Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
The New York Foreign Press Center
New York, NY, United States
September 26, 2012

Q: Hello, this is Zahir Alam and this is Frankly Speaking. Our guest today is Mr. Robert O. Blake. He is Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs. We welcome Mr. Robert O. Blake on our show today.

A: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be with you and your viewers.

Q: Mr. Blake, let’s begin with the Partnership Dialogue. Both the countries, Bangladesh and the U.S. have just concluded the Partnership Dialogue on the 19th and 20th of September in Washington DC. So what were the issues you discussed and what are the objectives you are trying to achieve through the dialogue?

A: It was a very productive discussion. As you will recall, the Secretary of State announced the initiation of this dialogue because we felt that we are cooperating now in so many different areas; for example, to promote regional integration in your part of the world, to work together on our very important security and counterterrorism cooperation, to work to expand trade between our two countries, and of course to continue work on democracy and governance. So we felt this was a really important opportunity to begin to talk more systematically and strategically about how we might take this cooperation forward and I think Under Secretary Sherman and the Foreign Secretary had a very good discussion that lasted several hours and could easily have gone much longer. And so we think this is a very good step forward and we intend to continue it.

Q: You talked about governance and development. And of course the Secretary of State visited Bangladesh, Wendy Sherman visited Bangladesh, you also visited this year. So now that the governance issue and the political process is very important at this moment, how do you view the state of the governance and political process?

A: First of all let me say that we value very much Bangladesh’s status as a Muslim democracy. I think Bangladesh has made a great deal of progress, and I think it is important to state that at the outset. That said, I think the Secretary, during her most recent visit, and also us during the Partnership Dialogue, talked about some of the challenges that still remain in Bangladesh. Of course the United States stands ready to work very closely with our friends in Bangladesh to help them address those kinds of challenges. And those challenges run the spectrum, from things like labor rights – which the Secretary talked a lot about during her visit – making sure that Bangladesh has world-class labor standards so they can continue to export to the United States, so that buyers will be able to have comfort that Bangladesh is committed to world-class labor standards. It includes efforts on some of these very sensitive issues like disappearances, freedom of the media, and it includes efforts on continuing to combat corruption.

Q: Don’t you think that Bangladesh has got a very good degree of compliance on labor standards? Because they signed most of the articles initiated by the international labor organizations.

A: Again, I think there is still room for improvement there. We had a long discussion about that during the Secretary’s visit but also during the Partnership Dialogue. The Secretary, you will recall, talked about many of the activists who feel somewhat under threat at times. She talked about the death of Mr. Aminul Islam for example. But she also made a very important point in trying to stress how vital it is for Bangladesh to develop world-class labor standards. So we’re very pleased that Bangladesh has now started a Better Work Program in cooperation with the International Labor Organization. They are working now not only to bring Bangladesh’s labor laws up to international standards, but also very importantly to ensure freedom of association, which is absolutely vital.

The point we always make to our friends in Bangladesh is that this is going to help a lot. Your country is now the second-largest exporter, after China, of garments to the United States. The buyers, in the United States are very influenced by public opinion, and public opinion is very sensitive to labor standards now in the United States. So again, it is very much in Bangladesh’s own interests to take the initiative to do this, and we hope the government will continue.

Q: Bangladesh has been trying to get duty free access for its ready-made garments to the United States but this is receiving no significant attention from the U.S. government.

A: I come back to what I said earlier, which is that Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter into the United States of ready-made garments. You have a very privileged position already in our market. But it is important to make progress on labor issues, and I think that will go a long towards helping to achieve some of the goals you have laid out. Another very important thing would be to sign the Trade and Investment Cooperation Framework Agreement, the so-called TICFA.

Q: Yes, any progress in signing TICFA?

A: I’d say we’re at the last mile. Maybe not even the last mile; the last centimeter. We are down to the last few words. And so we hope that Bangladesh is going to step forward and do this. We have these with approximately 80 other countries now, and now Bangladesh has become quite an important trading partner for us. Our exports just last year doubled to more than a billion dollars, to complement the very substantial exports that you have to the United States. So it is important to us to have a systematic dialogue on these issues, so we can figure out what the obstacles are to continued growth in trade and investment, and also how we can continue to capitalize on opportunities.

Q: You expressed optimism back in 2010 in signing soon. So what issues still remain?

A: You will have to ask your own government for that. We have given them model texts and have made quite a lot of concessions, and so we hope they will sign those. And again, these are not binding texts in any way. This is something that sets out a framework and allows us to begin important work.

Q: I found that your media note after the Partnership Dialogue was over says that you want a respectable leader to take over as responsible for Grameen Bank in the coming days. What did you mean by that? Do you want to again see Professor Yunus in the seat?

A: No, we are not seeking Professor Yunus reinstated, although certainly we would not object to that. But I think that the most important thing is to see a respected leader who is going to safeguard the rights of the Grameen shareholders, who are mostly women. I think that is our key objective. We have been a bit concerned that the government has arrogated for itself this choice and sometimes ignored the rights of the nine other board members who are all women shareholders. So we underlined the importance of achieving a good outcome and finding a well-respected leader who is going to safeguard those rights.

Q: Let’s turn to political difference and how they view Bangladesh. At the Partnership Dialogue you mentioned, and Secretary Clinton also mentioned that dialogue is the way to resolve differences, and talks among parties to find a way for conducting a free, fair and critical election. So what is your view with regards to the confrontational situation in connection with the upcoming elections?

A: We think it is important and incumbent upon both parties to work together, the BNP and the Awami League, to find a solution for this. I don’t think it is productive for the United States or any country to try to suggest alternatives. It’s much better for the two parties to work this out between them, and we hope very much they will do so. I know some ideas have already been put on the table, but time is getting short so it is important that they come together.

Q: Dear viewers, we need to take a short break. Our guest is Robert O. Blake, please stay with us.

[Commercial break]

Q: Welcome back. You are watching Frankly Speaking. My guest today is Robert O. Blake. Mr. Blake, to promote economic opportunities for our countries, what is the United States planning to take first? We have heard a U.S. delegation on trade and energy will visit Bangladesh next year. What will be the purpose of that visit?

A: First of all let me say what I said earlier, which is that we are very encouraged by the progress in trade and investment. Both of our exports are rapidly rising and our own exports to Bangladesh have doubled in the last year. It’s very important that companies like GE and other premier companies are taking an interest in the Bangladesh market. So we want to do everything we can to encourage that. One of President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s highest priorities is to create trade and help American exports to create jobs, and so that remains one of the most important efforts that we have underway. As you said, we have a delegation coming this year in fact, not next year, who will be working on energy. I think the recent decision that resolved some of the boundary claims between Myanmar and Bangladesh opens up some significant new opportunities in the maritime area for oil exploration and development. So I think our companies are very interested in that. But there is also a wide range of other opportunities both in the energy field but also in other parts of the Bangladeshi economy. So this is an exciting opportunity, and something that is very much a priority and on our minds.

One thing we talked about in the Partnership Dialogue was how we should try to add a private sector component to that, as we do with many other countries, so that we can have trade and investment missions that accompany these missions both in the United States but also in Bangladesh. And I think there was an agreement to do that. Again, I think both countries are very interested in this.

Q: In terms of regional integration, what role do you expect from Bangladesh and how can they meet this vision of regional integration?

A: We have been encouraged by the progress India and Bangladesh have made in their bilateral relations, not only in the counterterrorism side, but also on the trade side. Bangladeshi exports in particular have increased quite rapidly to India. Now with the opening that is taking place in Myanmar, there is a substantial opportunity for the first time to begin to link the growing markets of South Asia, particularly India and Bangladesh, with the markets of Southeast Asia and the Mekong Delta. So we really do see a terrific opportunity to work on this, and we have been very gratified to see that Prime Minister Singh has very much embraced this opportunity in his recent visit, and Sheikh Hasina as well is very interested in trying to capitalize on this. So we are doing everything we can to try to encourage that, and see what institutional and other ways can be developed to help this trade further.

Q: Secretary Clinton said the U.S. wants a strong partnership with Bangladesh, but still there is a great frustration that Bangladesh still is not receiving any status from the Millennium Challenge fund. So what are the standing blocks to qualifying for Millennium Challenge funds for Bangladesh?

A: Your viewers may recall that the Millennium Challenge Corporation was originally set up to reward countries that had good governance, and that remains its main purpose: to provide an incentive for countries to raise their governance standards so they could qualify for this. I think the MCC has a series of criteria that all countries must meet. The areas where Bangladesh still needs to do some work are in the political and governance sides, so some of the things that I talked about earlier: progress on Grameen Bank, progress on corruption, progress on the new NGO law that is now circulating. Good outcomes on those kinds of things would mean a great deal to helping Bangladesh’s candidacy for MCC threshold status.

Q: You have been observing some cases in Bangladesh of disappearances, some extrajudicial killings. How do you view the situation?

A: Again, I think there is still work to be done in those areas. I mentioned earlier our concern about the death of Aminul Islam. Secretary Clinton also referred to the disappearance of Ilyas Ali, the regional BNP leader. We also have longstanding concerns about some of the extrajudicial killings by the Rapid Action Battalion. And we have worked very closely with the RAB to develop an internal affairs unit there to help them to investigate this and bring an end to that. I think the numbers of extrajudicial killings have actually come down, which we welcome, but there is still work to be done. There are still extrajudicial killings taking place. These are the kinds of things that we talk about and think there has been some progress, but again, it’s still important to try to work on those and make those a priority.

Q: There were some meetings on security cooperation in April in Dhaka, and another is going to be held in Hawaii; a military-to-military cooperation dialogue. What are the objectives you are going to realize? And recently the 7th Fleet commander visited Bangladesh. Do you see any room for a permanent presence?

A: No, we are not seeking a permanent presence in the Bay of Bengal. But we are seeking to engage our friends in the military and security services, to work on our very important counterterrorism cooperation. I must say we are very pleased with our level of cooperation, and want to continue to build on that. We feel like there is an enormous shared interest in this area, but also an important opportunity to work together on things like piracy, security of the trade routes, particularly as we think about this regional integration idea more closely.

Q: Last question, on civil society. The United States has partnered with Bangladesh in many areas, including vibrant, free media and civil society, and there have been many cases of the masking of the media. Are you concerned about that?

A: We are concerned about freedom of media all over the world. President Obama spoke very eloquently about this in his statement to the UN General Assembly yesterday. In Bangladesh we meet regularly with editors and other journalists. And there have been cases of concern where journalists have been killed, people have disappeared, people have received threats of one sort or another. So I think this is an area where the government must do everything it can to ensure that there continues to be a very welcoming environment for the press and that the always-vibrant Bangladeshi press can continue to provide its very valuable role in Bangladeshi society.

Q: Do you see any high level visit after the election?

A: Now that we have so many common interests with Bangladesh there is a continuing series of these things. We were very pleased to just welcome the Foreign Secretary to Washington. As you know, we have our own elections coming up in about six weeks now, so probably nothing between now and the end of those elections, but after that we will look for the opportunity.

Q: Do you have any scheduled?

A: I am going to be coming to Bangladesh in December. We have a very important women’s conference that we are helping to organize, so I look forward to visiting in that regard.

Q: Thank you very much.

A: Thank you, my pleasure.