Stephen Biegun, Deputy Secretary of State
AMBASSADOR VERMA: Thank you, Mahesh, and for all the great work that GE has done over the years in India. And Mr. Secretary, thank you for being with us, thank you for your leadership, your service on North Korea, and now as Deputy Secretary. As Mahesh mentioned, you were a key member of the National Security Council staff for President Bush 43, and were – and a key fixture in the House and Senate as well, where we got to work closely together when you worked for Senator Frist nearly 18 years ago, and of course your time in private industry.
So no one is better suited to be the Deputy Secretary at this time. I also know how much you value the U.S.-India partnership, and we’ve talked about that over the years. And I’m really proud that in these highly polarized times, you and I have remained exceptionally good friends and colleagues, as well. Grateful for your service and I’m grateful for your friendship.
Mr. Secretary, I know you have some opening remarks; I’ll turn the floor over to you. And then we’ll engage in a Q&A. So over to you.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BIEGUN: Well, thank you very much, Rich, and thank you, Mahesh, for that kind introduction. First, I just want to make a mention: This morning, I was greeted by the news regarding a loss to the people of India, and I want to convey on behalf of the United States our deepest condolences to the people of India on the passing of former President Pranab Mukherjee. He’ll go down in history among India’s most distinguished statesmen and scholars, and his many visits to Washington, everything he did for the relationship, played an instrumental role in expanding this U.S.-India relationship, both in defense and external affairs when he was the minister. A strong U.S.-India partnership will be one of his many lasting legacies, and it’s one that we can honor by our work in fora like this today.
It’s a pleasure to be here. I want to thank the entire leadership of the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum, including Mukesh Aghi and Chairman John Chambers. I was in the private sector when the foundation was formed; I thought it was a great idea, a great initiative. I didn’t stay long enough in the private sector to be the partner I wanted to be, but I’m very pleased to see that in fact the initiative has worked very well, and it’s great to be able to participate in this event today alongside so many champions of the U.S.-India relationship, including you, Rich, my old friend.
Rich, I – when I was in the private sector, you were a great partner, and it’s my great privilege to reciprocate that. We worked on the Civil Nuclear Agreement together when I was in the private sector and you were in government, and also on many other initiatives of the U.S.-India relationship during your distinguished ambassadorial tenure. And so it’s my great pleasure to reciprocate now, and thank you very much for asking me to be here today.
Some of you may know that Rich recently completed his Ph.D., so Dr. Verma perhaps is more appropriate. And I know it’s late for some of you joining from India, so I’ll try to make this as interactive and interesting and quick as possible.
In two weeks, we will mark the 20th anniversary of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s historic visit to Washington, D.C. Way back then I was working on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, and I recall the energy and enthusiasm that accompanied his visit and his joint address before Congress. President Vajpayee spent some time at the Foreign Relations Committee before going over to dedicate the monument to Mahatma Gandhi that had been erected in front of the Indian Embassy. And just a few short weeks ago, I and the Indian ambassador had a chance to rededicate, if you will, the monument, after having fixed some of the damage that was unfortunately done to it during the recent protests on the streets of Washington, D.C. It’s a proud monument to our relationship and one that will stand as a symbol of that relationship for many years to come.
Four U.S. presidents and three Indian prime ministers – all from different political persuasions – have invested in the U.S.-India partnership over the last two decades. They have been guided by the premise that a stronger relationship between the world’s largest and oldest democracies can promote prosperity and development for our citizens, ensure our sovereignty, combat terrorism, safeguard our people, and ensure that the rules-based global order remains robust and resilient through the 21st century. And they have largely succeeded in leaving the relationship in an even better place in each case for their successor as president, and I expect this administration to be no exception.
As the fulcrum of global geopolitics and economics shifts to the Indo-Pacific, our partnership with India has become all the more vital. To borrow a phrase from my – Prime Minister Vajpayee – we have “overcome the hesitations of history” to achieve a strong and stable partnership underpinned by that shared democratic values and common interests. Our relationship today spans the globe, covering everything from aircraft carriers and space exploration to energy security and the all-important domain of vaccine research. As with any close partnership, challenges do arise, but our track record has proven that through patience, dialogue, and a bit of good will, we can overcome any obstacle.
President Bush, the architect of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, once stated that “the United States and India, separated by half the globe, are closer than ever before, and the partnership between our free nations has the power to transform the world.” That still holds true today, and I am confident that the future beckons new milestones for our dynamic and growing partnership.
Once again, thank you very much for inviting me to be part of this program today. And Rich, I’d be pleased to answer any questions or enter into a discussion on any topics that you’d like to raise. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR VERMA: Yeah, that’s great. Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for those good framing remarks. I want to jump right in. You noted that U.S.-India ties have been on a decidedly upward trend line for many years. You also have been a big architect of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. And I’m wondering if you can just say a little bit about how India and how U.S.-India ties specifically fits into that larger Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BIEGUN: Yeah, thanks, Rich. Well, one of the things that animates the – our new Indo-Pacific strategy is the importance of having a strategy that reflects the realities of the modern world, and the Indo-Pacific strategy is focused around democracies. It’s focused around free markets. It’s focused upon the values that the Indian government and the Indian people share with the United States government and the United States people. In order to make that successful we have to tap into the full scale of the region. That includes the scale of economics, the scale of security cooperation, and that’s impossible to do without India as a centerpiece of the strategy. So as important as I’d like to think the United States is to this strategy, it’s not going to be successful for us without India also standing side by side.
And India has shown tremendous leadership and interest in contributing in its own right to the Indo-Pacific strategy we’re advancing. India and the United States have deepened our security cooperation. We’ve – we’re in the process of seeking an even broader economic relationship and through – including through some dimensions of trade liberalization. And we’re also working very closely in the security sphere, most recently India clearly indicating an intention to invite Australia to participate in the Malabar naval exercises, which will be a tremendous step forward in ensuring the freedom of passage and the security of the seas in the Indo-Pacific.
So in many ways, across multiple dimensions, the U.S.-India relationship is contributing to this, but also you see it in the personal interactions between Indian leaders and American leaders. Those relationships have formed across different ideological foundations and different political parties over many, many years. When you see our leaders together, you can tell that the wind is blowing in this direction in both countries, and that really will make us that much more successful with our strategies.
AMBASSADOR VERMA: Yeah, thank you for that, Mr. Secretary. One of the elements of the free and open strategy seems to be the development of this Quad formation, and you mentioned Australia joining Malabar. But again, India has been a key member of the Quad. I wonder if you could, again, say a little bit about what the Quad is, both militarily and politically, and how important that is going forward.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BIEGUN: Yeah, so the Quad, which I think everyone knows is the United States, India, Australia, and Japan, first of all represent four extraordinarily solid democracies. And I think that’s critically important because while interests will drive all our nations to make choices in the policy sphere in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, shared values that complement shared interests create a solid foundation. And so at its core, what the Quad is is a combination of democracies. But I think what also illuminates those four parties is a sense of responsibility and willingness to uphold the responsibilities, to extend the benefits of democracy, extend the benefits of economic development, and extend the benefits of security throughout the region. All four of us, of course, are Pacific powers.
India has been somewhat – as an aside from some of the other regional institutions built – for example, AIPAC – and here, having the vision on our part to extend the Indo-Pacific relationship all the way to India and having the Indian willingness to break out of really what was decades of neutrality and a well-informed caution to extend its interests into the world. India has also, as it’s grown and its interests have grown, India recognizes that it can’t be a passive player in how that develops throughout the Indo-Pacific. So it’s a real coincidence of a variety of factors that are underpinned by that historic shared value of democracy that I think is really what illustrates the Quad. And the Quad isn’t exclusive. I think there’s plenty of reason to bring other countries into this discussion as well.
During the darkest days – and the days aren’t exactly that bright, admittedly, for India or the United States. But during the darkest days of the COVID crisis, when it really was first descending upon us and we knew so little about it and so little about how to respond to it, a group of Indo-Pacific nations came together in a weekly meeting to discuss how we can cooperate across the whole breadth of issues that we were contending with, ranging from best practices in treating COVID-19 to shared information on the nature of the virus to helping each other locate or allocate desperately needed personal protection equipment and medications, and also how to respond to the severe disinformation campaign that was being launched in particular from China.
That weekly meeting was done in a conference call chaired by the United States. It included Harsh Shringla, my counterpart in India, but also our counterparts in Japan and Australia, as well as our counterparts in South Korea and in Vietnam, and – oh, and New Zealand as well. And seven of us on a weekly basis at my level – so just below the ministerial level – in each of those governments met weekly, and it was an incredibly productive discussion among very, very cooperative partners and one that we should look to to see a natural grouping of countries that really will do their very best to advance this combination of interests that we have in the Indo-Pacific.
So there’s a lot we are doing. There’s going to be meeting of the Quad, a ministerial meeting with the Quad this fall in Delhi – that’s the intention anyway – in person. I’d say this Quad concept has really helped India find a place in the Indo-Pacific – in the larger Indo-Pacific theater. It’s also obviously indeed in our interest to have India as a partner in these issues.
AMBASSADOR VERMA: Thank you for that. Let me ask you two follow-up questions that will be helpful. Would there be any attempts to formalize the Quad Plus that you just described? And secondly, for people who say, look, both the Quad, the Quad Plus, the larger strategy is all about counterbalancing the rise of China, is this about kind of a countering China effort, or is there more to it?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BIEGUN: So your first question on formalizing it, it’s certainly a temptation in governments. Governments oftentimes live for their legacy, and certainly creating a new institution that reflects our shared interests and values in the Indo-Pacific would be a great accomplishment for any president. I think we’re going to have to be a little bit careful here in doing that, although I think from an American perspective that would be easy. We’ve got to make sure everybody’s moving at the same speed.
The – it is a reality that the Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures. They don’t have anything of the fortitude of NATO or the European Union. The strongest institutions in Asia oftentimes are not – not inclusive enough, and so it is certainly – there is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalize a structure like this.
But I think your second question ties in very much to that, which is the question of for what purpose. And obviously the benefits are sustained, regular communication between countries with those shared interests and values. I don’t think responding to the threat of China in and of itself or any potential challenge from China in and of itself would be enough of a driver, though. It also has to have a positive agenda. And so here it can be – they’re sides to the same coin.
The purpose here can be to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific, and even from around the world, to be working in a common cause or even ultimately to align in a more structured manner with them. I think this was very much the initiative of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. And – but I’m afraid what happened with TPP is the ambitions got too big and ultimately it fell under the weight of excessive ambition, so I think also we have to be careful and modest here.
Starting with the Quad, starting with just the four might be a very important start, and it’s something that I think in the second term of the Trump administration or, were the President not to win, the first term of the next president, it could be something that would be very much worthwhile to be explored. I’d just be very careful to not define it solely as an initiative to contain or to defend against China. I don’t think that’s enough. And then second, I would be careful not to be too ambitious in that as well. I’ve heard – I’ve heard loose talk about an Indo-Pacific NATO and so on. But remember, even NATO started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries chose neutrality over NATO membership in post-World War II Europe. The original NATO North Atlantic alliance only had 12 members relative to its 27 today. So you can start a little bit smaller and grow into your membership.
So as long as we keep the purpose right and as long as we keep the ambitions checked to start with a very strong set of members, I think it’s worth exploring an (inaudible) like that, although it only will happen if the other countries are as committed as the United States.
AMBASSADOR VERMA: Yeah, that’s really helpful. Let me just stay on the China question, if I can. Obviously, India is in a dangerous neighborhood and China has taken aggressive actions along its borders, India’s borders. We’ve also seen the ramping up of pressure in Hong Kong and in other parts of the Indo-Pacific. How concerned are you? And again, what’s – maybe you could just share a little bit about the strategy. I know you’ve testified about this and spoken a lot about this, but if you could give us just a minute or two on what the larger strategy is to deal with the emerging and growing threat.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BIEGUN: Sure. Thank you, Rich. The – as I said in my testimony on Capitol Hill about three weeks ago, we are – our strategy is to push back against China in virtually every domain. We’re doing it in the security area. We’re doing it in terms of outsized demands to claim sovereign territory, whether it’s in the Galwan Valley of India on the India-Chinese border, or whether it’s in the South Pacific. We’re also doing it economically. The President has led the charge against the predatory practices from the Chinese economy and the Phase One trade deal is just a first step in that to be followed by many other steps in the years ahead in order to equalize and balance out the U.S.-China economic relationship.
Underpinning all of that is a demand for basic reciprocity. For a very long time I think there had been a desire to extend to China special privileges and benefits, and even the benefit of the doubt among them, in order to bring China into the – into a more modern and prosperous future. But unfortunately, 20 years ago when that initiative really was launched in earnest with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, the bet by most policymakers was that eventually, the weight of the institutions that China was joining would slowly redirect the Chinese political system and Chinese interests to a point where China would become much more invested in a rules-based order that if not making them a true democracy, would at least moderate the tendencies of the government in order to make it a better partner for many of us around the world.
Unfortunately, this administration has reached the conclusion that that experiment has failed across all the domains that I mentioned where we’re pushing back against China. Instead of finding some reasonable balance and shared interests, we’ve found that the Chinese have exploited every opportunity they can from technology theft to assertion of national sovereignty over the territory and territorial waters of other countries, and we are in a concerted effort to push back on all fronts. But perhaps the biggest failed assumption was that the institutions that China joined would ultimately change China, and what we’ve found is in fact China grew so quickly at the beginning of this century that China’s outsized influence in those institutions is instead seeking to transform those institutions to China’s interests. That’s unacceptable from our point of view and we’re pushing back in the institutions like the World Health Organization or like the World international – Intellectual Property Organization. We’re pushing back hard to ensure that organizations either adhere to their core principles or we make clear we’re not going to be a party to those efforts. So the – there’s a lot of concern about China, but there’s also a – to use a cliche, there’s an all-of-government effort here to turn it back.
Let me just add one thing, Rich, that as you look at these issues, as we look at these issues, it should always be important for us to look at them from the lens of how they look from Beijing as well. And I have to say that there’s probably ample cause and even real concern inside Beijing as to what they’re confronting. Internally, China is simultaneously trying to erase Tibetan cultural identity; they’re repressing hundreds of thousands if not more than a million Uyghur Muslims and trying to separate these people from their faith and from their historical tradition. The Chinese Government is – has breached the U.S.-China – or excuse me, the U.K.-China agreement on the transition of Hong Kong and asserted direct state control from Beijing that has completely abolished the “one China, two systems” commitment that the Chinese made to – made to the U.K. and to the Hong Kong people to uphold through 2049.
But beyond the internal challenges, China is also facing deep strategic and economic tensions with the United States of America, as the United States seeks to push back against these various areas of concern that I highlighted, at the same time that they’re in near hostilities with the Government of India, that they are in a state of hostility with the people of Taiwan, that they are in a competition and sometimes less than – a less than cooperative relationship with Japan, that they’ve had a deep, steep deterioration of their relationship with Australia and to some extent with New Zealand, and they’ve been in a contentious battle of words and more with many of our partners in Europe over COVID-19 disinformation as well as a number of other Chinese behaviors that are deeply disturbing to our European partners.
And so from China’s perspective, whatever they’re doing can’t possibly be seen as working as they’re picking a fight right now on virtually every front and on every area of interest that the People’s Republic of China has.
AMBASSADOR VERMA: Yeah.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BIEGUN: They’re feeling their oats right now. They’ve got a head of steam. They’ve got – while they were the first country to be hit by the COVID-19, they were also one of the first to come out of it and leveraged that position relentlessly in order to advantage Chinese policies. But honestly, they were so heavy-handed in that effort as well that I think it backfired against them in most parts of the world.
Now, I’m not gloating. I’m not wishing ill for China. Personally, I would prefer a much more cooperative relationship with China than we have today, but China bears a substantial part of the responsibility for where we are today and the Chinese Government is going to have to make some significant commitments and changes in what they’re doing – not in what they’re saying, but what they’re doing – if we’re going to see any reversal of that trend.
AMBASSADOR VERMA: Yeah. Mr. Secretary, it’s really (inaudible) you. I know we’re out of time, but I also know perhaps in 60 seconds or less I can ask you a couple of questions we didn’t get to take, and apologies to your staff in advance. But just yes or no, I guess: Do you think we’ve got a chance at a mini trade deal before the election? Secondly, is there more we can do on defense cooperation and export controls, perhaps more on tech transfer? And I guess finally, just with regard to Indian students and Indian workers who are traveling to the U.S., do you feel – do you still feel confident that we remain a country that welcomes them and we have the ability to process their visas and get them here to do the jobs that they’re doing?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BIEGUN: Yeah, thanks, Rich. So on the first question – sorry, what was the first one again?
AMBASSADOR VERMA: The first question was about the trade deal.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BIEGUN: Yeah. I think there’s a chance. It’s going to take a little more energy. The time is short before the U.S. elections and a lot of governments around the world are hedging a little bit; I wouldn’t be surprised if the Indian Government as well. But Prime Minister Modi and President Trump are actually – have a strong personal bond and a strong commitment to do this, so there’s a chance. I know USTR is continuing to work at it.
What was your second one, now?
AMBASSADOR VERMA: On defense. Do you see more we can do on defense technology transfer and defense trade and cooperation?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BIEGUN: I think this is an area – and I spoke to Ambassador Juster about this just recently – I think this is a huge area of opportunity. I think India has even more alarm about the neighborhood in which it’s – in which it resides with the recent clashes with China. We’re very eager to help India become a – become and remain a world-class power in contributing net security rather than worrying about net security and how it affects their interests. And I think defense cooperation is a key avenue for this.
One of the countervailing trends is India’s appropriate desire to be more – also be more self-sufficient in defense, and I get that. No country wants to be entirely dependent upon other parties. Even in a partnership as close as the United States and India, there are times in which that – which that can be tested by other events in the regions – in the region or in the country. And so I understand that, but I think it can’t come at the exclusion of giving India the best-in-class defense capabilities, and I think India’s going to find a very willing and creatively thinking partner in the United States in the weeks and months ahead in that exact area.
And your last question again – oh, on workers and on the welcome of Indian immigrants. Let me say that the current temporary orders that are in place that have put some restrictions globally on the movement of workers in the United States, on non-immigrant visas, are only through the end of the year. I think the President saw that as an extraordinary step that had to be taken during this period of COVID and COVID economic recovery, but the door definitely remains wide open.
The practical reality is that still with high levels of COVID-19 infection in many places around the world, including to our good friends in India and here at the United States of America, the normalization of travel and the movement of people, whether it’s for work or other purposes, is relatively limited. I have – one of my children is a college student with three roommates from India and only one of the three was able to make it to the university this year just because of travel restrictions and other precautions, and I’m personally familiar with this.
I am confident that we will both turn the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic, especially through the rapid development of vaccines which I and many of us are very hopeful will be able to be deployed at least by the end of this year, or at latest by the end of this year. And as we get back into what will hopefully be a post-pandemic period, I think we need to recognize that not everything in the world will go back to the way it was before, but I think some things really must, and that includes the deep relationship not just between the Indian and U.S. Government, but between the economies of the United States and India, which have both benefited greatly from, among other things, the movement of people and the use of the highest-skilled professions in order to supplement both of our economies.
AMBASSADOR VERMA: Great. Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. Thank you for your service and for your participation here today. Thank you to USISPF for organizing such a great kickoff. Day one has been amazing. And thank you to John Chambers and Mukesh and the whole team at USISPF. Appreciate it. Thanks to everyone who’s joined in. Again, Mr. Secretary, thank you, and thanks for spending extra time with us.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BIEGUN: Sure, thank you. Good luck with the program, Rich, and great seeing you.
AMBASSADOR VERMA: Thank you.