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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Policy in the Indian Ocean Region

Alice G. Wells
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs

Washington, DC
August 20, 2018




FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING WITH Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice G. Wells

TOPIC: U.S. POLICY IN THE INDIAN OCEAN REGION

MONDAY, AUGUST 20, 2018, 11:00 A.M. EDT

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MODERATOR: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for waiting. We are very pleased this morning to welcome our senior bureau official for South and Central Asian Affairs, Ambassador Alice Wells. She will review her upcoming travel to the Indian Conference – or Indian Ocean Conference, sorry, and how it supports the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. This annual conference is hosted by the India Foundation along with its partners from Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. And this year’s conference will take place in Hanoi, Vietnam, August 27th to 28th, focusing on building regional architecture.

You have Ambassador Wells’s bio handed out to you from our notice. Just to remind that we are on record, on camera. We’ll let her make some opening remarks and then I’ll open the floor to questions. And because of constraints, including time, we’ll be sticking fairly strictly to this topic, please. Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Thank you. No, I’m delighted to be here today to talk about how we’re building out the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy and to preview my upcoming participation in the Indian Ocean Conference, and I’m looking forward to taking your questions.

This whole-of-government strategy, which has been endorsed by President Trump, is rooted in the fact that the United States is an Indo-Pacific nation and one that’s deeply invested in the broader region. The United States conducts about $1.4 trillion in two-way trade with the rest of the Indo-Pacific, more than any other country in the world, and has provided a cumulative 850 billion in foreign direct investment. So we naturally want to build our longstanding commitment to the region and have taken some important steps recently to ensure that the region’s future is free and open and operates on a rule-based system.

At the Indo-Pacific Business Forum last month, Secretary of State Pompeo announced $113 million in funding for a suite of initiatives in the areas of digital economy, infrastructure, and energy, including the first-ever U.S. contribution to the Indian Ocean Rim Association. As he said in his remarks at the forum, these funds represent just a down payment on a new era in U.S. economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. Soon after, the United States made a major investment in strengthening our security cooperation across the region when Secretary Pompeo announced on August 4th nearly $300 million in additional security assistance for nations spanning the Indo-Pacific. We are proposing to our Congress that more than $100 million of this funding will go towards South Asia, including 39 million for Bangladesh, 40 million for Sri Lanka, and 17 million for Nepal. This investment will focus on maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, peacekeeping capabilities, and countering transnational crime, all of which are key to ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific.

This announcement also served as the launch of the Bay of Bengal Initiative, which will enhance the capacity of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to share shipping information with other partners in the region such as India to improve detection and response to emerging threats. The Bay of Bengal, off of India’s east coast, is home to important sea lanes linking the Indian Ocean to East Asia. And by helping countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka improve their maritime domain awareness capabilities, we can facilitate easier and more secure commerce from the Bay of Bengal to Pacific markets, including the American market.

As you all know, all the nations of South Asia have expanding populations, dynamic economies, and ambitions of their own to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, and we look forward to discussing with these countries how this contribution can support the Bay of Bengal and their humanitarian assistance and disaster response priorities.

I’m looking forward to highlighting these major economic and security investments totaling over 410 million on my upcoming trip to Hanoi, Vietnam, next week for the Indian Ocean Conference. This annual conference hosted by the India Foundation and our partners in Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh has become an important touchpoint for nations bordering the Indian Ocean, and it showcases India’s rising leadership role in the region. I had the privilege of attending last year, and so this will be the second time I will be at the conference.

This year’s conference theme, building regional architectures, is timely. South Asia is the least economically connected region of the world in terms of intraregional trade, and building a stronger regional institutional architecture is one of my top priorities. That’s why we’re expanding our diplomatic engagement with the Indian Ocean Rim Association, or IORA, including through our recent commitment to the IORA Women’s Business Forum. As an IORA dialogue partner, the United States supports this organization’s renewed focus on a clean maritime economy, women’s economic empowerment, and environmental and maritime security issues.

The United States is also lending its expertise to the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, which offers a forum to pursue collective action on regional maritime security issues such as devastating natural disasters. The more economically focused organizations of the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, BIMSTEC, and the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC, offer important venues to drive conversations on regional connectivity and infrastructure priorities. All of these organizations allow us to build capacity within the Indian Ocean region on a more wholistic level.

So I look forward to engaging further with our partners at the Indian Ocean Conference on ways to develop these organizations and pursue initiatives that enhance the region’s security, stability, and prosperity. And I think Secretary Pompeo summed up our approach well when he said, “Where America goes, we seek partnership, not dominion*.” And that will certainly be my approach as I head to the region to further build out the administration’s strategy.

And with that, I’d like to take your questions. Thank you.

*domination

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Before we begin, let me just quickly go over a few ground rules. Those who’ve been here before know our procedure. Please wait for a microphone. When you get the microphone, please identify yourself. Please limit yourself to one question. For our colleagues in New York, please step to the podium when you’re ready. I didn’t mention this before the opening statement, but for the Q&A period I’ll ask please that we do observe an embargo until the end of the briefing, at which time the embargo will be lifted.

With that, let me start here, sir.

QUESTION: Can you hear me? Tom Watkins, Agence France-Presse. It was a year ago that President Trump unveiled his South Asia strategy. I was wondering if you could please give us a sense of how countries in the region beyond Afghanistan have evolved or changed in helping the U.S. in Afghanistan. More specifically, could you please tell us your sense that you got when you met with Taliban officials in Doha last month? What --

MODERATOR: Sir, if I can, I did say that we were going to stick fairly strictly to this topic. I’d be happy to take that question, but for today’s --

QUESTION: Okay, it’s a regional question, so I’m asking about the whole regional South Asia Strategy, and then the specific about Qatar as well. Thank you.

MODERATOR: I – we can certainly answer the regional question, but the other one we may take.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: No, I’d say the South Asia strategy obviously pointed to the role that India can and should play in supporting the stabilization of Afghanistan. And I think that was one of the key new features of the strategy, tapping what has been India’s $3 billion commitment to date up to 2020 in support of Afghanistan’s economic development. And I think that we need to see Afghanistan stitched back into the region, and that includes both north-south trade as well as east-west trade. And we welcome the fact that India has stepped up and has evinced this commitment and enjoys a strategic relationship with Afghanistan that does not have to come at the expense of any other country in the region.

QUESTION: What about Pakistan?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Pakistan obviously has a critical role to play in the stabilization of Afghanistan. We’ve encouraged Pakistan to take stronger steps to ensure that the Taliban either come to the negotiating table or are expelled back into Afghanistan rather than enjoy safe haven outside of the country. Pakistan and Afghanistan have embarked over the last several months on an effort to improve their bilateral relationship with the negotiation of a solidary document, which we strongly support. And I think we welcome the words of Prime Minister Imran Khan when he discussed the importance of having peace on both sides of Pakistan’s borders.

MODERATOR: We’ll take Bingru first, and then we’ll go to New York, please.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for this briefing. Bingru Wang with Hong Kong Phoenix TV. Ambassador Wells, you mentioned that $113 million is just a down payment. So is U.S. long-term goal to merely match the investment of – the Chinese investment in Indo-Pacific region? And the Chinese foreign minister already said China welcomes U.S. investment, and China welcomes the real money U.S. put in this region. I’m wondering if you think the Chinese response to the U.S. strategy in this region is encouraging. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: No, thank you. And I think you’ve hit on an issue that really needs to be clarified. This is not about spending dollar-for-dollar, for instance, compared to the Belt and Road Initiative. Rather, this is about untapping or tapping the potential of the American private sector, which already plays such a crucial role in the region, as I mentioned, with over $850 billion in foreign direct investment.

And so the programs that are being launched by the administration are designed to increase the capabilities of the American private sector to do what they do best; I mean, to build projects, to participate in projects that are at the highest international standard, that are efficient and cost-competitive, and that bring returns to the countries who benefit from their participation. And so whether it’s the Infrastructure Transaction and Assistance Network, which is going to be able to pool information and resources for the private sector; whether it’s the specific focus on energy through the EDGE program; or whether it’s the steps that have been taken that are in process now with Congress to double our developmental financing capacity to $60 billion, all of this is done to spur the private sector to be able to move out to the region. We see that the – we understand that the countries of the Indo-Pacific have a huge need for infrastructure investment. I mean, some of the estimates are, like, $27 trillion in investment is going to be required over the next several decades.

And so how do we help countries be able to undertake the development that’s critical to their people’s well-being, to their own stability, and to untapping the potential of this region? From my focus in the South Asia region, one of the challenges is that the region is so closed to itself. And so how do we use our own bilateral programs as well as working multilaterally to facilitate cross-border trade? It’s easier for India to trade with Brazil than it is with some of its neighboring countries. That doesn’t make sense.

And so how do we as an international community support the kinds of steps that are going to make it more possible for goods and people and services to flow? Here I don’t think this is at cross purposes or it certainly doesn’t need to be at cross purposes with what China is doing. Again, we support investment that meets international standards, that’s sustainable, that’s transparent, that meets the needs of the countries, and doesn’t lock the countries into unsustainable projects.

We want to have a results-oriented and very constructive bilateral relationship with China. And obviously, there are always areas of cooperation and areas of tension, but I think in South Asia many of our objectives are similar. And so how can we work together to promote increased trade between the countries of the region and increased economic well-being? I don’t think I need to repeat the words of President Trump, but what we’re looking for are – we’re looking for fair and reciprocal trade, and to be able to create the conditions through a free and open system that allow the – what we’ve really established since the end of World War II to continue to the benefit of all the countries of the region.

MODERATOR: All right. Let me take one from New York and then we’ll come back here. Go ahead, sir.

QUESTION: My name is Mushfiqul Fazal. I am originally from Bangladesh and I’m representing Just News BD. Thank you very much for this briefing. And the assistant secretary, you are closely monitoring the situation of Bangladesh. As you visited Bangladesh, you met with the ruling prime minister and the opposition leader, who is in jail now – I believe it is for political reason – and government is not giving any space, though U.S. is urging for free --

MODERATOR: Hold on, this is supposed to be about the upcoming, okay?

QUESTION: Yeah. So how you – I – we – as we know, the Ambassador Bernicat, she’s urging for the democracy voting rights, and you are closely monitoring the situation, but government is accusing Ambassador Bernicat for this as she are giving any --

MODERATOR: This – I don’t think this is really the best briefing.

QUESTION: Yeah. So how – very briefly, how you are monitoring the close – as you are monitoring closely the situation of Bangladesh, so what is your observation of recent activities in Bangladesh in terms of democracy and voting rights?

MODERATOR: Sir, I think we’ll take that question if you --

AMBASSADOR WELLS: No, I’m happy to answer.

MODERATOR: Okay.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Bangladesh has an important role to play in the Indo-Pacific strategy. As one of the countries with a growing economy, a dynamic economy where already Chevron is the single largest foreign direct investor, the interest in developing Bangladesh’s energy resources, the connectivity potential between Bangladesh and India and other countries, and what’s going to fuel and further fuel Bangladesh’s success is the deepening of its democratic institutions and governing structures. And so we certainly always encourage the Government of Bangladesh to fulfill its commitment to hold fair and credible elections that are contested and reflect the will of the Bangladeshi people.

I think we saw the student protests recently, which really are sort of the purest manifestation of democracy, where something happens, and citizens rally, and the government responds to effect reform. And so we continue to welcome the ability of all groups in Bangladesh to participate fully in expressing their viewpoints and participate fully in the political process, whether that is to campaign, to hold peaceful rallies and meetings without intimidation or reprisal. We certainly condemn anyone who would use violence as a tool in the political process. But our message is that the stronger and healthier Bangladesh’s democratic structures are, the more appealing the country is to American investors and the more scope we have to be able to deepen our partnership, which is very much our goal.

MODERATOR: Sir.

QUESTION: Thank you. This is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV Pakistan. There were a few media reports that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is visiting Pakistan in the first week of September. Can you confirm that? And secondly, there were also some media reports that you have directly talked to the Taliban leaders in Qatar. Can you confirm this news, please? Thank you so much.

MODERATOR: Why don’t I take those right now. In terms of travel to the region, no travel has been announced for the Secretary beyond what’s already been issued in media notes.

And for your other question, I’d be happy to take it. But again, the reason I’m holding us to this topic rather strictly is we have limited time, and I want us to focus on this. I am trying to encourage Ambassador Wells to come back, and I’m hoping we can have briefings on other topics at later dates.

QUESTION: Then let me ask another? (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: Quickly, please.

QUESTION: So about you are asking Pakistan to take actions against Haqqani Network and Taliban leaders, so do you see any progress in your demands, whatever you are asking Pakistan for the long time? I mean, is there kind of any hopes, and especially when there’s a new government in Pakistan? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Well, we look forward to working with the new Government of Pakistan, and Secretary Pompeo has issued a statement to that effect. As I said earlier, Pakistan has an important role to play in furthering stability in Afghanistan. We have expressed our concern over the fact that terrorist proxy groups continue to be able to enjoy safe haven in Pakistan. We are urging the government to do more to bring pressure to bear against these organizations externally-oriented terrorist groups.

And at a time when President Ghani has been so forward-leaning in putting forward a peace proposal that the international community has rallied around, at a time when the Afghan people are calling for peace, at a time when we saw the reaction to the initial ceasefire at Eid al-Fitr, where spontaneously people demonstrated and Taliban foot soldiers demonstrated that they were tired of war, this is the time for all parties to come to the negotiating table, and we very much look to Pakistan to reinforce that message.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Does anyone have a question about Indian Ocean strategy?

QUESTION: Yes, I do. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: All right, I will take you first and then you second, and then we’ll go to New York.

QUESTION: Ambassador, I’m Seema Sirohi. I write for the Economic Times. I wanted to ask you about the Quad. How do you see the progress of this group; do you think India is hesitant; how do you assess Australia’s assessment of coming together?

Second question: Is Quad a part of the broader Indo-Pacific strategy? Because some diplomats say things should not be conflated because it makes China feel nervous. If you could elaborate, please.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: The Quad is one of many diplomatic architecture that we’re using to try to promote the Indo-Pacific strategy. Obviously, the role of ASEAN is critical, and you’ve seen as the Secretary at the August 4th ASEAN Ministerial use that as the forum to announce the latest measures that we’re taking to build out our Indo-Pacific strategy. But in addition to ASEAN we have a variety of trilateral, quadrilateral groupings that have existed where particularly countries that are very likeminded – so the U.S., India, Japan, Australia – are able to coordinate our approaches to the region, to espouse standards, whether it’s standards for infrastructure, or identify areas where our development tools can be overlapping and reinforcing. If you look in Nepal, for instance, where we have brought – there’s a 630 million Millennium Challenge Corporation project underway to create electricity and transmission lines and road networks that very much dovetails with projects that Japan is doing to build transmission line and roads. And so how do we be more strategic in targeting and ensuring that countries have options as they consider how best to move forward?

So no, the Indo-Pacific strategy is for everyone, and it’s about underscoring a series of norms and a commitment to both the free and the open, and it’s not locked into any one format. We’ll use all of our diplomatic engagements across the region to reinforce these principles. I think that there is interest in the parties both trilaterally and quadrilaterally to deepen the work. You’ve seen ministerials held on the margins of the UN General Assembly. We’ve met at the working level twice in the last year and are really trying now to put meat on the bones, like how do we develop the specific areas that we can demonstrate to the international community and to the countries of the region that we are able to effectively work together?

One issue – I mean one example I would highlight is that OPIC and the Japanese development authority now have an MOU; we can work together more effectively. We’re trying to break down barriers that prevent us from working more seamlessly with our close partners.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Ma’am.

QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. I’m Reena Bhardwaj. I write for ANI and also represent CNN News 18 here. My question is on Maldives. With the elections that are coming up in September, now Maldives is such a – geopolitically is such a strong space for India as well as the United States. What is your take on that?

And secondly, is there going to be any talks with India in the upcoming dialogue, or in the meeting ahead?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Obviously we’re very concerned about the situation in Maldives and the weakening of democratic institutions, and the elections I think are going to be very closely watched to see whether it’s possible for the opposition, most of – many of whom who have been arrested, to contest and to be able to put forward and present an alternative, as is normal in any democratic system, to the current President Yameen. The Maldives is an important country in the Indo-Pacific framework given the volume of trade that flows through this area. The – we’ve welcomed in the past the close cooperation with the Maldives and we’ve welcomed India’s close cooperation with the Maldives, and I think the quality and the character of our bilateral relationship with Maldives will very much be shaped by what we see happening during this election process.

With India, we are looking forward to the inaugural 2+2 dialogue with Secretaries Pompeo and Mattis traveling for these meetings in New Delhi on September 6th. It’s an important opportunity to discuss and enhance our engagement on a range of diplomatic and security priorities, and it really is an indication of the deepening strategic partnership that we enjoy with India. It is going – India plays a central role in U.S. national security. It’s enshrined in the President’s National Security Strategy, as well as the administration’s South Asia and Indo-Pacific strategies. Our partnership is really rooted in values and shared democratic values and a commitment to a rules-based order, and I think what we’re looking for at the upcoming 2+2 ministerial is to discuss how do we operationalize India’s status as a major defense partner.

As you know, we’ve gone from essentially zero dollars in defense cooperation in 2008 to as much as $18 billion today. We do more military exercises with India than with any other country in the world, but how do we take this partnership to a new level so that it’s not just going to be defense acquisitions but really a way of framing how we see challenges and how we want to be able to respond together to address these challenges. So I think we’re going to be able to demonstrate at the 2+2 the facts of this maturing partnership.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to New York. Sir.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you, Ambassador Wells. This is Manik Mehta. I’m a syndicated journalist. My question relates to Indo-American cooperation. Do you envisage any cooperation in terms of trade and infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region, specifically with regard to the ASEAN region?

And also, there have been some voices recently in the ASEAN group, particularly in Singapore, of reviving the TPP. Is that something realistic?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: The United States remains committed to sort of this open and free trading system throughout the Indo-Pacific. And with respect to the TPP, I mean, already we have bilateral free trade agreements with six of the eleven countries, and I think with most of the remaining we have trade and investment framework agreements. So again, our commitment to engaging with these countries and creating favorable trade conditions is obvious.

With respect to Indo-American cooperation, we see trade with India and opening up trade with India as a key strategic objective for this administration. Our bilateral trade is now at about $126 billion, an increase I think of more than 10 billion from last year. We’ve seen critical purchases by Indian firms in the aviation, commercial aviation sector; energy sector; obviously the defense sector, which I just spoke about – the zero to $18 billion increase. But still, impediments do remain. Tariffs and non-tariff barriers have been a subject of longstanding concern, and intellectual property rights as well. And so we’re continuing a very intensive dialogue with the Indian Government on how do we address these irritants and unlock the trade that is of great interest to U.S. firms when they look at the Indian market and its potential.

Looking outside of India, yes, we want to work together with India, identify projects, whether it’s in Sri Lanka or Nepal or further afield. We have a track record – I think one of the great new elements of our relationship with India is that we are working in third parties and third countries. We started doing that at an assistance level, a developmental level, where we work together in Africa on some health-related issues, on peacekeeping, training. We’ve worked together on programs involving Afghans, bringing Afghans to India for training, which can be done at lower cost and greater effectiveness. So India really is a all-weather partner as we look ahead to how to ensure that the Indo-Pacific remains free and open.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We have time for one more and we’ll take this one here, please.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Kitty Wang with NTD TV. In the recent remarks by the assistant secretary of DOD, Randy Schriver, he mentioned that much of China’s behavior, he thought that demonstrated the objective that’s counter to the U.S. objective of a free, open Indo-Pacific region. So – and as China keep on expanding its influence and footprint in the Indo-Pacific region, how will you address these challenges in this upcoming conference? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Again, I mean, we welcome contributions by China to regional development as long as they adhere to high standards, including transparency, rule of law, and sustainable financing. And so we’ve expressed concerns over projects in countries where the countries and governments involved have not been able to sustain the repayment schedules that has resulted in effectively a loss of sovereignty over key infrastructure that they’ve had to turn over to their lenders, in this instance China. And so as long as China is prepared to support the integration of the region in ways that are sustainable and don’t mortgage these individual countries’ futures to unrealistic and unsustainable loan terms, then I think there’s very much a way that we can work together.

From the South Asia perspective, when I look at South Asia, I see many areas where our interests with China overlap. We want to see an end to terrorism. We want to see increase – we want to see peace in Afghanistan, the stabilization of Afghanistan. We both support improved Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. I think that basis of overlapping interests gives us a good conversation to start from.

MODERATOR: I want to thank Ambassador Wells very much for coming in today. Thank you all for coming. I know we left several questions out there so I’m going to stay here to take them now by hand, if you like, or you can email them to me at weberb@state.gov. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Thank you very much.

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