Media Roundtable

Press Conference
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Beijing, China
March 18, 2011

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much. Let me first of all say it’s a pleasure to be back here in Beijing and to see many of you again. I’m very happy to speak to you today after the conclusion of what were very productive and constructive discussions with counterparts from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

First I’d like to just begin by thanking the Assistant Foreign Minister, Cheng Guoping and all of his Ministry of Foreign Affairs colleagues for hosting me and my delegation, and again for the very constructive discussions that we had.

I’d also like to take the opportunity to convey my deep condolences for the tragic loss of life and the widespread suffering that has occurred in northeastern Japan. As President Obama has emphasized, the United States is determined to do everything possible to support the people of Japan in overcoming the effects of this devastating earthquake and the tsunami that struck there on March 11th.

As all of you know, the United States has contributed significant aid donations and supplies as well as military support, disaster relief personnel and nuclear experts. Other nations are also doing their part.

We’ve all been impressed by China’s contributions in terms of money, material and dedicated search and rescue teams, and I think it speaks volumes to our common humanity in the face of this terrible tragedy.

While the United States has had several sub-dialogues with China on South Asia, this morning we held the first sub-dialogue on Central Asia. The purpose of this sub-dialogue was to explore with officials from the Chinese government and to discuss how we can collaborate and coordinate our efforts in Central Asia in areas of mutual interest. I think we share with China an interest in ensuring the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all the Central Asian nations.

In our discussions we covered a wide range of issues such as regional political developments, energy security, the role of multilateral organizations and humanitarian concerns. As a result of those discussions I think both sides have come away with a greater understanding of each other’s interests and each other’s priorities in Central Asia.

In my capacity as Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia I’m responsible for developing and implementing U.S. policy for South Asia as well as Central Asia, so I was also pleased to be able to take advantage of my visit to Beijing to have very productive discussions on developments in South Asia.

The United States is very aware of China’s important role in the region. We welcome China as a strong, prosperous and successful member of the international community. We see South and Central Asia as one of the most diverse yet least integrated regions in the world. Given its incredible diversity, facilitating inter-regional dialogue and exchange and cooperation is an immense challenge, so coordinating our efforts in the region with major actors like China is that much more important and again, very much in our own interests.

While the countries in the South and Central Asian region have developed along different trajectories, we still consider them all to have great potential. Rapidly growing economies like India; fast emerging markets like Bangladesh and Kazakhstan; and resource rich countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan highlight the existence of this potential.

In addition to our bilateral engagement we talked about the importance of greater engagement with relevant regional organizations. In Central Asia the Shanghai Cooperation Organization seeks to bolster security, economic and cultural cooperation between China, Russia and Central Asia. We see the potential for greater U.S.-China dialogue on areas of mutual interest such as counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism in support of the SCO’s efforts.

Through greater engagement with regional organizations across South and Central Asia we seek to facilitate spheres of cooperation among regional organizations that reflect the geopolitical and economic realities of a 21st Century Asia. China’s support will be critical in this effort.

Again, I really want to thank all of you for coming today, and I’d be delighted to take your questions.

QUESTION: We all notice the ongoing disasters and nuclear leakage in Japan, so I know that you’re responsible for making, implementing, developing policies concerning Central and South Asia.

America has a civilian nuclear cooperation project with India. Concerning the ongoing nuclear leakage in Japan is there any revised or reconsideration concerning the nuclear cooperation between the United States and India? Is there any revised or reconsideration there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. We remain very much committed to pursuing civil nuclear cooperation with India. I think it’s too early to try to make any judgments about what kind of impact the disaster in Japan is going to have on the civil nuclear industry worldwide, but that obviously is one of the questions that everybody will be looking at.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask a follow-up question to that. The U.S. and India have a nuclear agreement. China and Pakistan also have a nuclear agreement and I wanted what is the U.S. position on that? Has it changed recently? And is the U.S. accepting of that or opposing the Chinese-Pakistan nuclear deal?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We expect China to abide by the commitments that it made when it joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2004, and in particular we think the construction of new nuclear reactors such as the Chasma 3 and 4 would be inconsistent with those commitments. That remains our longstanding position.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. making any sort of noise internationally - is this a big deal or is the U.S. - there have been some reports I’ve seen saying that the U.S. is relatively quiet about this.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’ve been very clear in the Nuclear Suppliers Group context about that position, but we’ve also been very clear on the need to support Pakistan’s energy development. Pakistan is facing quite severe energy shortages in many parts of the country so the United States has I think been in the lead in many cases in trying to help Pakistan to deal with those challenges and to not only refurbish some of its existing capacity to make it more efficient to help meet those demands, but to look at new ways to help, again, meet those energy challenges. But those remain a very considerable challenge in Pakistan and that will be one of our highest priorities of going forward.

QUESTION: I wonder, how do you think food crisis in Central Asia, do you think there will be a similar food crisis in Central Asia this year? And would you like to discuss this activity?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think in many parts of Central Asia there definitely are food shortages and this is part of our dialogue with countries like Tajikistan how we can help them to improve their food security. But rising food prices around the world affect all of the countries and affect the United States as well, so this is one of the Obama administration’s signature initiatives has been to try to improve global food security and we’re working very closely with partners like India and Bangladesh in particular to look at this not only on a regional basis, but what we can do on a global basis.

QUESTION: Also, we notice you have very rich and unique experience in North Africa. Yesterday we noticed that UN Council has agreed to have no-flying zone in Libya. So do you think the timing is mature for United States to take further military actions to achieve America’s strategic goal there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As you know I’m not responsible for that region, but certainly we welcome the passage of the UN Security Council Resolution with ten votes in favor and five abstentions. We think that reflects a strong international determination to address the crisis in Libya. Beyond that I can’t really comment because I’m not close enough to what’s going on. I’ve been in China this whole time, and not up to speed in terms of developments in Washington and New York.

QUESTION: The Chinese government is trying to develop copper coal in Afghanistan, and the United States is trying to stop that [quota] [inaudible], trying to preserve the cultural heritage. What’s the update of the copper coal and what’s the take of the U.S. government on it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: To be honest, I’m not aware of the archaeological reference you just made. But in general let me just say that the United States is making very significant efforts to help the development of Pakistan [sic]. We have, Secretary Clinton gave a speech not too long ago in front of the Asia Society in which she talked about three separate surges that have been going on. First a military surge, in tandem with that a civilian surge on the part of the State Department and the U.S. Agency of International Development and other civilian agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to help to develop Afghanistan, particularly the agricultural sector. The third stage now is going to be an increasingly important priority which will be the diplomatic surge and particularly efforts to encourage Afghan-led reconciliation efforts and reintegration efforts, and to again, all of this in support of helping Afghanistan to meet its challenges and increasingly to take responsibility for not only security but other aspects of its development.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask some follow-up questions about the position on the China-Pakistan nuclear deal. You had mentioned in your answer that the U.S. finds moving forward with the Chasma 3 and 4 reactors unacceptable. What happens if it goes forward anyway? Is that a problem? And do you think this kind of deal, this kind of activity would have a bad effect on the international --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t think I used the word unacceptable.

QUESTION: Sorry. That was in my notes. Maybe you said something less strong. Sorry.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I said it was inconsistent with their NSG obligations.

QUESTION: Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t really want to comment beyond what I’ve already said. What I’d like to emphasize is that it’s very important that on the one hand China observe its NSG obligations, but on the other hand, that the international community do as much as possible to help Pakistan to meet its energy needs. Again, I think we think there’s a lot that can be done in non-nuclear areas that help do that.

QUESTION: Are the Indians concerned, have they expressed concern to the U.S. and do they want the U.S. side to do more?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Not beyond what we’ve already talked about which is again, to hold Pakistan [sic] to its NSG commitments. I think that’s their principal concern as well. They I think also understand that Pakistan has severe energy needs and that this affects internal stability and therefore it’s important for all countries to help to, again, help Pakistan to meet its own energy needs and that in turn can help, for example, many businesses get back on their feet and employ more people. So it has I think a very important sort of balance effect on the rest of the economy.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say that you and the Chinese officials did discuss this in your meetings this week?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Actually, this particular issue did not come up.

QUESTION: My question is on India. How would you describe the status quo of the India-U.S. relationship? And what is India’s role in the China-U.S. relationship? Some are saying that the U.S. is using India as a hedge against China. Would you comment on that? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all, the United States considers India to be probably one of the defining partnerships for us in the 21st Century. President Obama had a very successful three day visit to India in November of 2010 in which he announced for the first time U.S. support for India’s candidacy as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. That I think reflects our sense that India is first of all going to be a very important partner for the United States going forward, but also is a very constructive force in the world. Increasingly India wants to be a responsible stakeholder, wants to help on all of the major issues confronting the world. Things like nonproliferation, climate change, and we’re very pleased that India is working closely with us in such areas as Afghanistan, helping to address poverty in Africa, and issues such as that.

Again, we think India’s going to be one of our defining partnerships in the 21st Century.

In terms of how that reflects on China, we support growing relations between India and China and we have reassured our friends in China that growing relations between the United States and India will not come at China’s expense, and that we want to see the growth of our relations with China, our relations with India, and India’s relations with China.

QUESTION: You just said that your trip [inaudible] Central Asia and the United States.


QUESTION: I’d like to know have there been any concrete talks on what kind of cooperation did you explore in that region? Also what is the feedback of the Chinese officials that you talked to regarding cooperation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I was struck by how much we have in common in terms of our assessment of the situation in Central Asia. I think that broadly speaking we welcome the important role that China is playing in Central Asia in terms of helping to develop for example the energy infrastructure and road infrastructure, and we talked a lot about that. We also talked about the importance of both of our countries continuing to work on challenges that affect both of us in the region. Things like counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism, because these are not only a threat to countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, but also things that directly affect China as well. So these are areas where we might look to try to do more in the future together.

QUESTION: Is there any concrete plan for the next set of sub-dialogues between the U.S. and China?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think we’ve agreed that we’d like to continue these I think on an annual basis. Whenever our Chinese friends are in Washington I told them we’d welcome the opportunity to continue this dialogue and this conversation. Again, we feel this is a very good start and a good basis for continued dialogue not only on Central Asia but also South Asia.

QUESTION: Are there any concerns about China’s role in Central Asia?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. I wouldn’t say there are any concerns. Again, we’re trying to think of ways that we might be able to do more together. I think particularly in Afghanistan that we welcome the steps that China has already taken and we’d welcome additional help by China in Afghanistan complementing the important assistance that it’s provided to the countries of Central Asia.

One of our highest objectives is to try to increase integration between Central Asia and South Asia. We’ve been very encouraged by the progress that has been made on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, for example, which we think can be a very valuable opportunity to increase energy links between these two important regions. But we think there could be other infrastructure efforts that build on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, for example, that would allow for greater trade between South Asia and Central Asia. So there’s a lot to be done, and we think that China can play such an important role in helping to spur this effort at greater integration.

QUESTION: I just want to follow up your comments. Suppose the United States heard for Central Asia and South Asia to become an integrated bloc, that is a very strategic and great thing. Then China is Central Asia or South Asia’s neighbor, but the United States is not. So how could United States guarantee or realize its own strategic interest in the region?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We support integration because we think it would make such an important difference to the prosperity and stability of the region which itself is of growing strategic importance to the United States. I think one of the longer term challenges in a country like Pakistan is where are the jobs for its growing population going to come from? Pakistan’s population is going to double over the next 20 years. I think one of the most promising areas for providing economic opportunity for the young people of Pakistan is trade with India, but also trade with a wider region. That’s why we think the Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement should be expanded to include some of the Central Asian countries, so we’re looking at those possibilities. But also that’s why we support greater regional integration in the South Asian region through the SAARC mechanism, the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation.

These two regions are among the least integrated in the world right now, so all of the countries would benefit a great deal from greater integration. It’s certainly in our interest, and I think in China’s interests and the interests of the countries themselves to promote greater integration.

QUESTION: Also some great American strategists noted last year saying that America’s strategic focus is shaped from the West to the East. So here, in the East, do you think the East includes Central Asia and South Asia?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It does. It includes, I think we’re putting more and more of a focus on Asia as a whole. That I think was the main message behind President Obama’s trip last year to Asia, India, Korea, Indonesia and so forth, was precisely that. The growing strategic focus that we have on Asia and that’s reflected not only in the economic dimension in terms of the shifting patterns of trade where Asia now comprises the majority of our trade, but also, again, the importance of countries like China, India, and of course the tremendous importance of the Afghanistan and Pakistan region and stabilizing that region, and particularly ensuring that the terrorist groups that are based in Pakistan and partly in Afghanistan cannot pose a threat to our homeland.

QUESTION: [Inaudible] the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, so will it become a principle in terms of U.S. and China cooperation of Central Asia?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We discussed that today with our Chinese friends, and we think that potentially it could. As you know, the SCO is a consensus-based organization and the United States has not made any decisions about whether we’re going to seek some sort of status within as an observer or as a dialogue partner. But at the same time we do have good relations and good dialogues with all the SCO members, and we think the SCO is a good platform for discussions on how to improve stability and prosperity in the region. I look forward to meeting later today with representatives of the SCO.

QUESTION: I have a question unrelated to the China-Pakistan --


QUESTION: I was just curious if you can give an assessment on another international grouping, the BRIC, the B-R-I-C that includes India which is in your portfolio. Is that something the U.S. should be worried about or what is the U.S. position on --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Not at all. These are all countries with which we have good relations and I think it’s natural for them to have a dialogue. We certainly welcome that dialogue. Of course we’re pursuing strong relations with every single one of those countries. It’s natural that they would also want to have their own dialogue.

QUESTION: But the U.S. does not feel excluded --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We don’t see that as a threat. And no, we’re not seeking membership in the BRIC or anything like that.

QUESTION: We noticed [inaudible] the diplomatic services in Tunisia, in Egypt, so actually when you’re looking back, do you see any similarities? What is the cause do you think, in your mind, for these social upheavals in these countries? And do you think this social unrest will stop there or will continue to spread all over the region?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think there are sort of several causes. One is lack of opportunity, particularly a lack of jobs in places like Tunisia and Egypt. Both of those countries have very high youth unemployment rates. I think a second is a perception in some of those countries that their governments were not responsive to their needs and to some of their aspirations.

We think governments around the world need to be mindful of the lessons of what’s going on in the Middle East and what’s already transpired in Egypt and Tunisia. Indeed, in the Central Asian context I myself have spoken about this in previous interviews, that they too need to be mindful of this. It’s very important that the governments provide, that they as much as possible try to develop market economies so that they will be able to provide the jobs that these young people would like to have, but it’s also important that they address some of the problems that exist. Problems like corruption that again undermine the confidence of the people in their government and in their leaders, and it’s very important that they open up more in terms of the political space that is now afforded to the people in many countries.

What we see on the contrary is that in many countries in Central Asia you see a narrowing of the political space and a constriction of the political space. So a very important part of our dialogue with the Central Asian countries is to encourage more freedom, more media freedom, greater for example loosening of restrictions on the internet and greater freedom of worship as well, because we think that all of those are a way of allowing the people to express themselves peacefully and to vent some of their frustrations in a peaceful way and not allowing those to build up in a way that could cause the kind of upheavals that you’ve seen in Tunisia and Egypt.

QUESTION: What is the third? You said three reasons. [Laughter].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I thought I only said two, but broadly speaking, economic and political opportunity.

You guys are tough! [Laughter].

QUESTION: Compared with last year, the U.S. returns to Southwest Asia, and your Secretary of State went to the countries by herself and your President is also there. Will you use the same approach to deal with the Central Asian countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me just say as a general proposition that the United States as a whole is expanding our engagement with Central Asia. We’ve initiated a series of annual consultations that I chair that cover every aspect of our relations, and it’s the first time we’ve ever done this. We’re now into the second round of those. I’m headed off to Kazakhstan on this particular trip for the next round of our consultations with Kazakhstan, and in April I’ll be doing the same with Tajikistan. But we’ve also encouraged other members of our government to do the same. So Secretary Clinton, for example, attended the OSCE Summit that took place in Astana in December and after that she paid a visit to Kyrgyzstan which, as you know, has undergone a very important democratic transition to a parliamentary democracy which we think is a very important development in the region. After that she went to Uzbekistan which is an important partner for the United States in many respects and is doing quite a lot to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan in particular.

QUESTION: To come back to Afghanistan and maybe Egypt or Libya, which one do you think is more important for the United States in terms of strategic focus?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: In all of South and Central Asia you’re talking about?

QUESTION: No, just Afghanistan is part of Central Asia and this is your job, right? And for Egypt and also Libya, this is part of the North Africa or Middle East. Compare the two, which one is more important for the United States in terms of American foreign policy strategic focus?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry, are you talking about the Middle East versus - that’s a hard question. I don’t want to try to compare apples and oranges. Both of them are very important, obviously.

I think in terms of the amount of assistance that we’re providing and the amount of American personnel that are deployed, I think Afghanistan is clearly the most important and probably our most strategic focus. Primarily, as I said, because that and Pakistan are the areas where the attacks of 9/11 emanated and we want to be sure that we can help both those countries to develop sufficiently, both economically and to develop their own security forces so that they themselves can manage the security challenges that they face, and so that they themselves can prevent terrorists from operating within their territory, and not only threatening their countries but threatening the United States.

QUESTION: That is to say if America needed China to have some collaboration with America, then Afghanistan is the priority? Or Egypt?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t want to try to compare. Egypt is also an extremely important country, but in terms of the areas within my responsibility, again, as I said earlier, we have a lot of common interests with China in the stabilization of Afghanistan and there are groups that are based in Pakistan that are threatening China as well as the United States and we talked about that today. China agrees that the international community needs to do all it can to help both Pakistan and Afghanistan to deal with their many challenges. Again, as I said, China has done a lot but we would welcome whatever else it can do to help because it does play such an important role in the region. I think in itself would benefit from not only enhancing development and security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but enhancing broadly the regional integration that I’ve talked about earlier.

QUESTION: One topic I wanted to ask you about that would come under your portfolio is the Dalai Lama. I wondered if the Dalai Lama was discussed at all in your meetings with Chinese officials, and if you could at least give a sense of what the - how did the discussion go? What are the Chinese concerned about? What does the U.S. say? And does the U.S. have any concerns regarding the Chinese --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: To be honest, it didn’t come up. That’s an easy question.

QUESTION: Since you are going to meet with SCO late in the day.


QUESTION: What kinds of issues are you going to bring to the talk?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’d like to hear from officials of the SCO about their perception of the situation in Central Asia and how SCO as an organization but also individual members are working to address some of the challenges that the region faces. I think that will really be the focus of our conversation.

QUESTION: So what specific challenges?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Every country is different. I’d say, for example, in places like Tajikistan which is one of the poorest countries in the region, has a 1400 kilometer border with Afghanistan so it faces not only poverty but also the challenge of providing economic opportunity for its young people. It’s fortunate that many of Tajikistan’s population are able to find work outside of the country in Russia and in Kazakhstan which I think provides a very important outlet but also a very important source of remittances. But then also I think Tajikistan, as I said earlier, needs to look at the political situation as well and how it can, again, provide more opportunities for expression by its young people.

QUESTION: Going back to BRIC, does the United States not worry at all about the dialogue and welcome the countries to interact with each other? And there is also this kind of saying that with the Brits going more political and also with its large economy, they are kind of pushing back to traditional powers such as the U.S. and the UK. I’d like to know what are your comments on that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t know. The area that I’m focused on in India, for example, I think as I said earlier, India is a country that increasingly wants to work with the United States and has taken an increasingly important global role for itself. We’ve seen that in the increasingly constructive roles and efforts that it’s making in the nonproliferation area, in climate change, and again on things like food security. So of course they want to have dialogue with their other friends and partners and we welcome that. But we judge countries by our own bilateral relations. In the case of India at least, we’re very pleased and very encouraged by the progress in our relations and again, we see it as one of our most important partnerships going forward.

It’s a pleasure to see all of you again. I’m sorry I’ve got to run off to, in fact, my SCO meeting so I can’t spend any more time here. But it’s always a pleasure to interact with the press here, and I look forward to seeing you on my next trip.

Thank you very much.