants from the U.S.  What is your response to that kind of statement?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  The simple reality is this:  We’re a Pacific nation.  It’s something that President Biden feels very strongly and has been very consistent in his own approach even before he was president, and we very much see the future in the Indo-Pacific region writ large.  So this is a place where we’re going to be present, we’re going to be engaged, because we have not only a long-shared history, but more important in a sense now for all of us is we see a shared future.  And this is not about any other country.  It is about the partnerships that we believe it’s in our interests to build with countries throughout the Pacific.

We’ve had, as I think you’ve seen, sustained engagement throughout this administration.  I mentioned this is my third trip to the Pacific Islands in this job.  We’ve opened new embassies now in the Solomon Islands and Tonga.  We’re looking as well at Vanuatu and Kiribati.  We’ve developed initiatives both on a bilateral basis with our friends in Tonga but also through the Pacific Islands Forum, through the Partners of the Blue Pacific.  And as I was saying earlier, our intense focus is on how can we be the best and strongest partners in terms of being responsive to the needs of people throughout the Pacific islands.  That’s why we’ve been spending so much time.  It’s why we’re increasing our diplomatic presence so that we can really on a day-in, day-out basis hear and listen to the needs and challenges, and that’s then reflected in the work that we’re actually doing.  And what I hear from countries in the region – and I think my colleagues hear from countries in the region as they’re traveling – is that people would like partnerships with the United States.  And simply put, we’re trying to answer that call.

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAVAMEILIKU:  If I could just add to what the Secretary mentioned, the fact that, I mean, Tonga, we have been asking the United States to actually have a presence here for a very long time.  And last year was the 50th year of our diplomatic ties between the United States and Tonga.  And Vice President Kamala Harris actually announced the setting up of the embassy.  And we had an opportunity to – actually had a meeting in Papua New Guinea a couple months back and it kind of developed from there whereby we would like to actually have a high-level visit from the United States so we can have some discussion on the bilateral arrangement, not just the dedication of the embassy but an opportunity to have a discussion on the issues that the Secretary mentioned and I alluded to and I think that actually help in strengthening our relation.  We’re having a better understanding of the expectation between our two countries.

I think one from —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Michael Birnbaum, Washington Post.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks.  Michael Birnbaum from the Washington Post.  Mr. Prime Minister, you mentioned just now your shared commitment to freedom and democracy shared with the United States.  The outgoing president of Micronesia said in March that China had been engaging in political warfare in his country on a range of issues.  Looking at your debt situation among other issues, I was wondering if you feel China is doing the same thing in your country.  And how worried are you – separately, how worried are you about conflict between the United States and China in your region?

And for you, Mr. Secretary, to get into this building today, you had to walk under a sign that said China aid.  This building was built with a grant from the Chinese Government.  We’ve seen signs of Chinese presence all across this island, this country.  Is the United States late to the game here?  And should Tongan citizens expect the U.S. Government to be able to match China’s presence?

Separately – sorry, one last question – we’ve seen the news that Trevor Reed has been injured fighting in Ukraine.  Can you tell us more about his details, his situation, the extent to which the U.S. Government is involved in his care right now?  And are you concerned that this is going to jeopardize your efforts to gain the freedom of Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan?  Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAVAMEILIKU:  I’ll start off.  With regards to our debt to China, we have started officially to actually start paying off our debt to China.  We don’t have any problems or concerns with regards to that.  I’ll pass over to the Secretary the rest of your questions.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Michael, on the first part of the question, we have no objection to the investments by or engagements by any other country, including China.  On the contrary, if it’s done in a productive way, if it really is responsive to the needs of people, if it helps generate a race to the top with others who want to help out, that’s a good thing.  I think the concerns that we’ve had really go to a few things that I think we’ve seen across the board in some of the investments and the imperative of making sure that they’re done transparently, according to the rule of law, with sustainable financing – alluded to the debt situation of some countries – and with respect for the autonomy of aid recipients so that there aren’t political strings attached to any investments that they make.

And again, what I think one of the things that we’ve seen is that as China’s engagement in the region has grown, there has been some, from our perspective, increasingly problematic behavior, including at the same time the assertion of unlawful maritime claims – something that I’ve raised extensively when I was in China – the militarization of disputed features – for example, in the South China Seas, some predatory economic activities, and also investments that are done in a way that can actually undermine good governance and promote corruption.

So it’s not the fact of; it’s the nature of that we think is important to focus on.  But countries make their sovereign decisions about with whom they want to do business or seek investment or assistance.  We respect those sovereign decisions.  But again, we’re concerned about some of the implications in the way that some of this investment is done.  And I would hope that whether it’s China or anyone else that we all do this according to the highest standards, and as I said, we have a race to the top, not a race to the bottom.

With regard to Trevor Reed, yes, so I’ve seen the reports that he was injured in Ukraine.  I don’t have any more information on his condition or status.  But as a general proposition, it underscores why we continue to call on Americans not to travel to Ukraine and not to fight there.

In terms of what the implications are for our efforts to bring home Evan Gershkovich or Paul Whelan, it shouldn’t have any effect.  As I’ve noted before, even with countries where we have profound differences – and almost by definition the countries that are arbitrarily detaining or unlawfully detaining Americans are usually countries with which we have profound differences – we’ve managed to find ways to bring Americans home.  Since the start of this administration, we’ve brought home 29 Americans who have been arbitrarily detained in close to 10 or so countries.  And again, these are countries with which typically we’ve had difficult relations.  So my expectation is that even as we’re dealing with all sorts of other challenges in our relationship with Russia, we will and we are determined to continue to work to bring both Evan and Paul home.

Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER HU’AKAVAMEILIKU:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Thank you, press.  I look forward to seeing you at the embassy.  Malo ‘aupito.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.

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