March 20, 2021
STAFF: Good afternoon, everybody. Please make sure you silenced your electronics before we begin. As I had mentioned earlier, the Secretary’s got about 20 minutes. There’s no opening statement. This is an on the record press opportunity. And I will call on you in turn. So we can get right to the — right started right at it.
First question, for you, Jim, go ahead. Jim?
Q: Not used to that. Mr. Secretary at the — you mentioned that you had discussions on engagement with — discussions with Minister Singh on having engagements with like-minded partners in a multilateral group like the Quad or ASEAN. How do you see that materializing? How do you see that operationalizing, if you will?
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Yes, I, clearly from a defense perspective, we do have a number of things in common, and if you just look at the countries overall, if you look at Australia, India, Japan, us, you know we really are interested in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region. We’re interested in being able to navigate the seas and fly the skies and international space and maintain in that degree of flexibility.
Now if you look at the fact that India and us are the largest democracies in the world. There’s clearly some shared values there that we’ll continue work together to — we can build upon that and we are building upon it in an economic interest. So there are a number of things that we can and will work on going forward.
Q: And if I could just ask a follow-up. Does this mean you anticipate having more Indian officers in American headquarters and vice versa? And more exchange in like professional military education, perhaps larger exercises with the countries out here?
SEC. AUSTIN: We’ll see what happens. I mean these are all mutual agreements in terms of the directions that we want to take. And clearly in terms of increasing interoperability then more exercises are good. And, so, we’ll see. But, again, we can expect that there’ll be frequent exchanges and we look forward to the ability to work together to build great capacity, greater capability going forward.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Hello, Secretary. Welcome to India. Do you share the concerns expressed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chief that India was trending away from democracy? And in his letter to you suggested that the crackdown on progressive farmers, intimidating journalists and government critics was problematic? Do you share that concern?
SEC. AUSTIN: You’ve heard President Biden say that human rights and rule of law is important to the United States of America. We always lead with our values and as a democracy that’s pretty important to us. And, again, India is a democratic country and they — you treasure your values as well. There are a number of things that we can and will work on together.
Q: Hi Mr. Secretary thanks for doing this. I just wondered if during your discussions with Prime Minister Modi or Minister Singh, during those meetings did you press them not to buy the S-400? And what problems would that propose for the U.S./India relationship?
SEC. AUSTIN: Lara we — we have countries that we work with from time to time that have Soviet or excuse me Russian equipment that they acquired over the years are we certainly urge all our allies and partners to move away from Soviet or excuse me Russian equipment. In some cases it was Soviet equipment because they bought it so long ago.
But to move away from that and really avoid any kind of acquisitions that would trigger sanctions on our behalf. There has — there has been no delivery of an S-400 system. And so that conversation — the issues of sanctions is not one that’s been discussed. But we did address with the Minister of Defense the issue of the S-400.
Q: So, if I can just follow-up. You (inaudible) sanctioned Turkey over the purchase of the S-400. So this must be something that is on your mind and their mind. So, is that — is sanctions on the table?
SEC. AUSTIN: Again they have not — have not acquired an S-400 system yet. So, there would be no reason for sanctions (inaudible).
Q: So that’s the agreement that they have? They (inaudible) delivery but they have an agreement to purchase that system?
SEC. AUSTIN: Yes, we’re aware of the fact that they have expressed an interest in acquiring a system. But again that system has not been delivered.
Q: I’ve asked.
STAFF: I’m sorry. Phillip.
Q: Yes. (Inaudible) with China. In the last one year because of dangers with (inaudible) has U.S. thought at any point that war between India and China was imminent? And also as a follow-on, what do you think how India and U.S. can collaborate to get — to counter the Chinese aggression, not just in (inaudible) and in borders with India but also in the Asia-Pacific region or Indo-Pacific as you would say.
SEC. AUSTIN: So, let me make sure I have your question straight here. Is the first part of the question whether or not we thought a war between China and India was imminent?
SEC. AUSTIN: And the second part was?
Q: The second part was, how do you — what do you think India and U.S. can do together to counter Chinese aggression? Do you feel that India needs to do more with U.S. in terms of joint patrolling in terms of more collaborative approach in the Indo-Pacific?
SEC. AUSTIN: Well the first part of the question, the answer is, no. To my knowledge we’ve never considered that India and China were on the threshold of war. The second part of the question in terms of what can be done to check Chinese aggression in the region. I think — I think that continuing to work with like minded countries as we are working with India, we are working with Australia, Japan and others in the region to ensure that we maintain a freedom of navigation that we do — we’re doing the right things to promote peace and stability in the region and that we really work together to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
A lot of capability with the — capabilities with these various countries and again I think working together with like minded countries who have shared interests is the way you check any aggression in any region. And so we’ll — you can look for us to continue to do that in the future.
Q: Thank you. Thank you for doing this Mr. Secretary. Diplomacy and human rights an important part of the Biden/Harris administration. Since you are the first member of the administration to meet with Prime Minister Modi, did you raise the question of violations of the human rights especially against Muslim minorities in (inaudible)?
SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks. And to answer your question about whether or not I engaged the Prime Minister on that specific issue, I did not have an opportunity to talk with him about that. Having said that, I did have a conversation with other members of the Cabinet on this — on this issue. And I think — we have to remember that India is our partner and a partner that — whose partnership we value. And I think partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions.
And certainly we’re — we feel comfortable in doing that. And you can have those discussions in a very meaningful way and still — and make progress.
Q: (Inaudible) the historical Quad being expanded to include countries like South Korea? Is that on the path? And will Australia now become a permanent member of the Malabar exercise?
SEC. AUSTIN: I think your question was is the Quad going to expand to include other countries? Again, I — from our perspective we’re always willing to work with countries who share our values and have like goals and aspirations. And so whether or not those countries will choose to align with the United States and others is up to them.
But, again, we’re always willing to work with folks who share our values and share our aspirations.
Q: Mr. Secretary, thank you. In the last week President Biden has said that he can see U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan beyond May 1st. “NBC News” has reported that discussion focus on November. As we look at this, is that true especially in light of General Miller, General McKenzie and some other senior officers raising concerns that the conditions on the ground simply do not merit it at this time?
SEC. AUSTIN: I’m aware that there is speculation that the president has made a decision on keeping troops there to November — until November. And I’m a pretty prominent guy in those discussion typically and to my knowledge the President has not made a decision or made any announcements on when he’ll decide to remove the troops. So that, as you know, there’s a rigorous process that’s ongoing as the President really works his way through making that decision.
And no decisions have been made. No decision on length of stay or troop numbers have been made to this point. So, I’ll leave it at that.
Q: If I could follow-up? It seems to me and many others that we’re running into a physics problem at some point if we’re going to adhere to that May 1st deadline. Just in terms of getting things out safely and in some sort of orderly fashion. How are you going to make this happen if it’s actually May 1st?
SEC. AUSTIN: Well, we are mindful of the timelines and requirements that the Taliban has kind of laid on the table. I would just tell you that there’s probably nobody who understands the physics associated with removing troops and equipment out of a place better than me. And I think that, you know, as we work through this process we’ll keep all those things in mind and we’ll keep as many options open as we can. And we’ll — whatever the decision the President makes you can trust that it will be fully supported. And the experts like General Miller and General Milley and General McKenzie, once given, you know, the mission to accomplish things one way or the other, they’ll get it done and they’ll do — they’ll do a great job at getting it done, as well.
We’re going to take the last question here John.
Q: Mr. Secretary, do you see India operationalizing its foreign policy enough to deal with China since it’s historically been a non-aligned country and also focused on Pakistan? And then just did your conversations touch at all on arms sales such as the MQ-9 or a base access, since I know that’s something the U.S. has been pushing?
SEC. AUSTIN: Well, as you would imagine with two chiefs of defense we covered a wide range of topics that included equipment. It also included information sharing; it included additional opportunities for assisting each other logistically and just a number of things. And those were really, really good conversations.
And quite frankly I leave those conversation very encourage about what’s in the realm of possible going forward. We consider India to be a great partner and again I think we have done a number of things to work well together. There’s just a lot of opportunity there to strengthen that partnership and to do some things, additional things to make sure that we’re promoting peace and stability in the region and providing for a free and open Indo-Pacific region, as well.
Q: Are they at a point where they’re prioritizing the China threat over the Pakistan issue as they historically do?
SEC. AUSTIN: I think that’s probably better answered by the Indian government in terms of what their priorities are. My concern is that they prioritize their relationship with us and their willingness to work with us at the very top of their list of priorities here. So, again, in my engagements here I walk away very encouraged, not only by the hospitality that we’ve enjoyed while we’ve been here, but by the forward thinking and forward leaning that we witnessed with the — with the Pakistanis.
STAFF: Thanks, everybody.
SEC. AUSTIN: Excuse with the Indians, I’m very, very sorry — the Indians, sorry.
STAFF: Thanks, everybody.
Q: Thanks for doing this.
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