Ambassador Pyatt’s Opening Remarks at IRI Parliamentary Roundtable on China

March 10, 2022

Athens, Greece

(As Delivered)

Good morning again, and thank you very much to IRI for putting this together and inviting me to be here.  It is the honor of a lifetime to be the American Ambassador anywhere.  It’s been a particular honor to be an Ambassador in Europe over the past 8.5 years which will be recorded by history as a truly transformative time in our collective transatlantic agenda.

Before I turn to China, I want to put my remarks today in context.  And I would do so by emphasizing an idea that we’ve all been grappling with recently.  It’s the degree to which we have really arrived at a defining moment in terms of the defense of what used to be called the free world.  That is, our community of democratic values and the response that we are mobilizing to those who would seek to challenge those values.

The invasion of Ukraine puts a particular spotlight on that challenge, but I think the issues are even broader.  Ultimately this comes down to individuals.  I saw that in a very powerful way during the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine.  Eleven weeks when I saw literally tens of thousands of regular Ukrainians putting everything on the line in defense of democratic values and their desire to live, as I so often heard, “in a normal country,” in a country with the European values, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, electoral accountability.

It was interesting and important to me that during the Maidan, I saw young people, professionals, parents, grandparents, all of whom were risking everything they had in pursuit of a set of values that many of us in Europe and the United States take for granted.  And that was a very, very powerful experience for me.

It’s even more so being here in Athens.  We are sitting right now less than a kilometer from the place where the democratic values that all of our countries are founded upon were first imagined 2,500 years ago.  And it’s been important for me to see how deeply felt those values are here in Greece — a country that itself has gone through some rather significant challenges over the past decade in terms of the economic crisis and in terms of the migrant crisis that all of Europe has confronted.

All of us have been horrified by what has unfolded over the past two weeks in Ukraine, me particularly so because so many of the backdrops are familiar and personal.  I was physically sickened by the images yesterday from Mariupol, a city that I have visited, a city with literally centuries of Hellenic identity.  And I know that all of my Greek colleagues, including Prime Minister Mitsotakis and Foreign Minister Dendias, who have spoken very clearly about this, are deeply concerned by what they see Russia doing, including to the very longstanding Greek diaspora community there in Mariupol.

And, of course, just yesterday we had the truly horrific and heartbreaking images of a maternity hospital that had been targeted by Russian bombing.  All of us have to rise to the challenge of how we respond to that.

I’m very glad that Christina and Kosta are here today because there’s a very important role for the Greek Parliament and for European Parliaments across the board, and all of us living here in Europe.  It’s been a head-spinning two weeks in terms of how policies have changed.

And I commend the government of Greece for both the clarity with which the Prime Minister has addressed the issues in Ukraine, the work that Foreign Minister Dendias has done to support our transatlantic community, but also the substantive, substantial assistance that Greece has provided, including defensive lethal assistance to the Ukrainian Armed Forces over the past two weeks.  A very big departure from traditional Greek foreign policies.

I would also note, and I really commend the courage of the Greek Consul who is still in Mariupol.  The only European diplomat who is in the war zone in Ukraine today is the Consul sitting in Mariupol, in the middle of the siege of that city, which I think will be recorded as one of the real tragic landmarks in Russia’s invasion of 2022.

But as I said, what’s happening in my view is much bigger than a conflict between two countries.  This is a crisis with global consequences and requires global action.  President Biden has been very clear about America’s determination to stand with the people of Ukraine, to defend our shared values and also to defend and uphold our commitments to all of our NATO allies.

In that regard, again, Greece has played a very, very important role.  We have a rapidly expanding defense and security partnership with Greece.  And we’re very grateful for the cooperation that we have with our Hellenic Armed Forces counterparts and U.S. military facilities in Greece like the naval facility in Souda Bay in Crete; our helicopter facility in Volos and Stefanovikio in central Greece; the air base at Larissa.  The latter two have both opened up on my watch here in Greece, but all these facilities have been important to the NATO response to the Russian threat.

This crisis is also a very good reminder to all of us that there are powerful actors in the world that have a very different vision of how our societies and our politics should be organized.  China, of course, is the other great pole of that alternative viewpoint.  Both are authoritarian countries aligned against the free democratic societies that our countries represent.  So we have to think systematically about how we deal with both challenges.

For the United States, and I say this as an American diplomat of 33 years, the basic challenge that we face is how do we join forces with our friends and allies to build a collective response to encourage both Moscow and Beijing to respect the rules-based international order, and to ensure that our democracies prevail.  Because we cannot lose.

Obviously, as we look beyond the Russian challenge, the rise of China is a defining issue.  I have seen this through much of my career.  I came to India first in 1992 as a junior political officer.  I then served in Pakistan, in Hong Kong when we were negotiating China’s WTO accession.  I returned to India where I was very proud during the Bush administration to be involved with the U.S.-India nuclear deal which opened much of the aperture for our strategic engagement between Delhi and Washington, DC.

So I have watched from the front rows as China has emerged as such a powerful force, in particular in Asia, and how some of our partners and allies in the region have responded to that.

It was important to remember that just a few weeks before Russia began its bloody invasion of Ukraine, Putin met with President Xi in Beijing to sign a pact which openly declared their intention to seek a “new international order”.  It’s an order that seeks to undermine our values and all that our democracies stand for.  It’s also notable to me that it was during that meeting that China for the first time declared its opposition to any further expansion of NATO.

And again, this is an issue that I have lived through over my 5.5 years in Athens.  And I’m very proud of the partnership that we have had with the Hellenic Republic in forging North Macedonia’s new status as a NATO ally.  I would argue that North Macedonia has no stronger NATO ally than Greece in terms of helping that country to successfully make the transition to Euro-Atlantic standards.  And also, and not coincidentally, working to support both North Macedonia and Albania as they seek membership in the European Union.

I like the way my boss Secretary Blinken put it when he talks about China, and saying that our relationship with China is going to be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.

And we’ve seen that kind of multi-faceted relationship here in Greece as well.  We all are watching carefully and understand the implications of China’s investments in military capabilities, its course of behavior, but also the checkbook diplomacy that China has engaged in prominently in places like Greece.

Of course, the Chinese government has defined the port of Piraeus, again just a couple of miles form us here, as the dragon’s head of the Belt and Road initiative in Europe.  And my embassy team and I have worked very, very hard to ensure that the circumstances which gave rise to COSCO’s takeover of the port of Piraeus shortly before my arrival do not repeat themselves.

We’ve been working to encourage alternative investments including from the United States with strategic ports like the port of Alexandroupoli, and I’ll talk about that a little bit more in a second.  But also the critical infrastructure sectors like energy, shipping and shipbuilding.  And I’ve worked very hard with Congress and our partners in Congress in particular on the expansion of the authorities of the U.S. Development Finance Corporation which now has a specific legislative carveout which authorizes the DFC to do business here in Greece, something that I’ll be discussing with some of my bosses when I’m in Washington, DC next week.

We’ve been particularly supportive on the strategic ports agenda of two American companies that are bidding on the upcoming privatization of the port of Alexandroupoli.  Alexandroupoli has become a critical hub for the U.S. military in Europe, in terms of flowing equipment and resources into NATO’s southeastern flank.  There’s actually a good article in today’s Kathimerini about this if you look at your Kathimerini.

We see this as both good for the region but also good for our strategic agenda and our competition with China.

We also very much appreciated Prime Minister Mitsotakis’s wisdom in implementing the exclusion of Chinese companies from sensitive telecommunication sectors including 5G.  In fact, it was at the Atlantic Council where Prime Minister Mitsotakis first elaborated that perspective in remarks in January of 2020.

It’s also been interesting for me as somebody grappling with these issues to live through the COVID-19 pandemic here in Greece, to see the smart way that Greece responded to this.  I give a lot of the credit to Kyriakos Pierrakakis who I know you will be hearing from later on.  Kyriakos is a friend, but he’s also brilliant, and he was really the leading edge of the Greek government’s push for digitization and a digitally powered response to the pandemic.

I’m very proud of the fact that so much of his work was partnering with American companies like Cisco, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, all of which is in stark contrast to the facemask diplomacy that China engaged in here and so many other places I Europe.

So I look forward to the conversation.

The last concluding thought I would offer for this morning is a reflection on the past several weeks of American diplomacy in Europe.  President Biden, National Security Advisor Sullivan, Secretary Blinken, all of my bosses at the State Department deserve enormous credit for the successful effort that they have engaged in, well before the invasion, to ensure a coordinated transatlantic response to this crisis.  You have seen literally the thousands of phone calls and meetings and engagements that the Biden administration has used to ensure that we respond with one voice.

This has been a surprise to President Putin in the same way that Putin and the Russian military clearly have been surprised by the agency of the Ukrainian people.  The fact that the Ukrainians have fought as bravely as they have.  And that’s something I’m very proud of having been in Ukraine when we began our military training programs in the effort to take a Soviet-structured military and reorganize it according to Western and NATO standards, which is a lot of what you see manifest now on the ground and on the battlefield.

So this transatlantic cooperation, our focus on our alliances, is key to our ability to out-compete China and defend the international rules-based order against those who are seeking to undermine it.  I know that I speak for the President when I say that we are committed to continuing to do everything we possibly can to foster and defend democratic values both at home and abroad, but at the same time push back very forcefully on the malign activities of our adversaries which are evident here, have been evident across Europe, and have had such an important influence on my ambassadorial experience over the past 8.5 years.

So I look forward to the conversation this morning, and again, I really thank IRI for giving me the opportunity but also locating this conversation here in Athens which I think is symbolically of great importance.

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