The Obama Administration's Policy on South Asia

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Washington, DC
September 9, 2009

As Prepared

Thank you inviting me to speak here today. It’s a real pleasure to be back at SAIS. I’m not sure if you are aware of this but I am a second generation SAIS graduate myself. I graduated in 1984; my Dad graduated in 1947. Back then it was a one-year program and he likes to pretend that SAIS was therefore much more rigorous in his time!

I have maintained contact with SAIS over the years and have been particularly gratified to see the growth in popularity and scope of the SAIS South Asia program. I commend Walter Andersen and his colleagues for their energy and look forward to maintaining close contact.

In many ways the growth of SAIS’ South Asia program reflects the growing importance of South Asia in U.S. foreign policy, which I would like to make the focus of my remarks today. Reflecting that trend, the State Department created a separate Bureau of South Asian Affairs in 1992. In 2005 we added the five countries of Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – to the bureau.

Our goal was and remains to support the development of sovereign, stable, democratic nations, integrated into the world economy and cooperating with one another, the United States, and our partners to advance regional security and stability.
We want to revive the ancient trade and cultural connections between South and Central Asia and to help create new links, especially in the areas of trade, transport, energy and communications. We want to work with the Central Asian countries to help stabilize Afghanistan and expand political and economic opportunity in Central Asia.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

As we continue to develop these partnerships, it is clear that Afghanistan and Pakistan can be a bridge that links South and Central Asia, rather than a barrier that divides them, but much works remains to be done to turn that vision into a reality. President Obama has made clear that he views the international effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single theater of immense strategic importance to security – not only of the United States – but of the world.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are two distinct countries, but we cannot succeed in either Afghanistan or Pakistan without stability in both. To eliminate the safehavens of extremism and terror in both countries, we must use all of the tools available to the international community – military, diplomatic, and development. Our approach for achieving stability must be holistic, addressing both short- and long-term challenges such as education, agriculture and reliable energy.

In Afghanistan, we seek to empower the Afghan government so that it can address its principal challenges by itself and ensure that extremists no longer pose a threat to the U.S and Afghanistan. To do so, the United States and our international partners are training and equipping the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to help reverse Taliban momentum and go after Al-Qaida; and we are supporting the Afghan government's efforts to enhance security, promote economic development, and provide good governance and rule of law to meet the needs of the people and the country.

To that end, we are working with the Afghan Government to build national governance, and greatly expand agriculture programs to encourage growth of other crops besides poppy. In addition we are implementing a wide-ranging diplomatic effort to strengthen the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan while engaging in regular consultations with all the major powers who are stakeholders in the conflict to achieve the progress we all believe is possible.

Let me say a word about the recent Afghan elections. We are witnessing an electoral process in Afghanistan that is taking place under extraordinarily complex circumstances. It is very important that this process be seen as credible and inclusive. That’s why the United States and others believe there needs to be a rigorous vetting of all of allegations of fraud – and the mechanisms for that kind of vetting are in place. In coming days we should see the end of the counting process conducted by the Independent Election Commission. The next stage will be for the Electoral Complaints Commission to adjudicate complaints.

No-one expected these elections to be perfect. No elections ever are. The key thing is that the outcome needs to set the stage for a productive three-way partnership between the Afghan people, the Afghan government and the international community as we work together to stabilize and develop Afghanistan.

Turning to Pakistan, it is difficult to imagine a country of such strategic importance – and a key ally of the United States– that faces a more daunting set of problems. Pakistan seeks to consolidate its transition to democracy while making important progress against the Taliban in the Northwest Frontier Province and Tribal Areas. Equally important but less well known, is that Pakistan’s economy has been battered by major financial crises, and most recently and notably, a severe electricity shortage that impacts businesses and people in equal measure.

President Obama has requested a significant increase in economic assistance and security assistance to build up Pakistan’s counter-insurgency capabilities so we can help Pakistan defeat extremism, rebuild its economy and establish strong governing institutions. A stable, constitutional, civilian-led government that provides for the needs of its people by delivering justice, education, health care, and economic opportunities will be instrumental in achieving these goals.

The U.S. and India a New Strengthened Partnership

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have repeatedly stated their deep commitment to strengthen our partnership with India. India is expected to pass China to become the world’s most populous nation in the next 20-25 years. It is a country whose middle class now numbers 300 million and is expected to double over the next twenty years. To put that figure into context, that will be more than the current population of the EU, which will decline slightly over that same period. Most importantly India is a country with which the United States shares increasingly convergent values and interests.

To capitalize on these many opportunities, Secretary Clinton had a very successful visit to Mumbai and Delhi in July where she and her counterpart External Affairs Minister Krishna launched our new Strategic Dialogue. As Secretary Clinton said, our relationship was “overdue for an upgrade” and her trip to India served as the first step towards that vision. The relationship will get a further boost this fall when President Obama welcomes Prime Minister Singh November 24th for the first official state visit of the Obama Presidency.
The new U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue we have put in place will increase the scope and breadth of our cooperation across five key pillars – 

  • Strategic Cooperation
  • Science, Technology, Health, and Innovation
  • Energy and Climate Change
  • Education and Development
  • Economics, Trade, and Agriculture

The five pillars in our Dialogue encompass virtually all of the key challenges facing the globe today and reflect the vast cooperation that already is taking place at so many levels of our two societies. President Obama neatly captured the scope and breadth of our relations when he said, “Our rapidly growing and deepening friendship with India offers benefits to all the world's citizens as our scientists solve environmental challenges together, our doctors discover new medicines, our engineers advance our societies, our entrepreneurs generate prosperity, our educators lay the foundation for our future generations, and our governments work together to advance peace, prosperity, and stability around the globe.”
In addition to launching the new Strategic Dialogue, a number of important bilateral agreements were reached during the Secretary’s visit to India. For example, we reached agreement on End-Use Monitoring language for military sales contracts, which removes a key hurdle, allowing the United States and India to increase our military-to-military cooperation and smoothing the path for increased defense sales.

Improved defense ties benefit both countries and contribute to our common interests in peace and stability in the region. India already holds more military exercises with the United States than with any other country, while U.S. defense exports to India have topped $3.1 billion since 2008. The EUM Agreement should help facilitate the Indian government’s increasing shift toward U.S. defense equipment.
Civil nuclear cooperation marks another new promising area for U.S. firms. During the Secretary’s visit the Indian government identified two nuclear reactor park sites to the USG for U.S. companies. These reactor parks will create thousands of new jobs in the United States while providing a reliable source of energy for India where 600 million people still lack access to electricity. We are hopeful that the Indian Government and Parliament will take the final steps to approve nuclear liability legislation, publicly announce the reactor sites and file a declaration of facilities with the IAEA that will open the door for significant new US civil nuclear investment in India.

Another exciting potential for partnership between our two countries is space cooperation. While Secretary Clinton was in India, the U.S. and India signed a Technology Safeguards Agreement that will open up new opportunities for U.S. firms in the space and satellite sectors.

Ladies and gentlemen, one mark of the seismic changes taking place in U.S.-India relations is that our bilateral dialogue is less and less about resolving old legacy issues that divided us such as non-proliferation, and more and more about seizing new opportunities, both bilateral and multilateral. Bilaterally, the role of the two Governments is increasingly to find ways to remove barriers to cooperation between our scientists, businesspeople, educators and others. For this reason, we plan to expand the role of the CEO Forum so that our work in many more of our bilateral dialogues can be informed by the advice of the senior businesspeople in both countries.

One of the bilateral sectors with the greatest potential for growth is education. In his new book “Imagining India – The Idea of a Renewed Nation,” Infosys founder Nandan Nilekani says; “The new India is united by a respect for achievement; yearning for a better life; and an unprecedented belief that such a life is possible regardless of caste or social and economic status.”
Nilekani eloquently describes why analysts from Goldman Sachs to McKinsey are so optimistic about India’s future. He states that while the working age population of other major economies will be falling, India will have an additional 47 million workers in 2020, almost equal to the world’s shortfall. He estimates that India’s “demographic dividend” will peak at 2035, by which time India will have added 270 million persons to its working age population.

These legions of Indians entering the workforce for the first time represent an immense economic opportunity for India and its partners, but only if they receive the education and training they will need to compete in India’s globalizing economy. Right now, the United States is educating over 90,000 Indian students in U.S. schools. We welcome more Indian students.
But America’s educational institutions would like to do more joint work in India, to reach the vast majority who cannot go to the U.S. for an education. The Indian Government also seeks greater cooperation. Prime Minister Singh and Kapil Sibal, India’s new Minister for Human Resource Development, have ambitious plans for educational reform that, if successful, could open significant new opportunities for institutions such as SAIS.

In addition to growing bilateral opportunities, another encouraging sign both of the maturing U.S.-India partnership and India’s growing global leadership is the scope for more productive cooperation on multilateral issues. Whereas even a few years ago, when such cooperation was almost unimaginable, today the U.S. and India have an increasingly positive dialogue on non-proliferation, climate change and global trade.

With the Copenhagen Conference fast approaching in December, there is perhaps no more pressing global priority that to achieve a global climate change agreement. Just as the Civil Nuclear Initiative helped to address the “nuclear” elephant-in-the-room between our two countries, we are hopeful our new Energy and Climate Change Dialogue will allow us to cooperate not only to help achieve agreement in Copenhagen but also to lay the basis for sustained cooperation on a clean energy future.
The stakes for both countries -- indeed for the planet -- are enormous. India emits 4.1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it roughly the 5th largest emitter. As India’s economic expansion continues its greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by 50% in the next twenty years. Climate change will have the greatest impact on India’s most vulnerable populations, particularly in the agricultural sector that accounts for more than half of India’s work force – including 300 million subsistence farmers. The goal of our Energy and Climate Change dialogue is to find solutions and work together on clean energy technology to help make India a world leader in sustainable development.

The foundation for this partnership already is in place – with the U.S. and India working together to promote more energy efficient buildings, clean coal technology, and the use of solar, wind, hydro and other clean energy alternatives to ensure a lower carbon future. Through USAID-assisted clean coal technology projects and practices alone, Indian coal fired power utilities have reduced carbon emissions by over 90 million tons over the past eight years. This is just one example of the many strategic and reciprocal partnerships between the two countries that are resulting in high impact, sustainable interventions that create jobs, expand opportunities, and improve lives.

India and Pakistan

An important part of a successful strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be for India and Pakistan to restore relations to the levels of cooperation they enjoyed between 2004 and 2007. It is useful to recall the progress that was made during that period. Beginning in 2004, President Musharraf met with then Indian Prime Minister Atul Behari Vajpayee and pledged that Pakistan would not let territory under its control be used to support terrorism.

That pledge provided the basis for the two countries to undertake a series of confidence building measures through a Composite Dialogue between Foreign Ministries. These measures included agreements to inform each other in advance of ballistic missile tests; establish hotlines; and establish Srinagar-Muzafferabad and Poonch-Rawalkot bus services and Amritsar-Lahore train service.

CBM discussions were frozen following the November 26 Mumbai attacks. But, to their credit, both countries continued political-level talks, the most important of which was a meeting between Prime Ministers Singh and Gilani in Sharm el-Sheikh on July 16.
Both countries must now undertake a sequenced series of actions to rebuild confidence and cooperation. Such actions must include progress by Pakistan to prosecute those responsible for the Mumbai attacks and concerted efforts to stop militant infiltrations across the Pakistan-India border.

In response, India has indicated it is prepared to restart confidence building measures. One significant opportunity would be in trade. Bilateral commerce between India and Pakistan is only slightly more than $2.1 billion. To provide a comparison, trade between China and Indonesia, two countries of roughly comparable size which do not enjoy the benefit of a common border, is approximately $30 billion. This provides some indication of the immense potential to expand trade between India and Pakistan.
When discussing South Asia, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have a tendency to dominate the conversation. But I’d like to touch on the situations in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka since important changes are underway in each that have attracted attention.


Bangladesh represents an important opportunity. Its vibrant ready-made garment exports, large-scale export of manpower, and long-standing commitment to international peacekeeping have already tied it strongly to the international community. Just as important, its return to democratic rule, its willingness to work against violent extremism with us and other friends, and its solid economic growth all make it a country with whom our relations will grow increasingly close. Indeed, Bangladesh will play a key role as the world addresses some of the biggest challenges of the 21st century, including global warming, food security, and women’s empowerment. It is thus fitting that Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, a Johns Hopkins grad, will be coming to the United States next week to discuss the overall bilateral relationship, while Prime Minister Hassina and other world leaders will meet the following week in New York.

To be sure, Bangladesh continues to face daunting internal challenges. The political parties have not abandoned the legacy of bitter partisanship, corruption remains a serious problem, and human rights abuses continue. Still, Bangladesh, despite significant obstacles, has made impressive progress in providing longer, healthier, and more prosperous lives to its 160 million citizens.
The United States has an important stake in helping Bangladesh succeed. The seventh-most populous country in the world and the fourth largest Muslim population, Bangladesh has a secular tradition and a commitment to democracy. The vision of a relatively prosperous, solidly democratic, and increasingly stable Bangladesh – a vision that appeared as a pipe dream a short while ago – now looks eminently achievable. The U.S. will do what it can to help Bangladesh realize this vision – and transform into a powerful force for good in the region and more broadly.


Nepal is another extremely important friend in the region which has gone through major changes recently. The United States supports Nepal’s transition into a peaceful, prosperous and democratic nation. To reach that goal, we are focused most immediately on supporting Nepal’s ongoing peace process. In 2006, the Government of Nepal and the Maoists signed a Comprehensive Peace Accord, formally ending the decade-long Maoist insurgency in that country. The peace process outlined in the accord includes several components, most prominently: the integration of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army with the Nepal Army and the drafting of a new constitution by April 2010.

Despite the passage of three years since the signing of the Peace Accord, Maoist soldiers, along with those disqualified by the United Nations for integration into the Nepal Army, remain in United Nations monitored cantonments across Nepal. In addition, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly has made limited progress in drafting the new constitution. We would very much like to see Nepal make steady progress in these areas.

To that end, we support the presence of the United Nations Mission in Nepal and we continue to provide technical support to Nepal’s Constituent Assembly in its constitution drafting process. We also provide training to the Nepal Army to encourage its professionalization, respect for human rights, and accountability to civilian authorities. In short, we continue, in any way we can, to help Nepal realize a peaceful, democratic and prosperous future.

Sri Lanka

I would also like to touch on recent events in Sri Lanka, which I’m sure many of you have been following closely. The United States welcomed the cessation of fighting in Sri Lanka in May of this year and the apparent conclusion to the country’s long-running conflict. Since then, the United States has encouraged Sri Lanka to heal the wounds of conflict by ensuring that the estimated 300,000 people displaced by the civil war are treated according to international standards and allowed to return to their homes as quickly as possible, and by working toward justice and reconciliation in order to build a democratic, prosperous, tolerant and united Sri Lanka.

With respect to the internally displaced persons still in the camps, the Government of Sri Lanka has made some progress easing camp congestion, and expanding access by humanitarian organizations, but we are concerned that those remaining in the camps still do not have freedom of movement. We have encouraged the Government of Sri Lanka to follow through on its pledge to return a majority of IDPs by the end of the year. Already this year, the U.S. has provided $56 million in humanitarian assistance, mostly food aid. Other significant programs are aimed at helping the Sri Lankans accelerate the return and facilitate the resettlement of IDPs, such as $6.6 million to international NGOS for demining, and DOD-funded, USAID-administered projects for vulnerable communities and reintegration of former combatants.

The Government of Sri Lanka has made only very modest progress on political reconciliation with Tamils and Muslims. To his credit, President Rajapaksa did meet on Monday with representatives of the Tamil National Alliance, but in general there have been few other concrete steps to re-unite the country and begin to heal the wounds of a long war in such a way that all Sri Lankans feel they enjoy equal rights and opportunities.

We have stressed to the Government of Sri Lanka that to achieve a lasting peace, it must promote justice and political reconciliation for all parties, including by ensuring accountability for past violations of human rights. We are also concerned about threats to press freedom in Sri Lanka, including the recent conviction of Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam on terrorism charges. A successful, united post-war Sri Lanka is not possible without freedom of expression.


In conclusion, no other region of the world faces the array of challenges and opportunities of those in South and Central Asia. I would be remiss if I did not encourage all the terrific students here at SAIS to seriously consider a career at the State Department. I joined the State Department 24 years ago, straight out of SAIS, both to serve our country and to make a difference in other peoples’ lives. Every day of my career has been different and rewarding. Under the inspired leadership of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, there has never been a greater opportunity to serve and make a difference. For example, many SAIS graduates are stationed in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, bringing roads, schools and clinics to all parts of Afghanistan. Others are building our new partnerships in India, China, Brazil and elsewhere. All are excited and energized. All of you have a unique opportunity to join us in making a difference.  Thanks again for this opportunity to speak. I would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.