Assessing U.S. Foreign Assistance Priorities in South Asia

Nisha Desai Biswal
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific
Washington, DC
April 30, 2014

Opening Remarks as Delivered

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Bera, members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify today. It's an honor for me always to appear before this committee in particular and a pleasure to be here alongside my good friend and colleague, Denise Rollins.

Mr. Chairman, the president's fiscal year 2015 budget request for South Asia comes in at just shy of $350 million, not including the countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it recognizes the important role that the United States continues to play in supporting democratic development and promoting economic opportunity in the region. This hearing is particularly timely given the historic transitions that are now under way in South Asia.

You both have commented on the incredible display of democracy going on in India with 800 million eligible voters and India's democratic development. Its rise as a competent and confidant and capable power that advances regional stability, security and prosperity is something that the United States welcomes and supports.

And the U.S.-India relationship has continued to mature, deepen and grow over successive administrations in both countries. We continue to facilitate growth in our trade relationship and ensure new opportunities for businesses in each other's markets. Our collaboration on energy, science and technology, environment, space, education and counterterrorism continues to deepen.

And our security cooperation, Mr. Chairman, with India is a central element of the broad U.S.-India strategic partnership. And we look forward to working closely with the next Indian government to build on these efforts.

In Bangladesh, the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory one year ago has galvanized an international movement to strengthen workers' safety and labor rights in Bangladesh. And while much remains to be done, the United States and other international partners have helped make significant progress in Bangladesh over the past year.

Nepal has also made significant strides, building democratic institutions after years of conflict. Both Bangladesh and Nepal, due in large part to our assistance programs, are both on track to achieve their Millennium Development Goals related to child and maternal mortality, and have both significantly improved food security for their people.

In Sri Lanka, while we saw the end of a brutal conflict in 2009, the country is still undergoing a fragile transition. And while we are disappointed that the government has failed over the past four years to take adequate and meaningful steps to support accountability and reconciliation, the United States is committed to working with the people and the government of Sri Lanka to strengthen its democracy and to help the country move towards a more durable peace.

Mr. Chairman, given the elections and transitions underway in this region, now is a time of enormous opportunity to help shape a more promising future for the people across South Asia. And under President Obama and Secretary Kerry's leadership, we are doubling down, so to speak, in Asia.

Despite many challenges, including weak regional architecture, high poverty rates and limited regional infrastructure, we can envision a future where Asian economies are connected through trade and transit from Central Asia to South Asia to Southeast Asia and beyond.

The administration has placed a strategic bet on regional economic connectivity through our New Silk Road and Indo-Pacific economic corridor initiatives. We know that peace and stability are much more likely to be sustained when the countries of the region are tied together in trade and when their economies and their people are invested in each other.

Earlier this month, Afghans turned out in record numbers to vote, defying threats, intimidation and violence. Their courage and determination to protect their democracy shows that they are committed to a better future for themselves and their children, a future where a more stable and secure and prosperous Afghanistan is connected to a stable, secure and prosperous region.

On the eastern front of South Asia, we see real opportunity to connect South and Southeast Asia in light of the historic transition undergoing in Burma. And the improvement of relations between India and Bangladesh and the growing ties between India and its ASEAN counterparts allow for more efficient, integrated and open markets across the region.

But clearly one of the biggest obstacles to regional connectivity is India and Pakistan. Trade normalization between these two historic rivals could be a game-changer. And we have been encouraged by positive signs from Islamabad and New Delhi that things may be moving in the right direction. We are hopeful that we will see strong leadership from both governments following India's election.

Mr. Chairman, let me just conclude by saying that as I look out over the horizon and assess the challenges and opportunities for the United States and South Asia, I'm struck by the enormous potential of a region that will be increasingly consequential to our interests in the years ahead. Much of the story of the 21st century will be written in this part of Asia, this part of the world where a little goes a long way and where our assistance has tremendous positive impact on the ground.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And I'd be happy to take questions.