Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
June 3, 2010


QUESTION: I wanted to start by asking you this. This administration’s been holding several strategic dialogues with countries like India, Pakistan, China. What is the purpose of these dialogues?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all let me just say as a backdrop for your viewers, President Obama wanted to elevate our relations with India because he feels that India is going to be one of our most important and indispensable partners in the 21st Century. And that we all feel that India’s rise is very much in our strategic national interest. So he decided to establish a strategic dialogue led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and External Affairs Minister Krishna. So the first of those dialogues occurred today and it went very well.

The purpose of it really was to look ahead and think strategically. For the first time we have a whole of government approach where we have multiple Ministers on each of our sides talking together about how we can advance our bilateral partnership but also our work on all of the very important global issues. We feel there is no global issue today in the world that would not benefit from greater common engagement by the U.S. and India.

QUESTION: Before I continue, if I may just ask you not to use the word “today” because this is airing tomorrow.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry.

QUESTION: No worry. We can cut it out for this one, but just to avoid further edits.

But doubts remain on both sides of this relationship. India is weary of the close ties that this administration is pursuing with countries like China and Pakistan, for example. How do you reassure India?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, we reassure them by talking to them. Yesterday we had a very full and lengthy foreign policy dialogue where we talked at great length about China and about Afghanistan and I think we were able to relieve many of India’s concerns about U.S. policy. For example in Afghanistan, I think India like several countries has had some concerns about whether the United States will stay in Afghanistan. I think we were able to reassure them that after President Karzai’s very important visit here that the United States will remain engaged well after our troops have departed, and that we indeed do have a long term partnership with Afghanistan and that on the very important question of reconciliation that this will be a process that will be led by the Afghans themselves, and that the criteria that we ourselves have established and that President Karzai has agreed with, namely that all participants must be willing to renounce violence, must be willing to renounce ties with al-Qaida, and must be willing to abide by the terms of the new Afghan Constitution, all of those were very reassuring to the Indians I think. So I think we’ve been able to dispel many of the doubts that you mentioned.

QUESTION: But the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself has said that the United States relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st Century. So where does that leave India then?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, all I can say is go back to what the President said which is that India is going to be one of our most indispensable partners. He said that because we have a bedrock of common values and common interests and just in the last ten years our relations have been completely transformed and we think that there is really tremendous potential to continue to expand that. Not only at the bilateral level, but again on these very important global issues.

QUESTION: But isn’t India right to worry that the U.S. might sacrifice India’s interests while it seeks Pakistan’s help in the region, particularly when it comes to Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think India really is worried about that. We’ve had extensive talks with our Indian friends, not only during the course of this strategic dialogue but previously. So I think they understand very well what we’re trying to accomplish in both Afghanistan, and in Pakistan. I think certainly there are occasionally concerns about some of the U.S. arms that we are exporting to Pakistan, and we have reassured them that those of course are for the purposes of helping Pakistan to pursue its counterinsurgency efforts in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, certainly not directed against India, and that we have end use monitoring provisions to assure ourselves of that.

So again, I think there is quite a broad understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish, and the Indians certainly support our invigorated economic assistance for Pakistan to help stabilize that important country.

QUESTION: How much do India/Pakistan relations and the tensions that persist between those two countries, how much does that feature in the dialogue that you have with India today?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well I’d say it’s a part of the dialogue in the sense that we’re always interested in seeing if peace can be enhanced between these two very important partners of the United States. But we have always said that it is really up to India and Pakistan themselves to resolve this and that the pace, scope and character of their dialogue is really completely up to them.

So we are more in the mode of just encouraging peace on both sides and encouraging both sides to address each other’s concerns as much as possible.

QUESTION: We’re talking about Kashmir. I know that Washington said it will not mediate, but what can you actually do to help the two sides try to resolve the issue of Kashmir?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think Kashmir is really the question that’s on the table now. The real question right now is to first, I think, get some progress on the trial of the Mumbai suspects, those who are already in custody in Pakistan; and also from the Indian perspective to see progress by Pakistan on stopping actions by Lashkar-e-Taiba and other Punjab-based terrorist groups against India. I think those are really the redlines that they’ve established for really establishing or reestablishing their composite dialogue. And so those are areas where I think we can help and encourage our Pakistani friends to move forward, and indeed we have.

QUESTION: Going back to the doubts that are there on both sides of the relationship, there’s a sense here in Washington that India has not yet embraced its role as a global, regional player, as a rising power. Do you see signs of that changing?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I do see signs of that changing. We see India playing a much more important role in East Asia through its Look East policy. We see greater Indian engagement in Africa. It has a great many development projects there. Of course India’s role in Afghanistan where they have given $1.3 billion in various kinds of reconstruction and development assistance.

So I think that India’s economic rise after 2003 and the fact that it now has GDP growth rates in the seven, eight, nine percent range have given it the wherewithal to really begin to project its influence overseas, and this is a positive thing. This is something that we’d like to try to work to have as much common engagement as possible in things like agriculture and the future initiatives that Secretary Clinton has announced.

QUESTION: Staying with Afghanistan, India does play a role in Afghanistan. A lot of people say it’s a very positive role. But it worries Pakistan. So how do you reassure Pakistan that India’s role in Afghanistan isn’t meant to edge out Pakistan’s influence there.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, it’s mostly a question of having dialogue between the two of them to reassure each other on many of these tensions that do exist. But from our perspective we think that India’s role has been very very positive and that this reconstruction program that I referred to earlier has made a great deal of interest in helping the common effort to develop the Afghan economy, to provide alternatives in terms of job opportunities and so forth for Taliban to be able to reintegrate into society, and the infrastructure programs that they are pursuing have been I think extremely helpful.

QUESTION: One of the main issues on the agenda of talks in this U.S.-India dialogue is progress towards implementing the 2008 Nuclear Accord. How confident are you that India will finally pass the Nuclear Liability Bill which would then encourage reluctant U.S. firms to actually do business with India on the nuclear issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, this was a subject of discussion today in our strategic dialogue and our Indian friends reassured us that they remained committed to passing this liability legislation that has been introduced in the Lok Sabha, in the Indian parliament. We were of course pleased to hear that. But the timing and the management of that in the Lok Sabha is completely up to the Indians to manage.

Our main interest is in making sure that it is consistent with the international standard in this area which is the Convention on Supplementary Compensation. So we and many of the American firms that are interested in pursuing export contracts in the civil nuclear area have made those concerns known to our Indian friends.

QUESTION: Is there a timeframe for when you think it might go through?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think they’d like to try to do it this year. Again, that’s up to them, but we very much hope that can be accomplished because we feel there are tremendous opportunities that would benefit both of our countries in terms of job and investment opportunities for the United States, but also in terms of helping India to meet its very fast-growing energy needs.

QUESTION: A final question on the overall relationship between the two countries, there is somehow a sense that despite the common interests, the ties are not that close somehow. Even Larry Summer said this was an anomaly. Why is that? Why aren’t ties between the U.S. and India closer? And what can be done to make that happen?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all, I wouldn’t want to exaggerate that they’re not that close. I think it’s true there are 800 million Indians who live in rural areas predominantly, for whom relations with the United States are somewhat of an abstraction because it just doesn’t affect their daily lives.

But I think the other 300 million Indians care a great deal about the United States. I think what is perhaps most unique about our relations is the people to people ties that exist. The three million Indian-Americans who are here, the 100,000 Indian students who are the largest single group of foreign students here in the United States, and those really do provide a great deal of ballast in our relations. And polls consistently show that Indians have among the highest favorable opinions of the United States of any country in the world. So I’m always a little bit skeptical when I hear that somehow there’s not strong feelings. I think they are very strong feelings, but again as I said earlier, many many Indians really aren’t really affected by a lot of this cooperation that we’ve been talking about.

But I think one of our goals over the course of the strategic dialogue is to try to undertake programs and initiatives that will really touch the lives of the vast majority of our people. And let me just single out two very important examples of that.

One is in education where the Indians now are looking to great expand access to education, not only at the primary and secondary levels, but at the university level. They are pursuing this policy to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India and offer degrees. I think the United States is going to be one of the countries that will be the best positioned to do that, because that really is one of our competitive advantages, is our higher education system.

The other area I would say is in agriculture where we’ve established a very comprehensive agricultural dialogue to not only work on helping to develop the Indian agricultural sector, which is still very very under-developed and is responsible for most of the poor people that still live in India, but also increasingly to work with the Indians in this future initiative to help to develop the new seeds, to develop the new technology, to develop the new irrigation systems that will help in other countries like Africa, and where we feel like we have a great potential to work together So that also is going to be a focus.

So we think there are a number of programs that really will benefit all of our people and also the people of the world. That’s what we’re really excited about.

QUESTION: Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, thank you very much for your time.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you.

[This is a mobile copy of Interview With BBC]