THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Welcome, everyone, and thank you for joining this Foreign Press Center teleconference, an update on U.S.-India relations ahead of the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. As a reminder, this teleconference is on background. We have two senior administration officials briefing us today from the Department of State and the Department of Defense. Attribution for the briefers is senior administration official. The briefers will each start with opening remarks, and then we will open for questions. Please keep your phones muted until we call on you for a question.
And with that, I will turn it over to Senior Administration Official Number One. Sir, over to you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: All right, thank you very much [Moderator], and thank you all – to all of the journalists who are here today on the call. I’m very glad to be here with my colleague from the Defense Department to give you an update on the U.S.-India relationship ahead of next week’s U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue.
It’s a busy period. In the last month alone, we had a meeting of the Quad foreign ministers, we had a visit to India from Deputy Secretary of State Biegun, and nearly half a dozen high-level virtual dialogues, including our Counterterrorism Joint Working Group and multiple cyber discussions.
The frequency and candor and common objectives of these engagements reflect a broad, strategic convergence between the United States and India. The 2+2 ministerial will serve as a capstone to review our many accomplishments as well as lay down next steps for the U.S.-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.
Broadly we intend to focus on four major themes at this year’s 2+2: global cooperation, which includes public health collaboration and our work together in the Indo-Pacific; economic cooperation, which includes our partnership on energy and in space; people-to-people ties; and defense and security ties. I’ll speak briefly today about economic collaboration and global cooperation, and then I’ll turn it over to my Defense Department colleague to discuss our defense and security ties. After our introductory remarks, we’d be both happy to take your questions.
On U.S. —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Thank —
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m not quite done, sorry. On U.S.-India economic cooperation, we’re working together toward economic recovery and getting bilateral trade back on track. This year alone, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, or the DFC, has made commitments to support more than $500 million in investment projects in India. That brings their total portfolio of project commitments in India to more than $2.6 billion. Our investments support farmers, women, other rural low income workers who have been most seriously impacted by the pandemic.
The DFC also injects much-needed funds into India’s energy sector so that sustainable energy projects, particularly solar projects, can move forward. Bilateral energy trade reached over $8 billion last year, and we are optimistic about future prospects for further expansion of this trade. We were pleased that the DFC recently assigned a new staff member to India, a managing director in Mumbai, who will help expand their investments in India and in the region.
This brings me to U.S.-India global cooperation, particularly on public health and efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Joint efforts to develop and produce COVID-19 vaccines have taken off at a remarkable pace. More than half a dozen American companies and institutions are working on vaccine research with Indian partners like the Serum Institute of India.
U.S. Government health and development agencies, including the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and USAID, have provided technical assistance and training to Indian partners on a significant scale, including at the state and local level.
We’re also expanding joint medical collaboration on infectious diseases, including through research fellowships. We know that going forward, working closely with India and its robust research and pharmaceutical sectors will be critical to finding and implementing a cure.
Our global cooperation also includes high-level engagements in multilateral fora. Secretary Pompeo and Minister Jaishankar, along with their Japanese and Australian counterparts, met in Tokyo on October 6th for the second Quad meeting of foreign ministers. Given China’s increasingly aggressive behavior across the Indo-Pacific from the Himalayas to the South China Sea, it’s more important than ever that we work with likeminded partners such as India. We were pleased to see India’s recent announcement regarding Australia joining the Malabar naval exercise, which my Defense Department colleague will discuss in greater detail.
The foundational concept behind the Quad is one of vibrant democracies working together towards a common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. To that end, Quad foreign ministers discussed our collective efforts to collaborate on pandemic response, maritime security, cybersecurity, quality infrastructure, counterterrorism, and in other areas. We’re also looking forward to working with India during its upcoming term on the UN Security Council to address these challenges and the other pressing issues before us today.
I’ll stop here and turn it over to my Defense Department colleague now, and we’d be glad to take your questions after. Go ahead.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Great, thank you, and thanks to everyone on the line this afternoon. I’ll start by giving a brief overview of the bilateral defense relationship and then touch on the main themes of the 2+2 this year from a defense perspective.
So what I’d say at the top is the defense relationship with India right now is currently at its best in recent memory. The progress we’ve made since India became a major defense partner in 2016 is remarkable. We held the inaugural 2+2 ministerial in 2018, Prime Minister Modi visited the United States in 2019, and President Trump visited India in February this year, just to name a few symbolic highlights.
I want to underscore that investments in the bilateral defense relationship from both sides in previous years have set the foundation for the accomplishments this year and that we hope to announce here in the coming weeks. We’ve solidified our strategic alignment and confirmed the need to work together in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific for the benefit of all countries in the regions – in the region.
I’ll touch briefly now on four broad themes for the 2+2 from the defense and security perspective. First, regional security cooperation; second, defense information sharing; third, military-to-military interactions; and fourth, defense trade.
So first, regional security cooperation is that we’re working to enhance maritime security across the Indian Ocean region by coordinating security cooperation and building partner capacity with regional countries. India announced just this week that it was inviting Australia, which along with the U.S. and Japan, to the Malabar naval exercise in November. As you probably are aware, the last time Australia participated in Malabar was in 2007, more than a decade ago.
This invitation signals not only a strategic convergence between the Quadrilateral partners but a recognition that regional security requires strengthening allies and partnerships and working multilateral on issues of mutual concern.
Second, information sharing, which figures prominently in our defense cooperation. We’ve made significant progress towards concluding the last foundational defense enabling agreement, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, or the BECA. This agreement will allow for expanded geospatial information sharing between our armed forces. We are also seeking to expand secure communication capabilities between our respective militaries as well as between our foreign and defense ministries, and that too figures prominently on what we’re trying to accomplish in the information-sharing space.
Next up, mil-to-mil interactions. With respect to military-to-military engagement, we’re working to build greater interoperability by increasing the sophistication of our combined exercises. The passing exercise between the Indian navy and the U.S.S. Nimitz Carrier Strike Group this summer is just one example. The recent refueling of one of our Navy P-8 aircraft in Port Blair is another example.
Over the past year, we’ve placed a U.S. liaison officer at the Information Fusion Center-Indian Ocean Region. That’s India’s maritime domain awareness fusion center that they host. And an Indian liaison was placed at U.S. Central Command, which both of these have enhanced coordination and information sharing between our navies. We also hope to confirm two additional Indian liaison officer placements in the near term to expand counterterrorism cooperation.
We’re also looking to increase mil-to-mil cooperation in emerging technologies. We held an inaugural Defense Cyber Dialogue in September, this last September, and are looking – we’re looking to have a defense space dialogue in the coming year, most likely in early 2021.
And then lastly on defense trade, earlier this year India acquired Apache and Seahawk helicopters, and we’re seeking to advance sales for several other defense platforms, to include fighter aircraft and UAVs.
I am confident that the outcome of this year’s 2+2 will carry forward the momentum for even closer U.S.-India cooperation across these four areas or lines of effort in the coming years, and we very much look forward to the discussion next week in New Delhi.
So I’ll pause there and turn it back over to [Moderator] to start Q&A. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. David, we can go ahead and start the Q&A.
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press 1-0 at this time. You’ll hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you would like to ask a question, please press 1-0 at this time.
And our first question will come from the line of Vishnu Som with NDTV. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello, good evening. I’m Vishnu Som. I’m the executive editor of NDTV, India’s largest 24-hour television news network. My question is: Is it correct that the U.S. has been sharing real-time assessments, or at the very least assessments, of Chinese military moves on the Ladakh frontier with India? And if so, when does this begin and what U.S. agency is involved in this information sharing?
And secondly, would the U.S. like to see the presence of Indian warships in the South China Sea in support of U.S. or Quad naval deployments in the region? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Vishnu, this is [Senior Administration Official Two]. So what I’d say on the first question is we don’t comment publicly on any information sharing that we conduct with Indians or other countries around the world. So unfortunately, can’t comment on that.
As it relates to the second question, we’ve had ongoing dialogue with the Indians about increased cooperation in Southeast Asia writ large, not simply the South China Sea, and we encourage their involvement. And that cuts across development investments, it cuts across security cooperation, and then it also involves presence. And so we welcome greater Indian participation in Southeast Asia across all three of those areas.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. And just a reminder to everyone, the attribution for our speakers today is senior administration official. David, go ahead.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Maha Siddiqui with CNN News. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, this is Maha Siddiqui with CNN News 18. I believe that the situation at the Line of Actual Control will be discussed during Secretary Pompeo’s visit for the 2+2 dialogue. In connection with that, we do know that there is a pause at the moment in the current situation at the LAC. What is the U.S. assessment, if any, of the situation once the winter is over? And post-U.S. elections, can a similar support be expected from the U.S. in countering China?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. So we as a government are covering the situation in the Himalayas closely, and understandably. And we certainly want to ensure that the situation doesn’t escalate. That said, to your second question, certainly we are providing support, whether through defense sales, exercises which I talked about earlier, as well as information sharing – these are all areas where we cooperate with the Indians on, and not just as it relates to the tensions in the Himalayas. I fully expect – have no reason to believe that in the event of there being a new administration following the upcoming elections here in the United States that the policy with regard to India would change. I think both parties are largely aligned on their interest in supporting and deepening the partnership.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. David, we can take our next question.
OPERATOR: The next question will be from Amrutha Pagad with TV9 Network. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello, this is Amrutha from TV9, and I’ve got two questions. The first one is, will the restrictions on student and H-1B visas continue next year with the change in possible administration or the elections or this pandemic? And the second question is, how prepared is Quad to take – to tackle China in case it decides to go on a full-blown offensive, keeping in mind that Quad is still sort of informal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Let me leave the first question to my State colleague.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I’m happy to take that one on. Our current visa policy is based on U.S. interests in protecting some – the American homeland and respect for American immigration law. None of the current restrictions have anything to do with any specific country, and many of them have a lot to do with the COVID pandemic. So I think we would be looking to see some changes in global travel patterns and easing of pandemic restrictions globally before we would see a really substantial change in any of our visa and immigration policies at the moment.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. David, we can take our next question.
OPERATOR: Absolutely. The next question will come from Nayanima Basu with The Print. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, hello. Thank you for taking my question. I’m Nayanima Basu from The Print, which is India’s leading digital media. So my question, basically again – again on Quad: What is the hesitant – the kind of resistance that India and the U.S. and other partners have in making Quad a formal setup now that the Malabar is also going to have the Quad partners. And secondly, is the U.S. putting more focus on India’s neighborhood since the Secretary of State will be visiting Sri Lanka and other countries? Thank you so much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m happy to take that one. The U.S. and India cooperation on the Quad along with Australia and Japan really reflect a convergence of common values and interests in the region. We’re the two biggest democracies in the Indo-Pacific region, and we have shared values and interests with all four countries. It’s not an exclusive grouping by any means. We are more than – all four countries are interested and eager in welcoming other countries to the table for individual elements of cooperation that we do, some of them under the Quad framework but not all of them. That’s for sure. And it’s something – so it’s something that’s flexible and that reflects our common values and our common interests, and I think is really for the long term.
The Secretary’s travel within the region reflects an opportunity that he has to take – to visit some other neighboring countries in – on the margins of his visit to India. Our 2+2 meetings are something that we’ve done annually. It’s a meeting that’s reserved only for our closest and most important partners, and we’ve done it just about every summer for decades now. The fact that it was postponed until the beginning – the end of October is a reflection of the unique features and situation of 2020 and doesn’t – and is – it doesn’t mean anything that we’re doing it in October versus July. It’s just when we were both able to come up with a schedule that works for our Secretary of State and Defense and the Indian Minister of External Affairs and Minister of Defense.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. David, we can take our next question.
OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to the line of Manik Mehta with Syndicated. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, we can.
QUESTION: Good. Thank you for organizing this, very nice to talk to you. I have a question. It’s a two-part question, actually. The first one relates to the Quad. One of your speakers just hinted about the possible expansion of this alliance. Where do you see, where do you envision new members coming from? The ASEAN group, for example, has shown a slight reluctance except perhaps accepting Vietnam, and even to a lesser extent, Indonesia. So where do you see the source of new membership?
Secondly, on the question of defense cooperation, are you just interested in selling weapons, by which I mean planes, et cetera, et cetera? Or are you also willing to (inaudible) the latest technology which India is insisting? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, on the Quad, I should tell you it’s not an alliance. You mentioned that – you said it was an alliance and I want to push back on that. There’s nothing about the Quad that is an alliance. It doesn’t have – it is not formalized. There’s no reciprocal obligation among the countries who are involved. It’s not an organization that solicits membership. So it isn’t a question of expanding it.
The ministerial meeting that we had in Tokyo in October just demonstrated the strong ties among Indo-Pacific democracies. I would say it’s a grouping of countries who are interested in strengthening a rules-based order in which all nations are sovereign, strong, and prosperous. It’s an opportunity to – for us to carry out continued dialogue and to work towards mutually agreed-upon outcomes. It’s a grouping of countries that’s driven by shared interests and values rather than binding obligations. That’s an example of effective multilateralism at best – at its best.
And as the United States, Japan, Australia, and India are getting together to cooperate on one issue or another, if there are other countries that want to participate in those discussions or those activities, the door is always open.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And on the second question, we think about deepening mil-to-mil cooperation with the Indians. I think in terms of capabilities and capacity – capabilities, certainly foreign military sales and the platforms we’re selling help advance that, as do some of the communication networks that we seek to put in place.
On capacity, that largely gets to creating habits of cooperation, so it’s starting to use the platforms and the capabilities more seamlessly, so we get at that through bilateral and multilateral exercises, and then also the use of our – some of our logistics agreements that we have in place. And so what I would say is it’s not just selling platforms. In fact, we very much want to sell platforms that achieve mutual interests and capabilities in the future, and so we think very holistically in terms of how we utilize the agreements in place for logistics and information sharing, but then also for exercises to create interoperability.
QUESTION: May I have a – may I ask another small question, rather, if you don’t mind?
MODERATOR: Please do it quickly. We only have a certain amount of time.
QUESTION: Very, very quickly indeed. Well, at the last Shangri-La conference in Singapore, there was talk – informal talk, I must say, about forming a kind of an Asian version of the NATO Alliance. Is that a viable proposition or was it just very speculative in nature and should not be given much credence? What would be your take on that? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: We’re not pursuing an alliance of any sort at this time.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. We have time for just a couple of more questions, so David, can you go ahead and take the next question?
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Sid Sabal with WION. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, sir. I’m Sidhant from WION. My question is on Pakistan. We know that Pakistan is still on the grey list, but do you think that Pakistan is acting on the issue of terrorism? I am asking this issue because here in India this is a major, major issue, the issue of cross-border terrorism.
And secondly, you talked about the formalization of Quad, so what can we expect as the next natural evolution to Quad? Perhaps a meeting at a different level, that can happen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Regarding the next level of the Quad, because the Quad is an informal arrangement – it’s an alignment of democracies in the Indo-Pacific – there are many different dimensions in which it can grow and expand, and more – all activities are on the table, and meetings among officials in different places and at different levels and with different subject matter focuses. So I think all of us are open to additional cooperation, coordination, and common activity. And I expect that the next year will see even more alignment of activities among the four countries in the Quad, and hopefully those that will bring in other likeminded nations as well.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir, and we have time for one more question. David, can you go ahead and take our last question?
OPERATOR: Our last question will come from Yashwant Raj with Hindustan Times. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much for doing this call. Could you speak a little bit to the outcomes that you expect to announce at the 2+2, some agreements like BECA and the maritime information sharing agreement?
And on the question of Quad, since there is such a lot of interest, I was wondering if you were looking at a summit-level meeting of the Quad at some stage, as you did say that you do seek some more meetings in some more areas. But do you see a summit-level meeting happening anytime soon? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Regarding the 2+2 outcomes, we – I know Secretary Esper and Secretary Pompeo will discuss our collaboration on promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific for sure on how to respond to common challenges and maritime security and joint military exercises, defense industry partnerships, as well as ways that we can further strengthen our cooperation on COVID response, economic recovery, and additional defense issues.
I think I would rather save the specific outcomes and deliverables and signings and various other announcements – I’m going to leave that to our Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State to announce themselves when they are in India.
Regarding a Quad summit, no, there are no plans for that in the immediate short term, but anything could happen in the future.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sirs. And with that, I would like to thank our briefers for taking time out of their busy schedules today to brief us on an update on U.S. relations ahead of the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. Just a reminder that this briefing is on background and attribution is for senior administration officials.
I would also like to thank all of the journalists on the call today for participating, and we hope to have the transcript later today and we will send it to all the participants who RSVPed for this briefing.
So once again, thank you, everyone, and with that, this briefing is concluded.