Blinken meets Ukraine official, warns Russia on natgas supplies

By Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is watching for signs that Russia may be using energy as a political tool in Europe’s energy crunch, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, adding that Washington was committed to take appropriate action, along with Germany, if Moscow were to take that path.

Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba met at the State Department and signed a charter on a strategic partnership. Discussions focused on Ukraine’s neighbor, Russia, which Kuleba said was already using gas supplies as a weapon.

Blinken said Washington was also concerned by reports of “unusual Russian military activity” near Russia’s border with Ukraine, warning that escalatory or aggressive action would be of concern to the United States.

“Should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine, we are committed, and Germany is committed, to taking appropriate action,” Blinken said, adding that Washington was “watching very carefully for signs” that Russia was using energy as a weapon as it has in the past.

Russia has been accused of holding back energy supplies amid record high gas prices, but Putin has blamed the EU’s energy policy and said Russia can boost supplies to Europe once the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline gets approved.

“Russia could and should take steps to alleviate the energy crunch by increasing gas supplies,” said Blinken.

Washington opposes the $11 billion pipeline, currently nearing completion, which runs under the Baltic Sea to carry gas from Russia’s Arctic region to Germany.

The Biden administration has waived sanctions on the pipeline’s operator and reached an agreement with Germany in July over the pipeline. Germany agreed to take action if Russia uses energy as a weapon in its relations with Ukraine, but the pact did not provide a specific criteria for how that would be judged.

The United States was looking to Germany to “make good on” its promise to make sure that Nord Stream 2 is not a substitute for transit deliveries of gas though Ukraine,” Blinken said.

“What we see is that Russia is already using gas as a weapon,” Kuleba said in response, adding that Ukraine wanted Germany to use its “leverage” over Russia

“Russia should receive a very strong message not only from the United States and from other capitals, but also from Berlin, that this is not the game that will benefit Russia.”

STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP

In the charter signed on Wednesday, the United States vowed to support Ukraine’s efforts to counter armed aggression, economic and energy disruptions and malicious cyber activity by Russia, including by maintaining sanctions on Russia, and applying other relevant measures.

Washington remained committed to assisting Ukraine with continuing its robust training exercises and reiterated that it supported Kyiv’s efforts to maximize its status as a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner.

Kuleba underscored the importance of support from the United States and added that Ukraine would benefit from any potential defense cooperation that would strengthen its capabilities including intelligence sharing or air defense systems.

“We are in a situation where we cannot allow losing or wasting any time and we are looking forward to working with the United States in this field,” he said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis, Daphne Psaledakis and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chris Reese)

U.S. and allies would ‘take action’ if Taiwan attacked – Blinken

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and its allies would take unspecified “action” if China were to use force to alter the status quo over Taiwan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday.

Blinken was asked at a forum hosted by the New York Times whether the United States would step in to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China. He repeated regular U.S. statements that Washington’s role is to make sure the island has the means to defend itself, as is required under U.S. law.

“At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that we’re not alone in this determination to make sure that we preserve peace and stability in that part of the world,” Blinken added.

“There are many countries, both in the region and beyond, that would see any unilateral action to use force to disrupt the status quo as a significant threat to peace and security, and they too would take action in the event that that happens.”

Blinken did not say what sort of action he was referring to.

U.S. President Joe Biden caused a stir last month when he said the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked.

Those remarks appeared to depart from a long held policy of “strategic ambiguity”, not making clear how the United States would respond. But the White House quickly said Biden was not signaling a change in policy, and some analysts dismissed his comments as a gaffe.

The Democratic chairman of the influential House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, last week urged the Biden administration to be less ambiguous about what he called a U.S. obligation to defend Taiwan from attack by China.

Blinken’s remarks came ahead of a planned virtual meeting between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which a source briefed on the matter told Reuters will be held as soon as next week.

Asked if the meeting would happen next week, Blinken said it was “coming up soon” but was not more specific.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. will move forward with reopening its Palestinian mission in Jerusalem -Blinken

By Humeyra Pamuk, Matt Spetalnick and Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday the Biden administration intends to press ahead with its plan to reopen the Jerusalem consulate that traditionally engaged with Palestinians, despite Israeli opposition to such a move.

Blinken reiterated a pledge he originally made months ago on re-establishing the consulate, which had long been a base for diplomatic outreach to the Palestinians before it was closed by President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, in 2018.

But Blinken, speaking at a Washington news conference with visiting Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and United Arab Emirates Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, stopped short of setting a date for reopening the consulate, which would strain relations with Israel’s new ideologically diverse government.

“We’ll be moving forward with the process of opening a consulate as part of deepening of those ties with the Palestinians,” Blinken said at the State Department.

The Biden administration has sought to repair relations with the Palestinians that were badly damaged under Trump.

The consulate was subsumed into the U.S. Embassy that was moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2018 by Trump – a reversal of longtime U.S. policy hailed by Israel and condemned by Palestinians.

The Biden administration says it will reopen the consulate while leaving the embassy in place.

Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in a 1967 war along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as capital of the state they seek.

Blinken spoke in response to a reporter’s question after a trilateral meeting that marked the latest sign of the Biden administration’s embrace of the so-called Abraham Accords, which were widely seen as a diplomatic success for Trump.

The UAE was the first of four Arab states that moved late last year to normalize relations with Israel after decades of enmity. Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco soon followed suit.

Palestinian officials said they felt betrayed by their Arab brethren for reaching deals with Israel without first demanding progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

Some critics said Trump had promoted Arab rapprochement with Israel while ignoring Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

ABRAHAM ACCORDS

Biden administration officials have said the Abraham Accords are no substitute for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, a principle of U.S. policy that the Democratic president has returned to after Trump moved away from it.

But U.S. officials have said the conditions are not right to press for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which collapsed in 2014. Washington has been reluctant to take any action that could weaken an Israeli government it considers more cooperative than the one led by Benjamin Netanyahu, which was unseated in June.

Reopening the consulate, however, would ignite tensions between Washington and its close Middle East ally.

Israel has said it would oppose the move, asserting its sovereignty over Jerusalem and arguing that far-right Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government would be destabilized by the reintroduction of a diplomatic foothold for the Palestinians in the city.

Blinken expressed hope that normalization between Israel and Arab states would be a “force for progress” between Israelis and Palestinians, reaffirmed support for a two-state solution and said both sides “equally deserve to live safely and securely.”

Bin Zayed echoed Lapid in praising the ties their countries have forged and said he would visit Israel soon. But he also insisted that there could only be peace in the region if the Israelis and Palestinians are on “talking terms.”

In a nod to the Palestinians, Lapid said they, like all people, were “entitled to a decent way of life” and Israel’s goal was to work with the Palestinian Authority on that issue. But he offered no specifics.

Lapid, a centrist, reached a power-sharing deal with Bennett that ended Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister. Under the coalition deal, Lapid will replace Bennett as prime minister in 2023.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Maayan Lubell, Daphne Psaledakis, Matt Spetalnick, Simon Lewis, Dan Williams, Lilian Wagdy; writing by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Mark Heinrich and Jonathan Oatis)

Blinken meets Lopez Obrador to soothe thorny U.S.-Mexico relations

By Simon Lewis

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a visit to Mexico on Friday held talks with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, trying to mend fractious ties as the two nations hash out a new security cooperation accord and deal with a jump in migration.

The top U.S. diplomat visits Mexico at a time when the Biden administration is increasingly reliant on its southern neighbor to stem the flow of Latin American migrants heading to the United States.

Blinken’s visit is part of the Biden administration’s first U.S.-Mexico High-Level Security Dialogue, in which the two countries will negotiate a sweeping new agreement on how to tackle everything from drug flows to the United States to the smuggling of U.S.-made guns into Mexico.

Lopez Obrador took Blinken on a mural tour of the National Palace before the two delegations had a working breakfast, where the Mexican leader invited U.S. President Joe Biden to visit.

Blinken said Lopez Obrador’s earlier comments were “exactly in line” with what Biden has in mind for the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

“I’m very inspired by the vision you expressed. The work now we have to do to translate that into reality, into truly a transformational partnership, a shared responsibility,” Blinken said at the start of the breakfast meeting.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland accompanied Blinken, who is also meeting with Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard.

U.S.-Mexico relations suffered a major blow last October when U.S. anti-narcotics agents arrested Mexican former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos, outraging the Mexican government. Cienfuegos was freed, but the detention strained relations and hurt security cooperation.

U.S. officials are touting the new security accord as broader than the previous agreement, the Merida Initiative, under which the United States channeled about $3.3 billion to help Mexico fight crime.

Launched in 2007, the Merida Initiative initially provided military equipment for Mexican forces and later helped train Mexico’s security forces and the judiciary. But Lopez Obrador has been a vocal critic of the program, saying it was tainted by its association with previous governments and for financing security equipment in the 2000s.

Mexican officials say the new agreement will likely focus on the exchange of information, the root causes of violence, and stemming the flow of U.S.-made guns to Mexico, a key point of concern for Lopez Obrador.

But negotiating a new agreement will be painful. The United States wants a more muscular approach to battling drug cartels while Lopez Obrador prefers softer and less confrontational methods to fighting gangs, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a security and foreign policy analyst.

“There is a minimal area of overlap,” said Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “The U.S. is in an awkward position here because the Lopez Obrador administration is very comfortable with ending security cooperation.”

What is more, the talks about the new security cooperation may be overshadowed by immigration concerns.

A surge in the number of Haitian and Latin American migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border plunged the Biden administration into another crisis last month and underlined Washington’s reliance on Mexico to help stem the flow.

Mexico’s importance in managing immigration has given the Lopez Obrador administration leverage to pursue more independent policies in other areas, Mexican officials say privately.

During the U.S. presidential transition early this year, Mexico made it tougher for American law enforcement agents to operate in the country. Mexico has also delayed visas for U.S. anti-narcotics officers, the U.S. media has reported.

A senior Mexican security official said there was optimism about the new agreement on the Mexican side and there may be scope to review the restrictions imposed on U.S. agents operating on Mexican soil, but the conditions cannot return to how they were before Cienfuegos’ arrest.

“I think part of the U.S. government knows that that’s not possible,” the Mexican official said.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis, additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in WashingtonWriting by Drazen JorgicEditing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bell)

Blinken: U.S. will help foster further Israeli ties with Arab states

By Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged on Friday to encourage more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel as he hosted a virtual meeting with Israeli and Arab counterparts to mark the first anniversary of a set of landmark diplomatic agreements.

The event – held with Blinken’s counterparts from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco – was the Biden administration’s highest-profile embrace of the so-called Abraham Accords, which were widely seen as a diplomatic success for Republican former President Donald Trump.

Democratic President Joe Biden has backed the deals since taking office in January, and senior aides have said they want more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel after decades of enmity. But the administration until now had been cool to the idea of commemorating the anniversary of the accords.

On Friday, however, Blinken hailed their diplomatic and economic benefits, saying: “This administration will continue to build on the successful efforts of the last administration to keep normalization marching forward.”

He said the Biden administration would help foster Israel’s growing ties with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco – as well as Sudan, which also reached a breakthrough with Israel last year – and would work to deepen Israel’s relationships with Egypt and Jordan, which have long-standing peace deals.

And Blinken said Washington would encourage more countries to follow their lead. “We want to widen the circle of peaceful diplomacy,” he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid agreed, saying: “This Abraham Accords club is open to new members as well.”

The leaders of Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signed the accords at the White House last September. Israel and Sudan announced in the following month that they would normalize relations, and Morocco established diplomatic ties with Israel in December, after Biden defeated Trump in the U.S. election.

Palestinian officials said they felt betrayed by their Arab brethren for reaching deals with Israel without first demanding progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

Some critics said Trump had promoted Arab rapprochement with Israel while ignoring Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

But Blinken, who has sought to repair ties with the Palestinians badly damaged under Trump, said: “We all must build on these relationships and growing normalization to make tangible improvements in the lives of Palestinians, and to make progress toward the long-standing goal of advancing negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

China will soon surpass Russia as a nuclear threat –senior U.S. military official

By Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China, in the midst of a rapid nuclear weapons buildup, will soon surpass Russia as the United States’ top nuclear threat, a senior U.S. military official said on Friday, warning that the two countries have no mechanisms to avert miscommunication.

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas Bussiere, the deputy commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the country’s nuclear arsenal, said China’s development of nuclear capabilities “can no longer be aligned” with its public claim that it wants to maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent.

“There’s going to be a point, a crossover point, where the number of threats presented by China will exceed the number of threats that currently Russia presents,” Bussiere told an online forum.

He said the determination would not be based solely on the number of Beijing’s stockpiled nuclear warheads, but also on how they are “operationally fielded.”

“There will be a crossover point, we believe, in the next few years,” Bussiere said.

Unlike with Russia, the United States did not have any treaties or dialogue mechanism with China on the issue to “alleviate any misperceptions or confusion,” he added.

Bussiere’s comments come as the United States is attempting to realign its foreign policy to put greater emphasis in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s growing economic and military might.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed deep concern about China’s growing nuclear arsenal during a meeting with foreign ministers of Asian countries and partner nations in early August.

Think-tank reports based on satellite imagery say China appears to be constructing hundreds of new silos for nuclear missiles, and Washington has accused Beijing of resisting nuclear arms talks.

China says its arsenal is dwarfed by those of the United States and Russia, and that it is ready for dialogue, but only if Washington reduces its nuclear stockpile to China’s level.

In a 2020 report to Congress, the Pentagon estimated China’s operational nuclear warhead stockpile to be in “the low 200s,” and said it was projected to at least double in size as Beijing expands and modernizes its forces.

According to a State Department fact sheet, the United States had 1,357 nuclear warheads deployed as of March 1.

China’s advances in missile technology to deliver those warheads are also a concern for the United States, and Bussiere said China last year tested more ballistic missile capabilities than the rest of the world combined.

(Reporting by Michael Martina in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

U.S. slaps sanctions on Nord Stream 2, project’s opponents say not enough

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration on Friday slapped sanctions on one Russian vessel and two Russian individuals involved in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but opponents of nearly-completed project said the move would do little to stop it.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the administration has now sanctioned a total of seven persons and identified 16 of their vessels as blocked property under sanctions law passed by Congress.

U.S. President Joe Biden separately issued an executive order on Friday allowing for sanctions to be imposed with respect to certain Russian energy export pipelines.

But opponents of the $11 billion project to bring Russian gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea said the new sanctions were not strong enough.

“These sanctions do nothing to halt Nord Stream 2,” said Daniel Vajdich, president of Yorktown Solutions, which advises the Ukrainian energy industry on the matter.

Biden has opposed the pipeline, like the previous two U.S. presidents, because it bypasses Ukraine, likely depriving it of lucrative gas transit fees and potentially undermining its struggle against Russian aggression.

But in May the U.S. State Department waived two sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the company behind the project, and its chief executive, Matthias Warning, a Putin ally.

Biden has sought to repair U.S. relations with Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, as he needs the ally’s help on everything from the economy to relations with China and Iran.

“The only thing that can stop NS2 from becoming operational is lifting the waivers and sanctioning … Nord Stream AG, which they refuse to do,” Vajdich said.

Nord Stream 2, led by Russian state energy company Gazprom and its Western partners, is almost complete with only 9 miles (15 km) left to construct, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday.

ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group, estimated it could be completed by September 3.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Susan Heavey and Tim Ahmann; editing by Chris Reese, Kirsten Donovan)

In a first, U.S. warns of dangers of systemic racism in human trafficking report

By Daphne Psaledakis and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An annual U.S. State Department report released on Thursday said discriminatory policies perpetuated human trafficking, drawing a link between the two for the first time.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in the Trafficking in Persons report that systemic racism creates inequities, in turn undercutting Washington’s battle against human trafficking.

A State Department official said it was the first time the report drew a connection to systemic racism.

The United States has been re-examining its treatment of African Americans since nationwide protests last year sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer.

U.S. authorities have warned of increased threats from white supremacist groups.

“While U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking have grown in magnitude and sophistication over the years, the United States still struggles with how to address the disparate effects of human trafficking on racial minority communities,” the report said.

It cited the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on human trafficking, as traffickers capitalized on the pandemic and governments diverted resources to fight the health crisis.

The report looked at countries and territories and ranked them into four tiers, downgrading countries such as Ethiopia but upgrading others.

ETHIOPIA

The United States faulted Ethiopia for not demonstrating increased efforts to eliminate trafficking.

The report highlighted the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region that has killed thousands of people, displaced more than 2 million people and pushed hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine.

The report said that since the conflict began in November, international organizations increasingly reported armed actors were responsible for committing human rights abuses and gender-based violence, including potential trafficking crimes.

Ethiopians seeking asylum in Sudan were increasingly vulnerable to trafficking and unaccompanied children in the conflict areas may be vulnerable to recruitment by non-state armed groups, the report also warned.

BELARUS

Belarus was cited for “key achievements” even if, as the report said, resident Alexander Lukashenko’s government did not “fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

The report made no mention of Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on ongoing protests over his claim of victory in a 2020 presidential election widely seen as being rigged.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, was cited for “making significant efforts” toward eliminating human trafficking, the report said.

However, the government failed to meet minimum standards in a number of areas, including fining, jailing and deporting foreign workers for prostitution or immigration violations even though many may have been trafficking victims, the report said.

ISRAEL

The report said Israel, Washington’s closest Middle Eastern ally, had worked to eliminate human trafficking, but its efforts “were not serious and sustained” compared to the previous reporting period even accounting for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Victim identification policies “sometimes re-traumatized” victims and delayed their access to necessary care, sometimes for years, while the government reduced its overall efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict traffickers, it said.

Official policies toward foreign workers “increased their vulnerability to trafficking,” the report said, while the only police unit officially charged with identifying trafficking victims remained under-staffed for a fifth straight year.

TURKEY

The United States added Turkey to the list of countries implicated in the use of child soldiers over the past year, placing a NATO ally for the first time in such a list, in a move likely to further complicate fraught ties between Ankara and Washington.

MALAYSIA

The State Department downgraded Malaysia to the worst ranking after a string of complaints by rights groups and U.S. authorities over the alleged exploitation of migrant workers in plantations and factories.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Jonathan Landay, Doyinsola Oladipo and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Phil Stewart and Howard Goller)

Inaugurating embassy in UAE, Israel tells region: “We’re here to stay”

By Lisa Barrington

DUBAI (Reuters) -Israel’s new foreign minister inaugurated its embassy in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday and offered an olive branch to other former adversaries, saying: “We’re here to stay.”

Yair Lapid’s two-day visit is the first to the Gulf state by an Israeli cabinet minister since the countries established ties last year. He was due to sign a bilateral agreement on economic cooperation and open an Israeli consulate in Dubai on Wednesday.

The trip is also an opportunity for the two-week-old Israeli government of Naftali Bennett, a nationalist who heads an improbable cross-partisan coalition, to make diplomatic inroads despite long-stymied talks with the Palestinians.

“Israel wants peace with its neighbors – with all its neighbors. We aren’t going anywhere. The Middle East is our home,” Lapid said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Abu Dhabi high-rise office serving as a temporary embassy.

“We’re here to stay. We call on all the countries of the region to recognize that and to come to talk to us,” he said.

Brought together by shared worries about Iran and hopes for commercial boons, the UAE and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel last year under so-called “Abraham Accords” crafted by the administration of then U.S.-President Donald Trump. Sudan and Morocco have since also moved to establish ties with Israel.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, welcoming Lapid’s visit, said Washington “will continue to work with Israel and the UAE as we strengthen all aspects of our partnerships and work to create a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous future for all the peoples of the Middle East”, the State Department said.

The regional rapprochement was deplored by the Palestinians, who want their demands for statehood free of Israeli occupation addressed first.

President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the accords as “an illusion” and asserted that colonial powers had “implant(ed) Israel as a foreign body in this region in order to fragment it and keep it weak,” according to a report on Tuesday by the official Palestinian news service WAFA.

Tuesday’s agreement will be the 12th between Israel and the UAE, Lior Haiat, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said. Lapid is also set to visit the site of Expo 2020 Dubai, a world fair opening in October where Israel has built a pavilion.

Lapid’s plane transited through Saudi airspace. Riyadh, although not having normalized relations with Israel, last year opened its skies to Israel-UAE flights.

The UAE formally opened its embassy in Israel, temporarily located in the Tel Aviv stock exchange, this month.

Israel’s Abu Dhabi embassy still has only three diplomats and a head of mission, Eitan Na’eh, who has yet to be confirmed as full ambassador. The consulate in Dubai is similarly located in temporary premises.

Lapid was conciliatory toward former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose attempts to organize a trip to the UAE while in office were scotched by COVID-19 restrictions and who has sought to cast his ouster by Bennett as illegitimate.

Thanking Netanyahu as “the architect of the Abraham Accords,” Lapid said: “This moment is his, no less than it is ours.”

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Nidal Al-Mughrabi’Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, John Stonestreet, Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

China brands COVID-19 lab-leak theory as ‘absurd,’ Blinken urges transparency

By David Brunnstrom, Tom Daly and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the need for cooperation and transparency over the origins of COVID-19 in a call with Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi on Friday and raised other contentious topics, including China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Yang, China’s top diplomat, expressed to Blinken Beijing’s serious concern that some people in the United States were spreading the “absurd story” about the coronavirus escaping from a Wuhan laboratory, Chinese state media said.

Yang, head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of China’s ruling Communist Party, also told Blinken that Washington should handle Taiwan-related issues “carefully and appropriately,” state broadcaster CCTV reported.

The call came ahead of a G7 summit in Britain attended by U.S. President Joe Biden that is expected to be dominated by Washington-led efforts to counter China’s growing influence.

The world’s two largest economies are deeply at odds over issues ranging from trade and technology to human rights and the coronavirus. Washington should work with Beijing to put ties “back on track,” Yang said.

Yang, who had a fiery exchange with Blinken in Alaska in March during the Biden administration’s first high-level meeting with its Chinese counterparts, said Beijing firmly opposed what he called “abominable actions” over the pandemic, which he said were being used to slander China, CCTV said.

The State Department said the diplomats also discussed North Korea policy and that Blinken expressed U.S. concerns over the deterioration of democratic norms in Hong Kong and what Washington describes as the genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region.

Blinken also called on China to stop its pressure campaign against Taiwan and to release “wrongfully detained” U.S. and Canadian citizens, it said in a statement.

‘RESPECT FACTS AND SCIENCE’

The State Department said the discussion on North Korea – an issue on which the United States is keen for more Chinese action to press its ally and neighbor to give up its nuclear weapons – focused on the need for Beijing and Washington “to work together for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

It said the two diplomats also continued discussions on shared global challenges, including Iran and Myanmar, and the climate crisis.

“Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary stressed the importance of cooperation and transparency regarding the origin of the virus, including the need for WHO Phase 2 expert-led studies in China,” it said, referring to the World Health Organization.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank, said that although the agenda included potential areas of cooperation, the conversation appeared dominated by contentious issues.

She said Yang’s call for Washington to work with Beijing to put ties “back on track” indicated China was still putting the onus on the United States for the problems in the relationship.

“That’s a non-starter, but demonstrates that the Chinese are sticking to their tried-and-true diplomatic approaches, even though they are not successful.”

A report on the origins of COVID-19 by a U.S. government national laboratory concluded the hypothesis of a viral leak from a Wuhan lab was plausible and deserved further investigation, the Wall Street Journal said on Monday.

“We urge the United States to respect facts and science, refrain from politicizing the issue … and focus on international cooperation in the fight against the pandemic,” Yang said.

His comments on Taiwan followed a visit to the Chinese-claimed island last weekend by three U.S. senators on a U.S. military aircraft. They met Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and announced the donation to Taiwan of 750,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, drawing a sharp rebuke from China’s defense ministry.

In addition to coinciding with Biden’s first overseas trip as president to attend the G7 summit, the call comes as Washington has been pushing policies to address challenges from China.

In the past eight days, Biden updated an executive order banning U.S. investment in companies linked to China’s military and rolled out steps aimed at China to shore up U.S. supply chains. His trade representative Katherine Tai held a call with Taiwan, the Pentagon wrapped up a China policy review, and the Senate passed a sweeping package of China-focused legislation.

Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said all that amounted to good timing for the administration to have an exchange with Beijing.

“The White House should feel more confident taking these calls and letting Beijing run down their stale talking points,” Sayers said.

(Reporting by Beijing Newsroom and Doina Chiacu, David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina in Washington; Writing by Tom Daly; Editing by Alex Richardson, Mark Heinrich, Angus MacSwan, Paul Simao and Daniel Wallis)