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Diplomacy in Action

Interview With India Abroad

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
June 9, 2010


India Abroad: Speaking about these meetings, from briefings to web chats to blog forums, et cetera. What’s with this campaign? Is it to show the administration’s commitment to this relationship which some analysts and commentators in both India and U.S. had sort of raised doubts about?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, it’s certainly to show commitment to the relationship, but it’s also part of Secretary Clinton’s priority that she attaches to public diplomacy and to doing as much public outreach as possible about the initiatives that we in the State Department are undertaking. We’re very proud of the progress that we’re making with India, and we think it’s also important to try to dispel some of the doubts that you referred to. So as with any big dialogue that we have with China or Brazil or any of these other countries, we do this kind of thing. We’re also expanding now to use a lot of the new social media. Our bureau now has a Facebook page and we do blogs and so I would encourage your readers to go onto the State Department web site. I think they’d be quite amused to read some of the more personal things that people like me or even the Secretary write in their little Twitter things. So they go a little bit beyond the somewhat more formal, official statements.


India Abroad: There is no denying that with President Obama gracing the Secretary’s reception, that most [inaudible] wonderful in its significance, and that it was such a sort of rare guest, who cannot be discounted. And obviously should sort of put some of the criticism of the nay-sayers to rest. But I remember at the first briefing when I asked you about what the tangible deliverables are going to be, you first said there will be deliverables and we’ll announce them. Then later on you said it just doesn’t matter about deliverables, it’s about how we go forward from here.


But in terms of as the old lady said, where’s the beef in terms of the dialogue? Besides the recreation and commitment and the heavy symbolism, where were the tangible deliverables? Where’s the beef?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We decided we really didn’t need to have too many deliverables, and we really did decide that what was important was to emphasize the strategic nature of this dialogue. This marked the first time that we have had very senior ministers from both of our governments gather together in one room across the table from each other to think strategically about how to take our relations forward, particularly in preparation for the President’s very important visit in November. That was the real deliverable. And getting all of those people together, and the very productive dialogue that ensued and the very good ideas that emerged from that dialogue. And I think that you heard from External Affairs Minister Krishna and other members of their team, that they shared our enthusiasm for some of the dialogue that took place. And again, the remarkable convergence of views that we have on so many different issues. Therefore the optimism that we have, that we can really begin to put some concrete initiatives together that will really show to our two publics the value of the relations that we have and the important initiatives that will be undertaken in areas like education and agriculture and trade that will truly benefit peoples across the spectrum in both of our countries.


India Abroad: In that regard, two of the major initiatives sort of on the anvil are energy and education. On both fronts India is still to ratify the nuclear liability legislation and the education bill in order to sort of garner investment of American universities and colleges, is still to be enacted.


So on both these fronts is the ball squarely in India’s court?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The ball is in India’s court on those two fronts. We were pleased to hear from our Indian friends that they are strongly committed to the passage of both of those bills hopefully this year. And we really leave it to them to manage the often complicated process of moving this through the Indian Lok Sabha. Of course there is some opposition to these, and we recognize that, but we also again appreciate the commitment that they have shown to this and I think it’s important to underline that these are things that are going to benefit India as much as they’re going to benefit the United States.


The nuclear legislation when it goes through will enable the United States companies to establish new nuclear reactor parks in Andhra Pradesh, and Gujarat. That will have a significant impact on India’s energy future, both in terms of providing a significant new source of electricity, but also in terms of a new source of lower carbon electricity which I think is very important to both of our futures.


The education bill likewise is going to be an extremely important part of ensuring that India can continue to be a knowledge-based economy. India is now in the process of putting in place a right to education process that will graduate large, new numbers of secondary students, all of whom or many of whom will aspire to higher education. And India presently does not have the capacity to provide that education. So they really see that the United States is in a unique position to help them by providing these investments, by enabling American universities of all different kinds, from community colleges right up to our Ivy League universities to come in and help to meet that capacity. And that will also benefit us because our American students can begin more study in India and perhaps even more importantly, our universities will be able to start to do much more in the way of joint research and development that I think can have, again, very wide benefits for both of our peoples.


India Abroad: Ambassador, at an earlier briefing you said on the eve of the Strategic Dialogue you yourself acknowledged that you could understand the concern in India over the nuclear liability legislation, considering the Bhopal tragedy which was perhaps the worst industrial disaster in the world.


Now with the fact that the court verdict has come out, and for instance the BJP has come out very strongly saying that the liability bill should be dumped, et cetera. Are the liability caps justified? Are those liability caps justified?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t really want to look at that issue. That is really for the Indian government to decide. Our interest, as I have said many times, is really to ensure that the bill that ultimately is enacted is compliant with the international standard in this area which is the Convention on Supplementary Compensation. That is our chief interest. And issues like what should be the cap on liability I think is really up to the Indian government to decide. Again, we trust their judgment on that. Again, they have an interest in providing a regime that will be attractive to investors so that they will have the incentive to invest.


India Abroad: At your briefing at the Foreign Press Center the other day you also spoke about easing export controls on India before President Obama’s visit, which has been sort of one of the pet peeves the Indian side has constantly brought up. I believe Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao also discussed this with Under Secretary Bill Burns. You did mention that there would be a focus on lifting some of those restrictions on enteritis like [Istro] and DRDO. Are these already in the works?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. Discussions are underway about perhaps reducing the entities list, and I’m confident that we’re going to be able to make progress before the President’s visit. I believe such progress would then enable us to really think about some quite exciting new initiatives in the areas like space cooperation and areas like defense coproduction and co-development. I think that’s going to be really the next era of defense cooperation between the United States and India. And again, reflects the progress that we’ve made on defense cooperation.


I also hope that we will see some progress on the Indian side on things like lifting the cap on defense in foreign direct investment. That will provide an incentive for our companies to invest more in Indian companies, and again, to take this process forward.


India Abroad: Ambassador, you also said that the President himself is looking forward to ambitious results during his trip and that you are going to develop a schedule and a series of results to match that. I know you can’t sort of discuss specifics, but can you describe sort of the broad contours of that?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t really want to try to suggest too much detail right now because the planning is really just beginning for this right now. I think that we will seek to have ambitious results in all of the pillars of our cooperation and beyond. So it won’t just be about ensuring concrete and ambitious deliverables, but also ensuring that the President has a schedule that truly reflects and amplifies the scope and the breadth of relations not only between our two governments, but between our two peoples. Again, all of the Indian-Americans who are here and all of the ties that now exist at so many levels between our scientists and our business people and so many others, that really provide the ballast and the strength of our relationship, that is I think what makes our two countries unique. So we really hope that the schedule that we can jointly agree on with our Indian friends will capture that breadth.


India Abroad: Can you speak to perhaps that he may, besides Delhi, maybe visit Bamalo and Mumbai and --


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s too early to say where he’s going to go yet, but again, I'm sure we’ll have some very detailed discussions about that. It will be fun to plan that.


India Abroad: You also [inaudible] sort of the India-Pakistan talks next month among the foreign ministers, said I don’t think Kashmir is really the question on the table now, and that the real question is to get some progress on the trial of the Mumbai suspects and Pakistan coming down hard on stopping the terrorism of the Lashkar and other Punjab based terrorist groups against India.


You also told BBC that those are really the red lines their established for really establishing or reestablishing the composite dialogue. But senior Pentagon officials including Admiral Mike Mullen have contended that if the Kashmir issue can be resolved, it could perhaps help sort of alleviate the threat of terrorism and suggested that it could also lead to Pakistan moving troops that have sort of moved on the border with India to sort of the western front and help in the fight against the Taliban and the al-Qaida in Afghanistan.


So is there a disconnect here between the State Department and the Pentagon?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, there’s no disconnect. I agree entirely with what Admiral Mullen says, that the resolution of the Kashmir issue would have very far-reaching implications for not only Indo-Pakistani relations but also for just the kind of movement of troops that he described.


I think he would agree, though, that it’s a question of sequencing. The two countries are not going to just start talking about Kashmir. They will have to build up to that and will have to develop sufficient trust and confidence in each other to begin to discuss what in truth are the most sensitive issues on their agenda, that is these territorial issues that have long bedeviled the two countries.


But again, let me stress, as I always have, this is really something for the two countries themselves to decide and the United States doesn't have any kind of role in that sequencing or the pace or the scope or the character of that dialogue, but we obviously do encourage our two friends to try to resolve their differences because it would have such an important benefit not only for them but also for some of our wider efforts in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan.


India Abroad: And in that regard is it fair to assume that you’ll have kept on Pakistan to make sure that these Mumbai terrorists are brought to justice, that Lashkar and other Punjabi terrorist groups that have been crossing the border and infiltrating into India are checked. Has that been a constant refrain? Or has there been any easing of pressure at any time? Dual strategic interests perhaps?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, it definitely remains a very high priority. And we’ll continue to encourage that. The important thing now is to understand that Pakistan needs to just show visible progress on those issues and that will then open the door for I think a much wider scope of cooperation to take advantage of, for example, the tremendous trade opportunities that exist.


I saw that Minister Sharma recently met with Foreign Minister Kareshi and they agreed that there are tremendous opportunities afforded by trade.


So I think both sides are well aware of the great new opportunities that would arise if they can first get these wider talks going, and that would be only possible if Pakistan can make some visible progress on the two issues that I mentioned.


India Abroad: Foreign Minister Krishna told us just before he left that he brought up India’s concerns over China’s sales of nuclear reactors to Pakistan during the Strategic Dialogue which he believes is in violation of NSG guidelines. Why has the U.S. been silent on this? Why has the U.S. been sort of so circumspect on this?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think we’ve been that circumspect. I mean I was asked about this when I went to China for our dialogue with the Chinese on South Asian issues, and I was asked about that and I said at the time that we think that this should receive consideration by the Nuclear Suppliers Group and it’s up to them to determine whether there should be any kind of exception to their guidelines on this issue. I think that remains our position.


India Abroad: And if the sale goes through without NSG’s sort of exemption, is that something you will protest? Is that some concerns you will bring to the NSG and other members of the NSG?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let’s see. I’m confident that this will be a subject of the NSG discussions next week when they meet in New Zealand, so let’s wait and see the outcome of that.


India Abroad: And Ambassador, why is it that the U.S.-India meetings were the Strategic Dialogue and the U.S.-China was both a Strategic and Economic Dialogue? Does that show that you have gone much farther vis-à-vis China?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you. That’s an important question because I think there’s sometimes a misunderstanding about what the purpose of the Strategic Dialogue is.


The purpose of the Strategic Dialogue between India and the United States is not to replace the 18 other dialogues that we have that cover in great detail trade and financial issues and many of the economic issues that you refer to. It’s more to provide an overarching look at where to take the relationship forward, and how to capture and take advantage of some of the opportunities that we have before us. It’s in no way to subsume these other dialogues which will remain extremely important. For example, Treasury Secretary Geithner leads our financial and economic forum; the U.S. Trade Representative leads another dialogue; and all of those will continue and will continue to be extremely important.


So again, the dialogue is more to take a sort of 30,000 foot look at what needs to be done and to look ahead, and not so much to get down into the weeds of what these dialogues are doing.


India Abroad: I’ve got a couple of questions on Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, in an interview with BBC has said that former General Sarath Fonseka could be hanged if he continues to suggest that top officials like him, that’s Rajapakse, had ordered war crimes during the tail end of the war with the LTT. What is the U.S. response to this, and has the U.S. registered its concerns with the Sri Lankan government over this call for perhaps the hanging of Fonseka?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Mr. G.L. Peiris recently had a very successful visit to Washington in which he had a very productive meeting with Secretary Clinton and a joint press appearance. At that appearance, Secretary Clinton welcomed the briefing that Foreign Minister Peiris provided about the steps that Sri Lanka is taking now that its two elections are behind it, and now that the President has a two-thirds majority in parliament.


Foreign Minister Peiris told the Secretary that on the issue of accountability that Sri Lanka has established a reconciliation commission that will investigate reports of war crimes at the tail end of the conflict. The Secretary welcomed that. The Secretary also encouraged the Sri Lankans to work with the UN since the UN has a great deal of experience in these matters.


So our position is that this commission should now be given a chance to do its work and we have laid out a series of parameters that were described by Ambassador Rice in a statement a few months ago about the experience that we and the UN and others have had with such commissions in the past, and I think your readers would, I would refer your readers to the statement that she made that provided quite a lot of details about how such commissions can be successful. We were very pleased that Foreign Minister Peiris had read that statement and indeed had said that the commission that Sri Lanka has established will meet the criteria that Ambassador Rice laid out.


So again, I think we believe this commission should be given a chance to do its work and we’ll see after that.


India Abroad: I had a question on the commission itself also, but sort of sticking with the Fonseka, this threat of the hanging of Fonseka and the fact that here he is under house arrest and all that kind of thing which some people argue is just because he had the gall to seek the presidency and challenge President Rajapakse. What are your views on this fact that he is being held under house arrest? Isn’t there anything, have you expressed any concern at all about General Fonseka’s sort of safety, security, that kind of thing?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We have expressed our interest in assuring that General Fonseka is treated fairly and in accordance with Sri Lankan law. We were pleased to hear that whatever decisions are made by the military courts that are now considering the two different charges against General Fonseka will be reviewed by higher Sri Lankan civilian courts, and that that will be done in a public manner so that there will be an assurance of due process. So now we’ll have to just see.


We have not had access to the charges against General Fonseka so we’re really not in a position to comment on those.


India Abroad: Ambassador, coming back to the reconciliation commission that Minister Peiris spoke to you about, there have been critics and others who have been saying that this is another sham because there is not going to be any independent or international observers and in that regard, is the U.S. going to keep a close watch on sort of the commitments that Sri Lanka made in that it’s going to be a high level commission, that there are very credible people who are going to serve on the commission, but the fact that there are all these critics like the International Crisis Group, Amnesty International, others, who say that it’s just a sham because it’s a commission, government appointed commission and there are no international observers or international independent monitors.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well it is a government appointed commission but it does have independent experts on the commission. Not everybody on the commission is a government employee, in fact very few of them are.


So again, our view is that this commission should be given a chance to do its work. We always believe that it is best to have domestic answers to these very serious problems that exist because those in the long run, if they’re credible and independent and really get to the bottom of whatever the issue is, will be much more acceptable domestically. And that’s particularly true in a country like Sri Lanka where there is still some polarization.


So we always favor a domestic accountability mechanism if it can be credible. But I think the reason that groups like the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch and others have been skeptical is that Sri Lanka’s record with such commissions in the past has been rather poor, and nothing has really ever come of such commissions. So they are understandably skeptical, and I think it’s really incumbent upon the Sri Lankans to show that this is going to be different. And Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Peiris went to great lengths to explain that this is going to be different, and that this will produce concrete serious results.


So again, let’s give them a chance to show their bonafides on this.


India Abroad: Even as we speak Sri Lankan [inaudible] Rajapakse says, made his first state visit to India, there have been many agreements and other agreements that have been signed. It’s probably gone off very well. He and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hit it off, et cetera. Will the U.S. -- But the Indians have brought up strongly the fact that there are still a good number of IDPs who have got to be repatriated, et cetera. Will the U.S. in concert with India work to alleviate the situation vis-à-vis these IDPs? And in terms of sort of monitoring the fact that they have indeed been repatriated, relocated, et cetera? And will the U.S. also in concert with India be sort of keeping a check and monitoring this reconciliation commission holding the Sri Lankan government’s feet to the fire in a sense in carrying out all the commitments and pledges that have been made with regard to this by Mr. Peiris and others.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The U.S. and India have a very similar view of the situation in Sri Lanka and the steps that need to be taken. We have worked very closely throughout the last several years on the situation in Sri Lanka, and again, I think we have a real convergence of views on how that situation has evolved.


The United States, as you know, has been the largest bilateral donor of food aid to the internally displaced people and we are already looking at other programs that we can do to help with livelihoods, for example, for those who have been released from the camps, and to encourage new business development in the north because those will be critical to ensuring stability in that area that has been underdeveloped and suffered so much after LTGE rule of 30 years.


So I anticipate that we will continue to coordinate very closely with India on this matter, and that we both will continue to engage Sri Lanka to see the progress that all of us want to see on not just reconciliation, but devolution of power to new democratic institutions in the north, greater respect for the rights of all Sri Lankans. And these measures collectively will help to bring peace and prosperity to this island that has been divided for so long.


India Abroad: A final question, Ambassador, and I would really appreciate if you could give me sort of the inside track and scoop on this.


My sources say that the Indian investigators who came to interview Headley had indeed been given access and that they are returning tomorrow to India. Is that correct?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: All I’ll say on the record is to confirm what General Jones said over the weekend which is that the Indian team has been granted access. But I simply don’t know where it stands at this moment and when they might be leaving and when all of those -- those are things that are managed by the Department of Justice and really you’ll have to talk to them.

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