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Deputy Secretary of State on U.S-China relations

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to some of the major diplomatic challenges the U.S. is facing right now - Russia's lethal but so far unsuccessful assault on Ukraine, which is nearing its one-year anniversary, tensions with China over the high-altitude balloon found in U.S. airspace and the challenges posed by the recent disaster in Turkey and Syria.

One person whose responsibilities intersect with all of these issues is Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. In essence, she is Secretary of State Antony Blinken's principal adviser, and she serves in this role after many years in high-level diplomatic positions. And I just want to mention that we spoke with Deputy Secretary Sherman yesterday before news broke that the Pentagon had shot down an unidentified object over Alaska. We started our conversation by talking about the earthquake in Turkey and Syria because I asked her what kinds of conversations she's been having with her diplomatic colleagues about this devastating event.

WENDY SHERMAN: Turkey is doing everything it can as a NATO ally to get through this and has asked the world for support and help. Secretary Blinken has really made this an all-of-department mission, as has the president an all-of-government response. We are committed to helping our ally Turkey and the Syrian people for as long as it takes because this also is confronting the people in parts of Syria. We initiated our response immediately. We are ramping up every day. We have nearly 200 personnel on the ground, along with specialized equipment and canines.

The NGO partners we funded in Syria are leading the response there. We're determined to do all we can do to help. Secretary Blinken has spoken with the foreign minister twice. The president has spoken with President Erdogan. We are going to really be there in every way we can because it is the right thing to do for any people around the world who face such a disaster. And I thank all Americans who are also reaching out.

MARTIN: As you just mentioned, and as many people obviously know, Turkey is a NATO ally. There's lots of government-to-government contacts in part because of that. Syria is a very different case, having been in a civil war for a decade now. Russia is clearly an ally with, you know, obviously tremendous influence and reach on the ground there. What, realistically, can the U.S. do to assist, given those facts?

SHERMAN: Well, I'm glad you raised this because it's quite critical that there be cross-border opening so that humanitarian convoys can reach the people in Syria. There's no question the U.S. government does not recognize the Assad regime. But we care when any people are faced with such a disaster and such a humanitarian crisis. And so we are glad that a little U.N. support is getting through the one border crossing which is somewhat open, though the road has taken a hit in this earthquake. We would call on the Russians through the United Nations to take action necessary to open up more border crossings at this very difficult time.

I think the onus is on Russia to do the right thing. Now, we've seen in Russia, Ukraine - to make a pivot to another topic we want to discuss - that Russians don't think much of civilians. Having had setbacks on the battlefield, they're now trying to freeze people to death. So I would call on Russia both to stop its targeting of civilians in Ukraine in this premeditated, completely horrifying invasion of a sovereign country and to support the opening of border crossings in Syria. These are not similar situations, except that people's lives are at stake and Russia should have some humanity.

MARTIN: Why should they? That was my question, and I think that it has become abundantly clear that civilian casualties is not a priority of that regime. So why should they? Is there any lever to push?

SHERMAN: Well, I think the lever to push, which may not be pulled, given, as you say, Russia has not shown any interest in civilians, is that Russia has a stake in the Damascus regime, and so perhaps they will have a stake in the future of Syria and will open some cross-border support. But you're quite right, Michel. I'll be surprised, but I'd like to put it to them through the U.N. and see what they're willing to do.

MARTIN: So while we're on the subject of Ukraine, let's stay with that subject for a minute. And we are approaching a year since the Russian invasion. It does seem that now that we're in a position of divided government, with Republicans controlling the House, Democrats controlling the Senate, some Republicans seem to be more restive about the level of U.S. support that the United States is giving to Ukraine. Has this affected the administration's thinking about how to structure this aid?

SHERMAN: I think it was notable that one of the times when both Republicans and Democrats stood at the State of the Union address on Tuesday night of this past week, when President Biden spoke so eloquently about this challenge, this was a time when Democrats and Republicans both stood and applauded because there is strong support on a bipartisan basis for our support for Ukraine. You know, this is about a simple goal - to make sure that we have a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine with a means to deter aggression and to defend itself.

MARTIN: But my question spoke to whether the administration, given that there is now a partisan division in the House - well, and the Congress, as we said - does this change the administration's view of what is possible? What - are you saying that those who are more skeptical of aid to Ukraine are such a minor part of both body or either body that it doesn't change anything about the way you need to defend this aid or pursue this aid going forward? I guess the question really speaks to, does the consensus remain in American politics to support the level of aid that the United States and other allies have been giving?

SHERMAN: I absolutely believe that that consensus still remains in this country. You know, there's no doubt that it is hard a year in, but I think the American public understands the stakes here, the stakes for us, the stakes for freedom all around the world. And I don't think that's a partisan issue. I think that's an American issue.

MARTIN: So, of course, we need to get to one of the big stories in recent days, which is this alleged spy balloon that was found in U.S. airspace. You testified at the Senate this past week before some very angry members of Congress. Defense Department officials insisted that there was no hostile act or hostile intent behind the balloon. You seem to disagree. Was there a hostile act?

SHERMAN: There is no question that they meant to spy on the United States to surveil our military sites. But when we realized that they were coming not only across Alaska, but into the lower 48 as well, we have a procedure. We made sure that all of our military sites were buttoned down. There are many things that we can do that we've learned through what's called the Open Skies agreement process, which I won't bore your listeners with. But we've learned how to make sure they can't collect and couldn't collect. And at the same time, we sent up planes to understand who they were and what they were doing and what we could learn about this. Now, one thing that's really important for your listeners to understand - the president early on said and gave the order to shoot down this surveillance balloon, but he wanted to do it safely.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know, as I mentioned, that these hearings were fairly contentious on both sides. And I was just curious how you read that, because you, the president, secretary of state, the Defense Department, these officials have all made their case that the reason that they handled this the way they handled it was both for safety of individuals on the ground, that they had made a determination that this wasn't a situation that, you know - that was addressable in the way that it was addressable and that their primary concern was both safety and efficacy, right?

SHERMAN: Sure.

MARTIN: And I'm just curious, why do you think members of both parties don't seem to be buying that?

SHERMAN: Yes. I think it's a pretty human response, actually. If a surveillance balloon came across the District of Columbia where I'm sitting right now, I think the mayor would be a little anxious about what was happening and what it meant. So I'm not surprised by those who are from states where this balloon went over, that they were anxious and concerned.

But, you know, I think the truth is, Michel, the American people who were absolutely glued to the television and to the radios listening about this balloon have an understanding about the aggressive nature of the People's Republic of China and their repression and their surveillance in perhaps ways that had not come home to roost quite yet. It may be something you've known a lot about and I've known a lot about. But I think to the average American, they got a new window into the very challenging relationship that we're facing, that Secretary Blinken, the president, are committed to making sure that we manage in a responsible way, and we hope the PRC will soon do the same.

MARTIN: That was Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. And Deputy Secretary Sherman, thank you so much for being with us and sharing these insights with us today.

SHERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.