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White House Hopes for Free, Safe Polls in Taiwan

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Jan. 4, 2024, in Washington.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Jan. 4, 2024, in Washington.

The Biden administration hopes that Taiwan’s voters can freely choose their next leader when the island votes next week in a general election, says John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, in an interview with VOA's White House Correspondent Paris Huang on Thursday.

Kirby also reiterated that President Joe Biden and his administration are “all in” on cooperation with the African continent in the coming year.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: Let’s start with Taiwan’s elections. According to the Taiwanese government, China has been interfering in the election, including spreading disinformation and misinformation. Taiwanese prosecutors are investigating allegations that China bribed Taiwanese officials with travel and money to influence the election. When they met in San Francisco, President Biden told President Xi Jinping not to interfere with the Taiwan election. Is President Xi is ignoring his advice?

John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications: I can't confirm these individual reports of interference with the electoral process in Taiwan. We've been very clear that we respect Taiwan's democratic institutions. We respect the will of the people of Taiwan to make these sorts of decisions in terms of their own governance. And we don't want any other actor, be it a nation state or otherwise, to interfere in this election.

VOA: Will the United States have confidence in Taiwan’s election results if there's hard evidence that China did influence the election?

Kirby: Look, that's a hypothetical. I'm just not willing to speculate at this point. We want these elections to be free and fair and transparent. We want the will of the people of Taiwan to be respected. We'll just monitor this as closely as we can.

VOA: This year, China has sent at least nine fighter jets, four navy ships and at least six balloons over Taiwan. What is the White House’s message to China regarding rising tension in the region before the Taiwan election?

Kirby: Again, it's important that as the people of Taiwan go to the polls to cast their ballots, that they can do so with a feeling of safety and security and comfort in the knowledge that their vote matters, and that it's going to be appropriately tallied. And that's really what we're focused on. That's what we want to see happen.

VOA: Moving on to the South China Sea. The United States and the Philippines recently had a joint exercise in the South China Sea. Now China is holding a rival exercise in the same region. And recently, China finally appointed a new defense minister, Navy Admiral Dong Jun. Is the White House watching this? Does this mean that China could be more aggressive in the South China Sea region in the future? And has Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reached out to the admiral?

Kirby: You'd have to talk to Secretary Austin. I don't know whether he's reached out to the new nominee for defense secretary. I think we should be careful before drawing conclusions over somebody's nomination to a job and how they're going to execute that job based on the jobs that they've had in the past. We'll have to judge this individual as we would judge any leader around the world by their actions, not merely by their resume.

We don't seek a conflict with the [People’s Republic of China]. We don't want to see conflict in the South China Sea. We do want to make sure that our national interests and the national interests of our allies and partners are respected in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, which is why we have a robust military capability there. It's why the president felt it was so important to get military-to-military communications back up and running between the United States and the PRC, and they have, and that's a good thing.

I'm sure Secretary Austin, at the appropriate time, will speak to the new defense minister. And it's our hope that that relationship, while we don't expect to agree on everything, can at least provide yet another layer of insulation in terms of preventing miscalculation and misunderstanding between our two countries. The PRC has made some unfounded maritime claims when it comes to the South China Sea. We expect that we're going to maintain the capability for our allies and partners there to be able to manage their own national security and to protect the free flow of international commerce there.

VOA: Moving on to Africa. What is next for U.S.-Africa engagement? Could we see more military cooperation or some high-level trips this year?

Kirby: I think you're going to see us continue to be all-in when it comes to Africa. We have already made terrific progress on many of the commitments that we made in the Africa Leaders Summit, and there have been visits by some 17 senior-level officials of the United States government. I fully expect that those high-level engagements will continue.

VOA: The U.S. has imposed sanctions on individuals in several African countries that are experiencing conflict, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. President Biden also recently revoked [African Growth and Opportunity Act] access over human rights issues in the Central African Republic, Gabon, Niger and Uganda. Is this type of economic statecraft the main lever that the United States has for managing its relationship with the continent? And is this enough to counter China's rising influence and massive expenditures on the continent?

Kirby: Well, first of all, these actions we're taking, these economic actions you're talking about, were designed to express our deep concern and to do it tangibly about some of the practices by leaders in these countries. It has nothing to do with trying to counter China. It's about leading our foreign policy with a strong focus on human and civil rights and doing what's right and making it clear what we will and what we won't stand for.

We have other tools at our disposal, which, again, I'm not in a position to speculate about right at this time, but it's not about China. These countries all get to decide for themselves what kind of relationship they want with the United States and what kind of relationship they want with China. That's up to them. We're comfortable that we've got a strong network of relationships across the continent. We're comfortable that we're taking real action to give African nations and African leaders alternatives in terms of financing, transparent, healthy, vibrant financing opportunities that won't push their countries further into debt the way that other financial relationships with other countries outside the continent have caused to our African friends.

We're going to keep doing what we've been doing, meeting the commitments that we made during the Africa Leaders Summit, offering opportunities for infrastructure growth and development and investment that are sound and viable and transparent, and continuing to honestly put our money where our mouth is when it comes to standing up for shared principles and values.