Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Afreen Akhter’s Remarks in the Sixth Indian Ocean Conference

May 13, 2023
Dhaka, Bangladesh
Remarks As Prepared


Good evening, everyone. It’s an honor to speak with you all today.

I echo Deputy Secretary Sherman’s thanks to Bangladesh, Prime Minister Hasina, and Foreign Minister Momen for the invitation to join you all for the Sixth Indian Ocean Conference. Thanks to Minister Jaishankar, India’s Ministry of External Affairs, and the India Foundation for their partnership in helping organize this dialogue each year.

The United States is committed to the Indian Ocean region. From the Strait of Malacca to the Arabian Sea, this strategically important region is filled with promise and opportunity.

I’m going to focus my remarks on a few key ways in which the United States is building prosperity, peace, and resilience in this vital region.

I’ll start with climate change, which I know is top of mind for many of the countries in this region – particularly island states.

We know that the climate crisis is acutely felt in this region. Warming temperatures and rising sea are resulting in coastal erosion, flooding, and extreme weather events.

The United States is driving investment and resources to help countries respond to this problem.

For instance, as Deputy Secretary Sherman mentioned, working with our Congress, the United States Government plans to provide $165 million for programs across the Indian Ocean region that address climate change adaptation and mitigation, including the transition to a clean energy future.

We are already working across the Indian Ocean region to support transitions to clean energy. For instance, our U.S. Development Finance Corporation invested $500 million in First Solar to boost solar power production in India. This effort supports Prime Minister Modi’s goal to install 500GW of renewable power generation in India, which will help save lives by reducing pollution in major cities.

Through our Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact, we are providing a $500 million grant to build hydropower lines and roads in Nepal.

Here in Bangladesh the United States is implementing a $17 million, program over five years that will expand Bangladesh’s access to affordable clean energy and support innovation in the clean energy economy.

In addition, the United States is working with the Maldives, Sri Lanka and partners across the Indian Ocean region to stop the flow of plastic pollution, develop climate smart agriculture and adapt to the effects of climate change.

The United States is also supporting resilience and prosperity in the Indian Ocean Region by responding to crises and making long-term investments.

A key component of resilience is, of course, helping the region respond to and recover from the COVID pandemic. Of the nearly 700 million safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine doses the United States donated bilaterally and in partnership with COVAX, over 265 million were to countries across the Indo-Pacific region – 161 million alone right here in Bangladesh.

We also supported the production of additional vaccine doses in the region through the Quad Vaccine Partnership with Australia, India, and Japan. We will continue to be a steadfast partner to this region, as we strengthen our health systems to bolster resilience in the face of future global health emergencies.

In addition – the United States is responding nimbly to economic crises in the region, supporting economic development, and catalyzing private investment in the region.

For instance, in response to the economic crisis in Sri Lanka, the United States provided over a quarter billion in assistance and financing. This included $46 million in fertilizer to help Sri Lankan farmers to help local farmers boost their production.

Over the last two years, the United States Development Finance Corporation has invested $400 million in funding to grow Sri Lanka’s micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises, especially those owned by women. Of this, a $15 million DFC loan to a Sri Lankan polyester yarn manufacturing company, BPPL Holdings PLC, is supporting both increased production – and, of course, livelihoods – while reducing plastic waste.

These are just a few examples of the many ways in which the United States is supporting resilience and prosperity in this vital region.

As everyone here knows, collective action is vital in this region – be it responding the climate crisis or building back economies following COVID-19.

Catalyzing collective action is one of the aims of this conference. As I’m sharing this panel with representatives from SAARC and BIMSTEC, I want to end with an observation and an appeal.

South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world, especially when it comes to trade and people-to-people contact. This comes at a huge cost to the region.

Intraregional trade is at one-fifth of its potential with an estimated annual gap of $44 billion. The World Bank estimates that an electricity market of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal would save an estimated $17 billion in capital costs. And improvements in transport and logistics can reduce the 50 percent higher cost for container shipments in South Asia compared to OECD nations. These changes would have a transformative impact on the economies of this region.

Our Indo-Pacific Strategy makes clear our belief that our shared positive vision for the region cannot be achieved without working in partnership to build collective capacity. Building and leveraging regional architectures is critical to this effort.

Groupings like BIMSTEC and SAARC could play helpful roles in unlocking economic prosperity for South Asian Indian Ocean economies.

Next month, the United States will attend the Indian Ocean Rim Association’s (IORA) Strategic Dialogue—where IORA Member States and Dialogue Partners will gather to discuss collaboration in the Indian Ocean Region. Collectively addressing the climate crisis will be a key priority for us as an IORA Dialogue Partner.

The United States is committed to regional and multilateral efforts that help advance prosperity in the Indian Ocean Region. We want to see this regional architecture grow and solidify, because we believe it is absolutely necessary in realizing the potential of this region.

As I head back to Washington, I take your perspectives with me. Your voices will guide our efforts to help build a prosperous, peaceful, free and open Indian Ocean Region.

Thank you!