Background Conference Call with Senior Administration Officials on Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden's Trip to India and Singapore
9:40 A.M. EDT
MS. TROTTER: Thanks, everyone, for joining today’s call. Sorry for the delay. Our hope is to provide you with a more detailed sense of the Vice President and Dr. Biden’s schedules and goals during their trip next week to India and Singapore.
This call will be on background and our speakers are happy to take questions after they give some brief opening statements at the top.
We’d like to keep this call as focused on the trip as much as possible and remind everyone that there’s one question per person.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to our first speaker whom you can quote as a senior administration official.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, Kingsley. What I’m going to do just for a couple of minutes is lay out top-line goals, the agenda items and schedule for the visit. And then myself and my colleagues would be happy to take your questions.
The Vice President gave a speech yesterday at George Washington in which he laid out our vision for moving forward with the Asia-Pacific rebalance policy that the President has announced and that the entire national security team is invested in. And the trip to India and Singapore comes in the context of that strategy.
The goal -- the overarching goal being to tie together the nations of the Asia-Pacific from India to the western shores of the Americas through strong partnerships, institutions, alliances, and rules of the road; and part of the message that the Vice President is sending in going on this trip is that we remain all in on the rebalance.
India is obviously a key player and increasingly so in the Asia-Pacific region. And the United States and India have an increasingly important bilateral relationship as our countries grow and deepen the ties across an incredibly broad range of areas.
Four areas in particular are going to be at the top of the agenda when the Vice President visits India. The first will be our economic cooperation where the Vice President will focus on issues from investment policy to intellectual property and speak to how we can work together to close the gap between where we are today and where we can be in our bilateral trade and investment and in our cooperation in multilateral trade and investment fora.
The second area is energy and climate where the Vice President will speak to the work that we need to do together to realize the promise of the civil nuclear agreement, and the work that we should be doing together to lead -- to be leaders on addressing the global challenge of climate change, building on the climate change dialogue that Secretary Kerry announced with the Indian Foreign Minister at the strategic dialogue (inaudible) month.
The third area is defense cooperation. We’ve built a strong foundation in defense cooperation and defense sales over the past few years, and the Vice President will come to talk about how we can build an even stronger edifice and deeper cooperation going forward.
And the fourth area is the wide range of regional cooperation that the United States and India have embarked upon, both in South Asia and in East Asia relating to maritime security, to counterterrorism, to our work together in the institutions of the Asia-Pacific. And that will be a full and formidable agenda given all the regional issues at play in the current international climate.
To go through the schedule in India, the Vice President will arrive in Delhi on July 22nd and upon arrival will pay a visit to the Gandhi Smirti Museum with the goal of showing his respect both to Gandhi and to India’s modern history.
On July 23rd, Tuesday, he will meet with Vice President Ansari, with Sushma Swaraj of the BJP, with Prime Minister Singh, with President Mukherjee, and then he will attend a dinner hosted by Vice President Ansari, along with an array of Indian officials and folks from the private sector.
He will then travel to Mumbai where on Wednesday the 24th, he’ll deliver a policy speech at the Bombay Stock Exchange and hold a roundtable with business leaders.
And then on the 25th, Thursday, he’ll hold a women’s empowerment event at the India Institute of Technology in Mumbai before departing for Singapore.
And Singapore is a crucial Southeast Asian partner of ours, a major trading partner, a major investment destination, an incredibly important partner with us in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he will arrive there while there is an ongoing round of negotiations for the TPP and have the chance to consult on that.
They are a longstanding an increasingly important security partner as well, and he will have the opportunity to visit our littoral combat ship at the Changi Naval Base. And they are a country with key perspectives and a key role to play in all of the major regional issues that we are confronting today, including issues related to maritime security in the South China Sea. And on that issue, the Vice President looks forward to consult (inaudible) leaders and to having the opportunity to speak publicly to how we can manage maritime disputes, deal with issues related to freedom of navigation and unimpeded lawful commerce.
In Singapore, he arrives on July 25th, and on Friday the 26th, he will meet with President Tan. He will meet with Prime Minister Lee, with whom he will give press remarks. He will meet with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. And then on Saturday, he will do an economy and trade event at the Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine overhaul facility. And then, as I mentioned, a visit to the LCS ship USS Freedom and make remarks to sailors before returning back to the United States.
Just before I touch on Dr. Biden's schedule, I would note that the Vice President sees not just parallels between but interconnections between the elevated engagement the United States is pursuing here in our own hemisphere and the rebalance in the Asia-Pacific. It is a fact that five of the negotiating partners in the TPP are Western Hemisphere nations, and increasingly, key nations of the Americas are looking west for trade, investment and other forms of interaction and engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. So the Vice President views all of this as of a piece and deeply interconnected.
Dr. Biden, very quickly, in new Delhi will be doing a health and nutrition event in Kachhupura community in Agra, as well as touring the Taj Mahal. In Mumbai, she'll be doing a health and nutrition event in the Thane district, a gender-based violence event at DILASA in the Bhabha hospital to learn how this one-stop crisis center is using global best practices to serve victims of gender-based violence. And she'll be doing a girls education event at the Anjuman-il-Islam school for girls, stopping by an English class, taking a tour, and then giving brief remarks at an assembly about the importance of education and the opportunities that education can provide to these young girls.
In Singapore, she'll do an early education event, visiting the national library and participating in the kidsREAD Initiative, reading a book to children -- young children, four to eight year olds. And then she will do a U.S. military family barbeque for servicemembers and their families who are stationed in Singapore to thank them for their service and to promote the initiative Joining Forces.
So with that, I will open it up to questions and invite my colleagues to help me answer them. Thank you.
Q Can you just do a little more curtain-raiser on his policy speech? And also, what is he going to talk at the IIT, Bombay?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: With respect to the policy speech, I think you can expect the Vice President to set out an ambitious vision for the U.S.-India relationship, looking not just at the months ahead or the years ahead, but the decades ahead. And in particular, I think he will highlight all of the areas of potential -- the economic potential of our relationship.
For example, in his speech yesterday, he made the point that U.S.-India trade has reached nearly $100 billion a year, but there’s no reason it can't be five times that much. Over the last 13 years, it has quintupled and it should quintuple again.
On the issue of defense and security and regional cooperation, I think he will point out that increasingly the United States and India are coming into strategic convergence in terms of what our key interests are and how we can pursue them -- relating to maritime security and freedom of navigation; relating to issues around stability that can create regional integration and growth for all of the countries of the region; relating to strong institutions and rules of the road.
And then I think he will also talk about the values questions that connect our societies at the people-to-people level in terms of our shared democratic ideals and how we can build on that and translate that into more practical cooperation in some of the areas that I’ve described -- energy and climate change, all of the dimensions of our economic and security relationship.
So it will be a speech geared not towards policymakers or government officials, but towards the people of India. And it will be I think a set of observations both to the American people and the Indian people about what is possible if each of us commit to taking the steps necessary to realize our potential.
The IIT, Mumbai stop will be focused on young women and the growing potential and promise of young women in Indian society and Indian business, Indian science and technology. So he will take a tour of some facilities there and have an opportunity to do a roundtable with young women to highlight the progress that’s been made and to champion further progress, and also to talk about the United States’ experience with the growing participation of women in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Q I just wanted to follow up on the first agenda point that you mentioned for India, which is economic cooperation. Obviously, in the past couple weeks there’s been a lot of -- the U.S. has been raising a lot of concerns about the so-called localization policies in India as well as protection of intellectual property. And businesses have been pushing for some changes. I was just wondering when Vice President Biden is there in India whether you all expect or we can expect the Indian government to take any further measures that would sort of revise or roll back some of these policies that the U.S. has complained about.
I know they’ve already last week taken one step, which has been welcomed by the U.S. to roll back a local content requirement for telecom equipment. So I was just wondering if we can expect any further progress on that and to what extent that will be a focus on the Vice President’s trip. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as you mentioned, we’d welcome the FDI reforms that the government of India announced this week as an important step. We look forward to continuing to work with the government to further increase American investment in India. And we’ll also advance the point that international firms can play a very constructive role in developing the Indian retail sector to meet the growing needs of India’s population in a way that benefits Indian farmers and consumers as well as American business.
So I think you can expect that this will be a very important agenda item and that we will raise the concerns that we have just as we will invite the Indian government to raise its concerns and its views on how we can facilitate economic opportunities for Indian companies in the U.S.
Some of the issues that we’ve noted recently have included our concerns about India’s need to provide adequate protection of intellectual property in key sectors; the importance of a stable and predictable tax regime. And I think the Vice President will describe our view that reforms in these areas can help strengthen trade and investment ties, and more broadly, help further India’s incredible growth story.
So this will be a chance to build upon all of the commercial and economic dialogues that we have going with India right now, build upon the recently held CEO forum, and the very productive engagements we had with senior Indian officials here last week, and build upon the strategic dialogue that Secretary Kerry held when he was out in India a month ago.
Q Can we expect any sort of concrete announcements of further measures that India might take, do you think?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would -- this is obviously a matter for the Indian government to decide the substance, content, and timing of any announcements. And we’re certainly not going to ahead of them on something like that.
Q Hi. I remember covering the Vice President at the time he was a senator, carrying the Democrats in terms of -- the reluctant Democrats, in terms of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. But it’s been now five years since the agreement was signed, and it’s been in limbo in terms of implementation, and it’s totally sort of (inaudible) U.S. business and industry, and also the Indian American community that heavily lobbied for this agreement.
The Indian government has made clear that it’s not going to compromise on the liability law, and this was called a transformational event in terms of U.S.-India relations. How is the Vice President, who was catalytic in terms of this agreement, going to square the circle and get this agreement going?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. I’d like to address part of that. I would describe the circumstance in terms of the civil nuclear deal as in a place where it should be in terms of maintaining momentum going forward.
First of all, it’s in a commercial space. The U.S. companies involved are in discussion with their Indian partners, and that is in a good place in terms of active commercial discussions moving forward.
There’s been discussion -- and I imagine you’ve followed it closely -- in terms of the pre-early works agreement and commercial contracts that would precede resolution as a liability problem, which both sides recognize is an issue and is something that we’re working on, on a government-to-government basis.
In terms of actions that the Indian side has taken, which indicates their willingness to move in that direction, I would include the plan that has been set aside for the project, and the reiterated commitment from the Secretary’s visit, from the Indian side, of progress impending on the commercial contracts and the pre-early works deal, which is an important component of a civil nuclear cooperation between our two countries.
Both of us regard this as a signature achievement and it’s something that is very important to maintaining momentum on. We also recognize that if there are complex issues associated with this, that we need to remain intensely engaged to make progress on. And the Vice President has that firmly in his crosshairs.
Q Hi. I am wondering what -- I understand that the Vice President met with business leaders, or a group of stakeholders ahead of this trip. And I guess I'm just wondering if you can give us some color about what he heard from them and what he told them.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. He heard from them I would say suggestions and comments in two major categories -- one related, obviously, to the trade and investment relationship. And they covered a lot of the issues that I was just describing -- issues related to how to improve investment and market access in India; related to how to deal with issues relating -- dealing with innovation and intellectual property; issues related to immigration here in the United States as well. And then the second category was really more about how to broaden the engagement by the U.S. government to -- beyond the government in India to the entire range of Indian civil society, private sector stakeholders.
So they were giving him advice on meeting with Indian private sector leaders in India, engaging with Indian civil society while he's there, making stops in Mumbai at cafes and markets and other things along those lines. It was an incredibly pleasant sort of intensive, casual, free-flowing conversation. I think they were describing to him the India of 2013; the last time he was there was in 2008.
So there was a set of kind of specific points relating to trade and investment and intellectual property that they had on their minds, but I would say, a surprising amount of the conversation really turned on trying to help the Vice President think about how he could connect to the Indian people writ large, and how, in doing so, he could actually strengthen the prospects for taking this relationship forward in the months and years ahead.
Q And if I might follow up, yesterday, the Vice President spoke fairly clearly on the situation in the South China Sea. At his event on this trip, will he be going beyond what he said yesterday? Will he have more sort of direct messages on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think you can expect that when he is in Singapore he will address the issue of maritime disputes in the South China Sea, as well as in the East China Sea, and the United States' very deep stake in making sure that these disputes are managed in a way that promotes freedom of navigation, promotes stability, promotes conflict resolution, avoids intimidation and coercion and aggression.
In terms of specific formulas and the like, I don't want to sort of jump ahead of what he might say while he’s out there. But I will say that he is concerned, and the U.S. government is concerned, about certain patterns of activity that have unfolded in these areas. And so I think you can expect that he will address this issue head on while he is there and do so maybe in even a little bit of a fuller way than he did in his speech.
But he’s not going to make any bold, new pronouncements of policy. I think he will just elaborate on both the interest we have in making sure this is all handled appropriately and our strong view in the importance of getting to a code of conduct into a place where management of these disputes is more stable, more predictable, and avoids the risk of miscalculation and mistake.
Q My question is about Afghanistan, which is likely to figure in the talks? You did not mention Afghanistan when you were setting out the agenda for the visit. What will be -- can you preview the discussions that will happen on Afghanistan, especially in lieu of differences between the two countries on talks with Taliban, et cetera? And also you mentioned immigration and the Vice President is likely to hear Indian concerns about immigration reforms here in the U.S. What will be his message to these concerns? How will he address these concerns? What will he be telling his Indian counterparts?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. I'd like to address the Afghanistan question. From the U.S. perspective, India is an essential partner in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and a prosperous Afghanistan. And India’s role in Afghanistan has been characterized by a number of different features. One would be its important role as a development partner and in supporting economic development in Afghanistan; also supporting the institutions of the Afghan state, and in facilitating commercial investment on -- at a significant level in Afghanistan to create the conditions for peace, prosperity, and stability.
The circumstances in Afghanistan are the subject of very close consultations between our governments, and we are also, in terms of the -- you made allusion to the peace process -- it’s also very clear from our perspective in our consultations with the Indians that we share the view that an Afghan-led process that results in a democratic, peaceful, and stable Afghanistan is the core outcome that we are looking for and, again, the Indian role is an important one (inaudible) India’s role as a -- in contributing to regional peace and stability.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And just to follow on that briefly before turning to immigration, the Vice President will convey the U.S.’s view that the necessary outcomes of any Afghan-led process that involves the Taliban has to be breaking with al Qaeda, renouncing violence, and abiding by the terms of the Afghan constitution. The United States has been very clear on these necessary outcomes, remains clear on them in all of our dealings, and that will be a feature of his consultations with the Indians on the peace-process question when he’s in Delhi.
On immigration, I would just note that the Senate bill that has been the subject of discussion in India has provisions that will very much benefit Indian workers seeking employment in the United States. Just as an example, the bill will nearly triple the number of H-1B visas for skilled workers. And since the largest share, by a considerable amount, the largest share of H1-B holders are from India, we anticipate that expansion of this program will certainly benefit many skilled Indian workers.
In fact, because the Senate bill would so dramatically increase the ceiling on H-1Bs, many more Indian university graduates would be able to -- if this bill became law, which of course it is not yet and there are many more hoops to jump through -- but if it were to become law, many more Indian university graduates would be able to work on a temporary basis in the U.S., gaining new skills that in some cases they will bring back to India.
Now, it’s true that some firms who have structured their workforce to rely heavily on H-1B employees would have to, under the terms of this bill, take another look at certain aspects of their business model. But overall, the bill and its provisions around H1-B visas would not only be good for the United States, but would be good for India as well.
MS. TROTTER: Thanks, and we have time for one more question.
Q Hi, thank you for doing this. A few fact checks with you. Is he the first Vice President to travel to India in more than 50 years? And secondly, only Dr. Jill Biden will be going to Taj, not the Vice President? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the first question, I believe -- though I don't want to be absolutely held to this -- that the Vice President will be the first Vice President to travel to India since then Vice President Bush in either the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. But I am not 100 percent certain of that. I think that is the case.
I do know that Vice President Hubert Humphrey traveled there in 1966, but I think that Vice President Bush also made a trip to India when he was Vice President.
But it has certainly been a long time since an American Vice President has gone to India -- too long in the view of Vice President Biden, and that's why he’s eager to make this trip. It will be his first trip since 2008 when he was a senator.
On the issue of the Taj Mahal, I regret that only Dr. Biden is going there. I say I regret because some of us will be with the Vice President while he’s doing a day of intensive, serious meetings in Delhi while Dr. Biden is pursuing both cultural diplomacy and a health and nutrition event in Agra and going to the Taj Mahal.
But we view Dr. Biden’s role in this visit as crucial to reflecting the broad range of our engagement between the United States and India -- across health and education, women’s empowerment and so many other issues. And the message that she will send by her presence and by what she does I think will be a powerful catalyst for greater cooperation between our countries as we move forward.
Q Thank you.
MS. TROTTER: Thanks, everyone, for joining. That's all the time that we have today, but look for more details about the Vice President and Dr. Biden’s schedule to be released in the next few days.
10:10 A.M. EDT