Press Roundtable

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Beijing, China
May 4, 2010

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you all very much for coming. It’s nice to see you all. I just wanted to give a brief statement about my visit to Beijing, which has been very productive. Let me just give you a brief rundown of the schedule and some of the things that we talked about.

Yesterday I was very pleased to exchange views with scholars from the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. I also had a good meeting with the Secretary General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Ambassador Imanaliev. In that meeting I expressed appreciation for the support that SCO member states are providing to help international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. I also expressed America’s support for SCO goals to foster trade and regional economic cooperation as well as to combat terrorism and extremism in Central Asia.

Today I met first with Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue, and after that I led the U.S. delegation for the U.S.-China-South Asia sub-dialogue which continues U.S. engagement with China on issues of common interest in South Asia.

As all of you know, South Asia is a region of growing strategic importance for the United States. One of our highest strategic priorities is to help Afghanistan and Pakistan disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And this is an interest that China shares, so we discussed ways that China can coordinate with and contribute to international efforts in both of those countries.

India is also of growing strategic importance because of our converging values and interests and the growing role India is playing not only in the region, but in the world.

The U.S. and India have established a strategic dialogue that is led by Secretary Clinton and Indian External Affairs Minister Krishna to oversee and drive our strategic engagement.

Let me stop there and I’d be glad to take your questions on anything South Asia related. I’m no China expert.

Question: I’m Lou Graham, Reuters.

I’m just curious, you mentioned Afghanistan as [inaudible] to the EU and then to China. I had a couple of questions. The first is when Karzai came here to visit last month, sources in the Afghan Foreign Ministry made it quite clear that although there was a lot of sort of media talk about [inaudible] and things like that, Karzai essentially had one aim on his trip, to try and ask the Chinese to put more pressure on Pakistan to reign in as far as they could Taliban operatists who were working on that side of the border.

I just want to know did you discuss that specific area in which China could help? I know that you yourselves have [inaudible] put pressure on the Pakistani government, but if anybody could it would be the Chinese. So did you discuss that with China and were they receptive?

Also was there any talk --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me answer that question first, because I’ll forget them.

We did have a conversation about Pakistan and the various groups that have taken refuge in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think China, I don’t want to speak for China, but I think China does share our interest and indeed Pakistan’s interest in stopping the activities of those groups. So we had a good discussion on that. Let me just leave it at that.

Question: And was there any discussion of whether China might step up their role in trying to stabilize Afghanistan either in [merchant] terms or perhaps in terms of contributions of any form to the civilian effort there. There’s been criticism in some quarters of the fact that China is actually set to benefit financially from mineral deals and it’s getting very difficult in military or civilian efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We expressed our appreciation for the investments and assistance that China has been providing to Afghanistan and to the international efforts to help stabilize Afghanistan. We didn’t talk specifically about military assistance of any kind, but we did discuss ways that we could cooperate more and again, coordinate our efforts more to ensure that there’s no duplication of efforts and that we are all working together to ensure the success of our common efforts.

Question: Can I just, you said you discussed the appreciation for investments. Did China give you any indication of when they might move ahead more quickly on the [Ianak] cooper mine? Because they’ve been going much slower than they were supposed to be on their investment schedule, and there’s talk in Afghanistan that the Chinese are going slowly on purpose because they don’t think the security situation is going to be good enough to allow them to actually mine. Did you discuss --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We didn’t get down into that level of detail. We were trying to sort of stay at the larger strategic picture.

Question: Shingha News Agency.

My question is what’s your expectation of U.S. [inaudible] about Afghanistan issue? And does U.S. appreciate or disappoint at what China do now on this issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, let me just repeat what I said earlier. We expressed our appreciation for the efforts that China has undertaken. We do believe we have common interests there. We talked about general ways that China might contribute more and I’ll leave it to China to describe how it might do so. I don’t really want to be in the position of characterizing their positions.

Question: Bob Sawyer, FPE.

Were there any concerns of China then, particularly with Kyrgyzstan, what’s happening there? Did they raise any concerns that maybe Taliban forces might be going into there? Do you see any evidence of that? And then --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry, Taliban going into Kyrgyzstan?

Question: Yes. And then on with the Uyghur issue, did they bring up the Uyghur issue, and did any discussions on waver forces in Central Asia come up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all I have to say these were really focused on South Asia, not on Central Asia. So the people that I was speaking with are South Asia experts. So we didn’t really talk about Central Asia except to the extent that it came up somewhat in the context of our common efforts to help stabilize Afghanistan, and for example, particularly China working with the SCO countries, most of which are from Central Asia. So it came up in that context.

With respect to your question about the Taliban, we didn’t discuss that at all, and I personally am not aware of any indications that Taliban have been involved in recent events in Kyrgyzstan.

Question: And the Uighurss. Do they express any concern about Uighur movements in Central or even South Asia? Afghanistan --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. It’s not so much of an issue in South Asia. Again, that would have been more of a Central Asia part of the discussion. That’s a discussion that we hope to have, but we have not yet scheduled that.

Question: From China Daily.

My question is about a failed attempt from Times Square in New York. Are you tracing, is the United States tracing a Pakistani guy, who do you think has planned that kind of event? Al-Qaida or Taliban?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think it’s a bit early to start to draw conclusions about who might have been responsible, but there is an intensive U.S. interagency effort underway to investigate this potentially very serious incident that could have occurred in Times Square. I’m really not familiar with the progress of the investigation. I’ve been out in China. So really you should address that to the people in Washington and at the White House who are really directing that investigation.

Question: Aaron Ginns, Voice of America.

We were wondering about whether the U.S. has concerns about the China-Pakistan nuclear deals that have been talked about over the last few months.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I would just say that we are aware of those reports, and to the extent that China does want to try to provide additional reactors to Pakistan, that that would require an exception of the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. So it would be important that China seek the exception from the NSG. I don’t want to prejudge what the outcome of such a discussion would be, but I think that’s our position.

Question: If the U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan according to the timetable, did you discuss what China’s role would be for afterwards?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We discussed that President Obama has announced that the United States will begin the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011, but that the pace and the scope of those withdrawals will depend very much on the success of international efforts to train the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police to take over security responsibility. It will also depend on conditions on the ground, security conditions on the ground. So as we do with many of our friends, we reassured China that we are certainly not going to withdraw our forces precipitously. But that was really the extent of the discussion over there. It was mostly us providing assurances on that.

Question: What would the U.S. like to see China do in a force withdrawal scenario?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think we’re quite there in terms of figuring out what the post withdrawal scenario will be. We’re at the moment very focused on several efforts. As I said first, this training, this very important training effort. But also providing security for the Afghan people. That has been the focus of the recent campaign in Marjah. First to expel the Taliban from that region, and then to have an immediate civilian follow-up effort to begin economic development efforts in that region, and to provide particularly agricultural opportunities for people in that area. And following that, of course we’re also working to improve the Afghan government’s ability to provide services. We’re also working very closely to help them to address corruption, which is a very important source of concern on the part of both the Afghan people and the international community, and one of the reasons that people join the Taliban in the first place.

We discussed more sort of internal issues inside of Afghanistan more than any role that the Chinese might play on the military or security side.

Question: So then you were coming here to tell China that the withdrawal kind of schedule was not going to be happening as quickly as projected? Is that --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The purpose of the dialogue is to have a wide-ranging dialogue on all of the issues in South Asia, not just Afghanistan and Pakistan, but India and the situation in Nepal, the situation in Sri Lanka, and so a great deal of our discussion was about that as well.

The main message for Afghanistan and Pakistan was just that we want to cooperate more with China and we want to the maximum extent possible to coordinate our efforts to avoid duplication of efforts and to again seize opportunities where our common interests would allow that.

Question: I just want to follow-up, sorry, apologies if it’s a redundant question. You said you didn’t really discuss Central Asia. Given that there have been a lot of massive change in Kyrgyzstan recently, did you make any kind of exception to talk a little bit about Kyrgyzstan? And if so, [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. We really didn’t talk about Kyrgyzstan. I am responsible for Kyrgyzstan and I can certainly tell you a little bit. I’ve been away a little bit from Washington, but in general we support the efforts of the current provisional government to undertake democratic reforms. They have decided to first draft a new constitution, then have a referendum on that constitution. That constitution then would provide the basis for new elections in approximately six months time. So the United States and I think other countries will be helping to provide technical support for such efforts that we very much welcome, but we’re also looking at other ways that we might be able to help to stabilize the situation by, for example, economic assistance programs that would put young Kyrgyz back to work, and programs in agriculture and so forth that again would help to provide immediate assistance to the government and to the people of Kyrgyzstan.

Question: And the transit center at Manas?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It didn’t come up at all in our conversation, but we welcome the assurances of the current provisional government that they continue to support the existing arrangements.

Question: A question about China and Afghanistan again. Is that one message to China, to avoid duplication of efforts? Are there duplicated efforts between China and the United States and other Western powers?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Not that I’m aware of. Not on any significant scale. But again, sometimes we’re not aware of everything that China is doing so we would welcome as much information as possible about what China is doing so that, again, we can ensure proper coordination, but also think about ways that China might do more. China is a growing influence all over South Asia, and I think can do a lot.

Question: But in which areas do you think China can do more?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to get into the specifics of our discussion. For the moment these are all, let me just say we had a very wide-ranging discussion and at the appropriate time we’ll have things to announce, I’m sure.

Question: As we know, China send an air raid for fight against pirates in Somalia. So my question is, India always worry about Chinese activities in Indian Ocean. So my question is, how U.S. regulate Chinese [inaudible] in Indian Ocean? Chinese is threat to [inaudible] cooperate opportunity between [inaudible] and China’s [militaries].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The United States understands that China has significant interests in that part of the world. A significant proportion of the shipping that transits through that area is Chinese or contains Chinese goods. So we welcome the opportunity to cooperate with the Chinese vessels that are there to help protect the Chinese shipping. That’s really all I have to say about it. We didn’t talk in any great detail about that. As I say, China does have important interests and is taking some steps to protect those interests.

Question: One more question about Afghanistan. It’s now just a month ahead of the [collision] forces [inaudible] in [Doha]. So I just wonder, do you expect any difficulties in that mission?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: That’s a question for General McChrystal, not for me. He’s the one who’s going to be managing that and I’m not really an expert on that.

I’m in charge of all of the countries of South Asia except Afghanistan and Pakistan, and all the countries of Central Asia, so I don’t really have direct responsibility for what’s going on in Afghanistan. Really you should talk to General McChrystal and the ISAF commanders on the ground there to give you your best assessment of that.

Question: I know you just said that [inaudible], but will you be taking advantage of the time to meet with the Pakistani Interior Minister?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry, is he visiting or something like that? Oh, no. I wasn’t aware he was visiting. Sorry. I’m not meeting with the Pakistani Interior Minister. I just came from the SAARC meetings in Bhutan, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, so I did have meetings there on the margins of that with various members of the Pakistani delegation. But it wasn’t about interior minister matters. It was much more about SAARC and about the important meeting that did take place between Prime Minister Singh and Prime Minister Gilani on the margins of the SAARC Summit.

Question: Do you feel given that there’s been years of sort of the current progress that it’s already substantial [inaudible] in terms of the behavior in Pakistani relations? One step forward, two steps back. Do you think this meeting will lead to something or is it just a kind of something that’s horrible with [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all I think I would disagree with your statement that it’s always one step forward, two steps back. I think that between 2004 and 2007 the two countries made a great deal of progress. And one of the reasons they were able to make progress was that Pakistan was able to address and stop some of the cross-border infiltration that was taking place from Pakistani soil into India. I think now the challenge is for to Pakistan to once again take similar action, particularly against Lashkar-e-Taiba, but also other Punjab based groups. And such action would I think be very much welcomed by the Indians as would continued progress in the prosecution of the suspects who are now in custody for the bombing that took place in Mumbai in November of 2008.

So I think the two Prime Ministers discussed those, what more can be done in those areas. They have assigned their foreign ministries to now follow up and agree on specific actions that can be taken, so I think we will await the outcome of those discussions. But I think the atmospherics between the two prime ministers was good, and I think the delegations felt that important progress had been made during these talks. So I think we welcome that and hope that further progress can be made in these foreign ministry level talks that will take place.

Question: How does the U.S. plan, if stability can be brought to Afghanistan and the U.S. can pull out of that, what kind of guarantees will there be that the Afghanis won’t break down into their own kind of internal strife again as happened before? How much will that play in to your withdrawal?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: That’s a big hypothetical question. I don’t really want to try to speculate about that.

But let me just say that I think we have a good strategy in place now. We’re making progress in places like Marjah to provide security for the Afghan people and provide an opportunity for these economic development efforts to begin to take place. We think that those will be a very important mechanism for assisting this reintegration process, this process of encouraging lower level Taliban to renounce violence and renounced terrorism and again respect the constitution. We think that it can also help set the stage for the reconciliation process that will take place which will involve higher level Taliban leaders who must also agree to respect the provisions of the Afghan constitution.

The Afghans must be in charge of this effort and they will be, indeed, planning a major peace jurga in the near future to begin this whole process.

President Karzai will be coming to Washington next week to have very high level talks with Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates and others to talk about his plans on this and many other things. And simultaneously, we will continue to work on these efforts, again, to help the government to expand its capacity to deliver basic services to the Afghan people and to ensure that corruption is addressed in a systematic way so that we can be sure that our aid is being used in a proper way, but also so that the Afghan people can have confidence in the workings of their own government.

Again, there’s a very wide ranging and comprehensive strategy that enjoys the support of many members of the international community. Let me just come back to what I said earlier. We think China has an important stake in the success of these efforts and we welcome the opportunity to discuss ways that China can contribute more both through its investments but also through assistance of various kinds. I think China is looking seriously at that.

Let me leave it there, and thank you so much. I’m afraid I have a plane to catch in about two hours, so I’ve got to run off and pack my bags. [Laughter].

But I appreciate the chance to talk to you, and if any of you are in Washington, I’m always happy to meet you there. Thanks again.