Ambassador Wells: Hi. I’ve had the privilege to learn about India really at the knees of Ashley and Rich Verma and others in this room, so it’s a privilege to speak here today and I want to thank you for co-hosting the event and to have so many people who are fans and friends of the U.S.-India partnership, and a special thanks of course to Susan Eisenhower, President of the Eisenhower Group, who’s done tremendous work in supporting this relationship.
I would say, Rich, many of the accomplishments with India are in no small part due to his own personal efforts, so I think we need to stop and reflect again on what a bipartisan partner India has been and continues to be.
It’s great to take stock of the India relationship in light of President Eisenhower’s historic visit in 1959, the first-ever by a sitting American President because our relationship has come so far since then.
I appreciated how Eisenhower stated before India’s Parliament that the welfare of America is bound up with the welfare of India. And that is certainly so true today, and it captures, I think, our common heritage as democracies and how we need to work together and move past what were the Cold War non-aligned movement complexities.
Today the U.S.-India relationship would scarcely be recognizable to Eisenhower’s contemporaries. Over the past two decades under four Presidents — two Republican, two Democrat — we have built a stronger U.S.-India relationship that helps uphold international norms, it builds prosperity, and helps to counter terrorism and advances our shared interests in Asia and beyond. That’s really quite remarkable.
I think in Delhi there’s been a growing consensus that no relationship matters more when it comes to advancing India’s economic and security interests as well as its global aspirations.
The 2+2 dialogue has become the principal mechanism under the Trump administration for translating the strategic convergence into tangible outcomes and it’s really contributed to a quiet sea change in recent years in how we do things with India. And the outcomes, I think, are finally matching the rhetoric.
So in advance of next week’s visit by Defense Minister Singh and Minister Jaishankar, I wanted to focus briefly on three areas — interoperability, regional cooperation and people to people ties, as well as to acknowledge some of the challenges.
First on interoperability. When people hear interoperability, they think military cooperation. And certainly we’ve reached many milestones recently in this area with India. Whether it’s the group sail in the South China Sea; secure hotlines; the Secure Communications Agreement or COMCASA which has greatly enhanced our naval cooperation; or whether it’s the inaugural Tri-Service Exercise that was held last month. And this service-to-service interoperability is going to continue to grow as we work to conclude the outstanding defense-enabling agreements.
For example, the Industrial Security Agreement will allow for new avenues of collaboration between our private sectors on defense research and co-development.
I think I was in Delhi when Ashley was trying to push that rock up the hill on these enabling agreements. And almost 20 years later, we’re here. We’ve done it and we’re going to achieve a new level of interoperability.
But it’s also on the diplomatic side that we have this interoperability. There’s a new comfort level between our diplomats and our development experts when it comes to working together, whether it’s in the quad, whether it’s on maritime issues, on joint projects like the NCC supported Nepal-India power line, or even in routine consultations in capitals around the world.
My colleague from OSD, Randy Schriver and I co-lead both the Maritime Security Dialogue as well as what I call the Mini 2+2 Dialogue. These are invaluable mechanisms for bringing together civilians and military counterparts in both governments.
I would say the second area, regional cooperation. What I would highlight is the Quad. The formation of the Quad about 2.5 years ago, which consists of the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia and met for the first time at the Ministerial level on the margins of the UN General Assembly, is an important step forward in aligning like-minded powers behind the principle of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and just I think a few weeks ago India hosted a successful counter-terrorism tabletop exercise among Quad partners. Our Quad cyber experts are meeting this week to discuss shared challenges in cyberspace including cybercrime and 5G.
And as I like to say when I entered the Foreign Service, the Quad was the U.S., UK, France, and Germany. Today the Quad is something very different reflecting the new world realities that we confront.
We’ve also seen India use its engagements with the United States to expand its strategic horizons. So maritime security is just one example. Following the conclusion of the U.S.-India Logistics Agreement in 2016, we saw India conclude similar agreements with a number of close partners. As we grow our naval cooperation, we’re seeing India broaden its maritime footprint with partners, including through the launching of an Indian Fusion Center. And our increased consultations on regional issues will be a central component of the upcoming 2+2, where we envision in-depth discussions on a range of pressing issues, whether it’s Afghanistan, terrorism, regional connectivity and the Indo-Pacific.
Third, on people-to-people which is traditionally the very strong pillar in our relationship. I think the Howdy Modi event in Texas captured in a powerful way the close rapport between the President and Prime Minister as well as the bonds between our citizens.
Students are a great example of this story. We have over 200,000 Indians coming to study in the United States, a record number. They contribute more than $7 billion to the U.S. economy. At the same time, our scientists are working together more closely than ever including on space situational awareness, human space flight and joint research. Scientists from NASA and ISRO are in the advanced stages of building the NISAR earth observation satellite which will be one of the most cutting-edge of its type.
And at the 2+2 we seek to elevate our partnership even further. We’re going to increase cooperation on water management, disaster relief, science and technology, peacekeeping, judicial cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges, including between innovators and parliamentarians. So please stay tuned.
I don’t want to diminish the challenges that we have in the relationship. We continue to closely monitor the situation in general in Kashmir where we look to the government to take additional steps to release detainees and restore political and economic normalcy that will help to ease local tensions. No one doubts that India faces a tough security situation given the terror groups that operate across the border, but Kashmiris are entitled to their full rights under the Indian constitution which enshrines the respect for religious freedom of all Indians.
I know firsthand the degree to which issues like Kashmir and the Citizenship Bill have garnered attention on the Hill. I’m headed to the Hill this afternoon for a closed-door briefing. And as a fellow democracy, we want to ensure that one of the pillars underpinning our partnership, our common democratic values, remain strong.
Trade negotiations, as was discussed between the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and USTR, are ongoing. The talks are in a better place. They take much longer than we would like. The deal will be modest but hopefully a stepping stone to more ambitious trade liberalization. We’re getting close to finalizing it, but this is something we really see India needing to demonstrate, not just to the United States but to the international community, its willingness to become a part of that global supply chain.
This could, we hope, also be a first step towards resolving larger market access issues, including in sectors affected by India’s data localization and e-commerce policies. Our goal remains to continue expanding trade and investment in a way that’s fair, balanced, and reciprocal.
And I would note, bilateral trade grew to 142 billion. We’re doing well in increasing the amount of trade with the deficit decreasing largely due to strategic investments by India in energy imports.
But the message I want to leave with you is that there are challenges, but we’re working together to overcome them in ways that would have seemed impossible in the past, and certainly in the year 2000 when I first served in India when Ashley Tellis was there. We are moving from the era of ambitions to the era of achievements. Media commentators and strategic pundits I think on occasion paint a gloomy picture, whether it’s on H1B or trade, Iran sanctions. But I think if you look back over the Trump administration, we’ve been able to mange these differences quite effectively and not let them cast a shadow on what is otherwise a very positive track record which will be highlighted at the 2+2 next week.
So let me close by again underscoring the importance of the 2+2 and building out this partnership. Of course I’m saying this both as a bureaucrat but as somebody who really truly appreciates from my own personal perspective of having worked on this relationship for almost 20 years, just how much we have achieved and how much the geopolitical challenges that both India and the United States face compel this level of cooperation between our two countries.
Moderator: Ambassador, thank you so much.
One thing you mentioned was all the people who have come before us, actually, and who have worked on this relationship. One person I wanted to recognize who’s here, Congressman Bera recognized him, but someone who really took the Congress to a new place, Congressman Ed Royce as the Chairman of the House International Relations Committee. We appreciate his leadership.
Let me maybe just jump into it and kind of go through the list of issues, if that’s okay.
You mentioned the trade talks, and I wonder if you can just give us maybe a little maybe more precise prediction of where you think things are. Is this a 2019 deal to be closed? Or is this going to happen next year or we don’t know yet?
Ambassador Wells: I don’t have a crystal ball and USTR would knock it off the table if I did have one. So I don’t want to get in the way of what are, though, productive conversations. So there is intense interaction between USTR and India. I think there’s a high expectation based on the conversations between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi that a deal will be finished and that it will serve as a stepping stone for what need to be broader conversations.
We spend a lot of time talking to private sector who are very focused on emerging legislation in India and data localization, privacy, e-commerce. These are issues that we’re all grappling with. But I have to say in general, we’re concerned about the growing data protectionism that we see worldwide. Based on the fact that the U.S. and India have demonstrated so phenomenally what you can accomplish when you have free flows of data. I think we estimate about eight percent of India’s GDP can be attributed to IT companies that rely on this free flow of data. That we should be able to, I think, propel forward a data relationship that sets a high standard for the free flow.
Moderator: The economic issues seem to be having a bigger impact in the relationship, and maybe it’s been like that since 1947 or really the last few decades. But the last two or three years we seem to have been kind of stuck in some of the trade issues.
Just from a kind of how the U.S. government engages with India, do you see a divide between the foreign policy and defense community and then the trade and economics community? So next week we’ll have the 2+2, but it’s almost happening somewhat disconnected from some of the harder issues that are happening on this trade front. How do we fix that seam if in fact there is one?
Ambassador Wells: I don’t think there is a seam. I heard those concerns when I started because we separated out the 2+2 dialogue from the trade dialogue. Nobody can doubt under the Trump administration that trade is strategic. This is the foremost issue for President Trump, having fair reciprocal trade. And so it very much is a backdrop to the 2+2 conversation. It’s an issue that Secretary Pompeo himself engages on. But it also goes to the ambitions of the partnership. How can India play the role that it wants to play, being an important part of the global supply chain, if it doesn’t grapple with the tariff and non-tariff barriers that don’t make that possible.
When I speak to major companies and they talk about how they assess, everyone’s excited about India and what’s to be in India and part of what’s going to happen in India. But it shouldn’t just be for producing for the domestic market. If India wants to be an exporter, if India wants to use trade to drive job production and to address some of the economic challenges it’s currently facing, it needs to be competitive in its exports, which many companies say right now it’s not, because of the tariff barriers.
So this is not just a U.S.-India trade issue. It goes to the very ambitions of what India wants to achieve and what we want to achieve with India.
Moderator: Got it.
Let me take a step back and talk about the broader region for a second as articulated in the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy which is kind of, this has been something that’s been worked on for years. We had the Joint Strategic Vision with India, now we have this much broader Indo-Pacific Strategy that Admiral and so many others have worked on.
The skeptics or critics would say this is just about China and containing, constraining China. How do you respond to that? How much of this is military? How much of this is economic, diplomatic? Can you just give us a flavor for what the strategy’s really about?
Ambassador Wells: The strategy is economics, it’s governance, it’s strategic military to military, but you have to acknowledge today that the threat to the free and open nature of the Indo-Pacific and the broader threat to the post-World War II order has been China’s increasing assertiveness, both economically and certainly for India that shares a long border with China, militarily. So there is a geopolitical I think understanding that like-minded countries, most importantly India and the United States, need to be able to stand for the values of free and open, but it has to be more than rhetoric. How do we address the needs of countries who desperately need infrastructure, who need investment, who want to see the United States and India be active participants in their economy.
So I think the Indo-Pacific Strategy is doing that. And you’ve seen over the last two years what was first the rhetoric of the strategy or the aspirations of the strategy, and now the growth of the supporting programs. So whether it’s the Development Finance Corporation that’s being brought into life as we speak, or whether it’s the specific infrastructure initiatives to support the ability of countries to assess infrastructure projects and to assess proposals, or whether it’s the emphasis on energy and digital connectivity. More money, more resources, more initiatives are now flowing this direction.
Moderator: You mentioned there is a threat to the order and China’s rise certainly presents us with that challenge. Again, some of the concern in India has been, it’s one of we’re being used in kind of this great power struggle. There’s a quote from the Foreign Minister who’s going to be here next week who says, “We are not going to be used in someone else’s wedge in a balancing competition.” We, India, are not going to be used as a wedge.
Ambassador Wells: Right.
Moderator: How do you respond to that?
Ambassador Wells: Nobody wants to be a wedge in somebody’s geopolitical competition. That’s all we’re discussing. We’re not talking about a containment strategy or a zero-sum game against another power. What we’re talking about is standing for the values that our democracies enshrine, and to stand for the free and open trading system that has benefited all countries, and certainly most of all China.
I think India from the very beginning recognized, for instance, the Belt and Road Strategy for what it was. A geopolitical play to advance China’s specific interests, not the development needs of the countries where it was operating. Increasingly we’ve seen in places, whether it’s Sri Lanka and Maldives in the near neighborhood, or Pakistan or Malaysia or others, what BRI has come to stand for.
So again, I don’t see this — I see a great deal of commonality in the U.S. and India approach.
Moderator: Let me turn to the defense relationship. You mentioned it in your remarks. And it really has surged over the last two decades and it’s a lot more than just selling stuff. As the Indians say all the time, we do more exercises with the United States than with any other country. They’ve gotten more complex. We’ve added additional nations to the exercises.
Do you envision a day where the exercises graduate into something more? People have talked about maybe humanitarian and disaster response cooperation, counter-piracy, counter-proliferation. Is there some projection into the future of going from exercises to more burden sharing?
Ambassador Wells: First I want to thank you for your efforts on Major Defense Partner, because that was a significant step forward in recognizing India’s really unique status. It’s not an ally, but it occupies its own significant and unique status and role in our partnerships.
We’ve already seen the expansion. I mean look at the sail-by that we did in the South China Sea with Japan and the Philippines. Look at our cooperation as India’s trying to fend off what is the constant Chinese harassment of the gas platform off of Vietnam. I think we’ve worked very closely with India on humanitarian assistance and disaster response. And it was actually Indian forces that evacuated Americans from Yemen at one point, or the interchangeability of helping our citizens out when we have the opportunity. We’ve trained peacekeepers in Africa and we’re looking to expand that joint effort to support peacekeeping more broadly in the Indo-Pacific. And I think that’s happening and it’s a natural outgrowth of an increasingly interoperable U.S. and India armed forces.
The other note I would add to that, last year at the first 2+2 Ministerial we signed the COMCASA Agreement, and that really was a huge step forward in allowing both countries, in allowing India to see the benefits of the U.S. system and what it means to benefit from all of what U.S. systems have to offer. I think that intensity of cooperation will be further enhanced as we finish the remaining enabling agreement.
Moderator: Great. That sets a very positive note.
Let me turn to human rights a bit if I can, and I really appreciate your comments and your directness on the Kashmir set of issues, and you did the exact same thing when you testified on Capitol Hill, certainly a different set of subjects.
But maybe instead of talking about Kashmir specifically or the new Citizenship Registration Bill, is there, can there be part of this dialogue next week, for example, a dialogue on human rights and democratic freedoms? And I assume if there is, that the Indian side would want it to be a reciprocal dialogue about maybe how citizens are treated here or immigration issues, or take your pick.
But can we get human rights as part of the discussion?
Ambassador Wells: Human rights is not part of this 2+2 discussion that’s taking place next week, although I’m confident issues that touch on Kashmir and threat perceptions also that India sees will obviously be a part of the agenda. But that doesn’t mean we don’t discuss human rights. We do all the time. And just as we do with every other country in the world, we produce a human rights report. That human rights report is the outcome of many conversations as well as work with local NGOs and others involved in this field.
So as democracies I think we recognize that institutions have their role to play, and as I said in my testimony before Congress, a lot of the legislation or actions that are now attracting attention here in the United States and certainly are attracting the attention of members of Congress, you know, these are issues that are being debated hotly in India. These are issues that are being taken up at the political level. These are issues that are being taken up in the Indian judiciary. And we need to respect that and let those processes play out.
Moderator: Congressman Bera was here and you’re headed up to the Hill as well. The Hill can be a great partner in this relationship with civil nuclear cooperation or a major defense partner but they can also, as you just pointed out, raise some questions or concerns. That’s their job.
How do you see where the Hill attitude is right now on the relationship? Just your own perspective.
Ambassador Wells: There’s enormous support and has been for years for the U.S.-India partnership. The caucus is a wonderful partner in trying to drive forward U.S.-India relationships and remove the underbrush to enhance cooperation between our two countries. But I think it’s the intensity, the level of concern within Congress over whether it’s Kashmir or other actions on the Citizens Amendment Bill that demonstrate, again, the genuine concern here in the United States over India’s trajectory and the genuine concern that these kinds of social issues not detract from India’s ability to stand for the values and to stand with us in trying to promote, again, this free and open Indo-Pacific.
Moderator: Final question. You mentioned Howdy Modi, a big success. Do you anticipate any other big heads of state meetings coming up? In Houston or otherwise?
Ambassador Wells: It’s a rare month when you don’t have a cabinet official in India, so I’m confident that our high-level exchanges with India are going to continue but I don’t have anything to announce today.
Moderator: Okay. Before you came in we spent a lot of time talking about President Eisenhower’s, not only his remarks but his focus on diplomacy, the importance of diplomats, people to people ties and what a supporter and how proud he was of the State Department. You’re such a terrific representative of the Department, and we just want to thank you for everything that you’re doing on a day to day basis. So thank you very much.
Ambassador Wells: Thank you.