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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Background Briefing via Conference Call on Upcoming Visit of the Prime Minister of India

Via Conference Call

10:05 A.M. EDT

MS. HAYDEN:  Good morning, everyone.  Thanks so much for joining us.  We wanted to put this call together to give you an opportunity to hear a little bit about the preparations that we've been making for the upcoming visit of Prime Minister Modi of India to the White House.  I have with me this morning two senior administration officials who are going to speak with you. This call is not embargoed so you can report from it immediately.

You may only attribute this to senior administration officials.

And with that, I'll go ahead and turn it over to our first senior administration official.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hello, everyone.  Thank you for joining us here today.  I will begin with just a few brief comments on both the nature and then some of the details of the upcoming summit here in Washington between Prime Minister Modi and President Obama.

First and foremost, I would like to note that the President and First Lady are very excited and pleased to welcome the Prime Minister to Washington and to the White House.  This is a historic and pivotal moment in the history between our two great democratic nations. 

It goes without saying the Prime Minister’s visit comes at a fairly pivotal and remarkable time in international affairs, more broadly, with international crises ranging from the fight against ISIL in the Middle East to the challenges posed to the people and governments of West Africa by Ebola.  It is in this international context that the two leaders will be meeting here in D.C. on Monday and Tuesday.  We are very much looking forward to discussing the full range of global issues and considering the means of addressing those issues and those challenges together.

The summit also comes in the context of the Prime Minister’s landslide victory in India’s historic elections earlier this year, in May.  The Prime Minister comes to Washington with a significant mandate from the people of India and with a mandate for reform.  The two leaders will discuss the ways in which the United States can play a strong and supportive role in support of the Prime Minister’s objectives.

As part of our strategic partnership, we are looking to seize the opportunity presented by the Prime Minister’s election to reinvigorate this strategic partnership, but also to elevate and extend the depth and the breadth of the work that we're doing on issues of mutual interest. 

The United States continues to support -- strongly support a prosperous India that plays an important role on the global stage, and the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington will provide the opportunity for our two leaders to set forth a vision for this defining partnership of the 21st century.  This vision -- this partnership in which the United States and India are working is not just for the benefit of both of our nations, but also for the benefit of the world more broadly.

I would note that over the course of the past decade and a half we have seen a profound transformation in the U.S.-India relationship with upwards of almost 40 working groups now underway, dealing with issues of mutual interest.  And we see a tremendous opportunity from the summit coming on Monday and Tuesday to realize the full promise of that partnership in the years ahead.

Preparations for this visit have been extensive.  The level of our excitement I think is exemplified by the significant number and seniority of recent U.S. Cabinet-level visits to New Delhi, to include the Secretary of State, our Secretary of Commerce, and the Secretary of Defense, all within this summer.  So the administration is looking forward to welcoming the Prime Minister to Washington as we continue to develop a reliable and resilient partnership that bolsters international security and stability.

In terms of the details, some of the logistical details on the Prime Minister’s visit, I believe everyone is aware that he arrives in Washington after a weekend in New York.  He arrives in Washington on Monday, and upon the President’s invitation, will be staying at Blair House, just across the street from the White House. 

The President will host a private and unique dinner with the Prime Minister on Monday evening, which will be followed by bilateral meetings on Tuesday back here at the White House in the Oval Office.  Those Oval meetings will be followed then by a large lunch hosted by the Vice President and the Secretary of State, which will happen at the State Department in the middle of the afternoon.  I understand that the Prime Minister also has a series of events further that afternoon here in Washington before heading back to New Delhi.

With that, what I'd like to do is turn to my colleague to provide a bit more granularity on the issues that we expect to be topics of discussion between the two leaders.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks very much, and thank you all for joining us today.  As my colleague noted, we very much want to partner with and support the Prime Minister both in his domestic agenda, his agenda of domestic transformation and economic revitalization, as well as partnering with India in the region and across the globe.  And so much of the conversations and much of the areas of focus that will emanate from those discussions will be grouped around these priorities. 

For example, we expect that there will be some discussion about how we can partner with India on its economic goals and objectives, including priorities that the Prime Minister has put forward with respect to infrastructure, with respect to manufacturing and skills.  And we look forward to continued emphasis on India’s energy security, and how we can work together to advance that goal and objective, including with respect to access to energy for the 400 million Indians who currently have insufficient or inadequate access to power.  Particularly important in our conversations is the focus on clean energy and clean technology, and how we can advance our partnership in that area. 

We will also have discussions on the challenges that the Prime Minister has identified in his address with the Indian people in terms of the domestic challenges that India faces where the United States can provide some level of partnership, knowledge, technical support.  And so we will look at how we can look at those issues together as well.

India has also increasingly been a partner around the world on helping other countries meet their development challenges.  And that trilateral development cooperation between the United States and India which has extended agricultural support to countries in Africa, which has provide support and worked together in Afghanistan on entrepreneurship and economic empowerment, particularly of women -- we expect that to be another area of focus between our two countries.

Certainly addressing India’s security concerns and strengthening our security partnership both in terms of security of the homeland, on counterterrorism, as well as regional and global security in terms of the defense partnership, will be another area of focus.  And we expect to be able to advance those relationships significantly. 

We are fully committed that helping India in achieving its domestic ambitions of a strong economy, in enabling a strong, capable and confident India at home, will also serve the U.S. and global interests in having a strong and capable partner to address regional and global challenges as well.  And my colleague alluded to some of the global challenges that we are grappling with, and we look forward to a discussion of partnership in those areas as well.

With that, I think we would be prepared to take questions.

Q    I was just wondering to what extent the conversations with Mr. Modi will focus on trade issues, and whether those discussions will focus more on longstanding bilateral issues, or whether they’ll focus on multilateral issues like the WTO, and whether you expect any breakthrough on the trade facilitation agreement coming out of this meeting.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We have had a robust and ongoing conversations with Indian officials on trade, on the type of enabling environment we think would be conducive to greatly expanding trade between our two countries.  We expect that to continue to be a focus of conversation both in the areas of convergence and in areas where we have concerns and look for ways that we can work together to bridge the gap and bring our two countries closer together on those issues.

And that would include issues of intellectual property.  That would include issues of various constraints on investments. And it would also include ongoing conversations about the trade facilitation agreement in the WTO and how we can move forward toward implementation of the TFA, while addressing the longstanding concerns on food security that the Indian side has put forward in a constructive way.

Q    What kind of deliverables are you looking for from this summit?  I would like both administration officials to address this, please.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you for the question. I think at the top, my colleague did give a very good laydown of the types of issues that we would expect the two leaders to be discussing in their meetings on Monday and Tuesday.  And I think that gives you a sense of the range of types of, as you put it, the deliverables that might come out of those conversations.

I think what you will see is really a good strong focus on defense and security issues, but then also on clean energy and climate change.  And you’ll probably see the majority of the deliverables that come out of that conversation to be within that spectrum, of course, reserving a bit in terms of the conversations that still need to occur between the two leaders themselves before one could say exactly what those deliverables might be.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And let me just add to that that we have a very broad and comprehensive partnership between our two countries.  We expect that in this visit we will be talking about advancing our cooperation across the length and the breadth of that partnership.  And so whether it’s on energy or environment or sustainable growth, whether it’s on science and technology and space where we have a great deal that is happening between our two countries, that we think we’re going to have some both concrete initiatives to talk about, but also a body of work between our two countries. 

Because really at the end of the day, it’s not about the list that you can pick off the day after the visit ends, but about the engagement over the next six, 10, 18 months of how you’re going to move forward together in addressing and achieving those goals and objectives.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  If I could actually reinforce my colleague’s point there.  I think this is a critical one in that, absolutely we will be focused on concrete outcomes, and the two leaders I believe will be focused on concrete outcomes because that's how we make progress for both our nations and our peoples and for the world.  But more importantly, this is the first time that the two leaders will have an opportunity to meet, and within that, they will be sharing their perspectives on the vision for the relationship and for the path forward. 

And so I think one of the outcomes that I think is just as important, if not more important than the list of deliverables, per se, is the actual vision that would come out of this together to propel the relationship forward and to kick it up to the next level.

Q    Two really quick questions.  I was wondering if someone could talk a little bit about the nature of the relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi.  I’m assuming the meetings on Monday and Tuesday will be the first time they’ll actually meet.  And the second question I had is, I understand that the Prime Minister is fasting, and so I was wondering how does the White House accommodate someone at a luncheon, a dinner who is fasting?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks for the question.  I think in terms of the nature of the relationship between the two leaders, as I was just noting, this is one of the things I think that we’re looking forward to seeing come out of the visit, is an opportunity for the two of them for the first time actually to meet in person and to establish that rapport.  And that really is a major element of this.

I would point to -- and we did -- the President did call to congratulate the Prime Minister right after the elections back in May, and had, I thought, a very positive and friendly initial conversation. 

In terms of the fasting, I think this is something that we have taken on.  And as with all visitors to the White House, we accommodate the interests and needs of any leader who visits the White House and is participating in White House meetings.  I don’t think that this presents us with any special obstacles, and I believe that everything will go forward as planned.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And I think both we and the Indians have agreed that this should not be a distraction or change any of the things that we want to take on during this visit.  It’s simply a practice by the Prime Minister that we’ll work to accommodate, but all the events will go forward and we look forward to conducting a full range of business through those events.

Next question.

Q    I wanted to ask you about the court case that is (inaudible) in New York by the civil rights group, and the court has issued a summons pertaining to the Prime Minister.  How do you see this, and does he have immunity?  How are you going to handle this situation?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We’re aware from press reports of the lawsuit that was filed against Prime Minister Modi yesterday in the federal district court of New York.  While we cannot comment specifically on this lawsuit, I can tell you that, as a general legal principle, sitting heads of government enjoy immunity from suits in American courts.  Sitting heads of government also enjoy personal inviolability while in the United States, which means they cannot be personally handed or delivered papers or summons to begin the process of a lawsuit.  In addition, as a matter of treaty, heads of delegations to the U.N. General Assembly enjoy immunity while in New York to attend the U.N. event. 

Q    My question is regarding the fight against ISIS in the Middle East or West Asia.  Could you give us a sense of a preview of what kinds of contributions the President is expecting or hoping to get from the Prime Minister, or any other details around that part of the conversation?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, certainly, as the President has noted, we believe every country has a role to play in the global coalition against ISIS.  And we have had a very robust cooperation with India in the fight against terrorism and India has been a very important partner.

India has long experience encountering violent extremism.  President Obama and senior State Department officials, including Secretary Kerry, therefore look forward to discussing with Prime Minister Modi the many ways that we are working together with various coalition partners to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.

Q    I would like you to clarify that yesterday, one of the top Pentagon generals said that more than 1,000 people have joined ISIL from that region.  Do you have a breakdown about how many are from India and if there is going to be a -- how are you going to get cooperation from India to stop any of these people leaving India to go and join?  And the second question is about if you have seen the op-ed that Prime Minister Modi has written in one of the U.S. newspapers.  He talks about Made in India.  How does it contrast or clash with Made in America, which President Obama is pushing for?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On your first question, we're not going to be in a position on this call to break down the numbers that the Pentagon put out yesterday in terms of the specific countries.  We would refer you back to the intelligence community and the Pentagon for that, and frankly, the government of India for their assessment.  But we'll go ahead and answer your second question.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  With respect to your second question, first of all, we welcome the op-ed by the Prime Minister and think it was a very strong and positive claim about the possibilities of the partnership between our two countries and between our two economies.  And we don't see this as, in fact a matter of tension or competition because Indian economy and a strong Indian manufacturing base that partners with American companies and American technologies can be a positive course for both countries and for both economies.

We have seen trade between our two countries quintuple in the past decade to $100 billion currently, and there’s no reason why that trade can't grow another fivefold if we can take the steps to strengthen economic partnership, cooperation and integration, and enable freer flow of investment between our two countries.

Q    Going back to the court case again, given it seems that this visit is all about creating the right mood, how much of a concern is it that that issue could overshadow the visit?  And with regard to the concerns that have been expressed by U.S. business about questioning whether the Prime Minister is actually true to his pledge to reform, how much of an issue is that for the United States and how much will it be pressed?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, first of all, I think both countries or both leaders are very much looking forward to this visit.  We have a strong and longstanding partnership between our two countries and between our two democracies, and we believe that the Prime Minister’s vision, inclusive development for India, is one that we can support and advance and we want to partner with.  So we are not worried about distracting from that primary goal of this visit and of this relationship moving forward.

Furthermore, we think that the Prime Minister and his team have shown some signals of reforms that they’re already making in economic and other areas, and steps that they are taking to create efficient, accountable and transparent government.  We look forward to a partnership that continues to advance those goals that the Prime Minister stated during his campaign and subsequently in government, and we think that this will be a pivotal moment and opportunity for us to define how we can work together on common goals moving forward.

Q    Just to follow up on that question there from David, can you just address this issue of the court case?  Is it going to be a distraction, do you think, with the news coverage and everything else around this visit?  And secondly, do you guys have a fix on how much Prime Minister Modi is intending to nurture this relationship with the United States?  Do you think that it's going to be a fulcrum of his foreign policy?  Are you able to give us some of the view of how he sees it?  Is there any way in which you see a good relationship with India is vital to the rebalancing towards Asia in terms of being sort of a counter to China?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  With respect to your first question, look, I don't think that there’s any fear of the two leaders or the two governments being distracted from what is a very ambitious and very exciting agenda between the two.  Both leaders have expressed their desire for the relationship to grow -- not only strengthen and grow, but as our Indian friends say, they want to see not incremental growth but transformational growth in the relationship. 

So we're very focused on the agenda ahead of us.  With respect to how we see the rebalance -- and you might have to repeat the second part of your question -- but India’s role in the rebalance, I mean, fundamentally, the rebalance is a recognition that Asia, Asian economies and Asian societies are going to play an increasingly important role in the prosperity and the security of the United States and will be drivers of the global economy.  India is going to be a very important aspect of that rebalance.  And being able to have this strong partnership with a fellow democracy in Asia is certainly something that the United States values and looks forward to engaging in.

And I think your other questions was in terms of how much focus and emphasis will the United States and India place on maintaining this relationship.  We have seen from the United States three Cabinet Secretaries, as well as Deputy Secretary Bill Burns’s visit in the first three months of this Prime Minister’s term in office, we have seen an intensive level of engagement and we have plans for maintaining the intensity of engagement as we move forward.  And we have seen the same level of reciprocity and interest from our Indian counterparts.  So we think that this is going to be a sustained effort on both sides, moving forward.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Steve, I think you’ve seen to some extent the Prime Minister’s views in the op-ed that he just placed and evidenced by the fact that he’s coming here so very early on in his tenure.  So we’re really pleased about that. And I think that it does show the same kind of high-level interest in trying to both build a strong relationship from the get-go and then strengthening that as we move forward.

Q    I wonder if you could let us in on what you see as this “transformational growth.”  How is India defining that, as you see it, and how does that comport with what you would like to do, number one?  And number two, what does the United States expect to see vis-à-vis India demonstrate to the U.S. that it is interested in this Asian rebalance and that it’s interested in playing a role in keeping an eye on what might be military aggressiveness by China in the South China Sea?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  With respect to the first part of your question on the transformational nature of the relationship and what we anticipate, I do think that what we are hearing from our Indian counterparts and what gives us tremendous excitement and confidence in the direction that we’re moving is a desire to work across all areas of endeavor, both in terms of the bilateral relationship and also, increasingly in terms of our regional and global partnership to be able to meet, converge on priorities, and to move forward on that basis.

And so we think that there is a potential here to really move forward and fast on a number of different fronts.  Whether that's in partnering to address internal challenges that the Prime Minister has prioritized with respect to the prosperity and the quality of life and the health of the Indian population, or whether that's in looking at key areas of cooperation in defense and security and counterterrorism, or whether that's in how we partner together to advance development challenges globally where India brings innovation and entrepreneurship and an ability to address them from the perspective of a developing country, we see that there is a possibility here to grow ever closer together in how we address these challenges.

With respect to the rebalance to Asia, India I think -- I won’t speak on behalf of the Indian government, but what we see is that India has a strong role to play along with the other countries of Asia in ensuring that there is a balance in the growth and aspirations of the countries of the region.  We see that there are going to be tremendous opportunities to expand economic growth across Asia, as you see transitions in Myanmar, as you see transitions in other parts of Asia that allow for increased connectivity, increased commerce.  But for that connectivity and commerce to be able to advance in ways that are balanced, it does require a rules-based system.  It does require that there is secure lanes of commerce, whether that’s in sea, land or air, and that there is an ability to work together to achieve that.

And we see that as India has taken steps even in the early tenure of this Prime Minister to engage the countries of the region, whether it’s the immediate periphery of India’s neighbors, or whether it’s the engagement with Japan, with Australia, with China, with Vietnam, with all of the ASEAN members, we see that India has, in its own words, moved from looking East to acting East.  And that is something that we welcome and that is something that we want to support and strengthen.

Q    Could you talk a little bit to the strategic relationship between the two countries?  You’ve mentioned partnership on regional and global issues.  But often India and the United States are not on the same side on a number of global issues, be it Iran, and all kinds of global -- could you talk a little bit about where the conversation is at when it comes to India’s support for U.S. initiatives, and also, where the conversation is surrounding Afghanistan, where, obviously, India is concerned about the drawdown of troops?  Indian officials actually feel that not enough conversation is taking place on the question of Afghanistan and how it’s going to impact regional security.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  With respect to where we have areas of convergence and divergence between our two countries in global and multilateral arenas, I think we fundamentally respect India’s history, India’s relationships and India’s perspectives that it brings into the multilateral arenas, but we also believe that as our bilateral relationship strengthens and as we strengthen our ability to share information analysis and perspectives, and build greater clarity of vision between our two countries, that that will also have an effect in bringing us closer together in the multilateral arenas.
And we’re already taking steps to find bilateral opportunities to discuss our positions in multilateral arenas.  We are launching and reanimating a process for having a dialogue on international organizations that allows us to discuss issues such as peacekeeping, allows us to discuss issues that come up in the multilateral fora ahead of time and better understand each other’s positions so that we can try to bring greater convergence.

But we do fundamentally respect that we come at these issues from different histories and different perspective, and so we expect that this will be a process over time that will naturally bring us closer together.

I want to turn to my colleague to take this question on Afghanistan.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, and just briefly to reinforce what my colleague was saying -- in every partnership that every nation has there is bound to be disagreements.  And that’s okay.  We can recognize what our differences are, but we can continue to move forward as partners to accomplish our objectives of mutual interest.

In terms of Afghanistan, I think what’s important to note is that we have maintained regular and close consultations with the government of India, and I think we remain in close coordination and cooperation in terms of our support for what is now the unity government and Kabul, and that we will continue to ensure that that is a robust conversation.

India has been one of the greatest contributors in terms of both financial support and development support for the people of Afghanistan, and I believe that is something that we encourage to a great extent, and look forward to welcoming India’s continued contributions to the future of Afghanistan and its people.

MS. HAYDEN:  Great, thank you.  And just a reminder that this call on background, these are senior administration officials.  And thanks, everyone, for joining us.

10:36 A.M. EDT