Interview With PTI

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
May 11, 2010

PTI: Your visit to China, you had a first time probably dialogue with China on South Asia. How China has a role to play in South Asia? It might not be only Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also Nepal, Sri Lanka and other parts. Even Bangladesh. What role do you see for China there?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all, this was my first South Asia sub-dialogue with China, but not the first by the Department of State. We’ve had previous ones by my predecessors. But this was a welcome opportunity for me to talk to the Chinese for the first time. The Chinese have a growing role in South Asia and around the world, and my principal message to them was that the United States would like to coordinate more and better with China since they have growing assistance programs and growing investment in South Asia. In many cases we have similar interests in many parts of South Asia. So it’s in our interest, therefore, to coordinate more and to particularly coordinate on assistance since we don’t want to duplicate our efforts in important places like Afghanistan.


PTI: What will China’s role in Nepal? Is there a convergence of views with the U.S. and China?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think there is a broad convergence of views. China, like the United States and India, wants to see stability and prosperity in that important country for us. We have expressed our concern about the strikes that have been going on there and the need to ensure that all parties in Nepal work together and in a peaceful manner to reach agreement on the very important issues that are before them so that the peace process can be concluded. And again, stability can be enhanced as a result of that.


PTI: South Asia is a region of the world which is most unstable with Nepal or Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, Pakistan. Do you think India, U.S. and China can work together in South Asia to bring some sort of a stability, long term peace over there?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think all countries need to work together. We’ll need to work with the EU, with China, with a lot of countries that have interest in stability in various parts of South Asia. But I think that India will always have the preeminent role, and we understand that and the Chinese understand that. I think, again, India can be a very important force for good and for stability in this part of the region so it’s important for all of us to work with India. That’s how I would phrase it.


PTI: This reminds me of when President Obama went to China, there was a joint statement with the China relationship and there was mention about South Asia in that. And after that there as a huge hue and cry and especially in the media about it. So are you sensitive to, what’s India’s concern with China playing? Is it all --


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Certainly. Let me come back to what I just said which is that India will continue to have the preeminent role in the South Asian region and it’s in all of our interests to work very closely with our friends in India to achieve our common objectives.


PTI: Coming back to Nepal, you visited Nepal, you met the Nepalese Maoist leader.




PTI: And they gave you an assurance also that they will do everything peacefully, but now it’s major [inaudible] over there. Violence has erupted. So how do you view this issue or the promises that were made by the Maoist leader?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I have to give some credit to the Maoists. Even though the strike has been going on for some time now, I think they have largely kept to their word to keep the strike peaceful and to avoid violence. I think they’ve made significant efforts to try to do so. But at the same time I come back to what I said earlier. The best way to achieve a solution to this is not by applying that sort of pressure. That is why I issued a statement yesterday to urge that the Maoists stop the strike and engage, again, in a more peaceful way with the other parties. And I’m pleased to hear there are initial signs today that they may in fact be planning to do that. That would be a very encouraging development.


PTI: The U.S. and India played a major role in bringing Maoists to the negotiations, being part of the democratic system. But what went wrong? What have you thought that the peace would be restored, democracy would be there, but things don’t seem to be moving in a positive direction. They have a deadline to meet for their constitution draft to be met. What is your analysis about that?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s important for all of us to have patience. These are difficult issues that the Nepalese are grappling with now. The most important thing that we need to remember is that all of the parties agreed to stop fighting in 2006 and all the parties agreed to work together to achieve a comprehensive peace. They set a deadline of May 28th of this year. We continue to support that deadline. But it is, in the long run it is up to the parties themselves to reach an agreement on this. I’ve been encouraged that the parties do seem to be working together in recent days to try to reach an agreement. All of the important issues do appear to be on the table, such as integration of the former Maoist army into the Nepalese army, the restitution of property, the need to rein in the violent activities of the Young Communist League, things like that.


While I was in Nepal I expressed the interest of the United States in helping to support any agreement that can be reached and we remain very much committed to providing that support should the parties reach agreement.


PTI: From Nepal you went to Bhutan, the SARC Summit as an observer over there. So what’s your observation? Why SARC is not moving as like Asia or other Middle Eastern groupings? What is the main interest over there?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: SAARC, like many regional groupings, operates by consensus. And there’s still not a consensus principally between India and Pakistan. The speech that received the most applause was that by the Maldivian President who observed that the best thing that could happen to SAARC would be peace between India and Pakistan. I think we all agree with that and we all hope that these two friends of ours can make progress towards peace. We welcomed the important meeting that took place between Prime Minister Singh and Prime Minister Gilani. The atmospherics appear to be very good and we hope that both countries can build on that positive meeting to have their foreign ministries meet for further talks and develop a way forward that they can find a solution to some of these problems that have been plaguing them.


PTI: You were here when the press met the Indian Prime Minister and the Pakistani Prime Minister at the Blair House with [inaudible]. What was the common message delivered to both countries on that day?




PTI: Was there a common message delivered to both --




PTI: Yeah. President Obama met Indian Prime Minister and Pakistani Prime Minister separately at Blair House --


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Oh, I see, during the Global Nuclear Security Summit.


PTI: Yes. Was there any common message delivered? Because two days later the President at a press conference said that he wants to reduce tension in South Asia. He didn’t mention again Pakistan specifically, but we thought that he meant India and Pakistan.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The President’s message was the same that we have always been saying to both of our friends which is that again, we hope that they can meet and that they can resolve their differences because it’s in all of our interest that these two friends be able to resume the peaceful relations that they had between 2004 and 2007.


PTI: You have best friends in both countries, but what’s your sense? What’s so deep in the trust deficit in the two countries? Or is it something else do you think that’s preventing two countries to come together, talk?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think the principle problem is that of terrorism. And it’s important for the Pakistanis to continue the important steps that they have taken against terrorism in Swat and South Waziristan and against some members of the Taliban, and that they extend that fight to the groups that are based in the Punjab such as the LET that are attacking not only India but the United States and potentially could attack Pakistan itself. So that is a message that I conveyed during my recent visit to Pakistan. I think it’s a message that the Pakistanis themselves feel is important to do. They have consistently said that they do not want to see terrorism emanating from their soil. And I think progress towards reining in the activities of LET and Jaish-e Mohammed and other such groups would have a very significant impact on bilateral Indian and Pakistani ties.


PTI: Why has Pakistan been a little bit reluctant in taking action against LET or Jaish-e-Mohammed as India would like to? Is it the intent or do you think they don’t have the capability to open all difference at one time?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: You’ll have to ask our Pakistani friends that. I don’t really want to speculate on what their motivations might be.


PTI: Coming back to Indo-U.S. relations. As you know, the nuclear liability build was tabled in the government today. And BGP and left party both walked out of it. And given here in the U.S. you have bipartisan support for the nuclear deal and the Indo-U.S. relationship, you don’t see that kind of support, bipartisan support in the Indian political system as of now. So what’s your sense of how do you see Indo-U.S. relations going forward?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: This is certainly an important part of continuing the implementation of the civil nuclear deal. We welcome the commitment of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government to tabling the legislation. And as I’ve said before, the timing and the management of that bill is something that we will certainly leave to the judgment of the Prime Minister and his team. They are in the best position to judge how to manage that and when to move it forward. We trust their judgment.


PTI: And next month, in a couple of weeks we are having a first strategic dialogue between India and the U.S. What does this mean for what you want to achieve through such a dialogue?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: This is going to be a very important event in our bilateral relations. This will mark the first time that we are holding a strategic dialogue at the level of Secretary Clinton and Eternal Affairs Minister Krishna. We understand that External Affairs Minister Krishna will be bringing a high level delegation with him. We look forward to not only a comprehensive review of the progress that we have made in the five pillars of our cooperation, but also to reviewing some of the very important regional issues that are on our bilateral agenda. Then we also will look forward to the President’s visit to India later this fall. So this is a very welcome opportunity and will be another strong affirmation of the strong friendship and the strong partnership between the United States and India.


PTI: Can you elaborate about the regional issues that you want to talk on those --


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to elaborate on that now because we haven’t had it yet, but I’m sure we’ll be able to provide a read-out after the talks take place.


PTI: As you said, the five pillars of strategic dialogue. One of them is terrorism. How the cooperation with the two countries is going on, especially in this field after post-Mumbai?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think it’s very strong. It’s one of the strongest parts of our cooperation. Home Minister Chidambaram, as you know, had a very positive visit here last year, and we’ve been implementing the various parts of the undertakings that we had during that visit. We remain in very close touch and in very close coordination on many of the terrorist threats that India faces. And we work in as close as possible fashion to share information to prevent terrorists from carrying out attacks inside India that could affect not only India, but also Americans that live in India.


PTI: You mentioned about [inaudible] a common threat to India and U.S. and now based in Pakistan. So is there any effort on your part or coordination between three countries to jointly tackle these two groups, Lashkar e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think there’s trilateral cooperation yet. Again, as I said earlier, we hope to see progress by Pakistan to address LET which we think would be in Pakistan’s own interest, but would also have a great benefit for improved relations with India and Pakistan.


PTI: Do you ever feel the need of a trilateral cooperation?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let’s start with bilateral and then maybe we can move on to trilateral after that.


PTI: I that’s all I’ll ask. Thank you.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you as always for your interest, and I thank all of your readers as well.