As delivered on 5/20/20.
Mr. Kempe: Hello, everyone. I’m Fred Kempe. I’m President and CEO of the Atlantic Council and I’m delighted to have you in this virtual room with two of my favorite people, and I’ll get to that in a second, but there are not two more people more knowledgeable in their fields or more accomplished in their work as diplomats.
We talk a lot about social distance. We like to call it Atlantic Council geographic distance because we feel through these meetings we can bring all of you closer together socially and intellectually.
As a reminder, today’s meeting, which is a discussion on India and the Indo-Pacific, is public and on the record.
We are fortunate today to be joined by Ambassador Alice Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. We’re especially grateful to host Ambassador Wells today. She will be retiring after an enormously distinguished 31 year career serving as a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State this Saturday.
Ambassador Wells assumed her duties as Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia in June 2017. I’m delighted to say that the Atlantic Council has had the good fortune of working with her and hosting her several times during this tenure.
Prior to her current post, Ambassador Wells served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Jordan, one of the most important positions in that region; a Senior Advisor in the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau in Department of State; Special Assistant to the President for Russia and Central Asia; and much more. During her time in the Foreign Service she served in U.S. embassies in New Delhi, Islamabad, in Riyadh. In short, she knows the world and she knows her stuff.
Alice, please allow me once again to thank you for your distinguished service.
We’re also joined by Ambassador Richard Verma, Vice Chair and Partner to the Asia Group and former U.S. Ambassador to India from 2014 to 2017.
Ambassador Verma has a distinguished career also over the past 25 years, serving across the U.S. government as Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, Senior National Security Advisor to the Senate Majority Leader, and as Judge Advocate in the U.S. Air Force.
Our two participants, as I said earlier, are two of the most knowledgeable and accomplished individuals working on India and the Indo-Pacific. I look forward, as we all do on this virtual call, to your conversation. So Alice, Rich, it’s a pleasure to know you and it’s going to be a great pleasure to listen to you.
I think Alice, you’re going to kick us off, Ambassador Wells will kick us off with some opening remarks, and then we’ll ask Rich to moderate the event.
Ambassador Wells: Thank you, Fred; thank you, Rich, for hosting me this afternoon. It really is a privilege to be here. Asia Group, Atlantic Council have been terrific partners of the SCA Bureau over the last three years. I’m very grateful for that. And I appreciate the opportunity on one of my last days in office to take stock of the U.S.-India partnership, our Indo-Pacific vision, and discuss why India matters even more in this pandemic and post-pandemic period.
When I began my first tour in South Asia over two decades ago, the contrast between the U.S.-India relationship now and then could not be starker. I mean the nuclear tests in Kargil were at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Bilateral trade was at a paltry $16 billion. Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh were only beginning to lay the foundations for a reset. And few in New Delhi or Washington could have imagined how drastically China’s entry into the WTO would alter the global balance of power in the ensuing two decades.
I think the first inklings of this change began with the reciprocal visits of President Clinton and Prime Minister Vajpayee. This September is going to mark the 20th anniversary of Vajpayee’s address before Congress, which set the stage for the transformation of the relationship under President George W. Bush.
And long before we coined the term Indo-Pacific, Vajpayee really recognized that a stronger U.S.-India partnership was instrumental to the future of Asia, and I’d like to quote. He said, “If we want an Asia that’s democratic, prosperous, tolerant, pluralistic and stable then it’s necessary for us to reexamine old assumptions. A strong, democratic and economically prosperous India standing at the crossroads of all major cultural and economic zones of Asia will be an indispensable factor for stability in the region.”
Now his statement seems almost prophetic today at a moment when I think the strategic logic of the Indo-Pacific is deeply ingrained in both Washington and New Delhi.
Today I’d like to discuss a bit how extraordinary a shift this was, and to recap a few areas where I think we’ve seen the biggest changes as a result. I’ll close with a few thoughts on COVID as well as some upcoming challenges and opportunities.
Many of you know that the U.S. government bureaucracy can often become hostage to geographic divisions separating regional bureaus from combatant commands. Hence the Indo-Pacific framework is not merely a geopolitical construct. It directly shapes how U.S. policymakers marshal resources, how they organize diplomatic outreach, how they manage policy tradeoffs. And I always refer to India as the long pole in the Indo-Pacific tent. A fellow democracy of 1.3 billion. World’s third largest military. Median age of 28. Burgeoning middle class approaching 600 million. And of course it also shares a 2,000 mile-long disputed boundary with China where, as we’ve seen recently, both countries’ troops have been encountering each other on almost a daily basis.
But most importantly, the United States and India share a vision for an Indo-Pacific order that respects sovereignty and rule of law, and India seeks to become, in the words of Minister Jaishankar, a leading power, but one that plays by the rules. And we in turn recognize that India’s successful rise contributes to an environment in Asia that serves U.S. interests.
So this strategic meeting of the minds on the Indo-Pacific vision has greatly enhanced how we’re able to work together around the world, as you saw in what was rebranded as the Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership announced earlier this year during President Trump’s historic visit to India. I think the personal rapport between the President and the Prime Minister is clear, and it’s clearly helped the relationship. And frankly, we’ve also seen this in their meetings with Prime Minister Abe of Japan.
Another example is the Quad, which is well on its way to becoming one of the premier forums of the Indo-Pacific. And in just the past year we held the inaugural Quad Ministerial meeting. We saw Quad Ambassadors meeting regularly in countries across the Indo-Pacific. And we convened experts meetings on counterterrorism, cyber issues and maritime security.
The Quad is also playing a role in our COVID coordination, which I’ll turn to in a moment.
We’re also exploring ways to leverage our cooperation with India in Southeast Asia, where we’re seeking to expand security assistance coordination and improve East-West connectivity. So the Blue Dot Network, the Coalition for Disaster Resilience Infrastructure, the Development Finance Corporation — all of these vehicles were what the U.S. and India deem as critical in the Indo-Pacific, and that’s transparent, sustainable, high quality infrastructure.
I think we’ve seen that in South Asia, a once more-reticent New Delhi has become increasingly comfortable with working with the United States in its neighborhood. We’ve a shared interest in building maritime domain awareness, including through India’s new Information Fusion Center where the U.S. Navy has now posted a liaison officer.
But perhaps I think the most consequential example was in 2018 when we worked hand in hand with India as well as with the EU to ensure a transparent and peaceful election in Maldives, which in turn has led to a strategic reorienting of that country’s foreign policy.
In Afghanistan, India remains a vital partner now and in the future. Ambassador Khalilzad was in New Delhi a few weeks ago, COVID be damned, in order to discuss the peace process and to hear India’s views on regional mechanisms and how to support Afghanistan’s future stability.
And while Indo-Pak hyphenation is long, found only I think in our history books, we certainly support practical steps that India and Pakistan can take to reduce tensions such as restoring the 2003 Line of Control Ceasefire while continuing, of course, to press Pakistan to take credible steps to dismantle terrorist groups.
I’d like to turn to military cooperation, which has simply reached unprecedented levels helped significantly by a 2+2 dialogue. The list of accomplishments in our 2+2 Joint Statements have become so routine that it’s easy to take it for granted and to lose sight of the significance. Just to name a few, we’ve conducted a group sail in the South China Sea. We’ve inaugurated the new Tri-Service Exercise. We’ve concluded four out of five of the major Defense Enabling Agreements. And we expect BECA to be signed before the end of the year.
We’ve also made strides in our defense trade with the bilateral tally now crossing the $20 billion mark after the President’s visit. I think this administration deserves to take credit for making a concerted policy change to offer India our most advanced defense technologies such as armed UAVs. It’s quite remarkable to think that the same missile defense system protecting Washington, NASAMS, will soon be protecting New Delhi. And India’s growing capabilities as a first responder have also been on display in the Indian Ocean where it’s been delivering COVID relief, often using U.S.-origin platforms, to dozens of countries.
Looking ahead I’m confident that defense trade and interoperability will continue to grow even though COVID-related budgetary challenges may slow the pace.
One area where I think we can exert even more attention is preparing for 21st century threats, especially as the military implications of artificial intelligence, autonomous devices and quantum computing become more pronounced.
I’m proud that our maturing relationship has allowed us to develop a new degree of resiliency and self-confidence. That does allow us to navigate differences on issues like trade, sanctions and visas. Good friends can have candid conversations about even the most difficult topics and that’s why we continue to engage on issues like human rights and religious freedom. Issues that two proud democracies should be able to discuss freely and why we continue to urge India to remain true to its inspiring democratic traditions.
Lastly, let me turn to the challenge at hand. That is, I think the manner and speed in which the COVID pandemic spread has led to valid questions about transparency, accountability and the role of global institutions. The problem is all the more acute in light of China’s efforts to evade responsibility and to spread misinformation.
But one bright spot has been the robust and regular coordination that we’ve enjoyed with India. Secretary Pompeo and Deputy Biegun are utilizing the Quad Plus mechanism to coordinate COVID responses. So in addition to Quad members, these calls have involved South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, as well as Brazil and Israel, and they’ve covered a wide range of issues, sharing of best health practices, supply chain resiliency and diplomatic coordination. And what we’ve seen from New Delhi is a high degree of convergence on how we should work together post-pandemic. And as always, the challenge is going to be translating this convergence into concrete outcomes. It’s going to require a synched approach, I think, on potential reforms to international organizations such as the World Health Organization to ensure transparency and accountability.
Prime Minister Modi has expressed interest in exploring reforms and we look forward to India’s upcoming chairmanship of the WHO’s Executive Board. And we certainly believe that Taiwan should have a seat at the table given its wealth of expertise.
Second, we really want to work with India to improve the business environment as companies seek to diversify their supply chain. This really represents a golden opportunity for India, one which we think it should seize with market-friendly approaches instead of protectionist impulses.
I was disappointed by our inability to reach a trade deal earlier this year. The importance of such a deal has only increased as the Indian economy faces additional headwinds. I know my colleagues at USTR continue to work toward that goal with their Indian counterparts.
Ease of doing business is particularly important when it comes to the pharmaceutical sector, and we were pleased to see Gilead’s announcement last week that it’s going to source Remdesivir from Indian companies. As President Trump has noted, India is a vital partner for vaccine development. This is an area in which the Serum Institute of India is already working with U.S. partners, and India is also a crucial cog in the global supply chain for ventilator components. We were pleased to be able ourselves to donate ventilators to India and other partners earlier this month.
Lastly, we can’t lose sight of our people-to-people ties. COVID has created enormous anxiety and uncertainty for both American and foreign students alike, and we need to ensure that as conditions allow, we do everything possible to keep that upwards trajectory of Indian students in the United States, which last year topped over 200,000.
Finally, if I could just close by stating what a privilege it’s been to lead this Bureau and work on a relationship that’s so vital to U.S. interests, building, of course, on the work of Rich and many, many others before me. All of that investment to build channels of communication and to increase strategic trust is really paying dividends now. And whatever might be in the cards for a post-COVID world order, I’m absolutely confident that the U.S.-India relationship is going to remain relevant, it’s going to remain resilient, and it’s certainly going to remain ready to meet future challenges.
So thank you, and I really look forward to the question and answer session. Over to you, Rich.
Ambassador Verma: Thank you. Ambassador, that was incredible. Thank you for really compelling remarks. I hope you put those out. They’re very clear. They cover so much of the major issues that everyone is thinking about not only with regard to India but with the Indo-Pacific at large. And I want to thank you for your incredible service over multiple decades at the State Department, your dedication to all the women and men who work there. It’s been a privilege to work with you and a privilege to see you in action.
And I want to thank Fred and the Atlantic Council, particularly Irfan, Fatima, Trevor, the whole team that has really built up this incredible South Asia Center doing great scholarship, great research. They are doing terrific work.
Ambassador, if it’s okay, I’ll just jump in and we’ll do some questions between us, and I see a number of questions have already come in on the Q&A function here on Zoom, so don’t hesitate to use that if you’re out there listening.
I want to go actually straight to your remarks. You said a really interesting phrase. You said, “The U.S. government bureaucracy can often become hostage to geographic division separating regional bureaus and combatant commands.”
And then you also said, “We further de-hyphenated our India and Pakistan policy.”
As a practical matter, just how hard is it to deal and have India and Pakistan in the same bureau? It creates a lot of practical challenges, I assume.
Ambassador Wells: I frankly have not found that to be the case. I think we’ve been guided by in this region of the world actually three administration strategies. The Central Asia Strategy which we’re not talking about today, but the South Asia Strategy which laid out a very clear vision of the President to reduce our risk and exposure in Afghanistan for a negotiated political settlement. It’s provided a real basis and a foundation for us to engage Pakistan in a constructive way to try to reorient and reset our relationship. And then the Indo-Pacific Strategy which really establishes the strategic partnership with India based on our mutual adherence to the idea of a free, fair, open world order, trading order, and the policies that need to accompany that.
The discipline of those strategies has guided our efforts consistently. India is vastly important. I just spent 15 minutes talking about it. Pakistan is a very important partner, a country of 200 million, a nuclear power. We need to be able to engage with these countries on their own terms, but obviously not blind to the cross-cutting issues, and frankly the cross-cutting issue of terrorism. I think the administration’s very strong stance on terrorism and its principled approach towards combating non-state actors and the presence of non-state actors has also been a boon in our broader global engagement and certainly in our engagement with India.
Ambassador Verma: That’s a really helpful answer because you talk about these two different strategies, but I also wonder if you also end up, even if you’ve de-hyphenated the two countries, do you end up as a kind of default hyphen because you’re trying not to go too far out with one country as opposed to another? Maybe just a natural of being in a bureaucracy, but it sounds like you haven’t experienced that.
Ambassador Wells: I really haven’t. And more to the point, I used to work in South Asia a long time ago when it was a different era and when you could talk about an Indo-Pak. It was the time of Kargil. I was in Pakistan at the time and then served afterwards in India in the Parliament attack and that whole period, tense period of time. This is not then. We’ve moved on in very different ways with both countries and with India, 99 percent of our attention and vision is looking out at the emerging, at the global order and ensuring that the international rules of the game that have benefited so many hundreds of millions of people continue to provide that economic lift and that potential for democracies and free market economies to flourish. So it’s a different era.
Ambassador Verma: Let me just ask you one more question on this then I’ll get back to India.
You also said we’re continuing to encourage practical steps for both sides to reduce tensions, continuing to press Pakistan to take credible steps to dismantle terror groups, and you mentioned your work in South Asia starting a couple of decades ago. You mentioned Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh. I wonder if those were kind of the same guiding principles of 20 years ago or 25 years ago. Sometimes I sense a frustration on the U.S. government side, multiple administrations, about kind of the lack of progress on this account. Just looking back over your career, this notion of cross-border terror, dismantling terror groups. Have we seen meaningful progress?
Ambassador Wells: I think we have, and I think we’re in a different historical period, where the use of non-state or the tolerance of non-state actors and the presence of proxies have such a deleterious impact on a country’s standing internationally and on how a country is allowed to engage in the international community. And so I would point to, for instance, the Financial Action Task Force that’s providing a lot of the discipline for how we’ve approached counterterrorism efforts. This is not a U.S. agenda. It’s not a U.S. list of asks that we’re making. It’s the international community coming together and upholding a common set of norms and practices for countering terrorist financing and for criminalizing, prosecuting and stripping the assets of terrorists wherever they may be. It’s that process combined with I think what is our broader engagement and healthier engagement with Pakistan that has led to some constructive steps.
I don’t term these steps irreversible but they’re important steps. And whether it’s the prosecution and conviction of Hafiz Saeed, the seizure of assets, certainly what we’ve seen on the better documentation of the economy, and we need to keep that focus and work with our international partners.
What I think really made, was a warning shot across the bow, was the international community’s reaction to the Pulwama crisis where there was an attack in Kashmir. Credit was claimed for it by a group that is headquartered in Pakistan, and there was an escalatory period. It was quite concerning to everyone. But India did not come under criticism for its response and it didn’t come under criticism by principal allies or partners or friends of Pakistan because there was a deep concern over the fact that a non-state actor was being allowed or was able to operate in a fashion that was destabilizing to global security.
So I do think that we are in a different period and we really welcome these important steps that are being taken by Pakistan and I welcome the important statement that Prime Minister Khan has issued, you know, that there is no role for non-state actors, that anybody who crosses the border into Kashmir is an enemy of Pakistan and an enemy of Kashmiris. Words are not actions, but those are important words.
Ambassador Verma: That’s a terrific answer.
I just want to shift to Afghanistan briefly because you mentioned that Ambassador Khalilzad had gone to Delhi, as you said, COVID be damned, to brief senior officials, yet there has been a pretty significant spike in violence in Afghanistan as well over the past month or so. I just wonder if you could just give the group a sense of where the peace deal stands and related to that, does India have a role to play post-signing of the peace arrangement.
Ambassador Wells: India has a very important role to play. The $3 billion in assistance that it has already allocated to Afghanistan is present I think in virtually every province in Afghanistan where it’s engaged in valuable development projects. It’s a diplomatic and political relationship that has Afghan political actors. In the past obviously India was the victim of terrorism that was directed from and came from Afghanistan. So it’s essential that India play a role and have confidence in the peace process or the negotiated political settlement that emerges from intra-Afghan negotiation.
You can see, as I think the Secretary and Ambassador Khalilzad have said publicly, this is a difficult time in the peace process. The violence is unacceptable. The increased levels of violence that we’ve seen by the Taliban is unacceptable. But the answer is not to stop or to move backwards. The answer is to get to the negotiating table faster. And the formation of a unified government that was announced by President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah is important and we look to this team now with Dr. Abdullah leading a High Peace Council to be able to take all necessary steps to allow the negotiations to move forward.
It’s going to continue to be difficult, and so for that we really do look to the countries of the region to reinforce the message of the imperative of peace. And whether that’s Pakistan encouraging the Taliban to again take the right steps that get us to a negotiating table, India providing confidence to others in Afghanistan that this is the wise course of action, it’s going to take all of the region rooting for peace for this negotiated political settlement to come to fruition.
Ambassador Verma: Thank you.
Let me turn to another frankly tense issue which is the border standoff. As you noted, Indian and Chinese forces often coming into contact with each other perhaps more frequently, even in the last week or so additional security challenges on that front. How much does that worry you? Can you give us a sense, are there de-escalatory measures that can be taken? This 2200 mile contested border presents some real security challenges for the Indian side.
Ambassador Wells: I think for anyone who was under any illusions that Chinese aggression was only rhetorical, I think they need to speak to India where India on a weekly, monthly, but certainly a very regular basis has to experience the pinpricks of Chinese military. It’s a reminder of what’s at stake in building a world order and sustaining a world order that respects sovereignty, territorial integrity, as well as respects the rules of international trade that have allowed, again, so many hundreds of millions to be lifted out of poverty.
We in the United States recognize the McMahon Line. We’ve always recognized Arunachal Pradesh as an Indian state. We certainly urge India and China on the Line of Actual Control to engage diplomatically to resolve any outstanding differences. But this is, if you look to the South China Sea, there’s a method here to Chinese operations and it is that constant aggression, the constant attempt to shift the norms, to shift what is the status quo, that has to be resisted whether it’s in the South China Sea where we’ve done a group sail with India or whether it’s in India’s own backyard, both on land as well as in the Indian Ocean.
Ambassador Verma: Really powerful answer. Thank you for that.
I want to stay on defense and security cooperation, give you a chance to catch your breath here a little bit.
You rightfully said that in the security arena the U.S. and India have made incredible progress over the last two decades. In particular you mentioned the defense sales number, the defense exercises, the foundational agreements. We could go on and on, our two industries coming together.
I don’t know if you had a chance to see this, the Chief of Defence Staff the other day said the following, this is the Indian Chief of Defence Staff. He said, “We are not expeditionary forces that have to deploy around the globe. We have to guard and fight only along our borders and of course dominate the Indian Ocean region.” So a very kind of regional view of what the Indian military should be doing, if not a borders only.
I just wonder, does that comport with the Foreign Minister’s view of India being a “leading power” or the U.S. views of India being a net security provider or a major defense partner of the United States. In other words, is that vision consistent with kind of broader global expectations for India to play a more global role?
Ambassador Wells: Power is manifested in many different ways, not just militarily. Obviously India has global interests and is going to I think seek to protect those global interests diplomatically, politically, economically, militarily. So I wouldn’t confuse a definition of expeditionary power by the military with the limiting of India’s influence. We see Indian influence already in the assistance that it provided, COVID assistance, in our backyard, you know, in the Western Hemisphere. I think India has delivered assistance to over 80 countries in a very, very strong affirmation of India as a reliable supplier, a reliable member of the global supply chain.
So no, we absolutely see India as a global power.
Ambassador Verma: That’s really helpful context.
He went on to say, and this is more procurement focused, and I promise we won’t get into the details of defense procurement, but he went on to say we should not go in for large amounts of imports by misrepresenting our operational requirements.
I’m just thinking about with defense budget cuts in India because of the economic situation and an emphasis on local procurement, does that somehow become a new obstacle to defense cooperation? This kind of real focus on local production, buy local, develop local, and let’s kind of do away with our need to rely on foreign companies and foreign suppliers.
Ambassador Wells: I hope not. American companies certainly know better and best, I think, how to partner with other countries and include them in global supply chains that create local jobs. That in fact is how Japan and South Korea built their aerospace sectors. And when I look at Lockheed and Boeing, they’re attempting to do the same thing in Hyderabad.
What I would argue is that there’s a major opportunity through combat aircraft sales for us to be able to fuse this I think shared vision of the Indo-Pacific with a much more powerful defense relationship.
For example, I think we have the F/A-18, the F-21 and the F-15EX that are being offered and we see them as potential game-changers strategically.
First, in addition to what are obviously their superior technological capabilities, and this is an administration that is committed to ensuring to putting the best offer on the table for India. But what you get is transparency. And what I hear so much in India is the concern over corruption, the appearance of corruption. And there’s nothing better than an FMS process which guarantees transparency. The deal is done without controversy and we have a U.S. track record in India that proves that.
I think the second thing is that we provide the sustainment. We’re known for providing the excellent life cycle and maintenance.
And third, the timely delivery. The only point I would make here is that, had India selected an American fighter during the earlier medium multi-role combat aircraft contest, I think the Indian Air Force would be well on its way to fielding an advanced front line fighter.
So I would, when you already look at what’s being manufactured in India, that’s such a great way to build up that production capability, to build partnerships with India’s defense industries. And I hope it’s intensified and not backed away from.
Ambassador Verma: Great kind of summary of what we’ve been doing in the last few years.
There was a really important section of your remarks which I hope people look at it, you said basically we’ve matured in our relationship where we can talk about difficult things and navigate differences and what you said on “trade sanctions and visas.” Maybe I could just ask you about each one of those. First of all, on trade. I know you expressed some disappointment that the trade agreement didn’t get over the finish line when President Trump was there. Is that something — I know USTR has the lead on this, but if you had to predict are we going to get there and any idea of remaining obstacles and how do we get there?
Ambassador Wells: In any trade relationship there are trade irritants, so this is an area where we’ve been working hard for the last three years and it’s a priority of the President to be able to reduce tariff barriers to American products. So it is an intensive dialogue led by USTR.
We’ve also seen backsliding. We’ve seen steps that have been taken over the course of the last year that disadvantage foreign companies, that changed the rules of the road after companies have made very sizeable investments or that have levied taxes again in a discriminatory fashion on American firms. So questions do continue to be raised about the degree to which India is prepared to open its markets.
I would point out that we’re a country that makes trade deals. As rough and tumble as these discussions are, we make deals. We’ve not seen India be able to make these trade deals yet. So this is not just a U.S. issue, it’s an issue that India faces in its relations with the EU, with Australia, with other countries. So we certainly hope that the lessons learned in part from the pandemic is that there’s a real opportunity for greater diversification as countries are looking to de-risk from China. India could make sense if the right policies are put in place and the right commitments to infrastructure. We certainly want to see that happen and facilitate that kind of growth in our partnership, but they’re tough issues. And this administration is committed to doing what is necessary to make progress.
Ambassador Verma: That’s great. You mentioned sanctions. I know last year there was talk of concern about the Russia sanctions that could be applied because of India’s purchase of a missile defense system. There has been talk in the past of Iran-related sanctions. But could you give us a sense, are those, is the potential for the Russia sanctions, for example, still in the picture? Or is that now in the rear view mirror?
Ambassador Wells: No, CAATSA still remains a policy priority, certainly for Congress, where you’ve seen the very strong demand for implementation and concern over the ability of Russia to gain monies from these military sales that would be used to further undermine the sovereignty of neighboring countries. So CAATSA has not moved off the table.
Instead of approaching it from a Russia prism, though, I think the more important conversation to have is at this level of sophistication, and as India is moving to adopt the highest level technological systems, it really becomes a question of which system do they want to operate within? How do they want their systems to communicate with one another? It’s not a mix and match arrangement. At a certain point India will have to make sort of a strategic commitment to technologies and platforms, and we think we have the best technologies and platforms.
Ambassador Verma: You also mentioned visas. I don’t want to get bogged down in an H-1B discussion but I do want to ask about student visas. It’s been great to see the real growth in the number of Indian students studying in the United States. I think the number is around 200,000 as you mentioned in your comments.
Is it possible to predict yet that if there are Indian students planning to study in the United States this fall, if they meet all the other requirements will they be able to matriculate, travel, and get here? In other words, will they be able to get a visa to study in the U.S. this fall?
Ambassador Wells: There are so many — obviously that’s what we want. The goal is to have Indian students in the United States. We’re going to have to work backwards from that and see what’s possible as we understand what’s actually going to happen in the fall with American universities. There are still I think many unknowns. And right now because of COVID in the South and Central Asian region we are not in phase one. And no visas are being processed anywhere except on an emergent basis.
So this is going to be an issue that I think we’re going to have to muddle our way through but strategically, absolutely. We need to do everything we can to work with universities, to work with Indian students, to see are there restrictions currently on how much can be done virtually, can we adjust those. We’re going to have to I think approach this with an open mind and again, keeping our eye on the prize, which is that invaluable bridge that we have thanks to the numbers of students who serve as ambassadors between our countries.
Ambassador Verma: Got it.
You also noted, and this is my last question before we turn to the audience questions and we’ve gotten a bunch of good ones. You also noted that we continue to “engage India on human rights and religious freedom.” I know Congress has been kind of laser focused on a lot of these issues including Kashmir, the National Registry, the Citizens Amendment Bill. I wasn’t intending to ask about each of these issues, but really just in your diplomatic experience, how difficult is it to raise these issues?
And I know Indian officials have raised concerns about treatment and discrimination of Asian-Americans or South Asians in the United States. So this is an important dialogue. Give us a sense how is it going? Anything else we can do to talk about these issues without each side kind of retreating into their corners and perhaps getting frustrated?
Ambassador Wells: I don’t think it’s a hard conversation to have with Indian counterparts because we’re dealing with a democracy and we respect India’s constitution, we respect the rights that are enshrined in India’s constitution, we respect that India has institutions that are self-correcting, and the dialogue often takes place at so many levels, right? It’s an individual dialogue when Ambassador Juster sits down and meets with representatives of minority communities or certain religious groups. It’s a dialogue when you meet with state officials, when you talk to media, when you’re engaging with members of the government or the legislative branch. It’s not something that’s in a narrow or should be I think in a narrow channel, and it’s only in this narrow channel that there is this conversation on the mountaintop. Instead, no, it just has to be a part of how as democracies we relate to one another.
I very regularly receive letters from Congress or from the American people, groups, organizations, that will raise a case, a concern, an issue. That’s natural. And I expect that to continue and I expect India to expect that that will continue because we’re open societies, that that level of conversation and questioning will occur naturally. So I think we always have to recognize, though, that when you deal with a democracy it’s very different than dealing with a country that hasn’t invested its institutions with the power of its people. And we have to speak with some humility. You know, having seen this incredible exercise in democracy that India demonstrated through its presidential elections. Sixty-seven or 66 percent of the population voting, the largest global exercise in electoral politics. So it is with humility that we undertake the dialogue.
Ambassador Verma: Terrific.
We’ve gotten a number of question that came in, but a couple that were focused on the Quad concept, and I’ll maybe just build on that a little bit. You mentioned this Quad Plus mechanism. I wonder if you can just say a little bit more about that. Basically what is it focused on? Is it a multiple set of issues or is it about supply chain diversification? Or is it something bigger than that? It’s an interesting grouping of countries.
Ambassador Wells: We say Quad Plus because it’s easier than reeling off all seven or eight countries’ names. I don’t want to suggest that there’s a formal Quad Plus grouping.
But Deputy Biegun initiated in the heat of the moment, in the heat of the pandemic, these very regular exchanges with his counterparts to discuss very practical issues. Like how do we get our citizens back? How do we facilitate that kind of travel? How do we ensure that necessary medical equipment and components are moving? How do we ensure that essential services performed by either domestic companies or foreign companies could continue despite curfews and lockdowns?
It was the nitty-gritty of us working through this unprecedented global shutdown where literally economies had seized up and societies couldn’t move. But it also includes issues of policy. Like what is the appropriate level of transparency? How do we push back against unbelievable disinformation and propaganda? What is the role of multilateral organizations in ensuring that the response to the pandemic be more efficient and fair?
So from my perspective, having seen the development of the Quad since my first days in office three years ago, it was really terrific to see India deeper in our conversations with our Asian partners. It’s a natural, it seems to me, extension of a Quad conversation because India’s extension itself is very deep into Asia.
So on an ad hoc basis I would expect that my leadership will continue to utilize this grouping of countries who are like-minded and who share a common set of principles.
Ambassador Verma: So it doesn’t have a military focus, to be clear.
Ambassador Wells: It does not.
Ambassador Verma: Okay. And when we talk about supply chain diversification, really kind of the subtext is moving a lot of production and supply out of China. I’d just maybe just ask if a company is thinking about diversifying, is it the kind of preference or position of the White House that that diversification should look first to the United States and then if the U.S. is not a practical option that you look at like-minded countries like India, like Japan, et cetera? Or is that really still more of a private sector discussion?
What I’m trying to get at is, is India a viable option from the administration’s point of view when companies are thinking about diversification.
Ambassador Wells: I do think they’re two separate issues. President Trump and the administration have been laser-focused on on-shoring or re-shoring, I forget the terminology, manufacturing here and to create American jobs and absolutely there’s a priority for pushing back against I guess the excess of globalization. And I think all of us saw that. The extreme dependence at a moment of crisis on one country was not healthy. But at the same time there’s room for diversification and for trusted supply chains.
India’s role, particularly as a country that already produces 50 or 60 percent of generic pharmaceuticals that is the major player in vaccine and vaccine manufacturing, you know, it’s an obvious country to seek to partner with, to build out capacity with. So that level of collaboration and cooperation is ongoing. We have terrific ties between our scientific communities, our business communities and we’re certainly promoting those kinds of engagement.
But there are also opportunities not just in India but in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, Pakistan for companies to benefit. For instance in Bangladesh which has seen sort of a devastating loss in the ready-made garment sector, they’ve been able to retool some of their factories. BEXIMCO, one of their major exporters, now has contracts to provide PPE in the United States. We’re looking to match and make these connections whether it’s between FEMA or other American companies that are looking to source more PPE.
So with every crisis there are opportunities. Obviously one of the opportunities here is the de-risking and the de-globalization that is going to take place.
Ambassador Verma: I’ve got a difficult question for you that came in. It says, “What does Ambassador Wells plan to do in her retirement? We as Americans appreciate her meritorious service.”
You may have not had time to think through this one.
Ambassador Wells: I’m going to eat chocolate for a week, and then I’m going to be starting work, and I’ll let you all know later.
Ambassador Verma: Great. And I guess as you reflect on your time not only in the bureau but over the course of your career, what do you look back on as kind of either top accomplishments or maybe goals unfilled or disappointments?
Ambassador Wells: Oh, gosh. I think the top accomplishment is getting the orientation right of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. I entered the Foreign Service as a Soviet export. I came out of the RAND Corporation graduate program that was U.S.-government funded for us to meet the challenge of the Soviet Union, and now my advice to any diplomat is that you have to be a China expert. It doesn’t matter whether you’re serving in the Western Hemisphere or Africa or Asia, you need to understand China and the threats and opportunities posed by what is this relative shift in economic and political power that we’re seeing.
And I’ve seen the writings of our dear fiend Kurt Campbell. Obviously there was a learning moment for everyone, but this administration seized on that and provided, I think, a very useful framework for how to reorient, how to regroup with like-minded countries, and how to crystallize and espouse the values that have been so beneficial to the international community. So that, I think, was a tremendous success.
Disappointments. We didn’t get a negotiated political settlement on my watch. But I’ll leave that in the capable hands of Ambassador Khalilzad.
Ambassador Verma: There you go. Maybe last question from me before I turn it over to Irfan for a closing. I think I know the answer to this but it’s got two parts to it.
Are you optimistic about the trajectory of the U.S.-India relationship? That’s first.
The second one I guess is, I’m interested in your views. What advice would you give the next Assistant Secretary in the next administration — Republican or Democrat — about the U.S.-India relationship?
Ambassador Wells: I’m absolutely optimistic and you heard that in my remarks. There isn’t an area — I mean there are bumpy issues, trade, you know, we’re going to have disagreements over sanctions at times and how the United States uses sanctions. But the relationship is clearly on an upward trajectory and both countries I think, despite differences and despite differences in how we manage our neighborhood and foreign policy, we share a common assessment of the global challenges. So there I’m confident that we’re going to see continued growth in the bilateral relationship across the board and continued growth in the trade relationship. Not at the speed we would like or the potential that we think India has.
In terms of what I would recommend to the next Assistant Secretary, for India and the Indian Ocean region, it’s of course understanding that — it’s such a complex relationship. Rich, you know this. When you were in Delhi did you ever really know all of the dialogues that were taking place between the U.S. and India?
Ambassador Verma: No. Forty of them. Yeah.
Ambassador Wells: Yeah, we never did. Did you ever really know how much technical cooperation was taking place? Did you ever really have a grasp on — and that’s a beautiful thing. But I would argue that we need to continue — never to lose — the relationship can never become too militarized. We always need to build out that people-to-people base. It’s one of the unique features of the India relationship, the four million diaspora, the student ties, the history of connection between our societies, and to ensure that we keep that relationship balanced. Economically balanced, politically and militarily balanced. Because that’s truly going to be the strength of a global partnership. And I’m confident we can do it, it’s just it’s very hard to keep all the lines of effort going smoothly when you don’t even know where half of them are. I’m sure my successor will be wiser and more organized.
Ambassador Verma: I guess what I would say is it takes leadership and it takes vision and commitment and you’ve had all three of those things. You’ve really led the bureau fantastically. You have incredible vision, commitment. Just terrific.
So I want to personally thank you. I know the Atlantic Council wants to thank you. And with that I’ll turn it over to Irfan.
Mr. Nooruddin: Thank you, Rich.
On behalf of all my colleagues at the Atlantic Council and the South Asia Center, it’s a great honor to thank both you, Rich, and Ambassador Wells for this incredible conversation. I remember, of course, the last time I got to watch the two of you chat was on December 11th at the Council when we celebrated the 60th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s visit to New Delhi. So in many ways this is full circle. The start of this wonderful relationship between these two great democracies, and now a really up to the moment readout from Ambassador Wells and conversation with Ambassador Verma.
But it’s also a great reminder that this is an old relationship. And in the questions, one of the questions came from Peter Galbraith whose father, Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith served in India in the early 1960s and was another moment at which it seemed like these two countries would be growing successfully together. There have been many fits and starts, but thanks to the leadership you showed, Rich, in Delhi, and Ambassador Wells that you have done over the last three years at SCA, I think we’re once again optimistic that India and the United States can really be the architects of a democratic 21st century.
So thank you both. Congratulations, I should say to Rich. Last Thursday Rich was hooded. He is now Richard Verma, PhD from Georgetown, so congratulations, Rich, on that. I look forward to seeing the book, a dissertation that is about the history of the U.S.-India relationship, coming to a bookstore near you sometime soon, I hope.
And Ambassador Wells, a very sincere thank you and congratulations on your incredible career. Whatever you do next we hope the Atlantic Council and the South Asia Center is part of that story. Allow us to be a partner in retirement as well.
Thank you all.