Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
April 23, 2010


Question: Firstly, two short questions on the subject of economics and trade, which is not entirely your area, but this has to do with India, so good questions.

Firstly, some of the ministers including Sachin Pilot and more recently the Labor Minister have made references to the fact that Indians and Indian companies pay a lot of money toward social security here in the U.S. and yet are not seeing too many benefits coming out of that because they don’t remain in the country long enough. There is a sense this is becoming a growing concern because two ministers have voiced these remarks. What do you think the U.S. is going to do to address that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: This has been a longstanding issue on our agenda. It is called totalization. The problem is that our social security systems are not synchronized. So we certainly have heard the Indian concerns about this and I think have sought to be responsive, but I think our Social Security Administration has really grappled with this and thus far has not found a way to be that responsive. But we’ll continue to look at this and see what we can do.

Question: Secondly, again, on the question of trade. Entities like the Indian Space Research Organization are still on the entities list.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.

Question: I know that you have addressed this before, and I guess everyone is wondering when this review is going to happen to the entities list and other similar policy areas which will affect high tech trade. And also I guess the worry has been heightened by the fact that there has been at least talk of and possibly changes in the offing in terms of tax laws which would affect off-shore businesses versus businesses located within the U.S. There is a question if the U.S. is moving towards more protectionism or protectionist position vis-à-vis India.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, I can tell you we are not moving towards a more protectionist position vis-à-vis India or any other country. The President has repeatedly stated his commitment to free trade and has stated his commitment to the existing trade agreements that we have with some of the countries that are pending like Colombia, but more broadly, to the Doha Round. But obviously the role and the cooperation of important countries like India is going to be critical in achieving a successful outcome. I think you’ve seen our U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk make statements with Minister Sharma about this.

On the question of export controls, there’s a broader, administration wide export control review that is taking place. I think you saw very recently statements by Secretary Gates that refer to the fact that the laws that are now on the books are quite dated and don’t reflect the tremendous advances that have taken place in technology and the fact that many of the technologies that are now controlled are available in Radio Shack and there’s really not any need for controls on many of these things. So there’s a need to rationalize that list, and there’s also a need to make one agency responsible and not the whole bunch of different agencies right now that have responsibilities for export control.

So I think the administration really is committed to trying to look at this in a positive way. And one of the most important benefits for the United States will be that it will enable us to export more to countries like India.

So I think as part of that export control review we will then be able to look at what we might be able to do on the entities list, for example, with respect to India. And there are several others.

We’ve already been looking at ways that the United States and India can take reciprocal measures that would allow us to continue to enhance trade in high technology goods of all kinds. As you know, we’ve already had this High Technology Cooperation Group that’s been in existence for many years and has made really very significant progress in reducing the number of goods that require a license for export to India. Now it’s well over 96 percent, 97 percent of the things that we trade are not subject to any kind of license at all. So it’s really a very small proportion of the overall goods.

But again, I think we feel there’s very significant opportunities to work in space. We were already part of the Chandrayaan launch and we’re already doing a lot of cooperation through, for example, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, on things like meteorological forecasting and things like that. So very much we would like to do this and I think space will be an important area of cooperation going forward.

Question: A question on one of our favorite subjects, David Coleman Headley. Basically when you spoke to us at the FPC the other day you said that no decision had been made on giving India direct access to Mr. Headley.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Correct.

Question: Two sets of questions. One, could you explain why the Indian authorities should not feel frustrated that the process is taking so long? And how much longer do you think they’ll have to wait? And secondly, what is the nature of the processes that are stalling this from going forward? Is it a question of formal filings required by the site or something more fundamental like Mr. Headley reconsidering his offer to cooperate, or the U.S. trying to get in place modalities to manage that interaction more tightly?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s not so much the U.S., it’s just a question of getting agreement from Mr. Headley and his lawyers about this and what are going to be the parameters of that access, should it occur. So I don’t think that anybody should read too much into this. People at a very high level with very good intentions are working on this and we’re in very close touch with Indian authorities on this. And I think it’s just important to be patient. But I can tell you that we are well aware of India’s interests, but also India’s equities as well. Obviously Mr. Headley was involved in reconnoitering sites for not only the Mumbai bombings but perhaps other ones, so they have a very clear interest in knowing what further information he may have, and we understand that.

Question: So what is it that is the specific problem? Because the plea agreement clearly says that the death penalty was waived based on --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to say anything more than what I’ve already said. It’s really not our department that’s working on this. It’s the Department of Justice.

Question: That’s fine.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: They’re the lead on this.

Question: Something that you just alluded to now, the broader question of LET -- again, after your trip to the region you mentioned that you had said to authorities in Pakistan that you had urged them to take more action against Punjab based groups.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.

Question: Apart from the earlier action in Swat and South Waziristan, in what ways do you really think they are at all following your advice? For example, in terms of more immediate goals like banning them and their associates from public meetings, or from actually concretely pushing forward the case against those who have been charged with the Mumbai attacks who are under trial?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all with respect to the case of those under trial. My impression is that that is moving forward and there is not any effort on the part of the Pakistani government to slow that down in any way. It’s just the judicial process is moving ahead.

On the question of LET, I’ll just say what I’ve said before which is that we really see that LET is an organization of growing scope and ambition as the Headley case itself illustrates, and a threat to the United States, but also a threat to India and other countries, and potentially a threat to Pakistan too. So it’s important for all countries to do what they can to circumscribe and control the activities of LET. And we will be continuing to urge our friends in Pakistan to deal with this. As I said earlier, they have made a lot of progress in Swat and then in South Waziristan and in arresting senior members of the Taliban, so I think there’s good momentum that has been taking place. At the same time it is important for all of us that these other groups, many of which have attacked Pakistan itself -- Jaish-al-Mohammed and groups like that, that they also be a target of Pakistani actions.

So we’ll continue to urge progress on that. I think it has wider benefit not only for the counterterrorism priority but also for Indian and Pakistani relations. Because one of the things that I said to our friends in Pakistan while I was there, particularly to the business community, is that there are tremendous under-exploited opportunities for trade between the two countries, and that if progress can continue to be made on terrorism and on the judicial actions that we talked about earlier, that will really open up the way I think for the business communities of both sides to expand trade relations and business investment relations. From my conversations both in India and in Pakistan, I think they’re ready to do that but they’re both waiting for political signals from their governments before they take action.

Again, these small but important steps on things like LET may have a very important wider and positive effect on bilateral relations.

Question: Yes, exactly. But in that same tenor, don’t you think that the fact that some of these related organizations could have public meetings, and also a slightly unrelated point of the attacks in Afghanistan and Indian personnel. Don’t these things dissuade exactly this type of process from kicking off?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: They do, yes. Again, it just underlines the importance of Pakistan fulfilling what it has always said it would do which is to not allow its territory to be used as a platform for terrorism against other countries.

So we’ll just leave it at that.

Question: I guess what many Indians would wonder is, what role could the U.S. play in kind of pushing that forward on the ground? Certainly they’ve made the right statements, but there is a sense that action isn’t following.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Pakistan is a sovereign government and they’re a friend of the United States so we’ll continue to work with them on this. All I can say is we have identified this as a priority.

Question: On the Nuclear Security Summit again that recently held here, President Obama made a lot of his views very clear and that was great. I guess one question I had was does the U.S. see Chinese nuclear weapons and the Chinese proliferation link in Pakistan as factors that had actually contributed to tensions historically and at present?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think we all know the historical ties between Pakistan and China, but I don’t think I’d want to make any statements about the current -- I don’t think there are significant proliferation issues right now with regard to China and Pakistan.

Question: There aren’t any? Any concerns here about it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t think that’s at the forefront of the things we’re working on. China, our dialogue with China now is mostly on the subject of -- First of all, urging them to work with the international community, to help stabilize Pakistan and to help provide the assistance that it needs, but then also on the counterterrorism front. There are groups operating in parts of Pakistan that are antithetical to Chinese interests. East Turkestan, I forget their name. Movement [East Turkestan Islamic Movement]. And then groups like that. So it’s certainly in their interest and in our interest to see that action is taken against those groups to prevent the destablilization of China. And then of course we’re working very closely with the Chinese in Afghanistan as well, and appreciate the role they’re playing there in terms of the new investments and a lot of the projects that they’ve undertaken there.

Question: Again, going back to Sri Lanka where you were ambassador, after the elections what would you say is your one biggest worry or concern in terms of continuing the process of A, rehabilitation of the IDPs, and B, finding a longer term political solution? And in particular, what is the President’s appointment of his brothers to various powerful portfolios and his attitude towards Mr. Fonseka tell you? Does that worry you at all as a sign of things to come?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’d rather not talk about worries. I’d rather talk about opportunities. I think again, the President has scored a very significant victory in both the presidential elections and in the parliamentary elections. And it shows that the President has a great deal of personal support around the country, particularly in the south where he won a quite overwhelming victory. So he has a really historic opportunity to unify the country, to bring the country together as one country as never before, or at least not in the last 30 years. And so we look very much forward to working with the new government to help that process of unifying the country. I hope to have the opportunity to meet with President Rajapaksa during the SAARC Summit that’s going to be taking place in Bhutan next week to hear more about his plans in that regard.

Question: So what about the question of Mr. Fonseka. Isn’t that something --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: That’s in the Sri Lankan judicial system now. And I don’t have any independent information about the charges that are against him, so we’ll have to just wait and see on that. Our interests I think, like the interests of the Sri Lanken people, is to make sure that he is tried in accordance with Sri Lanken law.

Question: Do you see any obstacles at all in terms of this president really reaching out to the Tamil groups and the IDPs and fostering a long term solution? Because that is the heart of it. That is something that this country wrestled with for decades. And that’s what people are going to be watching now.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The elections, the results were only announced yesterday, so I think we have to give the President a chance to articulate his plans, and I don’t want to try to make statements that are going to in any way circumscribe what he might say. So I’d rather give the President a chance to make his comments and then we can comment after that.

Question: Fair enough. And this is the optional question that you can opt out of if you want because it wasn’t in the topics.

As Assistant Secretary, what is your view on India, Pakistan and Iran joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which is expected to announce its membership criteria at Tashkent next month? All three countries are known to be interested, and I guess I’m wondering how the U.S. sees the SCO in general, and specifically with regard to the U.S.’ role in Afghanistan, do you think the SCO could play a role as well? Or what role could it play?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think we see that the SCO can play a very important role in bringing the countries of Central Asia and the wider region together. And it could be a very important vehicle for dialogue and also for economic development and economic integration. And as long as the SCO sees those things as its goal, we certainly welcome that. I think the expansion to other countries, including India and Pakistan, would certainly be welcome. I know India particularly has a great deal of interest in trying to expand relations into Central Asia, and many Central Asians tell me that they have an interest in doing more business with India. I think also Pakistan eventually. But the security situation of Pakistan sometimes constrains them right now.

But many Central Asian business people that I have spoken to see that quite significant trade and investment opportunities, both from South Asian countries coming up to invest in Central Asia, but also in terms of, again, export opportunities into South Asia for Central Asian companies.

So I think the SCO can play quite an important role in that respect and it’s good for friends like Pakistan and India to be involved in that.

Question: Again, at the FPC discussion you mentioned that you were a bit concerned about things like both India and Pakistan tying up with Iran in the context of pipeline, talking about business in that region. What’s your thinking on that in the context of SCO or even otherwise about such projects going forward?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry, I don’t understand the question.

Question: I guess I’m understanding, do you think at forums both like the SCO or even on independent commercial projects, the coming together of countries like India and Iran is a cause for concern for the U.S. vis-à-vis stability in the region or what you’re trying to achieve with Iran in the global context?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think you’re well aware of what we’re trying to accomplish with Iran right now. We’re at a very sensitive stage in our diplomacy with them. And as you note, the President has pursued this well known dual track policy of holding out a hand of friendship, but also if the Iranians are not willing to accept that, to build international consensus to again, bring the Iranians to the table and stop their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. At the moment we’re trying to discourage all countries from pursuing projects that would put significant resources into the hands of particularly groups like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that have pursued terrorist actions and have given money and weapons to terrorist groups in the Middle East and have sought actively to destabilize and attack Israel, and again, pursue terrorist policies in the wider part of the world. So we have a very strong interest in stopping that, and I think that all the countries in the world have a very clear interest in stopping that kind of thing. So it’s in that context that we discourage friends like India and Pakistan from pursuing for example energy projects and so forth.

Question: But the coming together of these countries on the platform of the SCO, per se, doesn’t worry you?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t know. I can’t really comment on the Iranian part of the -- I haven’t followed it that closely, what Iran’s intentions are with respect to SCO. So I can’t really comment on that.

Question: Okay. Those were my questions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thanks.

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