Remarks by Deputy Secretary Stephen E. Biegun at India-U.S. Forum

(As Prepared)

It is a great to be back in India in advance of, COVID-permitting, Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Esper’s important 2+2 ministerial with Minister Jaishankar and Minister Singh later this year. And it is a great pleasure to attend this virtual India-U.S. Forum. With more than two decades of personal engagement and friendship with so many of you participating in this evening’s forum, I must say to you that I have never been more optimistic regarding the future possibilities of the India-U.S. relationship. I want to thank especially my friend and counterpart Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, as well as Jamshyd Godrej, Kiran Pasricha, and the team at the Ananta Centre for organizing today’s discussion. And finally, warm regards to my old friends Minister Jaishankar and Ambassador Ken Juster. Thank you all.

As President Trump’s discussions with Prime Minister Modi highlighted earlier this year, our partnership is now truly comprehensive. Our deep, historic ties and close collaboration span a number of realms, including defense and security cooperation, mutual law enforcement support, trade and investment ties, energy partnership, scientific and technological collaboration, educational links, strengthening and reforming international organizations, and perhaps most critically this past year—unprecedented levels of cooperation to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Several of our universities and companies are working together on coronavirus vaccine trials, and India’s vital role in global vaccine research will ensure our two countries remain on the cutting edge of responding to future health crises.

For three decades, each successive U.S. administration has successfully built upon and deepened the accomplishments of its predecessor in our relations with India. I am confident that, regardless of the outcome of our presidential election next month, the vital partnership between the United States and India will continue and deepen over the decades to come. The pressing question before our two governments today is what do we build on that increasingly solid foundation? I would like to offer a few thoughts from the United States’ perspective as we launch this discussion.

The United States’ post-World War II Pacific treaty alliances contributed to security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific for seven decades. While our commitment to these alliances and their mutual defense obligations is ironclad, we also recognize that the United States cannot assume that a global post-WWII alliance structure, designed to address the challenges and threats of the Cold War, can endure without rejuvenation. To sustain the free and open order, our strategic relationships need to reflect the geopolitical realities of today and tomorrow. Much has changed over the past seventy years, and our own thinking must evolve as well.

Our relationships with many of our global treaty allies—NATO, Japan, and Australia in particular—have already evolved to reflect post-Cold War geopolitical realities, and they continue to adapt to meet new threats. These conversations have not always been easy, as we seek alignment on how best to equitably address strategic threats while accounting for changes in capabilities and respect for one another’s sovereignty. But frank discussion should be undertaken with the goal of strengthening and deepening these alliances in a manner that reflects our respective interests.

But I should also be clear that the security partnerships the United States and our partners explore today do not necessarily need to follow the model of the last century of mutual defense treaties with a heavy in-country U.S. troop presence. Today we benefit from forging close links with countries, like India, that share our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and that seek to provide for their own defense. In this context, the United States certainly benefits from an India that is as strong and prosperous. And our cooperation can come in far more ways than in the past, particularly with the advance of technology, the shifts in global economic influence, and changing geopolitical circumstances.

In thinking about the future, it is no secret that I see enormous opportunity in the United States’ security relationship with India. India has a strong and proud tradition of strategic autonomy, and we respect that. We do not seek to change India’s traditions. Rather we want to explore how to empower them and India’s ability to defend its own sovereignty and democracy and to advance Indian interests, across the Indo-Pacific region. As the United States assesses our own interests and how they intersect with India’s, we have seen the conditions emerge for an organic and deeper partnership—not an alliance on the postwar model, but a fundamental alignment along shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests, and shared values.

Of course, as we advance in this direction, there is an elephant in the room: China. Last week, in advance of Secretary Pompeo’s meeting with Minister Jaishankar and their Japanese and Australian counterparts in Tokyo, I read remarks by the esteemed, retired Indian diplomat Ashok Kantha. I was particularly struck by a comment he made. He said, “Frankly, we have been far too cautious when it comes to developing the Quad or when it comes to developing our own strategic linkages with the United States by asking how China would react. A relationship with the United States helps in our dealings with China, more so in a situation where the capability gap between India and China is increasing day to day. We have to work with like-minded countries, and that includes the United States, Japan, Australia and many other countries. At the same time, we have to recognize that what we can achieve through the Quad is limited, it’s still a work in progress. So much more effort needs to be put in, to flesh out the idea of the Quad and see how it can become an effective lateral grouping.”

I could not agree more with Ambassador Kantha. We have been too cautious. Last week’s important and successful Quad ministerial leaves the United States confident that perhaps, just maybe, we can say that we are present at the creation of those strategic linkages to which Ambassador Kantha refers.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, through virtual technology and when possible to do safely in person, we should increase and regularize contact at all levels between the Quad’s diplomats, defense officials, and technical experts. As one example, early in March Foreign Secretary Shringla and I began weekly calls with Quad partners and other Indo-Pacific counterparts to discuss how we could coordinate efforts to combat the pandemic and plan for our collective recovery. Such regularized engagement offers opportunity to build cooperation in important ways that allow further and more effective joint action in times of crisis. And these relationships should go beyond government-to-government contact to span all areas of mutual—economics, development, trade, investment, health, technology and innovation, as well as security cooperation.

Other examples include: partnerships between our development finance corporations to help facilitate the nearly $25 trillion in capital that the Indo-Pacific needs for energy and infrastructure through the next decade. In Southeast Asia, Quad partners can deepen engagement with ASEAN, cooperate in defending freedom of the seas, and work together in governance, health, environmental protection, water conservation and transparent data sharing, especially regarding the Mekong. Strong people-to-people ties exist already between our countries on a bilateral basis, but I encourage organizations like the Ananta Centre to do more to expand people-to-people ties, particularly in the cultivation of young leaders across all four Quad countries.

As Ambassador Kantha also suggested, cooperation between the United States and India does not have to be limited to a bilateral or Quad format but can extend to broader areas of shared interests and with other like-minded partners, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quad is a partnership driven by shared interests, not binding obligations, and is not intended to be an exclusive grouping. Any country that seeks a free and open Indo-Pacific and is willing to take steps to ensure that, should be welcome to work with us.

The United States and India represent multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, democratic societies. Together with Japan and Australia, we are four democratic anchors in an Indo-Pacific region buffeted by changing winds and shifting currents. We each have our imperfections, of course, and our own histories that steered our democratic paths, but we share values as well as common interests, and together our democracies represent the voices of a nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

Together we stand for a pluralistic vision that will ensure that our countries, and all the region’s diverse countries, can thrive as sovereign and prosperous nations in a free and open Indo-Pacific. One might call this a vision of a Pax Indo-Pacifica, a region at peace, protected and made prosperous in equal measure by those who comprise the Indo-Pacific.

But recent events in the region inform us that this vision is not a foregone conclusion. Our work together in the Quad and in other multilateral groupings are critical pillars toward this end, as is formalizing our cooperation—bilaterally and with others—in more regular and systematic ways that offer benefits to our nations’ security.

The United States has already begun some of these efforts, including increased foreign military sales and intelligence sharing with India. But there is more that we can do, including strengthening India’s ability to defend itself and by promoting interoperability among our militaries through regular exercises and exchanges, common defense platforms, and co-development. The upcoming 2+2 Ministerial meeting between Secretary Pompeo and Minister Jaishankar and their respective defense counterparts will be an excellent opportunity to explore next steps on some of these issues.

But let us not wait for that meeting to begin the discussion, as it is incumbent upon all of us, in both Washington and New Delhi, to seize every opportunity to its fullest in charting the future of our partnership. Former U.S. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith was fond of saying that when he telegrammed Washington on pressing issues, what he most disliked was “…the uncontrollable instinct for piously reasoned inaction.” I am sure many of our Indian friends feel the same. Let us heed Ambassador Galbraith’s words. Instead of asking why, we should ask why not. Our two nations are destined for great things. It is up to us to accelerate the momentum. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how we can do so.

Thank you.