State Department Live: U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Via Interactive Web Chat
Washington, DC
July 8, 2011

Moderator: Hi, welcome to State Department Live, the State Department’s new interactive web chat platform. I’m your host, Holly Jensen.

Today we are fortunate enough to have Assistant Secretary Robert Blake. He’s the Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, and we’re going to be discussing U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue. At any time please feel free to start typing in your questions in the lower left-hand of your screen, and we’ll get to as many of your questions as we can in the 30 minutes we have. You can follow SCA on Twitter at @state_sca.

With that, I’ll turn it over to Assistant Secretary Blake.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thanks, Holly, and a very warm good morning to everyone. I understand that we have journalists and bloggers from India as well as from the United States on this web chat, and I want to thank you all for joining us.

I wanted to preview Secretary Clinton’s visit to India the week after next where she will co-chair the second U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton are both deeply committed to expanding the U.S.-India partnership to benefit the people of our two countries and help shape the 21st Century in a way that contributes to global security and prosperity.

The Strategic Dialogue offers an opportunity to review the many accomplishments we’ve made since last June’s meeting in Washington and the President’s momentous visit to India last November. Also to guide and encourage our ongoing collaboration and cooperation and look ahead to new joint initiatives that we can implement.

We’ve done a lot since the President’s highly successful trip. As part of our commitment to treat India as a non-proliferation partner we de-listed DRDO and ISRO from the Commerce Department’s Entities List. We removed India from most unilateral license requirements and have worked hard with India on its membership in the four arms control regimes. We have conducted regional consultations on Asia and I held the first Central Asia Dialogue with my counterpart in June.

We continue frequently to discuss our joint objectives in Afghanistan.

On the economic side, our trade has doubled twice over the past ten years and continues to drive our partnership. In 2010 two-way trade rose 30 percent from the year before. This year we finalized the C-17 deal which gives India the second-largest C-17 fleet in the world and positions India to take a leading role on crisis response and humanitarian missions. The deal also doubled our defense trade.

Our Department of Energy announced $25 million in funding for the U.S.-India Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center, and we hope to mobilize $100 million of public and private sector funds to promote clean energy.

These activities, and there are many many more, demonstrate the breadth and the depth of our relationship.

As a result, the Strategic Dialogue will have a broad array of interagency participation including the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, Defense, and several other agencies.

As I’ve said before, this is a long-term project. Neither the United States nor India can afford to take this partnership for granted.

The Strategic Dialogue aims to construct the concrete steps that sustain the spirit of what the President and Prime Minister have started. So once again, thank you for joining us, and I look forward to your questions.

Moderator: Great. Our first question comes from Smita Prakash from Asia News International, New Delhi. She wants to know --

The Indian-U.S. nuclear deal has again hit upon a road block with the NSG tightening the rules on equipment sales. Will this deal be salvaged during Ms. Hillary Clinton’s visit to New Delhi later this month?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you very much. I appreciate that very good question. And let me say first of all that the Obama administration remains fully committed to the civil nuclear deal and to all of the commitments that were made during the President’s visit in November.

As to the recent NSG actions, let me just say that the Obama administration fully supports the so-called clean Nuclear Suppliers Group exception for India and the speedy implementation of our bilateral nuclear cooperation. Nothing about the new enrichment and reprocessing transfer restrictions that were recently agreed to by the NSG members will in any way detract from our existing nuclear cooperation. Thank you.

Moderator: Our next question comes from Narayan Lakshman from The Hindu.

Can you please explain what assurances you plan to give the Indian leaders in New Delhi about the security of their staff and assets in Afghanistan as the withdrawal of U.S. personnel from the country gains momentum?

Assistant Secretary Blake: That’s a very good question. First of all I want to underscore the tremendous respect and admiration we have for the steps that India has taken to expand its own cooperation with Afghanistan. Prime Minister Singh recently had a very successful visit to Afghanistan where he pledged to up the total amount of assistance that India will be providing to Afghanistan to $2 billion which will help tremendously in the important transition process that is underway now in Afghanistan.

The United States is fully committed to supporting that transition process, but also to helping Afghanistan to build up its economy so that it can rely more on trade and its own development and less on aid. So we have a very important role to play in that and India has a very important role to play.

I think there’s been a lot of misunderstanding about the levels of troop withdrawals that the United States will make. These are relatively modest. We remain fully committed to the NATO process of transition whereby Afghanistan will assume responsibility for its own security by the end of 2014. So we will continue to work very closely with India on this and to consult very closely, and I expect this will be a very important part of our strategic dialogue consultations.

Moderator: Do you have any concern that the U.S. may be losing out to rivals such as Russia and France in the field of civilian nuclear cooperation with India? And where do commercial negotiations stand after the passage of the Nuclear Liability Bill appeared to stall in U.S. investments?

Assistant Secretary Blake: We don’t have any concerns about losing out to the French and the Russians. We think that there are really quite important opportunities for American companies still. Two reactor parks have been set aside for American companies both in Gujarat and in Andhra Pradesh. As I said, we’re very happy that the Indian government remains committed to the commitments that it made after President Obama’s important visit to India last November.

So we look forward specifically to India’s ratification of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation, and to moving forward with some of the more technical aspects of things like the 810 assurances. As far as we know, those remain on track. Again, I’m sure these will be a subject of discussion when the Secretary visits.

Moderator: What are some of the key sectors of the Indian economy and where the U.S. will press for more market access? And could you cite specific examples of policies that you would expect to see passed by the Indian parliament in the near future?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I never like to use the word “expect” of partners, but certainly there is great interest in the United States on the part of our business community to expand both investment and trade with their partners in India. As I said, there’s already been a tremendous expansion of trade and investment between our two countries over the last ten years and we expect that to continue as India becomes the third largest economy in the world by the year 2030.

Our companies I think are hoping that the Indian parliament and the Indian government will take actions to reduce some of the limits on foreign direct investment in areas such as retail. That would provide huge new opportunities for our companies, and help India both to increase the level of foreign investment but also to increase the level of jobs in India and help to lower prices for things like food that are of increasing concern to Indian consumers. So I think this would be a net win/win for both of our countries.

Moderator: The next question comes from Shailaja Neelakantan from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The question is --

When is the Indo-U.S. Higher Education Summit going to be held and what are some of the key issues both sides will be discussing? After the summit do you have any deadlines for any partnership initiatives both sides would have discussed at the summit?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you very much Shailaja for that question. Let me say that education cooperation I think is going to be one of the most important pillars of our future cooperation in the next 10 or 20 years. American educational institutions of all kinds are very interested in expanding their collaboration with their Indian counterparts. We hope to have the U.S.-India Higher Education Summit this fall. I don’t yet have a date, but we may be able to announce it on the margins of the Strategic Dialogue. That will provide a tremendous opportunity for Minister Sibal and the Indian educational establishment to come to the United States and speak to a broad range of higher educational institution representatives on their plans for offering opportunities for American universities in India and also listening to where American universities see those opportunities. I think from their perspective American universities would like to expand their presence in India. They’d like to expand the collaborative research and development activities that are already underway. They would like to learn more about how we can work on things like faculty development in India which is going to be a critical part of ensuring that all of the young Indians that are now entering into the higher education market in India will get a proper education so they can compete in the 21st Century.

I should also mention that we have the important Obama-Singh Initiative that our President and the Prime Minister agreed to that will play a very important role in many of these activities, particularly in fostering more research and development and faculty development. So we expect some announcements on that as well on the margins of the Strategic Dialogue.

Moderator: Our next question comes from Indira Kannan from Business Standard India.

Does the U.S. have a framework for any engagement with Taliban and any preconditions or a list of who you will or will not talk to?

Assistant Secretary Blake: We do. Let me just say first of all that this is going to be an Afghan-led process. The Afghan government already has begun this process through the establishment of a High Peace Council which itself has had numerous meetings inside Afghanistan. So this is something that we very much want to support.

We ourselves have established some red lines about who we think should be allowed to participate in such a dialogue, and that includes people who are prepared to renounce violence, who are prepared to renounce their ties to al-Qaida, and who are prepared to agree to abide by the terms of the Afghan constitution. So we believe those would be a very good way of ensuring that people that do engage would be committed to the long term stability and prosperity of Afghanistan.

So this is a process that’s just beginning now. Again, I think this will be something that I’m sure Secretary Clinton will discuss with her counterparts at the Strategic Dialogue.

Moderator: Just a reminder that if you have any questions please feel free to type them in now in the lower left-hand corner of your screen.

Our next question comes from Jason Overdorf from the delhibelly Blog.

Counter-terrorism cooperation has been improving. What limitations does the U.S. desire to balance its alliances with both India and Pakistan place on how much information, access to prisoners, et cetera, that U.S. intelligence and police agencies can offer to India?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I don’t really see any limits on our counter-terrorism cooperation with India. This is a very high priority for the United States to work with our Indian friends to ensure that they have the best systems in place possible to prevent future terrorist attacks such as the terrible attacks that occurred in Mumbai in November of 2008.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of our cooperation over the last several years has been the increase in our counter-terrorism cooperation since that time. So we’re looking to build on that. We’ve just had a very successful Homeland Security Dialogue that was chaired and led by our Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, who went out to Delhi in May of this year to meet with Minister Chidambaram. They had a very successful series of meetings and agreed on a wide range of new collaborative efforts to expand homeland security cooperation and counter-terrorism cooperation.

Again, we don’t in any way try to hyphenate that with cooperation that’s going on with Pakistan or any other country. It’s something we do on its own merits and it’s something we attach a very high priority to.

Moderator: Our next question comes from Anshul Tewari from

Would the Indo-U.S. Higher Education Summit focus more on an exchange program wherein U.S. students get a chance to study in India?

Assistant Secretary Blake: That’s a very good question. It’s something that we’ve always wanted to do more on, which is to try to increase the number of American students going to India which are still relatively modest, I think between 2,000 and 3,000 right now compared to the more than 100,000 Indian students that are studying in the United States. So we are looking at new initiatives to increase the number of students going to India, both for longer term study, but also for shorter term internships and semester abroad and a whole variety of other programs that our universities offer.

Again, I expect there will be some discussions of this during the Strategic Dialogue so I don’t want to preempt that now.

Moderator: Our next question comes from Lalit Jha from the Press Trust of India.

What would Secretary Clinton’s focus be during the Strategic Dialogue later this month? And besides New Delhi, which other cities will Secretary Clinton be traveling to during her trip to India?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thanks, Lalit. First of all, I think her focus will be to review the wide range of cooperation that we’ve already had with her counterpart, External Affairs Minister Krishna, but just as important, it’s to look ahead at how do we take this relationship forward? I think the areas we’re going to be particularly focused on this year will be our cooperation to help Afghanistan to support this very important transition process that is underway, to support the regional economic integration of Afghanistan into both Central Asia and South Asia, and how both the United States and India can help in that regard. Then also just as important, how we can work together more in areas like the Indian Ocean and in Asia. I think those will be some of the key new areas of focus in this dialogue.

As to where else she’s going to travel, we’ll be making an announcement on that very shortly so I don’t want to get out ahead of that, but she will be making a visit to another city.

Moderator: Our next question comes from the Indira Kannan from Business Standard.

Is the U.S. administration optimistic there is still a window open for a U.S. company to reenter the MMRCA bid?

Assistant Secretary Blake: No. We are not pressuring the Indian government in any way to try to reopen the bid. Certainly if, for their own reasons, they decide they need to reopen the bid, we would certainly welcome that opportunity and I’m sure our companies would welcome that opportunity, but we look forward with great interest to the huge number of other opportunities that will exist in the Indian defense market over the next several years. There’s up to $30 billion just in the next several years of potential contracts out there. American companies are keenly interested in expanding their cooperation with Indian counterparts; in developing co-development, co-production types of activities; and again, expanding their presence in India. So this is going to be another exciting area of cooperation between our countries.

Moderator: The next question comes from Sanjay Abhigyan from Amar Ujala Newspaper.

Many experts believe that the two nations may never become true allies because India continues to take pride in its non-aligned status. Do you agree?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I don’t agree. I don’t consider India a non-aligned country anymore. I think that really changed after 9/11 where India really realized that it had a wide range of common interests with the United States. I don’t think that the United States and India will be allies in the traditional sense, but I do think that we have an expanding convergence of our national interests. We are both some of the leading democracies in the world. We have common values like our support for market economies, our support for peace and prosperity around the world. And we’re increasingly working together on all of these important issues to help promote peace and security.

So that is why our President has said that this is going to be one of the defining partnerships of the 21th Century, that between the United States and India.

Moderator: The next question comes from Natin Pi from Pragati: The Indian National Interest Review.

You have been one of the few U.S. officials to state that India is part of East Asia. How do you see the partnership between India and the United States shaping up in terms of the balance of power in East Asia? Specifically the South China Sea.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you for that question. As I said earlier, I expect that how we can expand cooperation and information sharing on activities in Asia will be a real focus of the Strategic Dialogue between the Secretary and External Affairs Minister Krishna. Already we’ve announced that we’re going to have a trilateral dialogue between the United States and India and Japan. And that we look very much forward to India’s increased participation in East Asian institutions such as the East Asia Summit. So I think there’s a tremendous scope for greater collaboration in this area. And again, this will be very much an important focus of the dialogue next week and the week after.

Moderator: The next question comes from Natasha Israni from Times Now.

You’ve said before that challenges faced by India include corruption and lack of transparency. How do you think this has also impacted investments by American companies into India? And do you plan on discussing this with India?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think that corruption and lack of transparency have had some impact. You’ve seen that in some of the figures where the investment figures have not been as high as the Indian government might have hoped. But I also am confident that the Indian government is taking this challenge very seriously. It has been a preoccupation of the Indian parliament for the last year. So I certainly hope there can be progress on this because that would provide a further incentive for companies to expand their already quite robust investment in India and again help to promote greater trade and investment between our two countries.

Moderator: The next question comes from Saruabh Joshi,

It has also been reported that even after the announcement of lifting of trade restrictions on Indian defense research establishments during President Obama’s visit to India last year the sanctions continue in place. Could you clarify the status of these restrictions? And have they been removed for practical purposes, or do they remain in place?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Let me state categorically, those sanctions have been removed and were removed in February. The Commerce Department took the necessary action to do that, so those sanctions are no longer in place.

Moderator: Great.

The next question comes from Jason Overdorf, and forgive me if we’ve already asked this.

India has already stepped up civilian aid to Afghanistan in helping to build the infrastructure and train civilian servants and police. What role would you like to see India post-war Afghanistan? And what specific limitations are on India post-war presence in Kabul?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I would just like to express my government’s support for the steps that India already has taken to expand its activities in Afghanistan. The lion’s share of the $2 billion that India has committed are devoted to infrastructure development which is going to be an increasingly important priority for the United States as well. We think that it’s vital to not only develop the roads, the rail systems, the electricity and other kinds of infrastructure that will enable Afghanistan to get on its own two feet economically, but it’s also important for us to do whatever we can to help some of the very important regional infrastructure projects that are already underway such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline and projects such as the CASA-1000 Project, the Central Asia South Asia electricity transmission line that is now under consideration as well.

So these are things that, as I said earlier, would have a tremendous impact, not only in helping Afghanistan but also helping to build the trade and investment networks and open those up so that there can be a much more vigorous trade and investment between the countries of Central Asia, the countries of South Asia, and particularly the huge markets of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh that could help so much the development not only of Afghanistan but also Pakistan and Central Asia.

Moderator: Our next question comes from Anshul Tewari again.

What are some of the critical steps the Obama administration will take to counter terrorism in Pakistan and stop it from spreading into India?

Assistant Secretary Blake: This, of course, is the question of the hour right now after the actions that were taken against Osama bin Laden. As Secretary Clinton has said, our relations with Pakistan are very complicated, but it’s also an extremely important relationship, and it’s also extremely important for India as well.

Pakistan has suffered more than any other country in the world from the scourge of terrorism inside its own country, and Pakistan has pledged to ensure that its territory is not used as a platform for terrorists to attack other countries such as India or the United States. So we’re working very hard with Pakistan to ensure that that becomes a reality, and again, this is sometimes going to be a bumpy road, but it’s very much in our interest to pursue this important relationship with Pakistan, to help Pakistan to meet the many economic, energy and security challenges that it faces. That indeed is why we have our own very important assistance program with Pakistan.

Moderator: Our next question comes from Natin Pi from Pragati.

Do you see the India-U.S. strategic relationship as providing a basis for India to attempt reapproachment between U.S. and Iran? After all, if the U.S. and Iran get over their vexed relationship the entire geo-politics of the region would be transformed.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think the U.S.-Iran relationship is going to be decided on the basis of some of the important efforts that are already underway on the Iranian nuclear program. I don’t expect that India will have a huge role to play in that, although we do value our dialogue with India on Iran. Let me just leave it at that.

Moderator: The next question comes from Indrani Bagchi.

There are increasing reports of rejections of H1B and L1 visas to Indians from Indian companies. Why is this happening? And will this be discussed during the dialogue?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you Indrani. I don’t know if this will be discussed or not. I know this remains a high priority for Indians. Let me just say that we want to stress that India already is the overwhelmingly largest recipient of H1B and L visas. It receives more than 40 percent of the total number of those visas that are issued worldwide. So I don’t think we need to apologize for that and I’m a bit surprised to hear that there are large numbers of rejections because, again, India has been the largest beneficiary of this program and we think that, again, this has been something that’s good for India and good for the United States.

Moderator: This is our last question.

What do you hope to achieve at this round of the Strategic Dialogue, and why is this different from previous rounds?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Let me just go back to what I said at the beginning. The United States and India have come a very long way in the last ten years. We’ve built up our bilateral cooperation. We’ve begun to cooperate at the regional level where we have a terrific dialogue on all of the regional issues that India and the United States confront. And now increasingly we are taking our strategic partnership to the global level where we’re now beginning to talk intensively about how we work together on the big issues of the day like non-proliferation, like climate change. And this year I think we’re going to really take it to the next level by talking about important issues like our cooperation in Afghanistan, important issues like how we expand our cooperation in Asia. This is why, again, President Obama has been so clear in saying that this is going to be one of the most important and defining strategic partnerships for the United States. We are so confident that we and India have converging interests and that we together, working together, can do so much to ensure a more secure, prosperous, and stable world.

Let me conclude this again by thanking all of the participants that have joined us today. We look forward to seeing many of you in Delhi. And certainly we thank the American participants as well.

Moderator: I’d like to thank everybody for joining State Department Live. If you would like to continue this conversation you can do so on Twitter by using the hash tag askSCA. You can also follow SCA on Twitter at @state_sca or you can follow us in language on Twitter at @usahindimein. Thanks for joining us.