Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Dhaka, Bangladesh
October 13, 2010

QUESTION: Hello, this is Zahirul Alam. Welcome you all on Frankly Speaking. Our very special guest today is U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Mr. Robert Blake, who is responsible for South and Central Asia at the U.S. State Department. We welcome Mr. Robert Blake.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

QUESTION: It looks like U.S.-Bangladesh relations right now and in the aftermath of your visit in Dhaka last June are very strong and very solid. Would you please explain the U.S.-Bangladesh relations at this moment?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. I think relations between the United States and Bangladesh are excellent, but I wouldn’t attribute them to anything to do with me. It’s thanks to I think our common interests and to some of the very important steps that Bangladesh has taken not only to be a partner on some of the big global initiatives that the President is interested in, but also the steps that Sheikh Hasina and the government have taken to improve relations with India, and the steps that have been taken I think to improve the situation for the people of Bangladesh.

QUESTION: How will you define the global interest? I mean the U.S.-Bangladesh with a common global interest.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think one of the hallmarks now of relations between the United States and Bangladesh is that increasingly we’re cooperating on some of the big global issues of the day. We’ve always appreciated the very strong role that Bangladesh has played in international peacekeeping operations, but increasingly now Bangladesh is a partner in other areas like food security which is a very important priority for President Obama and his team, but also global health and issues like Muslim engagement. I think Sheikh Hasina has been a real leader in reaching out to all parts of the society of Bangladesh to promote new ideas like madrasa reform, curriculum reform, things like that, which can be quite a model for the rest of the world.

QUESTION: So you would describe Bangladesh as a moderate flourishing democracy right now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I would. I’d say they’ve made a great deal of progress on the democratic front. The elections in 2008 were really, again, quite a milestone in your history. But Bangladesh has also always been known for the thriving civil society that it has. And that civil society is beginning to play roles outside of Bangladesh as well. So I think, again, quite an important model.

QUESTION: There is a very strong Diaspora in the United States as well.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. I’ve had several meetings with the Diaspora. They’re very active. And we’d like to do more with the Diaspora. I have now on my staff a young Indian-American whose job it is to expand outreach with the Diaspora, not only with Bangladesh but with India, Sri Lanka, and figure out ways that we might be able to partner with the Diaspora communities in the United States to advance our objectives in these countries.

QUESTION: How do you see the overall development and the political situation in Bangladesh? Do you see Bangladesh again leaning towards a political problem with so much [mutual] hostility?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well as in all countries including my own, I think it’s very important for all of the parties to work together as much as possible, and not see that progress for one party comes at the expense of the other party. Progress for Sheikh Hasina and her party is going to be good for Bangladesh, and I think all the other parties should welcome that. And they should try to work together. That’s been a consistent message of the United States, is that all the parties of Bangladesh need to do more to cooperate with each other. I think the people of Bangladesh would be the beneficiary of that, and that’s really what this is all about, is how do you advance the welfare of the people of Bangladesh.

QUESTION: There have been huge, the chronic political problem. Under the present circumstances the opposition party is not attending parliament, thereby [inaudible] parliament for long.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I think it’s in the interests of both parties to work together to try to agree on forging a common agenda and see how they can cooperate to benefit the people of Bangladesh

QUESTION: Are you concerned the fundamentalists, the extremist elements inside the [inaudible] will take charge again?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Of course we are concerned about the rise of extremism around the world. But I would say that Bangladesh has made quite a lot of progress in this regard. I think it’s important for people in America to understand that Bangladesh has made a real priority of things like health and education of young people, and feeding its young people and providing economic opportunities. I think that’s had a great deal of influence on the fact that you don’t see as much extremism in Bangladesh as you might see in some other countries. And I think again, Sheikh Hasina’s efforts to reach out and try to work with the various madrasas inside Bangladesh, particularly the Quami madrasas, has really made a difference. She’s trying to bring them into the process of figuring out how to make their curriculum more relevant to the needs of modern Bangladesh. Because your country has experienced significant growth over the last 20 years and it’s important that the graduates of those madrasas be armed with the skills so they can help their country to compete in the world of the future.

QUESTION: U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, met recently with Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. Dipu Moni. We heard that there have been some discussions relating to the development, I mean contributing in the peace building process in Afghanistan. How Bangladesh can contribute and how you want Bangladesh to contribute in the peace building process in Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I was in that meeting. It was a very warm and friendly meeting. Ambassador Holbrooke primarily wanted to brief the Foreign Minister about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ambassador Holbrooke knows that Bangladesh already is doing quite a lot in Afghanistan, particularly with things like health and education efforts. You also had some of your NGOs who are working inside Bangladesh. So that’s something that we very much welcome, of course. So the two of them discussed in general terms how Bangladesh might do more. I think Bangladesh is taking a very hard look at what more it might be able to do, and we would welcome that. Again, Bangladesh is a leader in the OIC and in the Muslim world, and can send an important message of partnership at this very sensitive time in Afghanistan’s history.

QUESTION: But you know that Afghanistan is a member country, and Bangladesh as well. So do you want that Bangladesh will contribute with the combat troops in Afghanistan? Can contribute in that way?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t know. That’s something for Bangladesh to decide. We’re not making any requests like that. But again, I think we just would like to see Bangladesh contribute in whatever way it thinks it can be most beneficial. The question of things like troops is of course always very sensitive and that’s something that has to be decided by the government itself in consultation with the parties and all other relevant people.

QUESTION: The economic relations of Bangladesh with the United States is a matter of great importance and we want greater access in the market. And we know that we don’t have any formal bilateral forum with the United States. How the U.S. is interested in building trade and investment relations with Bangladesh? Are forming some kind of economic and trade cooperation forum? Or is it likely to have an agreement like TIFA, Trade and Investment Framework Agreement?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We are exploring what mechanisms we might be able to create to provide just such a forum. As you say, Bangladesh has experienced quite significant growth over the last 20 years, an average of about 6 percent a year, which has led to a quite significant reduction in the number of poor inside of Bangladesh, but also, frankly, market opportunities for American companies. Not just in the energy sector, but elsewhere as well.

So we are talking with our friends in the Bangladeshi government about new mechanisms that we can establish that would provide the framework in which we could discuss how to improve trade and investment. So we shared some ideas with Bangladesh and we’ll wait to hear back with them.

QUESTION: Will you share with me what kind of new ideas you --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, I don’t think I want to share with you at this stage. Let me hear back from our friends first, and then we can talk about it.

QUESTION: So it’s not related with TIFA?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t want to get out ahead of what they themselves are thinking about, because it’s up to them to communicate that to you.

QUESTION: You mentioned about the energy sector development in Bangladesh, how U.S. can offer more support and aid to Bangladesh in solving the energy problem and tackling environmental disasters.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think American companies are interested in doing more to help with offshore ore exploration and development. That’s a potentially very significant resource for your country. Not only to help the development and the energy needs of Bangladesh, but potentially even as an export to other countries. India, for example, has a very fast-growing energy demand because of its own rapidly rising population and its fast-growing economy. So that’s a potentially very good opportunity. That would, again, capitalize in the recent improvement in relations between the two countries.

QUESTION: Sir, you are a career diplomat, and you are now discharging bigger responsibility. You were in Sri Lanka, in India, in Maldives, and you have visited Bangladesh as well, and many countries in South Asia and Central Asia. How do you value the potential of Bangladesh? You mentioned that U.S.-Bangladesh relations has great potential. How do you evaluate Bangladesh’s potential? Is it moving up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Definitely Bangladesh is moving up. As I said earlier, we really see Bangladesh as an increasingly important partner on many of the big strategic initiatives that the President has undertaken around the world. On things like feeding the world’s hungry and global health and Muslim engagement and priorities like that. So we’d like to do much more with Bangladesh and we’re very pleased already with the progress. But we also want to help your country continue to grow and to help again lift even more people out of poverty. That not only can be such an important example for the rest of South Asia, but can also be an important contributor to stability in this really vitally important region for the United States.

QUESTION: How worried are you about the possibility of attaining nuclear power by Myanmar [Burma], a very close neighbor of Bangladesh?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s an issue that we have been following closely. The best of our knowledge, Myanmar [Burma] has not yet been in violation of any of its NPT or IAEA obligations but we think that it will be good for Burma to be more transparent in what it is doing with its nuclear program, and one way to do that would be to have an agreement with the IAEA that would allow, a safeguards agreement that would allow the IAEA greater access so that the world can understand better what the purposes of the program are, and to be sure that Burma is in fact in compliance with its international obligations.

QUESTION: Do you have any plan to help Bangladesh in delimiting its military boundary? We have a problem with India and Myanmar [Burma]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think that’s really for your country to work out with your neighbors, but we do do quite a lot in terms of maritime cooperation. As with any government, your government has an obligation to protect your citizens. There are potential threats from the south, from the sea. So we have some quite good cooperation underway between various elements of the United States and your own forces. I think we’re very satisfied with that and would like to build on that.

QUESTION: The very last question, sir. Do you see any possibility of a visit to Bangladesh by the United States President Mr. Obama and the Secretary of State Mrs. Hillary Clinton?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well I know that the President had a short meeting with Sheikh Hasina at the UN General Assembly, and I know that Secretary Clinton very much would like to come to Bangladesh. She’s been there before. She often tells me that she’d like to find time sometime in the next year to come out to Bangladesh and see your country and see the progress that has been made. But also to try to understand better all the wonderful things that we’re doing now in our bilateral relations.

So I’m confident that we will see a visit by Hillary Clinton in the near future. Within the next year, let’s say.

QUESTION: But no development about the President?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I can’t say about the President. I know the President is very aware of the progress that your country has made, but his schedule is a lot more crowded and he has many more domestic obligations, of course, as President. Particularly now the United States has some very significant challenges, very high unemployment rate, and things like that. So quite naturally he is focused on those as his first priority, which is important.

QUESTION: Any plan from your part?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t have any immediate plans, but I’m sure I’ll be out there in the next several months. Because again, I’m very happy with the progress that we’re making and I’d like to do whatever I can to support that.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Robert Blake, for joining us on this show.


# # # #

[This is a mobile copy of Interview With Bangladesh's NTV]