MR. VENTRELL: Good afternoon. Joining us today is Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake. Assistant Secretary Blake is here to read out his recent travel to the Maldives as head of the U.S. observer delegation to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, also known as SAARC.
Without any further ado, Assistant Secretary Blake.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, thank you very much. Hello, everyone. Nice to see you all again. As was said, I represented the United States at the 17th summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation that was held last week in the southern atoll of Addu in Maldives. As many of you know, SAARC has eight member nations and nine observers. The United States has been an observer at SAARC since 2007 because of the importance that we attach to our relations with each of the SAARC countries, but also because of the importance that we attach to greater regional integration.
At this year’s SAARC summit, several of the SAARC heads of state lamented that SAARC has made only incremental progress towards regional integration. They said that intraregional trade represents only 5 percent of total trade. The SAARC states hope to implement a South Asia free trade agreement by 2016, and there was some progress that was announced during the recent summit. The leaders agreed to finalize a regional railways agreement in the next year and to create an Indian Ocean cargo and ferry service by 2012. But SAARC members were not ready to endorse proposals to move up the date for SAFTA implementation.
And I think there are several reasons for that. First, SAARC operates by consensus, and tensions for many years between India and Pakistan have inhibited regional integration efforts. That’s why the recent progress between India and Pakistan has been so important, not only to reduce tensions between those two important countries, but also to enhance prospects for regional integration. The warming between India and Pakistan, in fact, began at last year’s SAARC summit that was held in Bhutan. And this year, Prime Ministers Singh and Gillani met again and reaffirmed that there’s now a new chapter in their relations as a result of Pakistan’s decision to grant most favored nation status to India.
The second impediment to faster integration has been the concern of some SAARC states that they would not be able to compete with India if they opened up their economies. Sri Lanka’s bilateral free trade agreement with India shows that that is a misplaced concern. Total volume of trade has quadrupled during the 11 years that their bilateral FTA has been in effect, and Sri Lankan exports to India have increased more than Indian exports to Sri Lanka. In my own speech, I explained our support for greater regional integration not only within South Asia, but between South and Central Asia and Secretary Clinton’s vision of a New Silk Road linking the economies of South and Central Asia in a web of trade, transit, and energy connections.
In keeping with Secretary Clinton’s QDDR guidance to enhance our engagement with important regional institutions, we’ve also appointed our Ambassador in Katmandu, where the SAARC secretariat is located, to serve as our liaison to SAARC and to explore how we might be able to do more with SAARC, both with the secretariat, but also with some of the regional SAARC institutions, such as the SAARC University in New Delhi.
So let me stop there, and I’d be glad to take your questions either about the SAARC summit or about any of the meetings that you might have an interest in. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador, for coming here. Just like you have U.S.-EU summit or U.S.-Asian summits, are you looking into that on those lines for having such kind of cooperation with SAARC?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, we’re not. I mean, as I say, we’re an observer country and we welcome that role, but we’re not seeking to enhance our role in any way.
QUESTION: And when you were there, you rightly said you had – the prime minister of India and Pakistan met there. As a observer, what did you feel about that, the meetings between the two prime minister?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, I think we were very encouraged by the very positive meeting that took place between Prime Minister Singh and Prime Minister Gillani. Again, they reaffirmed Pakistan’s decision to grant MFN status to India, which is a very important step forward. The commerce secretaries will be meeting, I believe, tomorrow and Wednesday to further their dialogue, and we hope there will be recent progress – continued progress, and I have every reason to believe there will. And I think that, again, there’s been very good progress across a whole range of fronts between the two countries over the last year, and we very much welcome that.
QUESTION: Andy Quinn from Reuters.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.
QUESTION: You mentioned that they had these various sort of discussions of framework agreements on railways and ferries and so on, but --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right.
QUESTION: -- they weren’t able to move up the implementation plan for that. Was it your view or is it the U.S. view that the implementation plan should have been moved up, or it sort of deserves to be moved up? And how does this play into the Silk Road strategy? If you don’t have those in place, how can you begin building on the broader idea of the Silk Road if they don’t have those basic transit things going?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, our view is the faster this regional integration can take place, not only within South Asia but between South Asia and Central Asia, the better for the people of the countries of both regions. So yes, we encourage the countries to move as rapidly as possible to enhance integration. And again, we think that that would bring tremendous benefits to the people of South Asia, and that as integration proceeds in South Asia, that will open up important opportunities for Afghanistan, for Pakistan, and the countries of Central Asia to export more into this market.
So things like the transit trade agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan and extending that transit trade agreement into the countries of Central Asia are very, very important pieces of that, and again, very much part of the vision that Secretary Clinton has laid out.
QUESTION: Can I ask an India-related question?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Please.
QUESTION: Of late, you have been trying to reach directly to the Indian states. You have traveled to West Bengal, Bihar, and in other states. Can you give us a sense why this diversion of approaching – having direct links to the states? And what --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, first of all, we’ve always had many, many important links with the states. We have consulates all over India, and we attach great importance to working more closely with the states. We recently have begun an effort to try to enhance state-to-state ties between our two countries – Special Representative Rita Jo Lewis recently made a trip to India with that in mind – because we believe there are quite significant opportunities for individual American states to do more with their Indian counterparts. And indeed, there’s quite a lot of dynamism at the state level in India, so we want to just try to capture that, and again, encourage those state-to-state and city-to-city links. And so I think you’ll see more of that in our relations over the next several years.
QUESTION: One state I would like to ask you about, the state of Gujarat. A lot of American businesses have been going there, and they term it as a business-friendly state. The growth rate is really high. But the chief minister has been denied visa to the U.S. Is there any reviewing that thing?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, there are no new developments on that. But as you say, Gujarat itself remains a very important place for American investment. I think it’s shown itself to be a very welcoming environment for American business to flourish. And we’ll continue to promote investment, encourage investment into that state.
All right. Well, thank you all very much, and again, I’m always happy to talk to you whenever there’s interest. Thanks again.
QUESTION: Thank you.