Moderator: Good afternoon from the London International Media Hub and good evening to our participants in Asia. As my colleague said, my name is Zed Tarar; I’m the deputy director here at the hub, and I’d like to welcome everyone to this telephonic press briefing with Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. Please note this briefing is being recorded, and the recording and transcript will be sent to all attendees. Later on we will open up for questions and answers.
With that, I’d now like to turn it over to our speaker, the Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun.
Deputy Secretary Biegun: Thank you very much, Zed, and good morning, good afternoon, good evening, to all of you who are joining on the call. I appreciate a little bit of your time today to speak with you about some of the recent engagements the United States has had with our close partners in the Indo-Pacific, India and Bangladesh. I myself am just back from travel to the region, as I think is well known for those of you on the call. I returned Saturday night after a week-long trip to Delhi and to Dhaka, where we had extraordinarily warm and constructive discussions with the governments in both countries, and it leaves me very confident that our relationship with both of these countries is positioned for only further success in the future.
In India – I’m much more familiar with India than Bangladesh. I’ve traveled to India at least a couple of dozen times over the last 30 years. Very close engagement with my Indian counterparts in government, in business, and also in a number of Track II organizations that I’ve participated in over the years, and it’s given me a longer perspective on U.S.-India relations that leaves me confident that the opportunity for deepening our relationship has never been better in the – since the early 1990s, when the United States and India really began opening up to each other. It’s just been a steady progression of cooperation that I think has reached a new level in recent months and years, and I was very pleased to have a chance to visit.
My visit was part of a series of engagements between our two countries that have taken place over the course of the summer and fall, and hopefully will cede into a successful 2+2 meeting that will be held at some point this fall between the United States and India between the ministers of foreign relations and the ministers of defense.
In Bangladesh, Bangladesh is a much less familiar country to me, at least up close. It was my first visit to Bangladesh. I have to say, like most Americans, Bangladesh has been a – has been an object of interest and even fascination over many years, but it was a real privilege to be able to make my first visit there in an official capacity. And again, I was very warmly received. We had very constructive discussions, and it leaves me quite optimistic about the state of U.S.-Bangladesh relations as well.
I have some personal interaction with Bangladesh from my home city of Detroit, Michigan, where we have a wonderful, vibrant, growing Bangladeshi immigrant population in my home town. And it was just great to be able to make these connections in Dhaka with the senior–most levels of the government.
The purpose of my trip, of course, for any – as for any U.S. official, was to take stock of and deepen U.S. relations and set a course forward for how we can expand our cooperation in people-to-people areas; in various areas of government interest, including science and culture and medicine in particular; but also to talk about security issues and how we make sure that we do our utmost, working together, with a – with a series of partners in the Indo-Pacific to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific that guarantees sovereignty and prosperity for the nations in the region.
The vision itself seems very agreeable, certainly between our countries and between the United States and India and Bangladesh. But it’s one that encompasses many more countries, of course, across that vast and diverse region of the Indo-Pacific. And it’s a high priority for U.S. foreign policy, and one that I will be continuing to advocate for, as well as the Secretary of State and ultimately the President, as directed in his National Security Strategy.
While I was in Delhi, I had a – I was hosted by my counterpart, Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, who I’ve gotten to know extraordinarily well over recent months as Harsh and I have maintained a steady engagement with a number of other Indo-Pacific partners on coordination around responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and also sketching out how we recover from this pandemic. This includes cooperation to repatriate citizens who are trapped abroad when travel restrictions were imposed. This includes making sure we keep open the movement of lifesaving medicines and personal protective equipment. It’s also flowed into cooperation on developing and producing therapeutics and vaccines, and it’s just you have another element of a deepening U.S.-India relationship.
In Bangladesh, we had a chance to discuss a number of important opportunities in the relationship, including our close cooperation on COVID-19. It’s a little-known fact, but I had the chance to thank the Bangladeshi Government for their tremendous efforts to ramp up production of personal protection equipment and deliver that to the United States during the early stages of this pandemic before we ourselves really could get our feet underneath ourselves to produce this kind of important protective equipment for our medical professionals. And we owe – we owe a word of gratitude to the people of Bangladesh and to their private sector for having moved so quickly to advance this.
We discussed our – other areas of cooperation in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic; and also while I was there, I was able to deliver two gas analyzers, a piece of equipment that’s important to calibrate ventilators, as well as a shipment of ventilators that arrived over the weekend, in order to provide additional lifesaving equipment to the Bangladeshi medical community – not just for COVID-19 because we found, I think, in the course of events that ventilators are not the first line of defense against COVID-19; but also for vast other series of medical maladies that would require Bangladeshi citizens who fall ill to need the support of a ventilator.
The – I had a chance to tease out and expand the discussion, the very good discussion that’s already begun between the United States and Bangladesh on economic issues. The Secretary of State has appointed our Under Secretary for international economics Keith Krach to be the counterpart to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s advisor for private industry and investment, Salman Rahman. I met with Mr. Rahman, an incredibly impressive and successful private sector figure in Bangladesh. And I am pleased to report that we have a robust set of discussions on expanding trade and investment ties that I expect will continue with the discipline by two private sector officials who now serve in government, or private sector – private sector – two successful private sector people who are now serving as officials in government. And together, they have developed a road map for execution on economic cooperation that I think is going to yield real dividends for deepening U.S.-Bangladeshi economic relations.
Lastly, an issue that I spent quite a bit of time discussing with the government is the status and fate of the more than 800,000 refugees from Rakhine State, who have taken refuge in Bangladesh after having been subjected to unacceptable violence and brutality in Myanmar. I had a chance to thank Honorable Prime Minister Hasina for the generosity of the Bangladeshi people and the support of the Bangladeshi Government in providing refuge for these displaced people, and also discussed with the – with the prime minister as well as Foreign Minister Momen how we can cooperate together in order to try to find a resolution of this issue.
The United States recognizes that a long-term refugee population is not an option. We’re going to work with equal urgency both to address the humanitarian needs of this population but also to find a lasting resolution. And we’ll work closely with the Government of Bangladesh. We certainly need to work in concert with all the countries in the region, and we hope that we see the same level of generosity and the same level of clarity in messages to the Government of Myanmar from other partners or other nations in the Indo-Pacific, particularly China, who unfortunately has done very little to help resolve the Rohingya issue and for whom much more should be expected, considering the proximity to the People’s Republic of China of this humanitarian catastrophe.
I’m going to be headlining on – just a couple days from now – a donor’s conference, where we will be working with many partners around the world to ensure that while we look for – urgently look for a long-term solution to the refugee population, that we also take adequate steps to provide the full support necessary for this large refugee population.
There are many other issues we discussed. I’m happy to cover other issues that may be on the mind of the assembled journalists. And Zed, with that, I think I’ll turn the – turn the floor back over to you to run the questions. And thank you very much, everybody, again.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. When called on, please limit yourself to one question related to the Deputy Secretary’s travel to the region.
Our first question was pre-submitted by Aditi Khanna of Press Trust of India, who asks: “Against the backdrop of the upcoming U.S. election, what makes the U.S.-India bilateral relationship future-proof?”
Deputy Secretary Biegun: So a great question because we are, of course – just two weeks from today the American people will be casting votes for the next president of the United States. What leaves me optimistic is the longer-term perspective I have on the U.S.-India relationship.
As I said, it’s an issue that’s been near and dear to me, and one that I’ve spent quite a bit of time on myself over 25 years. And during that period, we’ve had Republican and Democratic presidents. The real opening between the United States and India began under President Clinton, it accelerated under President Bush, it continued under President Obama, and it’s accelerating again under our President, President Trump.
One of the things I said in the remarks that I gave in Delhi on Monday evening last week at the Ananta Centre India-U.S. Forum was that one of the constants in U.S.-India relations has been that every presidential administration here in the United States has left the relationship in even better shape than the one it inherited from its predecessor. And that is an amazing legacy. Oftentimes we can see international relations move with the political shifts here in the United States, but India has been a constant.
I guess the bigger question is, why is that? Because I think it stands – the evidence, I think, is out there. So the question is, why? And I suppose it’s a few things. One is that the United States and India are the world’s two greatest, two biggest democracies, and I think there’s just a number of natural circumstances that drive us to similar conclusions, even despite our deep cultural and historical differences. We’re very unique countries, and yet that democratic – the democratic values that underpin both of our systems steer our systems in a certain direction that I think naturally converges U.S. and Indian relations and interests. Also, the United States and India, I think, face many of the same challenges in the world, so you also have the – I suppose what you might call the negative incentives that are driving us to make very sound judgments about our interests, but also lead naturally to collaboration.
I couldn’t – I’d be remiss if I ignored the enormous diaspora community of Indian Americans, 4 million-plus, here in the United States who form part of the natural glue of the U.S.-India relationship. When I was in Delhi, my counterpart, Harsh Shringla, shared with me a book on the howdy-doody event that was hosted down in Texas for Prime Minister Modi when he was here in the United States. Foreign Secretary Shringla was quite proud of that because he was actually the Indian ambassador to the United States when that event was conceived and executed, and it’s an extraordinary event and extraordinary testimony to the bridges between our two countries that the prime minister of India would basically sell out the Dallas Cowboys stadium in Texas for an event that was so warm and hospitable here in the United States.
And so you’ve got a number of factors that naturally converge us, converge our countries. Of course, one other I should mention from my previous experience is the deep private sector engagement. While there’s still much opportunity between the United States in trade – the United States and India in trade and investment, over the past three decades the economic ties have deepened dramatically, so much so that some of the most prominent influencers here in Washington, D.C., are organizations like the U.S.-India Policy Forum or U.S.-India Business Council, even the Ananta Centre, which is an India-based think tank that leads quite prominently in Washington, D.C., policy circles.
So there’s many sinews that tie us together, and it leaves me confident that this relationship is much bigger than any one political party.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next live question comes from Mushfiqul Fazal from Just News BD.
Question: Thank you very much. Thank you, Deputy Secretary, Mr. Biegun, for visiting Bangladesh. I am originally from Bangladesh, based in Washington, D.C., working for Just News BD as the State Department and White House correspondent. So I think you had the opportunity to observe the country situation very closely during this period. The democracy, rule of law, and human rights situation is very vulnerable, as it is clearly mentioned in the U.S. State Department report. It is widely believed the last election was stolen and ruling authorities did not allow State Department-organized election observers and the U.S. experts, these appointed just after the election. My question: What is your present position on Bangladesh as ruling government is on zero tolerance on freedom of expression? What was your call to the authorities to return back to democracy with holding a free, fair, and credible election, as the U.S. is the largest development partner of Bangladesh, one of the largest development partners? Thank you.
Deputy Secretary Biegun: Thank you very much. I did have some great discussions about a wide range of issues with the Bangladeshi Government and also civil society, and I had a chance to talk with the – to meet with independent media and have a discussion with them about the current state of affairs in Bangladesh. Let me just say that it’s my confirmed belief, it’s the United States view that Bangladesh’s future lies in the path to a – to democracy, that Bangladesh – what distinguishes Bangladesh as a leader in South Asia has been Bangladesh’s constant efforts to advance towards democracy. Through 50 years of independence, through military dictatorships, through coups, still the goal of perfecting democracy remains a critical element of a bright future for Belarus [sic], and it’s certainly one that the United States is going to provide every assistance and encouragement for.
Of course, that message is one that I echoed in my – in some of my meetings in Bangladesh. But the United States wants to work with the Bangladeshi Government to get to this state. We are fully cognizant that Bangladesh is advancing in a region which has not always been hospitable to democracy, and building a democratic culture and having it sink in and sustaining it over a course of numerous elections is a challenge that every nation has to confront on its own, and in the case of Bangladesh that’s no different.
So I’d make – I’d be careful not to make a crowd judgment about Bangladesh as a snapshot in the current moment, but rather look at it in the larger continuum of what we want for Bangladesh and what we believe the Bangladeshi people themselves want for their own country. I’m confident that deepening our relationship, continuing to give voice and example to our own values here in the United States of America, to having an open ear to the government as well as civil society in Bangladesh are the best ways that we can produce that outcome. And rest assured that we will continue in that journey with the people of Bangladesh and its government to achieve the best possible form of democracy in that nation.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. Our next pre-submitted question comes from Hunchil Shin of the Maeil Business Times, who asks: “The Trump administration is promoting Quad expansion to strengthen security in the Indo-Pacific region. In this regard, have you ever explicitly or specifically proposed to the Korean Government to participate in Quad Plus?”
Deputy Secretary Biegun: Yeah, let me slightly quibble with the underlying question. There’s no – there’s no designed policy for Quad expansion that is being advocated by the United States. In fact, our view is that there are a number of associations inside the Indo-Pacific nations, among the Indo-Pacific nations, that are worth reinforcing and towards the end of expanding collaboration. In the Indo-Pacific the United States has some mutual defense agreements – certainly with partners like Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, and Thailand; that our relationships with other countries in the region include cooperative actions like military exercises, co-development and sales of defense equipment. And also, I want to importantly underscore that the real value – that the genesis of the Quad is cooperative action in areas of security.
The Quad is – the Quad was started with a combined effort to respond to a natural disaster, and over time it’s maintained a strong and even perhaps overwhelming element of cooperation in areas outside of the security realm, including economics, including people-to-people, but also other forms of dialogue. And so the Quad is still a somewhat undefined entity in and of itself, and thus it would be premature to even talk about the question of expanding the Quad.
That said, there’s a natural affinity among a number of nations in the Indo-Pacific that, for example, you would have seen if – I think it’s probably known that when I reference the regular engagement and cooperation between the United States and India over many, many months to coordinate actions in the fight against the COVID pandemic and also to plan the recovery, it wasn’t just the Indian and the United States deputy foreign ministers who were participating in that. We were also joined on a weekly basis by counterparts from Japan, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand, and Australia.
But the – but even that is not any sort of naturally defined group. I think there’s an opportunity certainly under the – in the U.S. view under the Indo-Pacific strategy for close engagement among many, many other partners, including other countries in South Asia like Bangladesh and countries in ASEAN nations as well.
I will say that it is our view that in the passage of time, the Quad should become more regularized and at some point formalized as well as we really begin to understand what the parameters of this cooperation are and how we can regularize it. That’s very important because the type of cooperation that we would gain in the Quad and ultimately in working with other countries in the Indo-Pacific is to have the practice of cooperation in place when we face a crisis, whether that comes in terms of natural disaster, economics, or even security. What you want to do is you want to have a certain modality of cooperation, of interoperability, of understanding the respective strengths that each partner can bring in facing any number of global challenges. And that’s what we did with our interactions on COVID-19. That’s, of course, the genesis of the Quad in the face of the tsunami and earthquake years ago. And it’s the same practice that we should refine in our discussions and practices in the security sphere.
So we’re not necessarily advocating for a Quad Plus, but rather a continuation and regularization of the Quad with an eventual goal of understanding how it can be best formalized and then also, of course, welcoming cooperation with any country in the Indo-Pacific that could defend a free and open Indo-Pacific that guarantees sovereignty and prosperity for its members.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. We have time for one more question. The final question is live and comes from Jennifer Hansler from CNN.
Question: Hi there. Thanks so much for doing this. I wonder when you were in Bangladesh, was there any discussion of the U.S. designating the atrocities against the Rohingya as a genocide? And then separately, Deputy Secretary, do you have any comments on the administration’s discussions in Damascus over the hostages? Thank you.
Deputy Secretary Biegun: On the designation of the depredations against the Rohingya as genocide, we did not specifically discuss that issue but we were in complete agreement in condemnation of the brutality that the Rohingya people have been subjected to, and also the urgent need for the Government of Myanmar not only to guarantee the safety and security of those Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State but also to create conditions under which refugees could safely return to their homes. The designation of the actions in Rakhine State as a genocide is both a policy and a legal distinction, and it’s not one that we discussed.
I’m going to leave the question about Damascus to other administration officials. [Inaudible] is quite focused on South Asia, and that was more than enough to keep my attention during the course of the week. But I do want to thank you all for your time and attention. I hope this has been helpful to you, and Zed, thank you very much for hosting us.
Moderator: Thank you, Deputy Secretary Biegun. If you have any concluding remarks you’d like to offer.
Deputy Secretary Biegun: I meant what I said in my remarks at the Ananta Centre a week ago as well as during the course of this call today, that we are at a moment of real potential in the opportunity to deepen our relations across South Asia, but in particular with these two partners: India and Bangladesh. My visit in both cases was part of a series of engagements the United States has had with both of these critical partners, and it’s one that you’ll see continuing to progress over the weeks and months ahead.
Of course, we have an intervening election that will happen, but I also want to reiterate my confidence that regardless of the outcome of our elections, the future is quite bright for relations between the United States and these two very important South Asian partners. It’s certainly a task that I’m happy to be a part of and I’m very much looking forward to our next engagements.
So thank you. I wish you all a good day or good evening, and thank you, Zed.
Moderator: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I’d like to thank once again the Deputy Secretary of State for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have questions about today’s call, you may contact the London International Media Hub at MediaHubLondon@state.gov. As a reminder, all participants will receive a written transcript as well as an audio file upon this call’s conclusion. Thank you.
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