STATE DEPARTMENT - Security issues will be a focal point for Secretary of State John Kerry as he meets with Egyptian officials in Cairo this weekend, the first leg of a five-nation tour of the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
A senior State Department official said the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about unrest in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where an Islamic State-affiliated militant group has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly attacks.
During a briefing Friday, the official said Egyptians are facing serious threats from Islamic State-linked militants and the U.S. needs to support the country’s efforts to achieve stability.
The official said security would be on the agenda during talks Sunday between Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
“The real challenge for Secretary Kerry in his meetings in Egypt is how to discuss the regional picture -- the regional fight against terrorism and the domestic situation in Egypt -- and how the two fit together,” said Michele Dunne, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
U.S. and Egyptian officials will also discuss human rights and political and economic issues.
Warplanes to Egypt
Ahead of the trip, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo announced the U.S was delivering eight F-16 fighter jets to Egypt as part of “ongoing” support to Egypt and the region.
“The F-16s provide a valuable capability that is needed during these times of regional instability,” said Major General Charles Hooper, a senior U.S. Embassy defense official.
In March, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. was lifting a hold on U.S. military aid to Egypt that was put in place following the 2013 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.
The U.S. provides Egypt with about $1.3 billion in annual military assistance.
Despite the resumption of aid, U.S. officials have continued to voice concerns about Egypt’s repression of Morsi supporters.
In Qatar, Kerry will meet with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, a group that has raised concerns that the Iran nuclear deal could be destabilizing to the region.
Some Gulf ministers fear that the sanctions relief for Iran, which would result from the country’s compliance with the deal, could empower Tehran to widen its influence in the region and broaden its support of militant groups.
Earlier this week, Kerry defended the Iran nuclear deal.
“I understand the fear,” said Kerry in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But we believe what we have laid out here is a way of making Israel and the region, in fact, safer.”
It is uncertain whether Kerry will be able to allay Gulf allies' nuclear concerns about Iran, said Daniel Serwer, a Middle East Institute scholar and professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“It seems to me if I lived in the Gulf, I would feel a lot more comfortable with Iran backed off from nuclear weapons and not being able to pursue them for 10 or 15 years than I would without a deal,” Serwer said.
Kerry, Lavrov in Doha
While in Doha, Kerry will also meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. They will discuss security issues, including efforts to combat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
State Department officials said they would also discuss the situation in Ukraine, where the government has been battling Russian-backed separatists.
On Thursday, the U.S. imposed more sanctions on individuals and entities in connection with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
John Smith, acting director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said the action underscored U.S. resolve to “maintain pressure on Russia for violating international law and fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the action was a way to strengthen existing sanctions so that they would continue to have “maximum impact.”
?South Asia ties
From Qatar, Kerry will travel to Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The three Southeast Asian nations are among the 12 countries involved in talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal that would cut tariffs and trade barriers among participants.
Some U.S. lawmakers have called for U.S. negotiators to use the TPP talks to push for labor and human rights reforms in Southeast Asia.
“I think the administration would like to see it help advance certain areas,” said Greg Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It is a trade agreement, it can’t do everything,” he added.
In Kuala Lumpur, Kerry will also attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum.
In a Friday briefing, a senior State Department official said maritime security was among the issues to be discussed.
“The ASEANs, like us, are concerned about the scale, the scope, the pace and the implications of China’s reclamation work, its construction and its steps to militarize the outposts they have been building on these features in the South China Sea,” the official said.
The official said the talks in Kuala Lumpur would be an opportunity for the 10-nation ASEAN group and other concerned countries to express their views directly to China.
China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
On Thursday, China accused the U.S of “militarizing” the South China Sea by setting up joint military drills and patrols in the region.
The defense ministry said U.S. actions could create a risk of air and sea incidents.
In both Singapore and Vietnam, he will discuss bilateral and regional issues. While in Hanoi, Kerry will also take part in an event marking the 20th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic ties.
While in Hanoi, Kerry will also take part in an event marking the 20th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic ties.