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Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells At the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
September 26, 2019

ORTAGUS: So we're actually going to do this one on the record. I think all of you know – most of you know – everybody knows Alice Wells, acting assistant secretary, SCA, South and Central Asian Affairs. Man, it's the end of the day. (Laughter.) I'm going to need a coffee to get through these next two briefings. Thanks, everybody, for coming. I hope these are helpful. I'll just be giving you off-the-record guidance if we need anything, or if you need me for something on the record, I can give it, but we'll let Alice give some opening remarks and then we can go into Q&A.

MS WELLS: Great. So we were pleased that Secretary Pompeo kicked off his UNGA week with an important SCA engagement, and that was the C5+1 ministerial with his counterparts from all five Central Asian republics. And they had very substantive conversations on repatriating foreign terrorist fighters, on border security, economic connectivity, and including how to economically stitch Afghanistan back into the Central Asian neighborhood.

Today we had another important multilateral session, a meeting with the Quad partners – the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan. This grouping has met four times in the past two years at the senior officials level, at my level, but today's event, which was hosted by Secretary Pompeo with his counterparts, was a significant elevation of the level of our dialogue and really demonstrates the leadership of all four countries in institutionalizing this gathering of like-minded Indo-Pacific partners. In the ministerial – and I know you heard some from Assistant Secretary Stilwell – we had a wide-ranging discussion of our collective efforts to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific, but also touching on counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security cooperation, development finance, and cybersecurity.

I would say that the U.S. and Indian joint participation in the Quad also demonstrates the strength of the U.S.-India relationship and our shared commitment to, again, advancing a values-based policy towards the region. I know all of you have been paying close attention to President Trump's meetings with the prime ministers of Pakistan and India this week, including the historic Houston gathering of over 50,000 Indian Americans with the prime minister and President, so I'll touch briefly on those.

I think the President's message was clear. He has a strong relationship with the leaders of both India and Pakistan, and the world would benefit from reduced tensions and increased dialogue between the two countries. And given these factors, the President is willing to mediate if asked by both parties. We're continuing to welcome Pakistan Prime Minister Khan's commitment to prevent cross-border terrorism and to fulfill Pakistan's stated commitment to combat militant and terrorist groups without distinction. I think the prime minister made an important statement last week where he called militants seeking to cross the border enemies of Pakistan and the Kashmiri people.

Prime Minister Khan obviously raised his concerns on Kashmir, and as we've noted previously, the United States is concerned by widespread detentions, including those of politicians and business leaders, and the restrictions on the residents of Jammu and Kashmir. We look forward to the Indian Government's resumption of political engagement with local leaders and the scheduling of the promised elections at the earliest opportunity. As President Trump emphasized, Prime Minister Modi made a commitment that the recent changes to the status of Kashmir will improve the lives of the Kashmiri people, and we look to him to uphold this promise.

As you saw in his address at the General Assembly, President Trump is very focused on fair and reciprocal trade as central to the global order, and expanding trade with India and Pakistan is also a top priority. Currently our trade with Pakistan is quite modest – just 6.6 billion – so increasing this volume substantially is going to be the focus of our efforts in the coming months. In contrast, we enjoy a robust trade relationship with India, totaling 142 billion in trade in goods and services last year. We're making strides in reducing the trade deficit, thanks in large part to increased energy exports, and we really herald the signing of a major MOU between India's Petronet and the Texas-based Tellurian for up to $2.5 billion in equity investment plus long-term LNG trade. This translates into about 50,000 jobs and $60 billion in trade over the longer term. Talks on U.S. market access are ongoing, and although we're not able to make an announcement this week, I'm confident that we are going to make progress on a trade deal.

There were many other engagements. I won't take up the time with them now, but I'm happy to discuss any meeting that is of interest to you, so let's open it up.

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. This is Alexey Bogdanovsky of RIA Novosti, Russian news agency. Just wanted to ask about the meeting by Secretary Pompeo with the Central Asian countries. You have said that Kazakhstan was a leader in repatriating some of the foreign fighters from Syria, but other countries not as much, right, so was this a theme of the discussion?

MS WELLS: The theme, to the contrary, was the fact that Central Asian states are really the tip of the spear in dealing with the issue of reintegration of foreign terrorist fighter families – spouses and children. And so Kazakhstan has taken back approximately 600, majority of these are women and children. Tajikistan has brought back family members, Uzbekistan also has brought back over 100, primarily spouses and family members, and Kyrgyzstan is exploring the scope of their citizens who are located in Syria and also in Iraq. And so our focus is on how can we provide technical assistance, how can we incorporate Central Asia into the larger discussions that are going on about foreign terrorist fighter family reintegration.

Kazakhstan will be hosting what we call a "smart cities" conference, which is held under the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and we'll be inviting the regional countries to participate. But here, we have a lot to learn from their – what they find out as they bring people back and seek to rehabilitate and reintegrate.

QUESTION: Do you have any such discussions with Russia, just –

MS WELLS: I can't – that's outside my remit.


QUESTION: Sure. Shaun Tandon, AFP. You mentioned that President Trump said he's willing to mediate (inaudible) with India and Pakistan. Of course, the Indian position historically has always been that they reject outside mediation. In his talks with Prime Minister Modi, what was the discussion on that issue? Was there any talk about whether there was any potential for mediation (inaudible)?

MS WELLS: I think Prime Minister Modi has made it clear his position that he's not seeking mediation. I think what we would like to see are the conditions whereby India and Pakistan can have a constructive conversation that leads to an improvement of relations between the two nuclear powers. And obviously, that is going to hinge off of the – off of counterterrorism, off of Pakistan's seriousness of effort in ensuring that groups don't take advantage and engage in cross-border infiltration, that there are serious steps to implement the Financial Action Task Force action plan that Pakistan has committed to, and which includes the prosecution of UN-designated terrorists. So whether it's Hafiz Saeed who currently is in custody and under prosecution, but also leaders of Jaish-e-Mohammed, like Masood Azhar, who long have been able to exploit their presence on Pakistani soil.

But as Pakistan takes these steps – and Prime Minister Khan has been very explicit that that is his intention and his objective – as Pakistan takes these steps, can we then see a reduction in tensions between the two countries and productive engagement between the two? The region's stability, the region's economic growth has long been, I think, unnaturally constrained because whether it's Central Asia not being able to take advantage of natural north-south trade into India, or Pakistan not benefiting from living next to a 1.3 billion-person market, the benefits of improved relations are obvious.

QUESTION: Might I follow-up briefly?

MS WELLS: Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: Just on the – you mentioned the concerns about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Were those raised directly with Prime Minister Modi?

MS WELLS: We've discussed these concerns with the Indian Government at all levels.

QUESTION: What are you asking them, though? Because, I mean, it seemed like they were making promises to you early on that they would be lifting a lot of restrictions, but it hasn't been happening. I mean, the region is still pretty much cut off. What are you asking them to do?

MS WELLS: Prime Minister Modi in August, after the actions that were taken in Kashmir, sort of laid out a plan and objectives of returning Kashmir political life and restoration of – even of state status and engagement with a new generation of political leaders. And I think we are interested in knowing the next steps in engagement and encouraging that political dialogue to begin, in which we'll also in the next – we hope to see rapid action in the lifting of the restrictions and in the release of those who have been detained.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. going to be at all involved in the economic investment conferences that Modi government is planning for Kashmir?

MS WELLS: I'm not aware of any investment conference currently planned. But obviously, steps that would benefit the Kashmiri people we would welcome – I mean, economic benefits to the Kashmiri people. But right now, the focus I think has been on the return to political life and to a dialogue between the parties. This is a issue that members of Congress have raised in letters that they've sent to the administration and there will be – Congress has called for testimony on human rights in South Asia. So this is a – friends of India want to see the way forward.

QUESTION: And have – sorry.

MS WELLS: That's okay.

QUESTION: Have there been any diplomat – has the U.S. ambassador or anybody gone up to Kashmir to see for themselves what's happening?

MS WELLS: I do not – certainly the U.S. ambassador has not been to Kashmir since the change in its status. He visited earlier this year, but I don't recall specifically when. I don't know – I can't answer offhand whether we've had anybody travel there recently. The embassy does travel regularly to Kashmir as part of its natural outreach.


QUESTION: You said that the Government of India – it had made assurances that what is going on in Kashmir will improve the lives of the people who live there. Is that how you see it? I happened to go in yesterday to talk with Prime Minister Khan, and that's not how he sees it. And he said explicitly he came here to warn of an impending cataclysm about to happen there and that he considers Modi a fascist, to use "Modi is a fascist," quote-marked. Do – how do you see what is going on in Kashmir, if that will or will not improve the lives, and what kind – what sense did you get from Prime Minister Khan about – what kind of warnings did you get?

MS WELLS: I think that what the President underscored was Prime Minister Modi's commitment that he made – that he's made publicly to the people of India and to the people of Kashmir. And so we would welcome steps that would lead to increased economic growth and the well-being of the Kashmiri people. That's also obviously going to require there to be a normalized political environment and the involvement and engagement of the residents of Kashmir.

Obviously, I think we've all seen and heard Prime Minister Khan's strong statements. I would say in general across the region, a lowering of rhetoric would be welcome, particularly between two nuclear powers. And again, we have shared and expressed our concerns over the human rights situation in Kashmir. We welcome improvements in that situation. I would like to see the same level of concern expressed also about Muslims who are being detained in Western China, literally in concentration-like conditions. And so being concerned about the human rights of Muslims does extend more broadly than Kashmir, and you've seen the administration very involved here during the UN General Assembly and trying to shine a light on the horrific conditions that continue to exist for Muslims throughout China.

MS ORTAGUS: Jennifer.

QUESTION: Hi, Jennifer Hansler with CNN. You didn't discuss at all Afghanistan. I was wondering if it came up in any of your conversations this week, and then looking ahead to the election, if there's anything you can say on that.

MS WELLS: It didn't come up at great length in the conversations this week. Obviously, the peace talks which are suspended and are under review – there is interest in that, and we will look forward to consulting with our partners and allies as those deliberations are made.

But on the elections, you've seen the statement issued the department, by the Secretary, in the readout of his phone call with President Ghani today, that we really look to the Afghanistan Government and the electoral commissions to do everything possible to ensure a transparent and credible election, and certainly want to underscore the – our condemnation of what have been really horrific statements by the Taliban seeking to intimidate voters and threaten to target innocent civilians who are exercising democratic rights.

QUESTION: Hello. My name is Sergey Yumatov for Russian ITAR-TASS News Agency. My question is also on Afghanistan. Just yesterday, a Russian representative whose name is Zamir Kabulov held a meeting with U.S. Representative Khalilzad. And today, Russian representative told that Russia is willing to cooperate in the resuming of peace talks, U.S. and Taliban talks. Which is State Department's reaction in response to this?

MS WELLS: I'd have to refer you to Ambassador Khalilzad.


QUESTION: Conor Finnegan from ABC. I'm just wondering, the Afghan delegation was led or it was – included Ambassador Mohib, who has had some tension with the U.S. Did he meet with any American officials?

MS WELLS: No, he did not.

QUESTION: Did anyone meet with the Afghans this week?

MS WELLS: I met with Deputy Foreign Minister Zaman.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Anybody else? Speak now or forever hold your peace. Okay. Thanks, guys.

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