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Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Daniel Benaim on the Secretary’s Upcoming Travel to India and Kuwait

MR PRICE:  Thank you, and thanks, everyone, for joining this afternoon as we offer this on-the-record preview of the Secretary’s upcoming travel to New Delhi, India and Kuwait City, Kuwait.  The trip will take place from July 26th to the 29th, so next week.  Our briefers this afternoon are Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson, as well as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim.  This briefing, as I mentioned, is on the Secretary’s travel, so we’d ask that you please limit your questions to that topic.

As a reminder, the call is on the record, but the contents are embargoed until the conclusion of the call.  And with that, I will hand it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Dean Thompson.  Please, go ahead.

MR THOMPSON:  Thanks, Ned, and thanks to everyone who’s joining us today.  It’s a real pleasure to be here to discuss the Secretary’s upcoming trip to New Delhi, and, of course, with Dan talking then about Kuwait.  We are planning to depart Monday evening.  We will arrive in New Delhi late on Tuesday, followed by a full slate of engagements on Wednesday.  In the Secretary’s meetings with Prime Minister Modhi and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, we expect the discussions to focus on ways to further deepen our bilateral partnership, which is very broad in scope, as well as increased convergence on regional and global issues.

Our bilateral discussions with our Indian partners will focus on expanding our security, defense, cyber, and counterterrorism cooperation.  We collaborate across the government on these issues, including through regular U.S.-India working group meetings, and we look forward to further strengthening our ties with India to ensure a safer and more secure world.  To that end, the Secretary and Defense Secretary Austin look forward to hosting their Indian counterparts for the annual U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue later this year.

On regional issues, we intend to discuss our efforts to support a just and durable peace in Afghanistan.  All of Afghanistan’s neighbors and countries in the region have an interest in a peaceful, secure, and stable Afghanistan, which can only be accomplished through a negotiated political settlement that brings an end to 40 years of conflict.  India, of course, is a critical partner in the region, and we welcome India’s shared commitment to peace and supporting economic development in Afghanistan.

We also expect to discuss developments in the Indo-Pacific region with our Indian partners.  One of the first multilateral events that President Biden hosted this year was a Quad summit with his counterparts from India, Japan, and Australia.  The Quad leaders agreed on a shared vision for the region, one that’s free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values and respect for human rights, and where sovereignty is safeguarded.  We’re working with India and other friends and partners in the region to advance this shared vision of the Indo-Pacific.  Importantly, we’ll also discuss our health collaboration to combat COVID-19, including the Quad vaccine partnership that was first announced during President Biden’s Quad summit.

That brings me to the global issues that we anticipate raising with our Indian partners during this trip.  The pandemic is still with us and very much on our minds.  India and the United States have both suffered tremendously during this pandemic, and we’re fortunate that the U.S.-India partnership has carried us through some of the most difficult days.  We have provided COVID-19 assistance to each other, including a whole-of-government effort from the United States.  Since March 2020, the U.S. has allocated more than $226 million in COVID-19 relief to India, including more than $100 million to support India’s response to the recent surge.  In addition, more than $400 million has been contributed by American citizens and U.S. companies to assist the people of India in their time of need.

The United States and India are also working urgently toward our shared goal of overcoming the pandemic.  We’re confident that through our combined efforts, including through the Quad vaccine partnership and the G7-plus vaccine commitment, we will be able to share vaccines – safe and effective vaccines – to the Indo-Pacific region and the world.  We will continue to seek ways in which we can work together to save lives around the world, and bring an end to the global pandemic.

I also want to highlight one more pressing global challenge which we’re working to address with our Indian partners, and that is climate change.  The United States and India both recognize the unique role we have to play in reducing the world’s emissions, as well as our complementary strengths when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.  We’re pleased to have launched the U.S.-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 partnership in April this year.  The partnership will reinforce our collective efforts to achieve both the goals of the Paris Agreement and our own ambitious 2030 targets for climate action and clean energy, as an excellent example of how the United States and India can bring our strengths to bear on some of the world’s most challenging issues.

We hope to continue those conversations in New Delhi, and look forward to a productive visit that advances U.S.-India collaboration on the full range of regional and global issues.  And with that, I’ll stop and turn it over to Dan.

MR BENAIM:  Thanks, Dean.  The Kuwait leg of this trip really is an affirmation of the enduring ties between the United States and long-standing partner Kuwait.  We expect Secretary Blinken to meet with senior Kuwaiti leadership and consult on a wide range of issues befitting two close partners.  This visit comes as we mark – in a year where we mark two important milestones in the bilateral relationship: the 30th anniversary of Operation Desert Steel – Desert Shield and the liberation of Kuwait from the occupation of Saddam Hussein, as well as the 60th anniversary of our diplomatic ties, ties that we hope to build on with this trip.  As the Secretary has noted before, earlier this year commemorating the anniversary, we think our partnership has only grown stronger and deeper over the last 30 years.

Kuwaiti mediation and statesmanship were vital to the healing the Gulf rift that helped pull U.S. partners in this region back together, so we’re grateful for that and look forward to discussing a variety of different regional issues.  On a variety of different issues, we’ve seen that Kuwait works to end conflicts, bridge gaps, de-escalate tensions, and provide humanitarian aid, and we welcome the chance to talk – consult closely on Iran, on Yemen, and on other regional issues of concern.

We’re also close military partners.  Kuwait hosts U.S. forces, who are committed to help Kuwait and the other countries of this region defend their territory.

We have strong people-to-people ties, an advantage that we want to sustain and build on, including more than 9,000 Kuwaitis who studied at U.S. universities and English language institutes in 2019 – the third-largest number of students from the Middle East/North Africa.

We admire Kuwait’s democratic institutions and continue to work bilaterally and multilaterally to advance respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights globally.

Today, we are finding new and important areas to cooperate, particularly when cooperation is needed on the world stage.  Our partnership on COVAX and work to increase COVID-19 vaccine distribution worldwide is adding to the response to stem the growth of this international health crisis.

So we’re looking forward to this visit, building on our partnership. and looking for ways to advance our work together.

MR PRICE:  Great.  Thank you both.  Operator, if you want to remind callers how to indicate they have a question, we’ll then turn to questions.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  To join the question queue, please press 1 followed by 0 on your telephone keypad.  And as a reminder, please wait to begin your question until you are announced.

MR PRICE:  We will first go to the line of Shaun Tandon.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  That line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi, there.  Thanks for doing the call.  Dean, can I follow up with you on your comments on Afghanistan?  What, if anything, are you looking for from India post withdrawal from Afghanistan?  India has withdrawn personnel recently from Kandahar, at least temporarily.  Do you think the security situation allows for that continued economic presence?  And, also, to what extent is the current relationship between India and Pakistan going to figure in his talks there, the Secretary’s talks?  Thanks.

MR THOMPSON:  Thanks, Shaun.  Great questions.  Let me start with the Afghanistan piece and then move over kind of in the order you presented them, I think.  Without getting into too much in terms of specifics that we might ask for or talk about, we expect that all the countries in the region have a shared interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan going forward.  And so, we will certainly be looking at talking with our Indian partners about how we can work together to realize that goal, to find ways to bring the parties together, and continue to pursue a negotiated settlement to end the longstanding war.

With regard to India’s position in the country, I would have to refer you back to them.  But I would say that we definitely – we certainly intend to continue our relationship with the Afghan Government, to look for ways to reinforce the long-term goals we have, which includes Afghanistan’s economic development and long-term prosperity, of course.  But of course, all of that is dependent on getting to a political settlement.

With regard to India-Pakistan, I would just note that we strongly believe that India and Pakistan’s issues are ones for them to work out between themselves.  We are pleased to see that the ceasefire that went into place earlier this year is – has remained intact, and we certainly always encourage them to continue their efforts to find ways to build a more stable relationship going forward.  Thanks.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  That line is open.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) travels to – oh, sorry, I didn’t wait.  I’m sorry.  Can I go?

MR PRICE:  Go ahead, Tracy.

QUESTION: (Laughter.)  I apologize.  Okay.  As the Secretary travels to India, he’ll be meeting with a government that had an especially cozy relationship with the previous administration.  So, I’m wondering how he can quell any jitters that the State Department might have about the changing nature of the U.S.-India relationship, and whether India will remain a top priority.  And related to that, the Modi government sort of got a free pass on a lot of the anti-Muslim legislation and actions that they took.  I’m wondering how important human rights – you didn’t mention human rights in your rundown – how important human rights will figure in the agenda.  I know you’ll say it’s always part of the agenda, but I’m interested in sort of more concretely and specifically what the conversations on that might be, on human rights.  Thanks.

MR THOMPSON:  Thanks, Tracey.  Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that we see the relationship continuing at a very high level, and India will of course remain an incredibly important partner.  We’re going to continue pursuing our global comprehensive strategic partnership, and I think by virtue of the President making the Quad and our partnership with India very high priorities right at the outset of this administration, it sets the tone for what we think we can achieve and accomplish with them, and with our other partners as well.  So. I would expect to continue the dialogues that we’ve had on all those fronts.

And with respect to the human rights and democracy question, yes, you’re right; I will tell you that we will raise it, and we will continue that conversation, because we firmly believe that we have more values in common on those fronts than we don’t.  And we believe India is going to be a really important part of continuing those conversations and building strong efforts on those fronts in partnership as we go forward.

The relationship with India is a strong one that has endured through administrations of all colors and stripes in the United States, and will continue to do so.  So, we’re looking forward to this opportunity for the Secretary to talk with Prime Minister Modi, with EAM Jaishankar, and continue to pursue the myriad areas of common interest that we have.  Thanks.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Simon Lewis.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  That line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you.  Just to follow up on – you mentioned the virtual Quad meeting.  I wondered, this sort of part of the meetings this week – next week going to be setting up for the first in-person Quad summit?  And do you have any sense of timing on that that you could give us?  And one of the things that came out of the initial Quad meetings was this idea to create – to produce a billion vaccines.  To what extent has India’s problems with COVID and the resulting ban on exporting vaccines set back the schedule for the Quad providing doses, particularly to Southeast Asia where COVID is a huge problem, at the moment?

MR THOMPSON:  Thanks, Simon.  Great questions.  I expect the Quad and ideas about our engagements with the Quad to definitely factor into our conversations next week.  I don’t have anything specific to announce or share at this time about timing or format, maybe, of the next ministerial or summit. But we should have more information on those fronts coming out relatively shortly.

With regard to the question about the vaccine initiative, I think we’re extremely proud of that, that idea, and how the four countries have embraced it.  Certainly, the recent challenges, in particular, that India faced created a bit of a delay in getting certain aspects of it started, but I would note that the working groups have been meeting.  The plan had always been for that billion doses to roll out in 2022, and so we hope to continue to work towards that goal, as – again, as a Quad, as a group of four utilizing the strengths that each country brings.

So we’re still working toward that goal at that timeframe.  Thanks.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Nadia Bilbassy, please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  That line is open.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this.  Can you hear me?

MR PRICE:  Yes.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Okay, great.  On the Secretary’s visit to Kuwait, Kuwait is mentioned as one of the countries that will receive Afghani translators and those who cooperated – cooperated with U.S. forces.  Can you just confirm – and this is one of the topics that the Secretary is going to discuss – and just give us some logistics about the people that’s going to be transferred there, and whether they’re going to stay in U.S. bases or Kuwait will host them?  Thank you.

MR BENAIM:  Nadia, thank you for your question.  The department is actively engaged in relocation planning for these brave Afghans and their families.  We’re engaged actively in a number of countries on these issues.  That’s really all I have at this issue, at this time.  I don’t have an update for you further.  I know that Ned addressed this from the podium yesterday and others have addressed it as well.  And we’ll address it in the days ahead since it’s a pressing issue, but that’s all I have on it at this point.  Thanks.

MR PRICE:  Well, thanks – let’s actually take one final question.  Let’s get Seema Sirohi, please.

OPERATOR:  That line is open.

QUESTION:  Hello, thank you – thank you for taking my question.  I was wondering if you could comment on the big story that has broken in India about the use of spyware on journalists and political leaders, et cetera.  Would you comment on that?  It seems that this spyware is only sold to governments.  And so, the allegations are that the Government of India might be involved in this.  Thank you.

MR THOMPSON:  Yeah, thanks Seema. Obviously, we – the whole notion of using this type of technology against civil society, or regime critics, or journalists, or anybody like that through extrajudicial means is always concerning.  We – I don’t have any particular special insights into the India case.  I know this is a broader issue, but I will say that we’ve been, I think, quite vocal about trying to find ways for companies to be able to ensure that their technology is not used in these types of ways.  And we will certainly continue to press – to press those issues.  Thanks.

MR PRICE:  We will take one final question from Sheruq Sadhui.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  That line is open.

QUESTION:  Yeah, hi, thank you for doing this.  So, my question is about the Secretary’s visit to Kuwait.  So, I was wondering if there’s going to be any discussion or talks about the – about hosting the next strategic dialogue.  Hello?

MR BENAIM:  Hi, yes, it’s a good question.  I am sure that the topic will come up.  Our governments are in constant cooperation and contact about the next dialogue, which we hope will be soon.

MR PRICE:  Well, thank you very much everyone.  Just a reminder, this call was on the record with Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan Benaim and Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson.  And with that, the embargo is lifted, and we’ll talk to you soon.  Have a good weekend.

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