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Diplomacy in Action

Interview With Suhasini Haidar of CNN-IBN

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
New Delhi, India
February 19, 2013


CNN-IBN: Robert Blake is the U.S.’ point man for South Asia, and he joins us now to talk about all the events right now.

Mr. Blake, you come to India at a time of many events, but in particular I’d like to start with the Maldives and with the situation over there. In your discussions with Indian officials have you spoken about all that has happened? As the situation gets tenser, a new arrest warrant against Nasheed even as the government has criticized it, there is a move of giving him refuge in the Indian High Commission.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I haven’t had a chance to discuss it today yet because we’ve had mostly our Afghan discussions, but we’ve been in very close touch throughout this whole crisis with India, and I think we have a very similar perspective on the situation in the Maldives. We both think that there needs to be due process for Mr. Nasheed. We both think that we all need to take, do everything we can to help prepare for elections that will take place later this year, and we all think that all the parties in the Maldives should be allowed to choose their own candidates.

CNN-IBN: I ask you this specifically because within a few days of the actual deposition of President Nasheed, you were in Malé dealing with that situation. The U.S. has certainly taken a very keen interest in events in the Maldives. Would you consider a more direct intervention of the kind India is doing, mediating between the government and Nasheed’s people? Do you think the situation in the Maldives merits a U.S. intervention now?

Assistant Secretary Blake: It depends on what you mean by an intervention. We’ve had a succession of visits over the last several months, as has the Commonwealth, as has the government of India. Again, we all work together very closely. I think we have a very common assessment of the situation.

CNN-IBN: But if the government was to move to in some way trying to enforce the arrest of President Nasheed or put off elections, is that something the U.S. would in fact consider taking a more direct role in?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I don’t want to try to engage in speculation about what might happen. But our bottom lines again are, this all needs to take place in the context of the Maldivian constitution, and in the context of these very very important elections that are taking place.

All of us have a strong stake in the Maldives because they’ve been a very strong supporter of things like climate change and international human rights issues that are extremely important to the United States. So this is a country that we would like to see succeed and its institutions respected.

CNN-IBN: You’re saying that given that the Maldivian government is actually criticizing the Indian decision to keep former President Nasheed in the mission for more than a week; do you support the Indian decision to do that?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I’m not fully up to speed on the discussions that have taken place between India and the Maldives, but again, we and India have a very close assessment of the situation.

CNN-IBN: Let’s talk about the trilateral then. Just last week U.S. President Obama has announced cutting down more than 30,000 more troops as part of the pull-out from Afghanistan. This has led to many concerns in India. In your discussions during the trilateral did India bring up those specific concerns, that in fact the continuing pull-out of international forces from Afghanistan could have an impact on the security situation in Kashmir? This is something that Indian officials had in fact spoken about last month.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I’ll let India speak for itself, but from our perspective we want to continue to support the Afghans and the Afghan National Security Forces. I think the point to make to all your listeners is that the ANSF has been making good progress. They now have responsibility for territory in which 90 percent of the Afghan population lives. And they also are now in the lead on 80 percent of the security operations that are taking place. So they are making very good progress.

I think President Obama’s announcements reflect that progress and reflect the desire of the Afghans to take greater responsibility for themselves.

So we will now have approximately two years until the end of 2014 to continue to help train the ANSF and to continue to assess what further assistance they might need.

I think the other important thing to stress is that NATO and the United States have pledged assistance beyond 2014 in the sense that we will continue to fund the ANSF at least until 2015 and perhaps longer, and we’ll also have a residual force in Afghanistan. The exact number has not yet been determined, but we will continue to provide that training and we’ll have at least some troops on the ground.

CNN-IBN: That certainly sounds optimistic. Even so, did India voice concerns? And certainly is that something that you accept that the kind of talks that we’re seeing with the Taliban being speeded up right now? Essentially it gives the sense that international forces are cutting and running out of Afghanistan and that they are more and more leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Assistant Secretary Blake: No, I wouldn’t say that that was the tenor of the talks today. On the contrary, the tenor was about how do we solidify the gains that have been made on the ground already and how can the United States and India and Afghanistan continue to work together?

From our perspective, India has played an extraordinarily important role in Afghanistan, not only with its bilateral assistance program, but also increasingly by showing the way on private sector investment through the Hajigak and other kinds of investments, and again through its leadership on helping to promote this idea of regional integration which we think is going to be so important in the future of Afghanistan, but also to the region.

CNN-IBN: The Pakistani Foreign Office has made very specific comments on the situation in Afghanistan. Also a direct comment on the U.S. in saying that India’s influence must in a sense be checked inside Afghanistan. Has Pakistan made conditions in all of this?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Well, it’s really not up to Pakistan to make conditions on things like this. We’re all here to support the transition in Afghanistan and we welcome the role of all the countries. Pakistan itself has an extraordinarily important role to play, particularly in this important effort of curbing terrorism that’s emanating from its region.

CNN-IBN: If I could switch subjects to the subject of the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. In the intervening months since you were here last, it’s not just the United Kingdom but also the European Union that has revoked their boycotts on meetings with the Gujarat Chief Minister. Is the U.S. reconsidering its policy, revisiting that decision to revoke his visa to the U.S.?

Assistant Secretary Blake: No, our policy remains the same.

CNN-IBN: I ask that because a year ago we certainly heard Senator Bob Corker who had written to the State Department written to the Indian Mission, the U.S. Mission, and the reply he had received was that Mr. Modi remains ineligible for a visa. Even so, you had spoken a few months ago of the possibility of him applying for a visa and then perhaps that being considered in due course.

Has the U.S. softened its position at all on this?

Assistant Secretary Blake: No, again, our policy hasn’t changed. If I said something about him applying for a visa that just refers to the fact that anybody can apply for a visa any time, but we never prejudge the outcome of such a decision.

CNN-IBN: Because of course you were the official who was called in by the Indian Foreign Office in 2005 when India had expressed its displeasure over the U.S. decision to revoke Narendra Modi’s visa. Now the EU has said that it decided to revise its decision after taking into consideration many things including the judicial process as well as the democratic process.

Is the U.S. reconsidering that decision at all?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Not at the moment. I think a lot of this will depend on some of the decisions that are made in the Indian courts, and many of those decisions, as you know, are still outstanding.

CNN-IBN: So the U.S. will wait for the Indian judicial process --

Assistant Secretary Blake: That will be one factor in our decisions, yes.

CNN-IBN: What would be the others?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I don’t want to talk publicly about that.

CNN-IBN: All right.

Finally, you’re also here at a time India’s defense purchases are under particular scrutiny. To begin with, is the U.S. at all concerned, are you revisiting any of the deals that have been done, about $8 billion in deals on the anvil between India and the U.S.? Is there a concern in the U.S. at all that many of those deals could have been secured through bribes?

Assistant Secretary Blake: No, we’re not concerned about that. We hold our companies to very very high standards. We have very strict anti-corruption regulations and those companies are well aware of that. So we are not concerned about that.

CNN-IBN: India has already moved to suspend for the moment the delivery of AgustaWestland helicopters and other deals that are being done through the same agencies are also under scrutiny. Is the U.S. looking once again to make a bid for Indian defense deals in these sectors, given that the U.S. had been quite disappointed when they had lost out on some of those deals including --

Assistant Secretary Blake: I would say that we’re very happy with the progress we’ve made in a lot of defense deals. As you know, the figures have gone from virtually nothing up to almost $9 billion now in sales just in recent years. As you also know there’s an important effort underway now to look at a more strategic level at how we can further develop our defense trade. So, we’re satisfied with the progress and we’re very excited about the opportunities.

CNN-IBN: Finally, Secretary of State John Kerry will be visiting India later this year. What can we expect from his visit? Is in fact his stewardship of the position going to be different from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think you’re going to see continuity in our continued strong emphasis on our partnership and our strategic partnership with India. Secretary Kerry has had a long history with India and attaches a very high priority to our relations, and I know he looks forward to having that strategic dialogue. He had an excellent conversation with Foreign Minister Khurshid as one of his first calls that he made as Secretary. And we’re very much looking forward to welcoming the Foreign Secretary later this week for some of the talks that will lead up to that strategic dialogue.

CNN-IBN: Robert Blake, thanks so much for speaking with us on World View. In New Delhi, I’m Suhasini Haidar.

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