printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Priorities in the South and Central Asia Region

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

New York Foreign Press Center
New York, New York, United States
September 28, 2018




Date: 09/28/2018 Location: NY FPC Description: PDAS Wells briefing at the NYFPC  - State Dept ImageFOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING
With Alice Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asia Region

TOPIC: U.S. PRIORITIES IN THE SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIA REGION

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2018, 11:00 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR

Video of this briefing.


MODERATOR: Okay, good morning. Thank you all for coming to the New York Foreign Press Center. Today we have from Washington, D.C. the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells. All of this is recorded. We will send you a transcript afterwards. Our Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary will give some remarks, and after that we’ll take a few questions.

Go ahead.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Great, thank you. So I’m delighted to be here today to discuss how we’ve been able to use the high level week to advance priorities across the South and Central Asia region, including how we’re using this week and recent events to build on the administration’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific. And just this morning I joined the Secretary in his meeting with the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and throughout the week I took dozens of other bilateral and multilateral meetings with partners and interlocutors around the world.

I also had the opportunity to participate in some memorable side events including on the Trans-Caspian region as well as on the U.S.-India role in the Indo-Pacific. And I should note that like all of you, because of traffic restrictions, I think I did all of this on foot, so we’re a little bit fitter and a little bit more athletic at the end of this week.

A common thread throughout most of my meetings this week has been reaffirming our commitment to a free and open and rules based Indo-Pacific region, and this was outlined by President Trump at his speech in Da Nang at the APEC Summit, a whole-of-government effort that’s rooted in the fact that the United States, as an Indo-Pacific nation, and has critical interests in the prosperity of this region.

Now Secretary Pompeo has already announced this summer $113 million towards new economic programs, and nearly $300 million in security assistance for the Indo-Pacific nations, but he described it as a down payment. And what I stressed during my interactions was the critical role of the U.S. private sector, which already is responsible for $1.4 trillion in bilateral trade and over $850 billion in foreign direct investment. And I emphasize the imminent passage of what’s called the BUILD Act, which is going to double America’s development finance assistance. It provides the U.S. Government with new tools to finance feasibility studies and to provide equity investment, and it makes it possible for us to collaborate more closely with finance development institutions of like-minded partners, including Japan, Australia, and the EU, and we’re in talks with India.

Now our commitment to a free and open Pacific was a central element of our discussion when the Secretary met with the Bangladeshi prime minister and in my own meetings with the Sri Lankan foreign minister and the Nepali foreign minister. So in the meeting with Prime Minister Hasina, Secretary Pompeo also reiterated our deep appreciation for the contributions and sacrifices that Bangladesh has made with regard to the Rohingya crisis. He reiterated our firm commitment to work with Bangladesh to help meet the burdens that it had shouldered in response to this humanitarian emergency. As evidenced by our additional $185 million contribution announced this week by Ambassador Haley during the ministerial level meeting on Burma, Secretary Pompeo and Prime Minister Hasina agreed on the imperative that the Rohingya be able to return to Burma voluntarily with their safety and wellbeing secured.

With Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Marapana, I reviewed our expanding regional and strategic cooperation. I reviewed strong U.S. support for UNHRC resolutions related to their commitments to justice, accountability, and reconciliation.

And with the Nepali foreign minister, Foreign Minister Gyawali, I followed up on my recent trip to Nepal. I underscored our interest in working with the Oli government and in moving forward with our $500 million Millennium Challenge Corporation compact. But in all of these meetings, I was able to emphasize that the United States attaches great importance to democratic principles that we share with our partners and the safeguarding of democratic institutions.

The opening week of the General Assembly also offered the opportunity for Under Secretary Hale to meet with Indian Foreign Secretary Gokhale, to build on the momentum of the recent U.S.-India 2+2 ministerial that was held in Delhi on September 6th, as well as to reaffirm the strategic convergence that we see. We really are global partners, and the meeting here in New York reaffirmed our shared commitment to working together on international challenges, from a denuclearized Korean Peninsula to a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan. And as we have stated before, the United States reiterates our support for India’s role on a reformed UN Security Council.

In our meetings will Indian, EU, Japan – Japanese, and Australian colleagues, we were able to consult on what was really – excuse me – a significant democratic moment that occurred this week with the election of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as the next president of the Maldives. With nearly 90 percent of the eligible population turning out to vote, this was an historic expression of the Maldivian people’s commitment to democracy. We issued two statements welcoming this development, and as I emphasized in my meeting yesterday with the Maldivian Perm Rep Ambassador Naseer, the United States looks forward to working with the new government. We expect all parties to respect the will of the Maldivian people and to support a peaceful transition of power through the inauguration, and the international community is watching this process closely.

Another highlight of the week was the meeting with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani to discuss the Government of Afghanistan’s ongoing preparations for parliamentary elections in October. I noted that the upcoming elections represent a clear opportunity for the Afghan people to make their voices heard and to engage in a democratic process to select an inclusive and representative leadership. And I encourage the government to intensify its outreach to the Afghan people on the range of mitigation measures in place that will make these elections, the very first to be administered solely by the Afghan government, both transparent and credible.

I also met with the full range of our international partners in Afghanistan, including the United Nations and other member countries of the NATO Resolute Support Mission. In all of our discussions, we focused on the importance of transparent and credible presidential and parliamentary elections, preparations for the Geneva donors conference, and on the signs of progress towards reconciliation in the last year. I highlighted to all of my counterparts that the appointment of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as special representative for Afghanistan’s reconciliation is a clear sign that the United States is committed to peace in Afghanistan and is ready to work with all parties to reach a political settlement that brings a permanent end to the conflict. As the Secretary said in June, we are ready to work with the Afghan government, the Taliban, and all of the people of Afghanistan to secure a dignified peace.

And one of the countries that’s going to play a critical role in the effort to bring about a political settlement in Afghanistan is Pakistan. I continued my constructive consultations with Pakistani Foreign Secretary Janjua and joined – and I had joined Ambassador Khalilzad for his meeting with Foreign Minister Qureshi. These were excellent opportunities to follow on the Secretary’s recent visit to Islamabad where he consulted with Prime Minister Khan, Foreign Minister Qureshi and Chief of Army Staff General Bajwa. These discussions focused on elaborating steps to strengthen stability in the region, most notably through better cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is a clearly stated goal of Prime Minister Khan. Prime Minister Khan has also been clear that he supports a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan and we want to work with Pakistan to be involved constructively in that process. Pakistan has unique capabilities to influence the calculus of the Taliban and we continue to urge them to use them. We look forward to another conversation on these issues next week when Prime Minister Qureshi visits Washington for meetings with Secretary Pompeo and other senior officials.

I also met with delegations from the Central Asian countries this week, including Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. We were able to have wide-ranging discussions on deepening trade and investment links with the region as well as advancing regional integration and connectivity, including with Afghanistan. The United States continues to be a partner in many ongoing regional development projects, and as we have done over the last 27 years, the United States stands with the people of Central Asia as close friends and partners in support of their development as strong, sovereign, and independent states, and we’re proud of this history together and will continue to build on these partnerships.

Finally, I was pleased to meet with Chief Justice Wangchuk, who is chief advisor of the interim Government of Bhutan. I emphasized our admiration for the ongoing elections in Bhutan, which really have been a model of the democratic process, and as well as our hope to further deepen the close ties between the peoples of the United States and Bhutan. I look forward to engaging further with our partners here at UNGA – there’s still a few hours left, so more meetings can be had – and look for ways to ensure that our initiatives continue to enhance the region’s security and prosperity.

I look forward to taking your questions. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’re going to start with (inaudible).

QUESTION: Have you met with the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj? And could you give us an update, if so?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I participated in our under secretaries meeting with Foreign Secretary Gokhale, and as I said, it was a continuation of our discussion at the 2+2 where – which took place on September 6th in Delhi. And it really is a – it’s building out the concept of major defense partner and what it means to work together as strategic partners, so it’s a conversation that really covers the map in terms of how we can work together in Afghanistan, what we’re doing to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, and also in particular how we are both very supportive of the democratic developments that we see transpiring in the Maldives.

QUESTION: Well, in regard to the 2+2, I would like to have your views on the quad. India is a member of that. And there is some reluctance to associate itself, India, on the part of India, with what is perceived as an alliance. How do you see that?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I don’t agree with your characterization. I think that the United States and India both believe that ASEAN is critical to our efforts to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, but that there are also other dialogue mechanisms that can reinforce these initiatives, and that includes, for instance, the trilateral that we have with Japan, the quadrilateral that involves both Japan and Australia.

These are not alliances. These are opportunities and mechanisms that bring, in this instance, very likeminded countries together to coordinate programs, including programs like development finance. And so the fact that we are changing our development finance program under the buildup is one – gives us another tool that we can use in our cooperation with these countries to provide alternatives to the Indo-Pacific countries who are looking to build infrastructure but who want to sustain high standards, want projects that are sustainable, not predatory, want to ensure that these are projects that are going to return investment to their people.

QUESTION: So instead of alliance, would you call it a partnership?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: It’s a dialogue structure. We have many and India has many.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Yoshita Singh with Press Trust of India here in New York. On U.S.-India ties, I wanted to ask: The Indian Government has extended an invitation to President Trump to visit the country. It’s also specifically asked the chief guest, or guest of honor, for the Republic Day parade celebrations. When do you think you have a sense as to when President Trump could visit India? How --

AMBASSADOR WELLS: I don’t have any information. All I know is that President Trump does look forward to visiting India, again, to reflect on what has been an amazingly positive trajectory in our relationship. But I don’t have any details on when that trip may take place.

QUESTION: Right. And just to follow up on the Iran sanctions as well. India has been buying a lot of oil – of its oil from Iran, and with the sanctions about to kick in, just not the oil imports but also the projects – the Chabahar project with links to Afghanistan – all that could also get impacted. Is India – is the U.S. reviewing in any way the sort of sanctions in relation to India and taking up India’s concerns on how the Iranian sanctions will impact its energy security and energy needs?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: The United States is consulting with all of its friends and partners to discuss the implementation of the sanctions after the snapback, and with India we recognize India has a need for significant oil imports. Part of the conversation is how to ensure that there are alternative supplies of oil so that our friend India’s economy is not adversely affected. I think we’ve already seen Indian private sector firms move to find new suppliers of crude oil and the conversation between U.S. and Indian experts continues on the implementation of the sanctions. So we look forward to continuing what is a very constructive dialogue.

On Chabahar, the issue of Chabahar is under close review. We very much appreciate what India has done to provide both assistance to Afghanistan, including through using Chabahar Port for the delivery of wheat. We also very much appreciate what India has done to allow Afghanistan to diversify its trade relationships, and again Chabahar has played a role there. So those factors will certainly be taken under consideration.

QUESTION: Right. Just a quick follow-up on the trip. I mean, could it be next year, anytime next year?

AMBASSADOR WELLS: You really have to talk to the White House. My boss is the Secretary. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you.

QUESTION: Yes, Azim Mian from GEO TV. A recent visit by Mike Pompeo to Islamabad has not given a good perception about Pak-U.S. relationship. It has been under strain for some time. On the forthcoming meeting of Qureshi-Pompeo meeting, what do you foresee apart from Afghanistan where the Pakistani issues or the Pakistani version is going to be addressed? Is there any hope for that at their dialogue? And that’s my first question and then I will have a follow-up.

AMBASSADOR WELLS: Well, I think I disagree with your characterization of Secretary Pompeo’s visit. I think that it was described as very constructive and it was an opportunity for the Secretary to meet very early on with the new civilian government, with Prime Minister Khan, and he appreciated that opportunity. I think it was also, again, a very candid and constructive conversation about what it will take to rebuild a solid foundation to our bilateral relationship. And the Secretary and this administration would like to be able to achieve a new strategic partnership with Pakistan. It will require us being able to work together to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan, and so that central concern is there. In particular, how can Pakistan use its unique influence with regard to the Taliban to ensure that the Taliban walk through what has been an open door to political negotiations, a door that this administration has opened much more widely with our agreement to participate, facilitate, and engage in peace negotiations with the Taliban, with the Government of Afghanistan, that take up also the critical issue of U.S. troop presence. So I think that when Foreign Minister Qureshi comes to Washington, the focus will be how to operationalize an ability to work together.

QUESTION: Okay. In the face of America-India alliance – we call it alliance or a strategic partnership – there has been a – there is a security concern about Pakistan because of the neighborhood and the history of the relationship. So how the American and Trump administration addresses that kind of a concern? Because in the past, India has been raising the same kind of concerns whenever in Pakistan and American – well, in any kind of alliance right from SEATO CENTO up to any kind of agreements. India used to object. Now this is Pakistan. The role is reversed, and Pakistan is feeling more concerned and having kind of insecurity threat in the face of --

MS WELLS: Pakistan is concerned about which security threat?

QUESTION: About their own security threat from this Indian and American alliance or the strategic partnership, because there will be excess --

MS WELLS: No, I don’t – again, I don’t accept the premise of the question because I don’t see a U.S. – a strong U.S.-India strategic partnership being at the expense of or as a threat to Pakistan. The U.S.-India strategic partnership is a global one. A great deal of the focus has been how to build out our relationship towards the East, again, in dealing with the necessity of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific region remain free and open. And I think U.S. and Indian efforts to provide regional stability and to enhance economic growth are a net plus for everyone in the region, including Pakistan.

Our relationship with Pakistan stands on its own. Obviously, there are issues that – between India and Pakistan that affect regional stability. We acknowledge that, and we continue to support any dialogue efforts between the government that can lead to greater stability and reducing of tensions. But at the same time, President Trump has made it clear that we do expect and we do have high aspirations for Pakistan to take steps to end the role of non-state actors. And here I would quote the Chief of Army Staff General Bajwa, who himself has said that Pakistan is a normal country when non-state actors and extremist groups don’t have a role and aren’t playing a role. And we certainly share that aspiration.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up. But in the --

MODERATOR: Okay. Maybe you should let another person ask a question. We can come back to you.

QUESTION: Everybody has three times. Let me have the last sort of – so in the face of the larger interest of America into the South Asia, will it be possible that America will play a role of bringing all the three countries together and have a dialogue among them and sort out their bilateral disputes?

MS WELLS: America is always willing to play a role that’s asked of us by the countries of the region. And I think we have, as you know, two strategies focused on the region, the South Asia strategy as well as the Indo-Pacific strategy. And both involve – and both involve strong and close bilateral and regional partnerships.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay, let’s take a different question. Manoj.

QUESTION: Yeah. Hi, I’m Manoj and I represent (inaudible) media from Nepal. So I have a question. And what could be the major priorities for the U.S. in Nepal? You have talked with the foreign minister as well, and you are in charge of the South Asia now, so what would be the U.S. priorities?

MS WELLS: Thank you. I had a very useful visit to Nepal just a few weeks ago and was able to have consultations firsthand with the leadership as well as with private sector. And we very much as a longstanding partner of Nepal want to see Nepal grow, its people prosper, the economy expand, and the country continue to recover from the post-earthquake crisis.

I was impressed by the level of commitment to democracy, the conclusion of the three elections. And so really, Nepal’s role as a model to other countries in the region who are also continuing down a road to democratization is very important. We discussed how through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, through our cooperation under the Indo-Pacific strategy and the additional monies that we’ll be able to provide to our military-to-military relationships, the contributions of the Peace Corps, through multiple tools that we have, how do we continue to build on and help the government succeed.

So it was a very useful set of consultations. As you know, Nepal occupies a very special place in the hearts of Americans. It’s the only country that Congress has a single-country trade preference for, and so we’re always trying to be entrepreneurial in how we can help Nepal make this democratic venture a success.

MODERATOR: Let’s go over here for a moment to VOA. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: I’m (inaudible) and I’m with Voice of America. Now that the U.S. is directly talking to the Taliban, what role did Pakistan or is Pakistan playing in that effort? And secondly, now that there are direct talks, how do you plan on bringing the Afghan Government into this conversation instead of having the Afghan and the Talibans trying to struggle in having the dialogue and the Taliban wanting to not even talk to them but talk to the U.S.?

MS WELLS: I don’t have any comments on whether there are direct talks between the U.S. and Taliban. I would just underscore again that this administration has made clear that it is prepared to engage with and participate in negotiations with both the Taliban and the Afghan Government. It is imperative that the Taliban and the Afghan Government work together towards a peace solution. No political settlement can be negotiated over the heads of the Afghan people, and no political settlement can be negotiated only between certain elements of a country and the Taliban.

So I think that the appointment of Special Representative Ambassador Khalilzad is extremely important. It sends a very strong signal that the United States is committed to pursuing very aggressively whether or not the Taliban are prepared to walk through that door that was opened by President Ghani. And again, I think we have to give full credit to President Ghani, his government, and the Afghan leadership and people for their support for the Kabul peace process document that laid out a vision of peace that has no preconditions to the negotiations. And so that has really created a basis for this momentum to build and for there to be, I think, an opportunity for the 17-year war to be ended through political means.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. Hatem, then Alexey after.

QUESTION: Thank you. Hatem El-Gamasy from Egypt TV. Don’t you think the spike of Taliban terrorist attacks lately cast doubts on their willingness to participate in any political process in Afghanistan?

MS WELLS: I think that what the recent events, for instance, in Ghazni demonstrated is that the Taliban can’t win this war militarily. They can create – they can inflict violence, they can kill civilians, they can create some level of temporary chaos, but they can’t hold the territory and they’re beaten back. And so I think the essential lesson of the violence is that this war cannot be won militarily, and the United States and Resolute Support Mission and all of the 41 partners who are supporting the Government of Afghanistan will not allow the Taliban to secure a military victory.

And so in – with that as a backdrop, peace becomes a necessity. And so no, I don’t draw the same conclusion. I do believe that in the period of – before there are real negotiations, talking and fighting will happen. But what we have been able to demonstrate to the Taliban is that we are agile and we will respond to changes in Taliban tactics and we will continue to place immense pressure on them militarily if they’re not prepared to come to the negotiating table.

QUESTION: If you’ll allow me another question about the South China Sea and Chinese manmade islands, if there’s any concern of United States effort to step up the trade relation with Indo-Pacific countries?

MS WELLS: Well, I think many countries of the region have learned lessons from the South China Sea, and on the need to ensure that a rules-based, free and open order is maintained in the Indo-Pacific. And I think lessons have also been learned from programs that have involved more predatory debt, unsustainable debt, debt that leaves countries losing sovereignty over key assets. And I would say both of those lessons have fueled a real interest in countries of the Indo-Pacific to have options and to be able to balance the relationships and to be able to have options as they pursue very necessary infrastructure development. I think the estimates are that the region requires about 26 trillion in infrastructure development over the next 10 years or so.

Now, obviously, that can’t be provided by any one country, and most of it’s going to come from the private sector. And so here, we believe the United States has a very important role and almost a unique role to play. Our private sector is dynamic, it’s global, and it brings with it the highest in technology and the best efficiencies. And so that’s what I think motivates and drives the Indo-Pacific strategy as well.

MODERATOR: Okay. We had one question here.

QUESTION: My name is Alexey Bogdanovskiy. I work for the Russian news agency. I have two short questions. First of all, the United States has expressed its preference that the countries of the region do not buy Russian arms. And I just wanted to ask you if this came up during your meetings here at the United Nations.

And the second question is that Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive of the Afghan Government, said at the United Nations this week that the one-sided ceasefire to which Taliban was ready – in which Taliban was ready to join for a moment has built momentum and that it was a good thing. But he would prefer a second ceasefire in Afghanistan, but some external factors – he’s actually said external agenda has prevented him from doing so, from – so I was – I wanted to ask whether it has anything to do with United States concerns and whether United States would prefer a second ceasefire to be initiated.

MS WELLS: Right. On CAATSA sanctions, it wasn’t a dominant theme during the conversations I had here in New York. I do make the general point with many of our partners that the CAATSA sanction implementation is not designed to hurt our partners or to impair their ability to protect their own borders or to advance their security objectives. It really is designed to address the specific behavior from Russia that we have objected to. And so along those lines, we’ve had conversations about CAATSA.

On the second ceasefire, I’m not sure exactly what Dr. Abdullah was referring to. The United States does support any reduction in violence, and certainly the June ceasefire that we saw – the June ceasefire was interesting and important on several levels. I mean, first, it showed that both the Taliban and the Afghan Government have command and control. Both sides observed the ceasefire. But what it also showed is that the Taliban lost control, that the enthusiasm of the Taliban foot soldier for peace, the spontaneous coming into the cities, the spontaneous comingling of forces demonstrated that the Taliban are ready for peace. It is their leaders, many of whom do not live in Afghanistan, and so do not fall under the pressure of day-to-day combat or violence – it’s the leaders who have resisted measures to reduce violence.

And so the United States, in our efforts to advance a political settlement, will always prioritize reductions in violence.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’re going to take one final question. Go ahead.

QUESTION: I don’t know if my seniors already asked about the CPEC because you know how important CPEC for Pakistan. So – but usually, we see, like, America has a lot of concern. So what you are saying, especially in CPEC?

MS WELLS: I think with CPEC, it’s the same principles that drive our analysis. We would like to see that the – that countries take loans that are transparent, that are sustainable, and that meet the highest standards, environmental and labor standards, and don’t result in a loss of sovereignty over a critical infrastructure. And I would note that there have been discussions within Pakistan and increasing debates within Pakistan over the transparency of CPEC loans, which we would share. There have been American firms who are among the most competitive in the world, who have the highest standard technology, who have not been able to participate in these projects. And so we too have questions about the bidding process and about the terms of these agreements.

QUESTION: What is your relation with the new government?

MS WELLS: We welcome the strengthening of civilian institutions in Pakistan. It’s important that democratic institutions take root and develop over time. We had very good – the Secretary had very good consultations with Prime Minister Khan, and it’s vital that the civilian institution be able to continue a reform process both economic and political that will result in Pakistan being able to address the needs of its people.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. Do you have any final comments?

MS WELLS: No, thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you all so much for coming. This wraps up the press conference.