Q&A Session with CII Members & Media

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
At the CII Meeting
Kolkata, India
June 17, 2011

QUESTION: Sir, with your permission, first of all may I bid affectionate farewell to Madam Beth Payne who has been a close friend, and she visited our school, and I think she is one of the experts of Bengal. She has looked in every nook and corner, and I hope the next person also will do so.

Sir, I have two questions. The first one, Beth must have informed you there has been a sea change in the political environment in Kolkata, in West Bengal, and normally we find whoever comes from outside, they come from Delhi, go to Bangalore and go back. Whether in the new environment we can expect an accelerated investment in West Bengal. That’s the first question.

Second, sir, you mentioned that by 2030, 25 percent of the Indians will be in the workable population but said they need education and skill. Everybody who can, goes to US or UK to study. Now we already have a small beginning with a university, the West Kolkata University. Can we expect more such collaboration in the field of education and skill? That’s the question. Thank you, sir.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much for that question.

In terms of whether we’ll continue to see more investment into West Bengal, a lot of it will depend on the enabling environment that the new government puts together. I know personally Dr. Amit Mitra and I know a lot of the other people who have come in with the new Chief Minister. They’re all very able people and I think they are committed to trying to provide a more enabling climate for foreign trade and foreign investment. But they have to compete with not only other cities and regions in India, but with the entire world to try to attract foreign investment. It’s important that they again do their maximum to provide opportunities.

All of us are very conscious of the fact that there are a great many opportunities here in West Bengal. Not just because of the large market here in West Bengal itself but the potential for accessing some of these growing regional markets such as in Bangladesh and beyond. We’ve been very pleased to see over the last two years the growing ties between India and Bangladesh, and your state stands to benefit a great deal from that. Again, that opens up potential opportunities for U.S. and other companies.

In terms of the question of education, American education providers of all kinds, not just higher education but also some of our community colleges, some of our vocational training institutes, are all interested in doing more business. There already are good examples at the state level of quite prominent investments that have taken place such as the International School of Business down in Hyderabad. But again, it’s very important for there to be a good enabling environment. There’s a very important education bill now that is pending in front of the Lok Sabha in Delhi that would provide some parameters for investment by foreign universities. So people are waiting very anxiously for that.

We are going to be hosting in the fall with Minister Sibal a Higher Education Summit to provide an opportunity for American universities of all kinds to learn more about the opportunities here, and also to provide an opportunity for them to provide constructive feedback to the Minister as well. I know the Minister himself has been very active already in many different trips that he’s made around the region and around the United States to promote greater investment. I think that will pay off because there is great interest.

As I said, India has this great demographic dividend now, and for you to really take advantage of that, it is really incumbent to ensure that all of today’s young Indians get the 21st Century education that they will need to compete in this increasingly globalized world.

QUESTION: Mr. Blake, you very rightly said time is now. I would like to repeat my question, which I mentioned in my original observations regarding the generalized system of preference - renewal of GSP which is creating some kind of road look in enhancing our trade relations between India and US particularly, and as you discussed the generalized system of preference is beneficial for US consumers to get their goods at comparatively lesser cost, and for exporters and the exporting countries, which are generally developing countries, for them to expand their market. So when do you think the GSP is going to be renewed?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As you know, GSP has to be renewed by the United States Congress. It is certainly an administration priority for this to be done. I don’t really want to try to hazard a guess of when that might happen. As many of you know, we’re beginning an important new election cycle that will culminate next year in both presidential and our own congressional elections. Trade, of course, is always a very controversial subject when we have an unemployment rate of nine-plus percent. But I can tell you that our President is committed to free trade and is committed to helping particularly countries like India. So that’s all I can say about that.

QUESTION: About ten years back I was directing the India study program of George Mason University. And the Dean from the School of Public Policy visited Kolkata for the first time and his very frank observation was that Kolkata needs a much better public image and it needs to bolster its public relations because he said that before he came to Kolkata he thought he would be stepping over sick and dying people in the streets. I want your frank opinion on this, do you think that Kolkata has a very negative perception in the US also? Not a diplomatic answer. [Laughter].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: If you’re talking about sort of the average American, perhaps that’s true. I’d say your average American business person has a much more sophisticated view of the situation and is much more knowledgeable about what are some of the opportunities here. But again, I just want to go back to what I said in the earlier comment which is you’re competing against a lot of other very dynamic parts of India like Gujarat and the south, all of whom are also trying to attract that same investment dollar. So it’s really important to have the best possible infrastructure, the best possible incentives to attract that foreign investment, and I hope the new Chief Minister and her team will be seeking to put those in place.

QUESTION: First of all I want to thank Sanjay Buddhia of Patton for sponsoring the event. I would like to express my sorrow that Ms. Payne will be leaving us, but Mr. Blake has assured that somebody will be coming who will be as equally as she is good for us.

Mr. Blake, I want to make one point. The Eastern Region so far has been totally neglected by US. Delegations coming to India - they go to Delhi and Mumbai. They have forgotten Kolkata. I also want to make a comment on the observation. Don’t let the dying one to die. Please help the dying one to survive. So Gujarat and others should not be the destination – Kolkata is to come up. So please help. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me tell you, one of our important priorities going forward over the next several years is to increase what we call subnational engagement. That is state to state and city to city engagement. A wonderful dynamic woman by the name of Reta Jo Lewis was hired by Secretary Clinton to really champion this effort and to move this forward. She has made India one of her priority countries, so she’s going to be coming out here soon to begin that process.

Again, there’s a lot to be done at that level, because as all of you know, many of the important changes and many of the most dynamic things that are happening in India are happening at the state level. So it’s important that we in the US government focus not just on the center but on capitalizing and working with the folks who are promoting these kinds of dynamic change. So we will be doing that.

Certainly, as I’ve already said, West Bengal is one of the largest economies in India, one of the larger populations, well educated population. So there are opportunities here. And we’ll be helping to do our part to encourage people to come here, to work with the US-India Business Council and other partners. But you also have to promote yourself as well. That’s your job. You need to send people to the United States and explain what the opportunities are, what specific sectors you want to target, and then make sure there’s, again, good incentives to make it an attractive place for an American company to come and invest.

QUESTION: I just want to say that regarding education can a delegation be sent from the USA to talk and find out to our counterparts in West Bengal or India?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The question was can we get an education delegation from the United States. Sir, I think the first priority will be for us to organize something more at the macro level, at the federal level, which is this summit that I spoke about which will take place this fall in the United States. Then after that I think depending on where the bill is here about what kind of incentives will be provided, what the laws will be for investment by foreign universities in India and whether they can set up campuses here and what is the minimum level of investment they must make, and those kind of things. Once those are in place, I think at that point American universities will come and they will begin much more active exploration of partnerships, whether they want to establish their own campuses and there are a whole range of different kinds of partnerships that are open to them. So again, it will have to be a two-way street where people in West Bengal will have to both at the state level but also the universities themselves will have to reach out for partners.

I’m also responsible for Central Asia. I was struck, quite recently, when I went to Kazakhstan and there’s an English language university that’s been set up by President Nazarbayev who is the leader of Kazakhstan. He went out, his head of the university went out, and has now found nine university partners from the United States including Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, and some of the very big and best universities in the country. But that didn’t happen because I or somebody else was doing that. That happened because they went out and actively marketed themselves in the United States. That’s what it’s going to take. It’s not speeches by me here at the CII in Kolkata. It’s on the ground, active work to explain what the opportunities are and to, again, make sure to give those partners in the United States a sense of what the opportunities are. I think there are a lot of things, as we’ve already talked about. In the mining area, in the energy area, information technology, perhaps tourism, all the sort of East Asian and sort of Southeast Asian opportunities.

There are a lot of attractions here for a potential partner, but it’s up to you to really go out and market those.

QUESTION: I have a question regarding a very recent event. That is the B1 visa fraud charge against Infosys. Whether that’s true or false, that is for the jury to decide, but what impact do you think it is going to have on the trade relations of India and the US if proven correct?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think it will have a major impact on our trade relations. Our trade relations have a momentum all their own that is not driven by how many B or H or other visas are given. The fact of the matter is there’s a huge volume of new visas that are being issued every year by our consulates and by our embassy in New Delhi. India is the largest recipient of H visas; one of the largest recipients of L visas which are the intra-company transferee visas; and will continue to be so because it’s a very dynamic economy and growing economy. Again, the whole range of B visas also are increasing fast.

That will be I think a sort of momentary blip. Infosys itself is obviously a very well-known company and will continue to be a very important partner for a wide range of American companies.

I think we have time for one more question.

QUESTION: I was wondering whether any investment is being planned from General Electric in this part of the country.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: There’s a very important contract that is now under consideration that two large American companies are bidding on. Of course that will be the decision of the Railways Authority. But I think a decision on that is anticipated in the next very short period of time, the next month or two. People are anticipating that decision.

We have to give the women at least one chance to speak. [Laughter].

QUESTION: Good afternoon, sir. Sir, I’d like to know whether India and its neighboring countries could do something on the coastal security, uh, with the help of the US. I would like to have from your own experience - as you have worked in India and Maldives and Sri Lanka. Thank you, sir.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Are you talking commercial or more on the military side?

QUESTION: It’s both.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I can tell you on the military side already we do quite a lot. The protection of the sea lanes and efforts at counter-piracy and of course counter-terrorism are some of our most important priorities strategically. Not only here, but across the entire Indian Ocean region. This is an area where we think we’ll be able to do much more with India. We’ve already had good cooperation in, for example, countering piracy off the coast of Somalia. But an increasingly high proportion of global trade and the global energy trade will be passing right through Indian waters, and then through the Straits of Malacca, so I think it’s quite important that the United States and India work together, but that we also think about wider partnerships with the countries of Southeast Asia, for example. So I think that will be an area for possible conversation during the strategic dialogue that Secretary Clinton and External Affairs Minister Krishna will have in mid-July.

Already we do a lot of that kind of thing with other partners in the region like Bangladesh where there’s quite important cooperation to stop, for example, infiltration into Bangladeshi waters by potential terrorists and others. So there’s quite a lot of effort in terms of capacity building, and cooperation with the relevant services in Bangladesh.

So this is indeed a very important priority and one where you’re going to see more efforts and more of an international effort as well.

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