Background Briefing on Secretary Tillerson's Remarks at CSIS

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Washington, DC
October 18, 2017


MODERATOR: Hi, gang. Oh my goodness, we have such a big group here today. Have you all met [Senior State Department Official] before?

QUESTION: How are you?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Nice to see you. Hi.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official].

QUESTION: Okay.

MODERATOR: So [Senior State Department Official] has just about 15 minutes for us, so [Senior State Department Official] is going to be on background. Senior State Official, please.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Abbie. Even Abbie is here.

MODERATOR: And if you can all try to keep your questions, please, tight so that [Senior State Department Official] can hit as many of you as possible. And if you could just identify your name and your outlet, please, that would be great.

As you know, the Secretary gave a big speech about India. We've got a trip coming up. So [Senior State Department Official] has some details about that. [Senior State Department Official], go right ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Nice to see all of you. The Secretary gave a speech today on U.S.-India relations for the next hundred years to implement President Trump’s new strategy for South Asia. And the policy – the policies that you heard today in the Secretary’s speech were the culmination of several months of deliberation within the national security cabinet on the best approach to address challenges in South Asia and on the opportunities.

We spend a lot of time – the Secretary of State spends a lot of time dealing with problems. India is an opportunity and he wanted to present extended remarks and reflections on how – the many ways that we can deepen U.S. and India ties for the next hundred years, and how India is a critical component to a free and open Indo-Pacific. And the benefits – the bilateral – there’s obviously a lot of bilateral benefits that follow deepening economic, cultural, diplomatic, and security ties with India. But there are a range of benefits that also follow for the region, the Indo-Pacific region, and the Secretary wanted to spell out the different elements of that and he also wanted to explain – I think you heard him say India is looking for a partner. And the Secretary announced today that America is that partner.

The bilateral meeting that Secretary Tillerson had with Prime Minister Modi was an excellent conversation that went well past its scheduled time. President Trump’s time with Prime Minister Modi – you can see that we are on the front end of something quite special.

The speech today is meant to – is a scene-setter for his trip to the region, again, as part of implementing the President’s new South Asia strategy. That strategy was first announced with the President’s address to the nation on Afghanistan. That speech that the President gave did focus on it – on Afghanistan, but it also talked about India. And the President talked about how the United States views India as a valued and influential partner and that we have broad mutual interests that extend well beyond South Asia.

The President also highlighted – he’s also talked about the contributions that India is making toward Afghanistan’s democracy, stability, prosperity, and security. India is obviously very active in bilateral development assistance to Afghanistan. And so there is a lot that the U.S., Afghanistan, and India can do as part of the President’s new strategy on Afghanistan.

So the Secretary is looking forward to spending time in India and other stops in the region on the trip. And with that, I’m happy to take any actions.

QUESTION: Some people who were there were not taken aback or surprised or anything, but noticed, in particular, the rather strident tone towards China. So there’s a couple things just off of that.

One is I realize the speech is timed to his trip, but it’s also as the Communist Party congress is happening. Is that a – that just coincidence? And secondly, is there any – what exactly in – do you see the U.S.-India relationship doing to blunt China’s interests?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the first question, the Secretary is going to the region and it is – the trip itself is completely unrelated --

QUESTION: Right.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- to the party congress in China. He wanted to publicly share his vision for U.S.-India relations for the next century on its own terms. And it is a speech that is as the title suggests. The Secretary is looking at this in terms of the next century, the next hundred years, to signal just about how much we’re elevating the importance of India. And one of the things that the Secretary highlighted, and it’s – that you mentioned – it’s around China – is that we have an international order that is under various stresses and --

QUESTION: Including, some might say, from here. (Laughter.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You’re welcome, yeah, to write what you wish. But when you look at the international order, obviously it’s under a lot of strain. China has risen alongside India, but China has done so less responsibly and China has undermined the international rules-based order while countries like India operate within this rules-based order.

And he did say that we obviously want constructive relations with China. The Secretary is in regular contact with Chinese leadership. But we are not going to shrink or ignore China’s challenges to the rules-based order, or where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries. And what we like is for many decades, the United States has supported China’s rise, we have also supported India’s rise, but those two countries have risen very differently. And when you look, as the Secretary said about the shared values, shared security, shared national security interests, shared economies, shared democracies, this is a great friendship that we want to expand and deepen on all areas.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official] --

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], was that a pitch – Rich Edson from Fox.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hey, Rich.

QUESTION: Was that a pitch to the Indian Government for a stronger relationship, a pitch against China for an India-China relationship?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s a speech that was designed for many audiences.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official]?

QUESTION: Back here.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official]?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: VOA. Nike Ching from VOA. So excuse, I’m just asking as a matter of fact, not to be so blunt. So is the U.S. looking for alternative strategic partner and is his tone to counter the rising of China? And then has he conveyed that strong message in the face of Chinese leaders during their meetings?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We – as I said, there’s – there are good reasons bilaterally for the U.S. and India to deepen its ties, but when you look at – we see opportunities to grow the connectivity in the region.

And so we did – the Indo-Pacific, when you look at the anchors of it, you have obviously the trilateral, and the Secretary did a trilateral meeting during the UN General Assembly with India, the U.S., and Japan. And we know that Japan is very supportive of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and I’ve had many consultations with the Japanese about this. We have also talked with the Australians, and we envision a quadrilateral sort of – an anchoring – the Indo-Pacific anchored by these four countries of Australia, the United States, India, and Japan. But you’ve got anchors, but then you’ve got many other nations that are a part of this. And this speech, I would say, obviously it was mostly India, but the subtitle of it was about – subtitle of the speech: “The Foundations of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” And so that’s what he talked about, including financing mechanisms, and he did talk about some of the predatory economics that we see in the area, and you have countries that are looking for better financing mechanisms and better partners, and we believe that countries like the U.S. and India are those partners.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], back here.

QUESTION: Is he looking for alternatives?

MODERATOR: Hold on. We’ve got to move on to other people. Elise, do you want to go?

QUESTION: Obviously this is in some ways a kind of counter to what you see as an irresponsible China, but the Pakistani foreign minister, as you know, was here, and I know he’ll be going to Islamabad too, but the Pakistani foreign minister was here last week and really did see this kind of tilt towards India as at Pakistan’s expense. And could you kind of talk about it within this context that they say, like, you’ve kind of given up on Pakistan, particularly in Afghanistan, and now have found a new partner? And he suggested that that could kind of tilt them more towards China, which is something that I would assume that you don’t want.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Our relations with India do not come at the expense of Pakistan and vice versa. The Secretary today talked about the things that the United States can do to help alleviate some of the tensions on Pakistan’s borders around Afghanistan and in India. When the President gave his remarks about Pakistan, he talked about a lot of the positive aspects of the bilateral relationship. Our militaries have worked together against common enemies. We’ve recently had the rescue of the Coleman family. The Pakistani people have suffered from terrorism and extremism. At the same time, Pakistan has to take decisive action against militant groups based in Pakistan that are a threat to the region, and I think that we are having much more serious conversations about being a partner for achieving our priorities in the region, but that’s around Pakistan doing more against militant groups.

So we’re trying to expand cooperation in Pakistan while we’re also looking to – there’s a range of, as I said, the various areas I spelled out where we’re working closer with India. But we have many common interests and common enemies in the region when it comes to our bilateral discussions with Pakistan, which was – the Secretary will be talking about. But we have said that it is time for Pakistan to demonstrate fully that it is willing to assist the United States in its core counterterrorism goals in the region. And the Secretary will be discussing that on his trip.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], did the decision --

MODERATOR: Hold on, guys. Barbara, you had a question?

QUESTION: I was going say a question about Pakistan. But if he --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.

MODERATOR: Go ahead, Reuters.

QUESTION: So I’m wondering, India’s seen in the region as the regional hegemon. It funded and supported extremist groups in Sri Lanka. It blocked the Nepalese border last year. It’s seen as throwing its weight around when it comes to dominating. It has an ongoing dispute over river water with Bangladesh. Are you concerned that perhaps the United States will be seen as teaming up with the regional hegemon to help it expand its power and influence in South Asia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. In short, no. We – in any bilateral relationship, you have areas of opportunity and then you also have areas of friction. And I think that you’ve seen during the Secretary’s time that he knows how to take a comprehensive approach to bilateral relations, and that will be no different in the case of India.

But today was an opportunity to highlight all the areas of where we see the opportunities on the positive side of the ledger. That does not mean that we look at it only through that lens. This was a very thematic speech and meant to point in the direction around the different areas I’ve talked about.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ve just got two more questions. Carol?

QUESTION: On Pakistan, which the Secretary mentioned only in passing in the speech, is the decision, his decision to go there, kind of unusual in itself, together with India? Is that related to the release of the hostages? And on sort of a related matter, when the foreign minister of Pakistan was here, he said he received personal assurances that India’s involvement in Afghanistan would just be economic and development, not military. Is that true?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Give me the second part again, the prime minister one?

QUESTION: The prime minister, he said that he was assured that India would only be involved in Afghanistan when – on economic and development issues, not military issues. Is that accurate?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We – as I mentioned earlier, India is making contributions toward Afghanistan’s democracy, stability, prosperity, and security. And so India, I know, has pledged $3 billion in bilateral development assistance to Afghanistan since 2001. That includes the Indian-Afghanistan Friendship Dam and the Afghan parliament building. I think those are emblematic of the kinds of assistance that India not only has given, but will continue to give.

On the first part of your question, you asked whether it was tied to the --

QUESTION: Hostage rescue.

QUESTION: Hostage release.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This trip is not the consequence of that. The Secretary was intensely involved in the liberation of the Coleman family from Pakistan.

MODERATOR: All right. Last question I’m allowing.

QUESTION: Can you be a little more specific? What do you mean by “intensely involved”? I mean, he wasn’t there, so --

MODERATOR: Well, we talked about that in briefing. But you know how the State Department weighs in with other countries on those things.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. This was an interagency effort. But Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson worked very closely to – with the White House to secure the release of the Coleman family, and the Secretary was up the entire night working on their release.

MODERATOR: I’ll allow – we got to go. Okay. Last question.

QUESTION: Thank you. Two quick ones. You said the speech was designed for many audiences. Can you elaborate a little bit further which are the other audiences? What is the message you’re sending to China on this? And I have one quick one on Pakistan.

MODERATOR: Yeah, we got to go.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think the – I think the material – the Secretary talked about China in two different parts of the speech. And so if China’s mentioned, China’s obviously an audience of the speech. But this is a speech, obviously, which we hope all countries in the Indo-Pacific region will take to heart, that the Secretary has placed a priority – the Secretary and the President. I think you’ve seen – I would just direct your attention: There have been at least two or three White House references to a free and open Indo-Pacific. This is a priority for the President and the Secretary of State. Because India is one of the anchors of an Indo-Pacific strategy, we wanted to devote a lot of time to this country. We’re also backing it up by going to the region. The Secretary has met with the Indian foreign minister and the foreign secretary many times, and we’ve worked very closely with the Indian embassy.

And so that’s the reason for the speech today; there are many audiences for this. But we really view this as a speech with a global audience.

MODERATOR: All right, guys. We got to go. Thank you so much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: I’m sorry we didn’t have more time today. [Senior State Department Official], thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. See you again. Thank you.

MODERATOR: [Senior State Department Official], thank you.