Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC, United States
May 24, 2011


MODERATOR: Our guest this morning is the Honorable Robert O. Blake, Jr. He is the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs, India and many of its surrounding nations, but not specifically Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Sir, welcome, we appreciate you coming in this morning.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: I understand you wanted to begin with a brief comment.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’ll make a few opening comments and get the conversation going.

First of all it’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve spoken to many of you in the past, but never to all of you as a group. As Adam said, I’m in charge of South and Central Asia. I’ve been in my job for about two years now. I started in May of 2009. I thought maybe I’d just open with some very brief remarks about Central Asia and about India.

First of all with respect to Central Asia. Obviously we have a lot of very important interests there in promoting a stable and secure and democratic Central Asia. We’ve really sought to try to expand our engagement with Central Asia since the Obama administration came into office. Not only because of the region’s growing strategic importance, but because we think that all of these countries can really play quite an important role in helping to promote regional stability and regional integration.

We have a very broad agenda with each of these countries, covering everything from counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, of course democracy promotion, economic prosperity. I chair with each of these countries annual bilateral consultations, typically with the Foreign Minister of that country, that are typically two days of quite intensive talks on the full range of issues on our agenda, joined frequently by colleagues from various parts of the administration.

We have sought particularly to expand a lot of our work on Afghanistan with Central Asia. As you know, the Northern Distribution Network is a very important route for getting a lot of the non-lethal supplies for our troops into Afghanistan. In addition, the great majority of the troops that are flying into Afghanistan come through the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan. Again, this year we’ve focused on trying to expand the number of routes going through Central Asia, again just to offer alternatives to the important routes that are going through Pakistan.

Several of the Central Asia countries are also doing a lot on their own in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, for example, are providing a lot of electricity. Uzbekistan has helped to build a rail link into Afghanistan which is quite important. Kazakhstan just announced that it’s sending some liaison officers to ISAF there. So quite a lot of things going on.

The other big country in my portfolio is India, of course. You all know about President Obama’s very important visit there last November to further expand our strategic partnership with India. The President himself has said that India will be one of our defining partnerships in the 21st century. His visit really marked a milestone in the sense that we’re beginning to really expand our global cooperation with the Indians. First he announced some trilateral projects in Africa, primarily in agriculture; also some trilateral projects that we’re doing in Afghanistan on women’s empowerment and agriculture. And India for the first time is working with us on things like open government which is quite an important departure for them. Traditionally they’ve been a little bit cautious about engaging in democracy promotion and those kinds of things. I think it shows that they really do want to be a responsible member now of the international community and want to work with the United States. Of course that’s very very welcome.

All of you of course know about the recent decision on the multi-role combat aircraft where there was a down-select by the Indians. The two American companies that were competing for that were not selected, which is of course a great disappointment to us, but I think we feel that there are a lot of other opportunities out there. The Indians have about $35 billion in acquisitions that they’ll be making over the next several years. So American companies are of course well positioned to compete for those.

We’ve already had quite a lot of successes over the last several years. We’ve sold C-130Js, C-17s, and a variety of other platforms. Again, we’re very much looking forward to competing for a lot of these future things.

We’re also of course working on the strategic side, to work together more in terms of things like counter-piracy, protecting the sea lanes, disaster management and so forth. A lot of these will be discussed at the next round of our Strategic Dialogue which is chaired by Secretary Clinton, and that will take place in the third week in July in Delhi, so she’ll be leading an interagency delegation for that.

I think that’s about all I need to say for now, so I’d just open it up to questions. Again, thanks for the opportunity.

MODERATOR: We’re glad to have you.

A few weeks back the United States finds Usama bin Ladin living in relative comfort in Pakistan. Pulls off an audacious raid, deep into Pakistani territory. Kills him, removes the body. Pretty much unhindered by Pakistan’s military forces. Given India and Pakistan’s long history, how is India reacting to all of this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: India of course welcomed the killing of Usama bin Ladin. They, like we, have a common cause in the fight against al-Qaida and its allies. I don’t think they really reacted so much to the how that was accomplished or anything like that, and I don’t think they have any plans of their own to try to do these kinds of things. On the contrary I think right now the Indians and the Pakistanis have been engaged in a quite important effort at rapprochement that began with, first in a meeting in Thimpu in Bhutan, in February; that then led to the famous cricket diplomacy between the two Prime Ministers in Mohali, in northern India; and since then the Home Secretaries, and more importantly the Commerce Secretaries have met.

I say the Commerce Secretaries because we feel that if there’s any area where India can really help Pakistan a lot in helping to stabilize that country it’s by expanding trade which is relatively under-developed so there’s quite a lot of head room to greatly expand trade. The fact is that they’ve set some ambitious targets to reduce the so-called negative list so they can trade more goods. If they actually achieve what the two Commerce Secretaries have set out, some people have said that they could double trade in the next year. So again, some quite important markers have been laid down and we certainly welcome the progress that’s been made.

MODERATOR: In the short term, though, has Pakistan reacted to this in any sort of military sense? Has the tension along the border with India been increased?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. Not that we’ve seen. Again, I think Pakistan also has been quite forthcoming in these talks and really sees an opportunity here to expand relations with India. They are not just talking about things like counter-terrorism and economic things, they’re going to begin to look at some of these very sensitive territorial issues starting with some of the less controversial things like Sir Creek and how that’s going to be demarcated. Then perhaps leading as confidence and trust builds up to some of the more sensitive territorial issues.

MODERATOR: We’ll start with Otto and then come down to Jonathan.

QUESTION: You talked a little bit about the northern supply route, but on India, part of the problem we have in Pakistan is that instead of focusing on the terrorists within their own country, they’re still focused on India. Does India have that same ingrained fear of a war with Pakistan, that that’s where their primary focus is militarily? How much does that interfere with the progress on [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I would say that India, if you were to ask let’s say the Home Minister of Defense Minister what are some of the greatest threats, they of course still worry a lot about Pakistan-based groups more than about Pakistan itself. So particularly about the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba which was responsible for the November 2008 attacks against Mumbai, but many other attacks in addition to that. So that of course remains a very important focus of theirs and a very important focus of ours, too, to try to prevent another attack like that.

But of course they’re also watching very closely the Chinese military buildup. I think a lot of the military acquisitions that they’ve been making can be viewed through that lens.

QUESTION: We have problems with the supply routes through Pakistan into Afghanistan, some of it is just the distance. It’s a very difficult road from Karachi up over the mountains. It goes through the territories [inaudible] and every now and then Pakistan gets mad and shuts them down. How much of the supplies are coming through the northern route? You talked about ways of expanding it, what are some of the projects? What are the goals for expanding the northern route?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all, I’d say roughly about half of the supplies now go through Central Asia. The Pakistani route remains the route of choice because it’s just more convenient and it’s cheaper to bring in things by sea, and then up to Karachi and up into Afghanistan. It’s just a shorter route. Most of the routes through Central Asia of course have to start in the Baltics by rail, and then come down through Russia and Kazakhstan and then through Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan.

The main route is through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan because that’s the rail route, and obviously you can carry a lot more in terms of supplies. But we’re also looking at routes through other countries and of course various kinds of air routes as well.

QUESTION: Has the situation in Manas settled down, it’s been up and down over the last ten years.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The situation in Manas has stabilized, yeah. For two reasons. First, we’ve made quite a significant effort to be very transparent with the Russians about our intentions, and specifically to reassure them that we are not seeking long-term basing arrangements either in Kyrgyzstan or anywhere else in Central Asia. And that our use of the transit center in Kyrgyzstan is really for as long as we have our troops in Afghanistan.

Secondly, we’ve had good relations with the Kyrgyz government itself, particularly since the recent elections and they themselves are reassured by our intentions, but also welcome not only our presence but welcome what we’re trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz are very worried about the possible transit of militants that are based in Afghanistan through Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan. So they have a very strong incentive to try to support what we and the rest of the ISAF coalition are trying to accomplish there. Again, I think in that light they’ve been very welcoming of hosting the Manas Transit Center.

MODERATOR: Around to the right here.

QUESTION: A couple of questions, just going back quickly to follow up on the aftermath of the UBL raid. The Indians submitted a list of 50 suspects that they want extradited from Pakistan, contending that Usama was hiding out in Pakistan, we know these guys are hiding out in Pakistan, and I believe they include some Pakistani military officers.

To what extent is that going to interfere with this rapprochement effort? And along the same lines, the Pakistani charges that India is supporting the Balouch rebels. I’d like you to, if you can on that subject, talk about whether the United States believes that that’s true or not. Then I have a follow-up on the transit route.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all with respect to the list. I think one of the important decisions that the Indians made earlier this year was to reengage on this full comprehensive dialogue that they’re now engaged on. Even though the Pakistanis had not fully resolved many of the Indians’ concerns. Their two conditions that they had established previously were that those who had been responsible for the Mumbai bombings had to be brought to justice and the trials had to be completed; and then that there had to be visible progress by the Pakistanis to stop cross-border infiltration. I think the Pakistanis have made some efforts in that regard, but the Indians would be the first to tell you that they haven’t fulfilled all of what the Indians were hoping for. But nonetheless, the Indians understood that they have, like the United States, a strategic interest in helping to stabilize Pakistan. It’s not in their interest to see Pakistan, its economic situation and security situation and its political situation deteriorate. That would obviously be not in India’s interest. That’s why I think they took this very important decision to try to reengage.

I think submitting this list is part of this dialogue that they have ongoing between their Home Secretaries about steps that Pakistan can take to again reduce the threat from Pakistan based terrorists against India. Obviously we support that. We haven’t really coordinated on that list itself, though.

QUESTION: And the extent to which India is supporting Balouch protests in Pakistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’ve taken a look at that. Obviously we can’t get into too much in the way of intelligence information on that. But let me put it this way. I don’t think that the existence of a terrorist or a separatist movement in Balouchistan is fueled by Indian financing or anything like that. I think it’s fueled by domestic issues that are internal to Pakistan.

QUESTION: To follow up on the supply routes, those supply routes and the increasing reliance on the northern route appears to have forced the United States to compromise when it comes to relations with authoritarian regimes, one of which has gone as far as boiling several of its prisoners alive. There is a major repression that has been going on for decades in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan against even moderate Muslims and Tajikistan is seeing a return of a new Islamic insurgency in southern Tajikistan. Can you talk about that and the degree to which you’re concerned about destabilization in Tajikistan and how that could affect the northern supply route?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think we are concerned about that, particularly in Tajikistan where Tajikistan is a very poor country with a lot of different challenges before it, not the least of which is a 1400 kilometer border with Afghanistan that they don’t have very good control over. Again, they would be the first to admit that.

We focused our dialogue first on trying to help them with some of the legitimate security challenges that they have, working with them on things like border security, counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism efforts, particularly building up their capacity in those areas. But we’ve also had a very frank and open dialogue about the steps that they need to take to address some of these internal issues. And particularly the need for them to open up their system more, to for example allow greater religious freedom. Tajikistan actually has the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, the IRPT. But nonetheless, freedom of worship is sharply constrained there and the point that we’ve made to our friends in the government is if you don’t allow peaceful forms of worship you risk driving those people underground and giving further perhaps succor to militant groups that are trying to organize inside Tajikistan.

So I think we deal with these issues in a very open, respectful way, and again try to persuade them that it’s in their own interest to do these things. I think it is important that they, for example, have allowed the IRPT to remain a legal party. That I think remains an important step, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done in Tajikistan.

In Uzbekistan, again, we have a very frank and candid dialogue with the Uzbeks about human rights. The Secretary was there in December after the OSCE Summit [in Kazakhstan] and of course met with President Karimov, but then also had a meeting with civil society and made the public point that we attach a lot of importance to progress on democracy.

I think there are some efforts being made, and all of these countries are watching very closely the Arab Spring and trying to figure out what are the implications for them. If you want I’d be glad to talk about that later. But even in Uzbekistan there’s been some progress. Just over the weekend, on Friday, a quite well known dissident by the name of Yusuf Juma, was released and has now come to the United States. So of course we welcome that. And we’ll continue to talk about these important issues with Uzbekistan and with all of these countries.

Again, the point we make is that it’s in their own interest to do these things. They shouldn’t do this to please the United States or other Western countries, but because it will help to stabilize their own countries.

MODERATOR: Elaine, Andrea you’re up.

QUESTION: I wonder if you might lay out for us what the Pakistani concerns are as they’ve blocked consensus in the Conference on Disarmament. And how close you believe its partners are to resolving those issues?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As I said earlier, I don’t really work on Pakistan and Afghanistan day to day, so I’m not really the expert to talk about that stuff. I’ll be glad to get you somebody who works on these things full time on Pakistan disarmament issues. I’m not really involved in it that much to give you a good enough answer.

QUESTION: I apologize, I missed your opening --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, no, that’s fine.

QUESTION: Can you go back to the northern route. Are you trying to beef up the bases, the transit areas because of concern that the southern routes might be closed after Usama bin Ladin and the tensions there? And can you give us an idea in terms of the size of that and --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: To be clear, we only have one base. It’s not really a base, it’s a Transit Center through which our troops transit before going into --

QUESTION: Right, but in terms of how much, whether you can beef it up, it’s at 50 percent right now.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right. So most of that’s coming through Uzbekistan.

QUESTION: So are you thinking about making that a bigger percentage? Is that --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yeah and then looking at other routes that could come through from different rail routes, different road routes. I don’t want to go into too much detail for obvious security reasons.

QUESTION: Is that a new development in terms of looking for alternatives?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. I think the Pentagon has always been interested in finding alternatives. And again, it’s not just through Central Asia. Of course they have their routes in others, through the Caucuses and so forth. They want to be prepared should there be some sort of crisis in Pakistan. And as you know, from time to time the tankers that are going through Pakistan come under attack. There have been periodic closures of Torkham and others. But as I said earlier in my opening remarks, I think the Pakistan route remains the route of choice because it’s by far the most inexpensive and the shortest route to get our supplies in.

MODERATOR: Are you able to quantify that at all? How much of a cost difference is it to send something through Pakistan as opposed to the Baltics, Russia, et cetera, et cetera?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: You’re going to have to ask the experts here at the Pentagon about that. I do not know the exact -- I’ve just heard conversations that it is cheaper, but I can’t tell you the exact, how much cheaper it is.

MODERATOR: We’ll come down to the far left, then Elizabeth will be on deck.

QUESTION: Michael Bruno with Aviation Week. I’d like to bring you back to the MMRCA competition.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure.

QUESTION: First of all is there any more information or knowledge that Washington has received as to why Boeing and Lockheed were kicked out so early? Then also is there any move to change some of the export licensing, especially around technology transfer issues?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all, to my knowledge we haven’t yet gotten a full debriefing of the technical reasons behind the decision.

On the question of licensing, from our perspective licensing was not an issue. We were prepared to license some of our most advanced technology, things like the AESA Radar. So I don’t think, and certainly the Indians knew that. So that really wasn’t part of the problem.

QUESTION: Has there been any more word about changing the U.S. export licensing reforms effort to try to meet the concerns that have come up through the MMRCA?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As you know, with respect to India, there’s been kind of a broad effort over the last eight years or so to liberalize our own export control systems as India itself has strengthened its export control regime. The most recent example of that was the removal in February of ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organization and DRDO, the Defense Research and Development Organization from the so-called entities list of the Commerce Department so that American companies can now do business with both of those companies. Our companies do want to do more, particularly in the space area, but potentially in the defense area as well. That’s why we felt that this MMRCA contract offered quite an important opportunity to start looking at things like co-production and co-development. That’s why I think there was such a disappointment in the decision that was made.

MODERATOR: Elizabeth, and then Anne.

QUESTION: I know you don’t do Afghanistan day to day, but you mentioned something about a project in Afghanistan in your opening remarks, didn’t you? Womens projects?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.

QUESTION: I thought I’d just try this out on you. To what extent is the U.S. involved with talks or talks to have talks about reconciliation involved with assuring that the Afghan women have some rights under whatever government emerges in Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, probably Marc Grossman will have to give you the real detailed answer to that, but Secretary Clinton and Melanne Verveer and others have spent a lot of time working on promoting the rights of women inside Afghanistan, and they would tell you that quite a lot of progress has been made. They also have said that women should have a role in this. But exactly what role that will be, obviously the whole reconciliation process is just sort of getting off the ground now. So that will be one of many issues to be considered.

Let me just say, one of the important parameters that they have laid out for participation in this whole process has been the three redlines that you’re familiar with -- renouncing violence, renouncing ties with al-Qaida, and also respecting the Afghan constitution. Importantly including respecting the rights of women. I think the Secretary several times has made that explicit point.

QUESTION: Is this one of Melanne Verveer’s number one topics?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The reconciliation process, not so much. The broader -- Right.

QUESTION: The second thing, about the Chinese military buildup. I don’t know the details on this. To what extent, what is India most concerned about in that buildup? I know what the U.S. is concerned about. What is India focused on?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think there’s any, when we’ve had conversations with them I don’t think there’s any particular weapon system or anything like that that they’ve been --

QUESTION: Anti --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right. It’s just more what is the purpose of the buildup and what does that mean for perhaps future intentions in the region and beyond? I think that remains a question mark for them and they don’t really know that, nor do we for that matter. As you know, we’ve made quite a significant effort to try to engage the Chinese military without much success so far. The Indians themselves have had similar problems where they’ve had sort of an off and on relations with the Chinese military and they have recently lifted the suspension of contacts and they hope to try to expand those. But so far they’ve been relatively limited.

MODERATOR: Anne?

QUESTION: I wonder if you could give us a quick update on the situation in Kashmir which sort of waxes and wanes with the terrorist, depending how the nations are doing. The same for Nepal. Then I have a follow-up.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The Indian government itself has made quite an important effort to try to look at some of the underlying issues inside Kashmir and to try to again, talk to some of the young people and kind of implicitly acknowledge that problems in Kashmir are not necessarily only caused by militants crossing over the border from Pakistan, but that in fact there are quite a number of economic and other issues, human rights issues, that they themselves need to do more to address. I think they’ve tried to do that.

They’ve also redeployed some of their troops, particularly their paramilitary forces out of Kashmir to try to lower tensions. So this is part of a wider effort to again reach out to the people of Kashmir and to try to better understand and hopefully address a lot of their grievances. That’s a good thing. I think that will help a lot to reduce tensions.

QUESTION: Is Nepal part of [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It is. Nepal, as you know, just for those of you who may not follow Nepal that closely, they had this civil war between the Maoists [and the government] from 1996 to 2006 that ended with the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in 2006. Ever since then the government and the Maoists have been engaged in talks about implementing that. The deadline for that in fact is May 28th, five days from now, to complete that process.

I don’t think anybody believes they’re going to meet that deadline, but they have made some important progress. One of the key issues right now is how to integrate the former Maoist combatants into the Nepalese Army. So there has been some recent progress in that regard where the Nepalese Army has floated some ideas for including between 6,000 and 10,000 of the former Maoist combatants into various units of the armed forces and into the Forestry Service and things like that. The Maoists have in principle accepted those offers. That is only about, depending on whose numbers you count, about half of the Maoists so that begs the question what will happen to the others. So obviously there’s going to have to be a reintegration program of some sort with them as well.

The other big issue on the agenda is the constitution and the rewriting of the constitution. On that there hasn’t really been very much or sufficient progress yet. Almost everybody expects that the parties will extend, give themselves more time, between six and twelve months most likely, so we expect that decision in the next several days.

QUESTION: Does the United States take an active role in some of these activities? Or do you offer advice or specific --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We do. We’ve had some technical assistance on the drafting of the constitution, for example, and of course our Ambassador and I to a certain extent play some role in encouraging the parties to work together and help to bridge some of the differences, particularly our Ambassador more than me. I think that I’ve been of some help. Of course the Indians also have a very important role to play.

QUESTION: And could I just have one follow-up? With the United States putting more of an emphasis on their Special Operations Forces around the world, and the ambassador is usually the in-country leader. In your role, and the sort of change in increased use of, are you putting out new or different guidance to ambassadors, or when you talk to people about what might be helpful in dealing with the Department of Defense in this area? Training assistance kind of activities that you might want to offer them to push forward in their nations?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I wouldn’t say there have been any major new directives, certainly not from me. Obviously we coordinate very closely with the Pentagon on all these issues. We put a great emphasis on chief of mission authority so that the ambassador in the field always has full knowledge of all the different elements, military and otherwise, that are under his or her command. And again, I would say at least in my part of the world that that relationship has been very good and very solid. We work very closely with the Pentagon and there haven’t been any, really no tensions or disagreements at all.

MODERATOR: Before I go to Mark Shanns, I would like to follow up on Nepal’s constitution.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Please.

QUESTION: What’s wrong with the constitution that they have? And what are you trying to change or improve?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think most of the parties feel there has to be a sort of greater decentralization that takes place, particularly one of the issues is how to better integrate the south into sort of the rhythm of the country and to give them more rights. So there’s a whole separate movement called the Madhesi movement, about how to, again, give them greater rights. It’s one of the poorest parts of the country. It’s also an area where there’s a lot of banditry and potentially an area where terrorists could organize. It’s on the Indian border too, so that’s of additional concern.

That’s one of the main issues to be dealt with. So far they haven’t yet, as I say, come to agreement on that. But mostly it’s for the parties themselves to try to work through these issues. There are other mechanisms now to do that. I hope they do make some progress.

QUESTION: Can I ask a question about Nepal?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure.

QUESTION: I haven’t paid attention to Nepal in a long time. Has it kept up with the economic boom for example in India? Has it moved along with the other parts of Asia? Or is it still kind of stuck in the --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s still a very very poor country. They don’t have too much in the way of resources. They haven’t been able to attract too much in terms of foreign investment. They have significant power problems. So it’s difficult for people to invest there because of uncertain electricity availability, infrastructure, and all the other familiar issues --

QUESTION: [Inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right. But we’re doing our best to try to help them because they are an important country.

MODERATOR: Rock Shans, then Emily.

QUESTION: Sir, I want to come back to what you mentioned at the beginning about India’s modernization efforts over the next couple of years. I believe there are 38 billion --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thirty-five now.

QUESTION: You specifically mentioned China when you brought that up. I’m wondering what are the security concerns that would cause you to mention China in that conversation.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The Chinese are --

QUESTION: Is it more than just border disputes? What are the actual concerns that they feel they need to make this investment for?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I think they see, like we do, they see a very large Chinese military buildup and as I said earlier to Elizabeth, they’re wondering what the purpose of that will be. I don’t think they really know. They haven’t had really transparent discussions with the Chinese about that. But the Chinese clearly are building up their own navy. I think the Chinese have ambitious to have a blue water capability in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese, as I say, have military forces on the Indian border. So of course all of those are something that they watch very closely.

But overall I’d say that there has been some progress in reducing tensions between India and China, and a lot of that is because they both have a powerful economic incentive to do that. Trade between India and China has really rapidly developed over the last several years to the benefit of both countries. I think that has again given them a very powerful incentive to, when they have differences, to try to resolve them.

QUESTION: Have they made progress on their border dispute issues?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: They have. They would both probably say it’s been relatively halting progress. That’s the one border of China that is really not yet fully settled. Most of the others in Central Asia and elsewhere have been resolved now. But again, there is a process to deal with that, and to my knowledge I haven’t seen any recent evidence of problems.

MODERATOR: Emily?

QUESTION: You talked about Usama bin Ladin a lot, the impact of Pakistan and India’s relations. I was curious if there’s been any impact in the broader deterioration between U.S. and Pakistan with the U.S. and India? How concerned is India about [inaudible]? [Inaudible]? What sort of feedback have you gotten about the way the U.S. is interacting with Pakistan from India? I’m sure they watch that relationship as well.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yeah. I think the Indians, first of all, are concerned sometimes about some of the kinds of equipment that we sell Pakistan, to help Pakistan meet its legitimate defense needs. They worry that some of that equipment could be used against India. We reassure them that we have quite strict end use requirements on these various platforms and equipment. So that’s something that again we have a regular and continuing conversation about.

But broadly speaking, as I said earlier, they like we understand that it’s in our interest to try to help Pakistan right now, and help Pakistan to confront the huge range of challenges that it faces. And it does them and it does us no good to sort of stand back and disengage. It’s very very important to try to help.

In the Indian’s case, of course they still have some quite important concerns about groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and others. But they’ve made the judgment it’s best to try to do that by talking to them rather than by lecturing them using megaphone diplomacy.

QUESTION: Do they see it as a conflict if the U.S. is still engaged with Pakistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: They do. Very much so. If there’s been any positive side to WikiLeaks it’s been that they’ve seen from all the cables that have been released that we actually do have quite a strong and sincere dialogue with the Pakistanis on a lot of these issues that are of concern to India.

QUESTION: The Indian attitude towards the U.S. disengagement in Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: They hope we don’t disengage.

QUESTION: Well, the July 2014, the troop drawdown.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think they have expressed support for the transition process and support for the idea that we all need to help Afghanistan to build up not only its security capabilities but also its economic capabilities so that it can take on all of these responsibilities for itself. That’s certainly some of the driving force behind India’s own aid program. As you know, Prime Minister Singh was just there and announced an additional $500 million in economic assistance which will bring their total about $2 billion which is quite a significant amount and something that we very much welcome.

So they would like to see the United States continue our presence. We haven’t had a conversation about what happens after 2014. That’s a long way down the line still to start making too many detailed plans about that. So we want to first see how the transition goes, see how the reconciliation process goes. And I might add that one of the most important things that came out of Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Afghanistan was that he did welcome the reconciliation process, which is important. As you know, in the past there has been some concern that the Indians perhaps had ambivalent views about that. A good strong endorsement was very welcome.

MODERATOR: Melinda?

QUESTION: I wanted to talk about the President’s call to [inaudible] $400 billion in security spending through FY13, how you think those cuts might impact your area in South and Central Asia. And then if you have any input into how we can manage the rest as we make those cuts.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: To be honest, our security assistance is really very limited in South and Central Asia. I mean obviously Pakistan and Afghanistan are different. But in my own direct area of responsibility we have very small amounts of FMF and IMET. So those will not be affected by that call. All of these countries are really on the front lines of, in Central Asia, for example, of helping in Afghanistan, things like that. So if anything we’re going to be seeking to kind of try to modestly increase some of the support that we’re providing. These countries do face very real threats of retribution as a result of the support that they’re providing us and providing the ISAF coalition.

QUESTION: And the non-security assistance, and how that might be affected by the cuts in foreign aid that are being talked about right now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, we’re going through a process right now of looking at that. Both on particularly the FY13 request, and I think there will be some quite substantial cuts. I don’t want to say what those are yet because decisions haven’t been made. But that’s something that we and every other bureau in the building are going to have to absorb and everybody understands that. It’s such an important priority to help the President and help Congress to reduce the deficit.

QUESTION: Do you find, especially on the House side, is there a -- there is a foreign aid committee. Is there a bipartisan agreement in terms of your part of the world or are there divisions there that you see?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I spend quite a lot of time on the Hill and there is broad bipartisan agreement. There’s certainly very strong support on the Hill for what we’re trying to accomplish in India, a very strong understanding of what an important friend and partner India is going to be for us over the next century. Likewise in Central Asia. everybody understands very well some of the challenges we face. On the one hand the need to really expand our engagement, but also to help these countries even though there are some human rights problems. We cannot afford to cut off assistance now to these countries at a time when they’re doing a lot to help us.

QUESTION: Do you have any input as to how the national security spending cuts might impact Pakistan and Afghanistan? I know that’s not your --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I prefer to have, we can arrange for you to talk to Marc [Grossman] or one of his team about that. I’m not directly involved in that.

MODERATOR: On the far left.

QUESTION: Two different questions, if I may.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure.

QUESTION: First of all, the civil nuclear deal. I’m interested in [inaudible] portray the nuclear deal and the liability law as a big commercial setback to [inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right.

QUESTION: Is there any progress at all? Is there any indication at all there’s progress on the liability law issues? Or does it look like [inaudible] diplomatic efforts? [Inaudible] a benefit [inaudible]? That’s one question.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me do that first so I don’t forget it.

I would say just the opposite. I think as far as we’re concerned, that appears to be on track. The Indians during the November visit of the President committed to ratifying the Convention on Supplementary Compensation within a year, so by next November. As far as we know, that remains on track. Again, we see and our companies see quite significant commercial opportunities. You know, two reactor parks have been set aside for American companies, one in Andhra Pradesh and one in Gujurat. So American companies are still actively pursuing that because if you look at the nuclear industry around the world, perhaps even more so after Fukushima and what’s happened in Japan, there’s not that much new investment taking place in, for example, the United States. So India is really one of the few countries in the world where there’s an expanding market. That’s why it is so important for our companies and why we have expended so much effort. It does not only help our companies but it helps India to meet its rapidly growing energy needs which of course is important for us.

QUESTION: And [inaudible] legislation [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: They’re going to have to bring their own domestic legislation and the implementing legislation into compliance with these international obligations. I think that’s a process that’s underway.

QUESTION: And a second question, nothing to do with it, I don’t want to draw you into a [inaudible], but I am interested in knowing what you said and what the State Department has said about any, to date, about any [inaudible], just a refresher in terms of does this go any further [inaudible], has the State Department ever said that they [inaudible] ISI [inaudible] of Mumbai? What is it that you and State have said about this [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Most of our public statements have just focused on the need for Pakistan to take the LET threat seriously, and for Pakistan to make this a priority because it is a very important priority for us and it’s an important priority for India.

LET is a group whose ambitions are expanding. It is increasingly targeting the United States and particularly our troops in Afghanistan. And it’s a group that we remain very focused on.

I think it’s no secret that were there to be another LET attack on India with large numbers of civilian casualties such as what happened in Mumbai, there would be strong pressure on the Indian government to respond perhaps militarily. Of course that would be a very significant problem for us. Not only in terms of the possibility of some sort of escalation but also because it would probably induce Pakistan to redeploy many of the troops that have been deployed from the Indian border to the Afghan border, to redeploy them back to the Indian border which would be a further setback to our priorities on that very important AfPak border.

QUESTION: Just one follow up on that. You said most [inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think we’ve addressed that directly.

QUESTION: You’ve never made any comments about --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Not to my knowledge. I’ll have to look at the, I haven’t had a chance to be honest, you guys got me up too early. I didn’t have a chance to look yet at the Rana transcripts from yesterday, so I’ll read those with interest.

MODERATOR: Before I go to Round 2, Elaine, did you want to jump in?

QUESTION: Sure, thank you. Is Mongolia one of your countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. My empire stretches far and wide, but not that far. [Laughter]. I go to Kazakhstan and down to Sri Lanka.

QUESTION: Maybe next time --

MODERATOR: Otto, then Mark Shanns.

QUESTION: A different angle on the northern route. Have we put money into improving that rail line that brings things up? My understanding is the rail doesn’t go into Afghanistan itself. Afghanistan supposedly has riches with no way to get them out, so there’s a possibility if that rail line was extended, that could be --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The Uzbeks, with the Asia Development Bank, have extended the rail line from the Uzbek border to Mazar. So that’s I think been quite important and helpful. But eventually of course I think they hope to expand it further.

QUESTION: Has any U.S. money been put into --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Not to my knowledege. Not on that particular part of it. Obviously we’ve had extensive investments in other infrastructure in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Speaking of railroads, the Chinese supposedly have some ambitious plans to have contracts in hand to reestablish old railroads, building new ones. Will that be going, would they be linking up with that rail there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t know. I’m not sure. Are you referring to the rail link that would go through Tajikistan and then -- Yeah. That’s possible. I think if you talk to the Central Asians, what they’re most interested in is links south. So for example the Tajiks would love to try to expand and have a rail network that would eventually link up through Pakistan and give them access to Karachi and be able to export their goods out. I’ve had many conversations with Tajik exporters who export for example dried fruit to the United States. It takes them the better part of six weeks to get stuff from Tajikistan through the Baltics and so forth and then to market in the United States. Whereas if they were able to open up routes to the south, it would be much quicker, much cheaper for them to do that. They’re thinking hard about a lot of that and you’ve seen a lot of recent high-level visits between the Tajiks and the Pakistanis and others. And we certainly want to encourage that in every way we can.

Our piece of this has been to sort of quietly encourage the Afghanistan and Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, to get that implemented, and then also hopefully to extend that to include some of the Central Asian countries and of course to include India because if you could actually open up trade routes there it would make quite a significant difference.

I must say one of the things I’ve been struck by in my last two years talking to a lot of these Central Asian leaders is that they do remain quite focused on the commercial opportunities and the strategic opportunities in South Asia. When you talk to many of them and you say here you are, you’ve got China, you’ve got Russia, you’ve got Western Europe and you’ve got South Asia, where do you see the sort of, where do you see your future? More often than not they’ll say South Asia. And that’s not surprising. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, [offer] really huge markets that will be growing over time.

MODERATOR: Mark?

QUESTION: Sir, there’s been a bunch of noise in Congress ever since the Usama fallout about people taking a close look at FMS and military assistance to Pakistan. Obviously you don’t deal with that portfolio, but you have to have some sort of communication about it.

From the other side how much are the Indians concerned about Pakistani military sales? And how much dialogue is there between --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry, American military sales to Pakistan?

QUESTION: Yes. American military sales to Pakistan and how much are the Indians concerned about that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As I said earlier, some portions of that, for example F-16s, they worry about. They worry that those can be used against India. Again, we reassure them about the end use requirements and so forth.

But the point we’ve made to the Indians is that the majority of our military assistance to Pakistan is now focused on developing their counter-insurgency capabilities, both the training and the equipping side of that. That’s something that should be very much in India’s interest to try to at least support and not criticize. The Pakistanis will be going after many of the militants that target India in addition to the United States and Pakistan.

I don’t want to exaggerate this and we talk about this but I wouldn’t say it’s a major irritant in our relations or anything like that. It’s something that from time to time they raise.

QUESTION: I’d like to revisit the question of India’s attitude towards American policy in Afghanistan. You talked about Prime Minister Sing’s recent visit and what you called his endorsement of the transition reconciliation reintegration process.

But I’m wondering, it wasn’t really that ringing an endorsement. He said we wish you well, which is about the equivalent of the Chinese curse, you know, may you live an interesting loaf?

Surely you’ve heard in your conversations with the Indians about their nervousness about any kind of deal, political power sharing deal that the United States and its partners might be trying to arrange or broker between the Afghan government and the Taliban. There’s been talk and rumors for years in Kabul and Afghanistan about the consequences of this. Where you should have the resumption of a civil war with the Indians, the Russians, the Iranians, other actors backing the non-Pashtuns Pakistan backing the Pashtuns. Is that not still a serious concern of the Indians? And how really enthusiastic are they about a power-sharing deal that would bring the Taliban and hence Pakistani influence, back to Kabul?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I would say the Indians, like us, recognize there has to be a negotiated solution to this. They recognize that there’s still an important role on the military side to continue to put pressure on the Taliban. They welcome the fact that this is going to be an Afghan-led process. And they particularly welcome the three redlines that I described earlier.

So I think all of those are reassuring to them but they do worry about what role Pakistan is going to have in this, and to what extent Pakistan is going to try to manipulate the process in some way. And again, I’d just say what I’ve said earlier, that this is going to be an Afghan-led process and of course Pakistan has to be brought into this. Pakistan has very important equities in this. But so do the Indians, so do the Central Asians. Let’s not forget just Tajiks Uzbeks and others who were an important part of this equation. So there will have to be sort of concentric rings as the regional allies are brought in over time to this process. But it’s got to start in Afghanistan. I think there has been some progress with the High Peace Council and so forth where contacts are already underway.

We’re at the beginning of this process.

MODERATOR: We are at two minutes till and out of questions. So I’ll either give you an opportunity to take a sip of your coffee before it’s really cold -- or we’ll open it up to the field as well.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’m great. One more question is great.

MODERATOR: Anne, go ahead.

QUESTION: This is a light softball to leave you with. Are you expecting to be invited to the Royal Wedding in [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Geez, I actually know the King well because I --

QUESTION: [Inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, I didn’t say that, but I know him because when I was in Delhi he was there. He was going to India’s National Defense College there. So I got to know him. He’s a really wonderful guy. He’s very soft spoken, very modest in his way, and he used to come up to me and say, “Hello, Mr. Ambassador Blake, it’s such an honor to see you.”

I’d say, Your majesty, it’s an honor for me to see you, not vice versa. So he’s great. I haven’t received my invitation. I’m not expecting one. [Laughter].

QUESTION: This one isn’t getting married with four sisters.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, the last one. There’s a picture on the web site of the quite lovely bride-to-be. [Laughter].

MODERATOR: Thank you very much for coming in.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you all. It was a pleasure.

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[This is a mobile copy of Interview With the Defense Writers Group]