Interview with India Abroad

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
July 15, 2011

QUESTION: Ambassador, both the President and the Secretary almost immediately on the news of the Mumbai attack strongly issued statements condemning it. And Secretary Clinton, even though she is not visiting Mumbai this time around, made it very clear that she would go ahead with her visit to India. Was this a very deliberate show of support? And that this kind of terrorism would not deter her from going to India to continue propelling the relationship?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Absolutely, Aziz. We wanted very quickly to condemn the despicable acts of violence that took place in Mumbai on July 13th, and to make it crystal clear that we stand resolutely with the people of India against such acts of terrorism, and to also be clear that we intend to proceed with the very ambitious agenda that we have for the Strategic Dialogue that the Secretary will chair with External Affairs Minister Krishna.

QUESTION: And Ambassador, will this latest act of terrorism in India redouble the U.S.-India counter-terrorism effort? I guess it’s sort of a no-brainer that terrorism would be a major priority during the second Strategic Dialogue and become virtually like the number one priority issue.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I would say that counter-terrorism cooperation already has been the number one priority issue between the United States. As you know cooperation in this particular area has expanded dramatically since the 26.11 attacks in Mumbai, and the most recent milestone in that was the visit by our Secretary of Homeland Security to Delhi for the inauguration of our Homeland Security Dialogue with Minister Chidambaram and his colleagues.

We are very pleased that the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, Ms. Lute, will be on the trip with Secretary Clinton. So indeed, we expect counter-terrorism to be a very important focus of our talks on Tuesday.

QUESTION: Ambassador, could it also lead to sort of joint operations with India against these terrorist havens if they are found to be in Pakistan? After all, the U.S. continues to launch drone attacks in Pakistan.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to speculate about joint operations. I don’t think that’s on the agenda. We think it’s most important for Pakistan itself to fulfill the undertakings that it has already made that it will not allow its territory to be used as a platform from which terrorists can operate to attack the United States, India or any other country.

QUESTION: Ambassador, if it is found that the attacks emanated from Pakistan will the U.S. once again counsel India to exercise restraint?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Certainly, although I must say I haven’t seen any evidence to that yet. To my knowledge the appropriate Indian authorities are working on this. From all the indications that I’ve seen it does seem to point to a domestic source, but again, these investigations are ongoing and our Indian friends have to lead on this.

QUESTION: Ambassador, coming to the Strategic Dialogue itself, following the Imam [inaudible] disappointment, India, the extension on the Libya no-fly zone Security Council vote and the fact that the implementation of the nuclear deal is still in limbo, some have argued that the fizz has sort of gone out of the relationship after the initial euphoria following the President’s trip. Is this contention flawed?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: This contention is flawed. I think we are very excited about the upcoming strategic dialogue and we feel that we have quite an important agenda ahead of us. We are going to be talking about very important strategic issues like how do we advance security and stability in Asia and how do we more together there; the process of transition in Afghanistan; and then how do we give further impetus to the extraordinary progress we’ve already made in our own bilateral partnership. And particularly in areas like counter-terrorism, trade and investment, and people-to-people ties.

QUESTION: But Ambassador, some may argue that sort of the only substantive outcome of the trip was the removal of its [port] control on [inaudible], and that the UN endorsement for all the hoopla was purely symbolic and may never come to pass and we haven’t seen much enthusiasm on the U.S. side on this call. What would you say to that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I would say that’s a real disservice to the huge range of things that were announced by the President. Of course he was particularly focused on a lot of the economic partnership agreements that were announced, particularly the $15 billion in new exports both on the economic side but also on the military side. But also again, on this very important notion that as we look ahead to the 21st Century about who are going to be the most important countries in the world that we need to work with and that it is in our advantage to work with, India is at the very top of that list.

So we are now in the process of putting together the building blocks of that relationship so that we will work ever more closely, and I would just stress that certainly the United States and India are not going to agree on everything. That’s true of any partnership. But I would say that we do have converging interests and we agree more and more on things. Again, it is so much in the interest of the United States to work with a country that is already the world’s largest democracy, a country that is going to be the third largest economy in the world by the year 2030, and a country that itself wants to take greater responsibility for managing the central challenges facing the world.

So this is a clear impetus for the United States and India to do more, and that’s what this Strategic Dialogue is all about.

QUESTION: Are there going to be any tangibles on this trip? Aneesh Chopra the White House CTO was telling me that he is going to be on this trip and along with Sam [Petroda]. There are going to be some e-governance initiatives unveiled, both in term so government transparency and also to assist in even the [Panchaya] system.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Correct. I don’t want to announce things that the Secretary is going to be announcing, but Aneesh is right. We will be talking about that. But we’ll be announcing quite a lot of things. There will be some new announcements on trade and investment, both in terms of a bilateral investment treaty, but also how we can move our energy partnership forward. I think you’re going to see more announcements on the counter-terrorism front. I think you’re going to see announcements on the people-to-people side, particularly education. A very new important initiative that we’re undertaking now that will encourage more interns and students from the United States to go to India to match the huge number of Indian students that are in the United States. And then also I think a new initiative to encourage what we call subnational engagement. That is working more and more to encourage governors and mayors from the United States to come to India to meet with their counterparts and vice versa. Increasingly a lot of the real action that is taking place is taking place at the state level, both in India and in the United States, so we want to capitalize on that. So we’re going to do that.

QUESTION: Ambassador, on the Nuclear Liability Law which has been a real downer for the U.S. business and industry, not to mention even the Indian industry too. Did you misspeak at the East-West Center on Monday when you said that the U.S. expectation was “that India will be working on new legislation to implement the liability law?” A senior Indian embassy official briefing us on the upcoming talks said there would be absolutely no change in the legislation which is set in stone, and at best there may be only some tweaking of the regulations.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I think India needs to speak for itself on this matter. We have expressed our concerns in the past about the current legislation that is on the books and that it needs to be made consistent with the international norms for this that you’re familiar with.

India, as you know, has committed to ratifying the Convention on Supplementary Compensation by the end of the year, which we certainly welcome. So I think things are on track. I don’t want to in any way suggest that we have concerns about what’s going on. We are working closely with our Indian friends and we hope to be able to implement civil nuclear cooperation as soon as possible.

QUESTION: And is signing the CSC going to be enough?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well again, as I said, there is still some work to be done. Perhaps there might be implementing regulations of some sort. This is really up to India to decide how it’s going to do this. I don’t want to be seen as dictating in any way. But again, we have a good conversation. I think we have a good understanding of what needs to be done.

QUESTION: And that’s going to be on the agenda too, I guess.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Certainly, because it’s such an important opportunity not only for our businesses who would like to do more in this area, but also I think for India because it will help to address some of the very important energy needs that they have.

QUESTION: Ambassador, why is the Secretary visiting Chennai? And will the Sri Lanka issue come up during her visit in Chennai?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We wanted to have her visit another part of India just, again, to underline that it’s very important for us and for our business people and for everyone else to understand that just as Washington is not the center of the American universe, nor is Delhi, and that it’s very important to go out to the states and see a lot of the important progress that is being made there.

We’ve never had a visit to the south and we thought that this would be a really terrific opportunity to go to Chennai. There’s a new, dynamic Chief Minister, a woman Chief Minister, who has just been elected there, as you know. And we have a lot of American business down there and a lot of other kinds of engagement.

We thought this was a terrific opportunity. The Secretary is very much looking forward to going down to Chennai. Again, this will help to underline a lot of the people-to-people ties that we really have between our two countries.

QUESTION: Will the Sri Lanka issue come up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’m sure it will come up. Obviously the 60 million people who live in Tamil Nadu have a lot of concerns about the situation inside Sri Lanka, so I’m sure this will be a topic of discussion when the Secretary sees the Chief Minister.

QUESTION: Ambassador, is the U.S. and India on the same page on Sri Lanka? You guys have not minced any words recently regarding Sri Lanka not investigating the alleged war crimes as laid down by the UN. And you have always told me that Sri Lanka and at least India and the U.S. have been on the same page in terms of repatriation of refugees and that you will have sort of, you work closely with the India in terms of Sri Lanka. Are you guys on the same page on this issue where you have minced no words?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’re very much on the same page. I think we both feel that more needs to be done to encourage reconciliation, and more needs to be done on things like devolution of power, the election of a new provincial council in the north, and some of these important accountability issues.

So yes, I think we are on the same page. We talk about these things frequently. And I don’t see any significant daylight between the United States and India on this.

QUESTION: Ambassador, how integral has the American community been to the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue? I know that the Secretary in fact had a special message to the East-West Center in terms of the India Diaspora, but in terms of the Indian-American community specifically, how important have they been to the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue and taking it to the next level?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I really thank you for that question. The Indian-American community has been really an indispensable part of the progress that the United States and India have made over the last ten years. If there’s anything that’s really unique about our relations it’s that people-to-people ties, and particularly the incredibly important role that Indian-Americans have played, is really a central driver of our relationship. You’ll see that so much of what we do is informed by the private sector. Many of the people in the private sector are Indian-Americans, but then all of these other important people-to-people initiatives that I spoke of are also driven by our friends in the Indian-American community. So they play an absolutely essential role.

As you know, Aziz, I’ve hired a dynamic Indian-American for my staff, a young man by the name of Mitul Desai. I hired him basically to help me to ensure that we are fully integrating our efforts with the Indian-American community here in particular, but also other Diaspora communities. So he and I are hard at work on efforts to help to provide new opportunities for the Indian-American community not only to participate in this huge enterprise that we have now between the United States and India, but also to help them find new ways that they can help, for example, a lot of the developments that are taking place in India itself. Many of them want to give back to their country of origin, and we’re looking at ways to identify those opportunities for them, do match-making, and develop tax deductible mechanisms so that they can do more.

They are already doing a lot but I think there is scope for more and that’s something that’s a very high priority for me and for Secretary Clinton.

QUESTION: One quick housekeeping before I get onto the next question. I want to do a profile and an interview with Mitul, so please sort of okay that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: You’re most welcome to talk to Mitul.

QUESTION: Ambassador, as you know, Strobe Talbot received India Abroad inaugural Friend of India Award, and thank you very much for the video message that you sent to our award ceremony last month. He told me that India and the U.S. can never be allies and that at best only strategic partners. He believes there is still a segment in the Indian government and legislature, those who want to hold on to India’s non-aligned status. Do you think this is a concept with India today that is dead? And if it survives, that it is anachronistic?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, the United States and India are never going to agree on everything. That’s true between the United States and the United Kingdom as well. I think what I would stress is the enormous progress that has taken place over the last ten years and the enormous changes that have taken place in India. I think the trends show that in fact the United States and India are working much more closely together on all of these important issues and that India itself is playing an increasingly important global role. We’ve seen an increasingly important and helpful role being played by India on everything from non-proliferation to climate change to a lot of these government-to-government open government types of initiatives that you talked about that Aneesh Chopra is working on.

So again, the trends are very very positive. Certainly there are always going to be people in each of our countries that might prefer to go more slowly, but the trend lines are clear, and our senior leaders themselves are I think both deeply committed to this, and that is going to ensure that it’s going to continue to drive progress forward.

QUESTION: My final question, Ambassador, how can the U.S. alleviate India’s concerns over what may be perceived as a premature withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, especially since the Taliban is still a very important force? I believe this is going to be a priority in the Strategic Dialogue talks too, in terms of regional issues. And there has been a lot of concern in India that once again Pakistan may take on a role in terms of using their proxies in Afghanistan. How can the U.S. alleviate India’s concerns on this issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: This will be an important topic for our conversations with External Affairs Minister Krishna and the Prime Minister during the Secretary’s talks next Tuesday because these are extremely important issues, both for the United States and for India.

Again, I would underline, I think there is quite significant strategic convergence in our views, but it’s always important to continue to share information.

I think one of the themes that you’ll hear the Secretary stressing is the importance that we attach to India’s continued engagement in Afghanistan and the importance that India will be playing in ensuring the success of this important transition that’s taking place now in Afghanistan, both the military transition but also the economic transition. Increasingly, obviously all of us want an Afghanistan that will be able to stand on its own two feet and provide for its own people, both security but also economically. I think the economic piece of that is so, so important. India’s $2 billion that have been pledged as a result of the Prime Minister’s very successful visit recently to Afghanistan will be a crucial part of that economic transition that will take place.

Indeed, I think one of our important priorities over the next one to two years will be to work closely with India, with Central Asia and with Pakistan to give greater impetus to the regional integration that must take place and to open up those trade routes and provide mechanisms for more investments by countries like India but also others so that Afghanistan really can prosper, that young people in Afghanistan will not seek to join terrorist groups but will have true economic and other opportunities.

Again, I think India has such an important role to play, and this will be a quite important theme of not only the private discussions but what the Secretary speaks about publicly.

QUESTION: And in this regard, will you keep India apprised of whatever negotiations you are now having with the Taliban?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Certainly. There is already quite good consultations that take place on a very regular basis. Obviously we don’t talk about these things too much because these are quite sensitive matters, but again, I think the level of dialogue has been quite good, and again, our discussions on Tuesday will be yet another opportunity to do that.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, and have a great trip, Ambassador.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you, Aziz. I appreciate your support.