Press Conference Bangladesh

James B. Steinberg
Deputy Secretary
Dhaka, Bangladesh
April 22, 2010

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: Thank you very much. It’s a true pleasure to be here in Dhaka and Bangladesh. It’s a real honor for me to have the chance to meet with so many prominent officials of both parties and many citizens and prominent and influential thinkers here in Bangladesh.

I’ve had a very cordial reception this morning and an excellent meeting with the Prime Minister, and I’m grateful for the hospitality that she and her government have shown. We have a very strong commitment to building a strong bilateral relationship with Bangladesh and we are particularly pleased to work with a strong democratic partner here in this country on the broad challenges that both of us face in the world today.

I also had a chance to meet with the Commerce Minister and discussed about how we can deepen our already vibrant economic cooperation, and I look forward to meeting with my good friend, the Foreign Minister, after this meeting.

I’m also honored that I’ll have a chance to meet with Begum Zia this afternoon and discuss her perspectives on the common challenges that we face.

This is an exciting time to be here and I think that the agenda that we have been discussing and will be discussing during my visit really demonstrates how Bangladesh is at the center of all of the critical questions that the United States and the key nations of the international community are facing in the 21st Century. The challenges that we face today are very different than the ones we saw in the 20th Century. We are now facing global challenges that require global cooperation. And whether it’s on issues like climate change or food security or global public health or counterterrorism, Bangladesh is a key partner who shares common interests with the United States and we’ve admired the leadership that the people and government here have shown on these issues, for example in the Copenhagen Climate Summit and our own cooperation together on counterterrorism.

So our ability to strengthen these ties and build an even stronger level of cooperation n the future is truly critical. It all is based on the sound commitment that we have to working with a partner democracy and the strong legacy of democracy which is deepening in this country and which the United States is determined to help strengthen.

As I said, not only do we have strong government-to-government ties, but our people-to-people and private sector-to-private sector ties are also critical to this relationship. We had a chance to discuss today how we can strengthen educational exchanges between the United States and Bangladesh, and to make sure that our businesses and our companies, both Bangladeshi and those from the United States, are working together more closely to promote trade and investment and create economic opportunity and prosperity for the people both of the United States and Bangladesh, so it’s a great moment to be here and I look forward to an even deeper level of cooperation between our two countries in the months and years ahead.

I’m happy to take your questions.

Question: Mr. Secretary, this is Amir Khasru, Voice of America in Dhaka.

My question is that Bangladesh and India are closely fighting terrorism in many ways. What is your suggestion? Should these two countries fight terrorism more closely than what is going on today?

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: As I think you know, before I came here I was in India and had a chance to talk about what I think is the very positive trend of strengthening cooperation between India and Bangladesh in many sectors. But obviously the issue of counterterrorism cooperation is critical for India and it’s a tremendous confidence builder between India and Bangladesh. What I heard from the senior officials in India was a great appreciation for the efforts that the government here has made on its own and in cooperation with India and with us to deal with this terrible scourge.

The threat of terrorism is one that knows no borders and is friendly to none of us. It’s a common enemy, it’s a common challenge that we all need to work together on. I think while we recognize that this is a challenge which is a very daunting one that we all have to put 100 percent effort into it. Both bilaterally between us and Bangladesh and between India and Bangladesh, this deepened cooperation I think will provide greater security for our citizens. So we very much appreciate the efforts that India and Bangladesh have made together on this. I think it’s also very much appreciated in India. We obviously can always do more together, but I’m very encouraged by what I’ve seen and heard.

Question: My name is Shamim Ahmad, United News of Bangladesh News Agency.

You had a meeting with our Commerce Minister and we know that there is a pending issue in the U.S. Congress regarding the duty-free access to U.S. market on Bangladeshi products. Did you discuss the issue or is there any progress on that?

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: As you rightly suggest, this is an issue for our Congress. And I’ve learned as a former staff member in Congress that we have to let Congress work its own magic on these things.

But what we did talk about was the importance of increasing both trade and investment between the United States and Bangladesh. I also mentioned our common interest in seeing whether we could make progress on multilateral trade liberalization, particularly through the Doha Round, which I think offers a great opportunity not only for Bangladesh but for the international community to continue the process of moving forward to more open and fair trade in ways that will benefit all of our countries.

I think one of the lessons that we’ve seen and the challenges that we face as we’ve gone through the recent global economic crisis, is the importance of maintaining an open trade system, ideally based on these multilateral principles. So I think that’s something that we’ve both committed ourselves to try to work together and work with the other key countries in the context of the Doha Round to see whether we can make progress in the near future.

Question: This is Zahirul Alam from the private television channel, NTV.

As we all know, Congressman Jim MacDermott has placed a bill in Congress called New Partnership Trade Development Act. So on your part, the Obama administration, what will be your position to materialize, to get it passing through in the Congress in the coming days? What will be your position on that?

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: I think the Congress has a daunting agenda in front of it. As you know we’ve just been working very closely with the Congress to pass health care legislation. The President is now working very closely with Secretary Geithner and others on financial regulation to try to strengthen the economic system. So I think we have to look at the overall agenda and see what’s possible there. These are decisions in the first instance that the leadership of the Congress will have to make. But what we’re focused on is what we can do between the administration and the government here independent of what might happen in our Congress.

As I said, we’ve focused on a number of steps that we can take to strengthen trade and investment between our two countries and I think that’s something where we see real opportunities for progress in the months ahead.

Question: This is Kamruzzaman from the private television channel Diganta.

Sir, you know that Bangladesh is now suffering from acute crisis of electricity. To solve this issue Bangladesh is going to work together with Russia to create uranium based electricity.

My question to you is whether America has any plan to help Bangladesh in the energy sector.

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: I think the United States is very interested in working with Bangladesh on energy and electricity. I think it clearly is one of the key challenges that this country faces not only to meet the basic needs of its citizens, but also to make this an attractive environment for business and industry to invest. You have to have reliable and predictable power, your demand is growing, and we clearly need the capacity here to address it. There are a number of short term measures that can be taken, but in the long term what we need is significant investment in the energy sector. I think that U.S. firms are eager to be part of that. But in order to do so we have to create the kind of investment climate that will make it attractive for firms to make the kinds of long term investments that are necessary. Power plants are things that generate returns over a long period of time, not just a year or two. So we have to have a predictable climate, we have to have a decision-making process that can allow decisions to be made and taken and held to, and we had discussions throughout the morning about trying to encourage that, but I’m quite confident that as we move forward to try to create that environment that as has been the case in the past a number of American firms would be eager to be part of contributing to the capacity development here in Bangladesh.

Question: This is Mushfiq. I am working for Bangala Daily, the Daily Ittefaq.

Welcome here. My first question is, is there any possibility to visit United States President Mr. Obama in Bangladesh?

Second question is, United States is a great partner of our democratic process, but still we have to face a few days back, an electoral government, we have to face it. So I near future is there any electoral process to try to capture the power the United States will endorse it or not?

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: I don’t have any announcements to make on travel except to say that there’s a high level of interest by both the President and the Secretary in building a relationship between the United States and Bangladesh. As you know, the President had a chance to talk to the Prime Minister in connection with the Copenhagen Climate Summit and the Secretary has a strong and personal history and commitment to this country. So I know that they are interested in finding ways to build a stronger relationship.

And nothing is more important in building that relationship than helping to strengthen democracy here in Bangladesh. We have been encouraged. We believe that the elections in 2008 were an extremely positive step. We think it’s important to continue to strengthen the democracy, to recognize that there is obviously going to be a very vigorous give and take among the parties in a political system, but it’s also important to recognize that all parties need to work together for the common good and to create an environment in which there’s an open and tolerant debate that recognizes differences but also can make decisions and make the important decisions that Bangladesh needs to move forward with its future.

The United States has been working to support strengthening governance in this country, to strengthen the capacity of institutions, to provide services to the people, to strengthen the discourse in this country, and to create an environment where democracy can take even deeper roots.

At the end of the day, more than any particular issue, the deep bonds between our countries depend on that strong democratic connection and it’s the thing that offers the greatest promise for the future. So we see tremendous strides here and we want to help work with all of the political forces, the tolerant forces in the society to make that even deeper in the years going ahead.

Question: I am Nizamuddin Ahmed I work for Reuters.

I want to know one thing. Bangladesh is one of the greatest victims of climate change, global warming. In the next 20 or 30 years Bangladesh’s 20 million people will have to be displaced due to this [inaudible]. Have you any immediate program or plan to assist Bangladesh in this sector?

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: First, I think we share the concern and the priority that I know people here attach to addressing the problem of climate change and global warming. This is a global challenge that is going to have enormous consequences for the health, the economic well being and even the security people around the world. And it’s particularly acute in vulnerable countries and societies like Bangladesh, so we’re particularly attentive to the problems that this country faces even in the near term. And it’s important to partner with Bangladesh to address them.

Particularly in light of the strong leadership that the government here has shown in helping to fashion a global response to climate change. As we know, this is not a problem that any individual country can solve, and if we all don’t work on this together, both developed and developing countries, then we simply will not be able to have the kind of systematic impact that’s necessary to address the problem.

So the kinds of contributions that the Prime Minister made through her leadership at Copenhagen is an important part of building those solutions.

We also have a history here of working on emergency response and disaster management with the government of Bangladesh, and I think that we need to see the climate change challenge along those same terms. We’re in the process of developing our own strategies about how to deal with both the mitigation aspects, how to stop future evolution of climate change, and adaptation, which is to deal with the already present impact. We’ll be looking forward to discussing in more detail with the leadership here about the specific needs that are required in Bangladesh and how we can work together both bilaterally and also in the multilateral context.

As you know, the Copenhagen Accord envisions a global effort to assist countries in responding to and adapting to this change, so we want to look at this both in the bilateral and in the multilateral context.

Question: This is Badul Alam, I work for the English Daily, The News Today.

Again, about climate change. Perhaps you are aware that at the last Copenhagen Summit could not achieve any legal binding document because of the attitude of the developed and semi-developed countries. They could not agree to the deduction of emissions right at the level of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Do you notice any changes in the U.S. administration about this particular issue to make a fruitful climate summit next in Cancun?

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: It won’t surprise you, I don’t particularly agree with all the assumptions in your question. I think what we’ve seen in Copenhagen is a critical step forward by both developed and developing countries to make clear that each needs to make significant contributions to the problem of climate change. And within the framework of common but differentiated responsibilities that all the countries need to make efforts. And the strategy of the Copenhagen Accord which has asked countries to make clear commitments, national commitments, and to create transparency about their implementation of those commitments, we think is a powerful force forward, and that the issue of whether it can be translated into a formal legally binding treaty is less important than whether countries are actually doing what they say they’re going to do. Because the kinds of commitments that are being inscribed by countries under the Copenhagen Accord would offer very significant steps forward. And whether we have as an ultimate objective 1.5 or 2, the fact is we need to get started now in a meaningful way to address those things.

I think one of the hallmarks of President Obama’s administration is his strong personal commitment both to recognize the very strong impact of climate change and the contribution of manmade activities to climate change, and the strong commitment of the United States to do our part to address that. That can be seen whether it’s in the President’s initial stimulus package which had significant funding for green technology, renewable energy and the like, to his own effort to secure a broad-based legislation in the to help facilitate that.

So I think that the Copenhagen Accord should be seen as a very important step forward. We have a lot of work to do to see that translated into operational terms and that’s something that we’re all working on right now.

So I see this in a very positive light, and we have to get started. Whether we can finally agree on what the final end point is, if we don’t get started with those first steps now we’ll never reach any of the end points that we all agree are so important to do.

Question: Currently Bangladesh is facing a very very critical political question, again about 1971, liberation war when the Nixon administration opposed the Bangladesh War. Now the present government is committed to hold the trials of the war criminals who have committed crimes against humanity. What’s the Obama administration’s position on that?

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: I think as in many of these questions, some of these are questions that have to be decided through the political process here in Bangladesh. I think we have a general belief that it’s important to have accountability, that there is an important set of principles that strengthen democracy when people feel there’s an opportunity to have transparency about the past and an understanding of those consequences, but how those are carried out in specific circumstances would have to be decided in individual circumstances. We think it’s important obviously that basic rights and fairness need to be represented in any kind of proceeding or process that’s developed, but as to specifics, that’s something that I think is appropriate for the people of this country to decide.

Question: Sir, this is Amir Khasru again.

Very recently our Prime Minister visited China and China and Bangladesh wanted to have a road link. And China and Bangladesh, verbally they had this discussion on deep sea port in Chittagong. And you have your interest in Indian Ocean, as I understand. How you just look at this deep sea port in Chittagong, and if it will be used by China, how will you just view that situation?

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: There are a lot of hypotheticals in that question and I learned a long time ago in public life that it doesn’t’ serve us very well to spend a lot of time with hypotheticals.

I think one of the things that we applaud is the Prime Minister’s strong commitment to build strong ties with all of her neighbors. The fact that building strong ties, economic and political ties, serves us all. These are not zero sum games. We are not in a competition. This isn’t the 19th Century.

So we applaud strong ties. We have our own very positive ties with China. We appreciate the efforts during the Prime Minister’s visit to China to strengthen those ties as she did with India, and we think that we’re all better off if we have friends in as many directions as we can.

Question: The 16th SARC Summit is going to be held in Bhutan on 28th and 29th. So how you, the United States, want to see the SARC as we move forward. Do you expect that the SARC leaders, eight SARC nations should have different security shield to safeguard the deal with the security trait or perception in this region?

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: The United States strongly believes n the importance of regional cooperation and strengthening regional bonds in the security field, the economic field and the political field. We think that these are critical to creating an environment of peace and stability and prosperity for all the people, and we’ve long been a supporter of SARC. This is a region which actually has less integration than many others, so being able to build those ties and those institutions, both formal and informal, that encourage positive relations among all the countries of the region is quite critical. So this is something that while we don’t take position on specific initiatives within SARC, the general process of encouraging dialogue and cooperation among the countries of the region is one that we’re very supportive of, and because the challenges that the countries of this region face are so connected to one another, there really does need to be regional attention to dealing with the problems, whether they are on water or energy or security. These are things in which everybody would benefit from closer cooperation among all the neighbors. So we hope that this summit in Bhutan becomes yet another opportunity to build stronger ties within the region.

Question: Again, regarding the national election in December 2008, before the election the present government said they would move forward with cooperation of opposition and they will endorse opposition, and opposition said they will cooperate with the government. Now the scenery is really quite different.

So what do you think? What is your observation? Do you think the present political scenario of Bangladesh is healthy?

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: What I would say is that I think the sentiment to have constructive cooperation among the government and opposition, irrespective of who’s in the government and who’s in the opposition is a good one. It’s important to have healthy debate. It’s natural in a democracy that there will be different perspectives on important policy issues, but in order for the political system to function, whether it’s in Bangladesh or the United States, there has to be a basic commitment to making the process work, to trying to find common ground and compromise where possible, and to maintain the civility of discourse. So to the extent that the leaders of the two leading parties here embrace those principles, we welcome that.

Thank you very much.