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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities in South and Central Asia

Nisha Desai Biswal
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs

Washington, DC
December 3, 2013




10:00 A.M. EST

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MODERATOR: Good morning and welcome, everyone, both here at the Washington Foreign Press Center, as well as those of you joining us in New York. We are extremely pleased to have with us today Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal, who will discuss U.S. foreign policy priorities in South and Central Asia. This is her first time to the Foreign Press Center since being sworn in on October 21st, 2013, and we certainly hope it won’t be your last.

You received her bio when you came in, so in the interest of time, I’m going to invite Assistant Secretary to the podium to say a few words, and then we’ll move into questions.

Assistant Secretary.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, thank you all very much, and we had hoped to have some coffee and bagels and little small treats to soften you up, but our logistics are still working it out, so it’ll get here soon.


But listen, it’s such a pleasure to be here, and thank you all for coming out, and it’s good to see so many familiar faces in the crowd as well. I’m just going to take a few minutes to outline some opening thoughts and comments, and then just happy to respond to any questions that anyone has beyond that. And this is my first big press conference, so I hope you guys will go easy on me.

As many of you know, and as you’ve read in my bio, I come to the State Department with a long experience on Capitol Hill, at USAID, and working in the humanitarian and development community. And that brings, for me, a particular perspective on how I approach our foreign policy and diplomacy in the South and Central Asia region at this very important time. Because fundamentally, what I’ve learned through my career is you really can’t talk about national security without talking about human security. And you really can’t focus on our foreign policy and diplomatic engagement through just government-to-government channels. Your foreign policy and your engagement also needs to speak to the hopes and the aspirations of the people of the region. And that’s what I bring, is that fundamental belief.

One my favorite quotes – and I saw it when I was in Dhaka just a couple of weeks ago – is a quote from Senator Edward M. Kennedy that’s on the EMK Center in Dhaka, and that is that “Our relationship is not just government-to-government, but it’s people-to-people, citizen-to-citizen, and friend-to-friend.” And I hope that in my tenure, that I can underscore that.

This is a region of extraordinary geographic, linguistic, cultural diversity, extraordinary beauty, and incredibly vibrant societies. But it’s also a region that’s facing great challenges and in the middle of very important transitions. So while many see these transitions as a source of anxiety or uncertainty, I actually see them as a source of opportunity. And that’s what I want to talk about a little bit, are the opportunities that I see ahead of us.

In the past year alone, five countries in the region have undergone national elections: Maldives, Tajikistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan. And certainly in some of these elections – in Nepal and in Pakistan – these have been historic and consolidations of strong democratic traditions and gains. And we work with these countries on strengthening their democratic institutions and seeking greater political participation and recognizing the progress that has been made.

We also have three big political transitions that lie ahead in Bangladesh, in India, and in Afghanistan. And since I just came from Dhaka, let me just start there to say that while we really welcome the announcement of elections on January 5th, we do think that there is an urgent call for concerted efforts at dialogue to bring the two major political parties closer together. That had been my message and my emphasis during my trip, and that continues to be our call today. We also call on all sides to restrain violence. Violence has no place in the democratic process. And we think it’s very important that all sides find ways to move forward to have free, fair, credible, and peaceful or violence-free elections in Bangladesh.

In India, voters have demonstrated, time again in this world’s largest democracy, a robust and resilient democracy. And it’s an impressive process to watch unfold, as hundreds of millions of people go to the polls in a peaceful manner. And so we look forward to the Indian elections, and we look forward to watching that process unfold. We’ve also worked closely with India to learn some of the lessons of its democratic process and its election process to see how particularly the technical capabilities that India has built up can benefit other countries as well. And the United States looks forward to working in close partnership with India with whatever the outcome of that election process will be in terms of the next government that comes into place.

Throughout the region, we’ve been working with governments and civil society to work to build those political transitions and to support both young democracies and more established ones. We want to continue to support the efforts of inclusive and participatory political systems. We want to support the rights of ethnic minorities and religious minorities in all of these countries and marginalized communities. And we continue to stress the importance of political reconciliation in countries that have been plagued with civil conflict, such as Sri Lanka.

We’d like to see a region that is much more interconnected, and I think we have a historic opportunity with two key transitions that are underway in the region – the one in Afghanistan and the one in Myanmar. Myanmar is not under my area of responsibility, but it affects greatly the opportunities that the countries of South Asia have in terms of, for the first time, being able to see a South Asia and a Southeast Asia join together in trade and commerce. And similarly, as we see the political security and economic transition ahead for Afghanistan, there’s a tremendous opportunity to see the countries of Central Asia connect in trade and commerce to the countries of South Asia.

When President Obama talks about the rebalance to Asia, this is fundamentally the vision that he’s talking about – the vision of an Asian landscape that is bound together in trade and commerce, a vision of an integrated trade landscape. And I often talk about the fact that the Asian Development Bank has put out this study – and other studies corroborate – that Asian economies have the potential in the coming decades to comprise 50 percent of global GDP. Now, that’s not a probability, but that is definitely a possibility.

And to make that possibility become a reality, the countries of the region need to address challenges of inclusive growth, of improved governance, of combating corruption, of diversifying their economies, and engaging in investing in the citizens of their countries. These are all areas that the United States stands ready to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the countries of Asia to ensure that that vision of Asian prosperity and Asia’s role in creating a shared prosperity around the globe is realized.

Already, we’re working with our partners in the region on major energy trade customs and people-to-people projects that support that connectivity. CASA-1000, which is creating an energy grid that brings surplus hydropower from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to meet energy needs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is ever closer to being a reality, and we’ve narrowed that financing gap considerably.

TAPI, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline that would seek to bring Turkmen gas to meet the energy needs of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, is again ever closer to becoming a reality, and we look forward to working with the countries in the region to address the remaining challenges. And really, the work that we have done over the past decade in investing in road and infrastructure in Afghanistan and across the region is all about supporting that integrated landscape.

Similarly, as I had noted, the political transition in Myanmar creates an enormous opportunity to connect India, Bangladesh, the countries of South Asia, to the countries of Southeast Asia. India has already recognized that enormous potential and has already started lining up its own investments and infrastructure in capacity. And the United States and countries of Asia are very interested in supporting that connectivity.

So as I mentioned, this vision is one of tremendous potential, and it’s a vision that is not of the U.S. making; it’s a vision that’s really of the region. That vision of a New Silk Road really captures what, to me, as a young girl who was born in a small town in India, who grew up with stories that my grandfather would talk about of how the pomegranates from Afghanistan – Kabuli anar and chamman ki ungoorwere really the things that brought together countries and cultures. And that’s a vision that we would like to support and see become, once again, the reality.

That’s just a little bit of my hopes and aspirations. I recognize that you all probably have a lot of questions that you’d like to pursue, so why don’t I stop there and turn to you?

MODERATOR: We’ll go on to questions. I just have a few things before we start. I ask that you identify yourself by your outlet and your name before you pose a question. Please also wait for the microphone, as we are doing a transcript on this. I see that we already have somebody in New York. I will get to questions in due order, so please be patient. And also, we have a finite amount of time, so I’d please ask you to keep your questions brief and to one part. Thank you very much.

Let me start in the middle.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Navbahor Imamova. I’m with Voice of America. I report to Central Asia and about Central Asia from here. Could you be more specific about Central Asia and the kind of priority that you see for the region as you start this (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Sure.

QUESTION: And also, we know that there’s a delegation coming from Uzbekistan next week, and we’re hoping you’ll --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- give us some details about that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Sure. Well, let me start with saying that the United States has an enduring commitment to the region. We see U.S. relationship with the countries of Central Asia as being an important and enduring priority for the United States, and that we see a Central Asia that is more interconnected as being in the interests, individually and collectively, of all the countries in the region. And that’s what our engagement is really geared towards.

And so as we look at the Uzbek delegation that is coming here next week led by Foreign Minister Kamilov for the annual bilateral consultations, we look forward to having dialogue that continues to deepen and strengthen that collaboration. It’s a full-ranging dialogue, and we discuss all of the areas of convergence between our two countries as well as areas of divergence and areas of concern. So we really appreciate that we have a fulsome dialogue with each of the countries of the region around a full range of issues, and we look forward to continuing that.

MODERATOR: I’ll go back to the back – and then to the front here.

QUESTION: Aziz Haniffa with India Abroad. Nisha, good to see you here.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: It’s good to see you.

QUESTION: Five years ago when the U.S.-India civ-nuke deal was signed it was considered sort of a symbolic manifestation of the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue; today it still remains in limbo. There are people who say that the liability – nuclear liability law has indeed become a liability, and there’s a lot of angst among U.S. business and industry, and even among Indian Americans who really lobbied the Hill in terms of getting that law through. Some feel that India has played the U.S., it got what it wanted, and now there doesn’t seem to be anything happening and that the early works agreement and all that talk is only a spin. How do you hope to alleviate this, because it’s still seen as sort of, as I said, sort of a manifestation of the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, and that moving ahead in terms of full implementation would probably get – would be the catalyst that probably people could talk as strategic dialogue.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, I think the civ-nuke agreement between the United States and India has been a tremendous and powerful symbol of the relationship. And I don’t think it’s in limbo; I think we are making progress. Is it as fast and as full as we would like it? No, I think that there are definitely steps that we think would help move things along.

But I think that the small contract agreement that was announced during Prime Minister Singh’s visit was an important step in the right direction, and I am hopeful that that will continue to pave the way for greater steps. And I think that India has to take its own steps to see what can be done with respect to its liability laws and with respect to the concerns that the private sector has with respect to liability.

But let me just say that the nature of the relationship has so transformed that this is a very important component, but it is one of very many components. We have such a fulsome range of discussions and dialogue in cooperation between the United States and India. Right now, in fact, we have in Delhi a group of law enforcement officials, police commissioners from key cities in the United States that are in India for a law enforcement dialogue to share lessons learned, best practices on a range of issues. We have an energy dialogue, we have a broad range of science and technology cooperation, higher education dialogue. So I think that the emphasis on any one particular issue is probably not as necessary as it was in the past. We’re pushing ahead on every single front, and we’re working with our Indian colleagues and counterparts on every single front, including civil nuclear cooperation.

MODERATOR: From the second row here, and then we’ll go to New York.

QUESTION: Thank you. Lalit Jha from Press Trust of India. Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. In the next three years of this President’s term, how do you see the India-U.S. strategic relationship evolving, after brief pause of the elections that India is headed towards?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: First of all, I don’t think we have a pause at all. I think that we’re continuing to move forward over the next six months and we’re very much looking forward to receiving the foreign secretary next week, and I know we have an energy dialogue slated for early next year. So like I said, I don’t think that there’s any pause. I think everything is moving forward apace.

But I think that the relationship will continue to strengthen and deepen and grow, and I think that increasingly it’s not just a bilateral relationship, but it is a regional and a global relationship. And we see, as President Obama most aptly characterized it, that this is a partnership and a relationship that is one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, and that’s because it’s a partnership based on shared values, shared approaches, and we believe that India provides an incredible example of democratic development, and we want to support that example as one that more and more countries ought to follow.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll go to New York for this question and then back here to Washington.

QUESTION: Yes, good morning honorable Secretary. This is Shehabuddin Kisslu from BanglaNews24.com.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Hi.

QUESTION: Recently you have visited Bangladesh that you have already mentioned, and we are expecting some high officials, I mean the top diplomats from UN to visit Bangladesh this week. Would you kindly elevate us the situation in Bangladesh that you observe at the time? And actually what is the main problem for the solution of this continuing political situation in Bangladesh? And mainly, it is now open secret that opposition, along with their ally the Jamaat-e-Islami, through their movement is seeking or expecting kind of military intervention there. If hypothetically, in case of that situation, what is the U.S.’ stand?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, let me just say that my visit to Bangladesh was an important one for me because I see such enormous progress and such enormous future potential in Bangladesh. The economic growth that Bangladesh has experienced over the past decade; the gains that is has made on developments; on the improvements in health, in maternal mortality and child mortality; the drops in fertility rates; the improvements in food security. This is an incredible story of progress that we have seen in Bangladesh, and an incredible potential for the future as we talk about this more integrated region between South and Southeast Asia. And the major challenge in my opinion that stands in the way of Bangladesh realizing that future is if there’s not a political transition that is free, fair, smooth, and acceptable to the Bangladeshi people. We would like to see this country continue to move forward on the path towards development and prosperity.

And the United States and our friends in the international community don’t have a stake in who wins what election. But we would like to see a process that is free, fair, credible, and free from violence. That has been the message that we have underscored. And for that to take place, both of the major political parties need to come together. The solutions are not going to come from the international community. The solutions are there within the people and the institutions and the parties of Bangladesh, and what needs to happen is for that dialogue that allows a compromise to emerge that will allow for elections to take place that the people of Bangladesh can have confidence in and can feel are credible. And that has been our underlying message publicly and privately.

MODERATOR: Here in the front, and then we’ll go down to the back.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. First of all, Raghubir Goyal from India Global and Asia Today. Congratulations and welcome.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Thank you.

QUESTION: My quick two questions: One – as far as Mr. Modi from the – Chief Minister from the most (inaudible) Gujarat, now major candidate for the prime minister next elections. Visa problem is still there and it was a major issue time-to-time in the Indian parliament and in the Indian political arena. What’s going on with his visa?

Finally, as far as India (inaudible) Afghanistan is concerned, after 2014, Indian political system is worried about because of there is a triangle – Pakistan, India, and U.S., or among others. So I believe that Pakistan doesn’t want India’s role in the future, but India has invested billions of dollars. That’s what – according to the U.S. analysis and President Obama. So what will the future of India and Afghanistan after 2014? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: So let me just respond to your last point first, which is that what India, Pakistan, and all the countries in the region want more than anything is a stable and secure Afghanistan. And that is the point of convergence for all the countries in the region. And we think that that is the point for constructive engagement with all the countries in the region. And that has been our effort and our policy. We’ve had a very close dialogue in cooperation with India with respect to the transition in Afghanistan. We have a trilateral conversation between the United States, India, and Afghanistan. And India has played a very important role and continues to play a very important role and has provided over 2 billion in economic investment, has provided incredible training and infrastructure. And we see that as a positive role that will continue moving forward.

With respect to your second point, I would just note that there’s been no change in U.S. rules or regulations with respect to its visa policy. And that is that all individuals apply and have to undergo a review process. And so the point at which there is an application there will be a review process, and I can’t speak to what the outcome of that process would be. So as far as I’m concerned, there’s no news there. There’s no change in policy there. It is as it has always been, which is that visa applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

MODERATOR: All right. I’m going to go here in the middle and then to the back. Here – I think on this side.

QUESTION: (Inaudible). This is Anwar Iqbal. I work for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Hi.

QUESTION: Welcome here. I will also sort of go back to what you said about 2014, the transition in Afghanistan and is an important transition, as you said. What we experienced during the first transition, which happened after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, was a complete and rapid withdrawal of U.S. and its interests from that region, and that led to what happened in 2000 – on 9/11. So there are people in that region who still fear that if not now, further down the road the Americans can actually withdraw the way they did then. So can you – would you like to allay those fears?

And also, one of the irritants in relationship with Pakistan is your drone policy, which is – people still are unable to understand. I mean, are – do the Pakistanis approve the strikes? Do they not? Are you working with them? What is the future of your drone policy? Could you please like to comment on this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, thank you for both of those questions. Let me just first clarify that while I am the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, we continue to have Afghanistan and Pakistan policy under the direction of U.S. Special Representative Jim Dobbins. And so for specific questions with respect to the drone policy and such, I would refer you to Ambassador Dobbins.

With respect to the transition in Afghanistan, let me just say that I think that the United States engagement to the region, as I noted at the outset, is an enduring one. And we will continue to support the economic development and prosperity of this region. We’re not going away; we’re not going anywhere. I think that we have continued to provide development assistance, economic assistance, and technical support to all of the countries of the region and we are committed to that as we move forward.

MODERATOR: Take a question in the back, and then I’m going to come up here to the middle.

QUESTION: Thank you. Chidu Rajghatta, the Times of India. Madam Secretary, you mentioned that you said that the U.S. looks forward to working with India whatever the outcome of the next election. So I want to go back to the visa issue for Mr. Modi. Does elected – do elected representatives and elected prime minister – are they subject to the same rules as, say, leaders of opposition or unelected people? I guess my question is if Mr. Modi’s elected prime minister, do the same visa rules apply to him?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: So I don’t want to get too far into the weeds of consular affairs because I am probably not the one that can go chapter and verse, but my understanding is that we have diplomatic visas, A-1 visas, for government officials who are on official business who are members of the national government, and that there are – for all other individuals, the normal process is a tourist visa and that goes through the individual application process. And so depending on the official and the capacity in which they’re visiting, the determination is made on what kind of visa they’re applying for.

So beyond that, I would probably have to refer you to the consular affairs folks to get more into the weeds.

MODERATOR: Right here in the blue shirt. In the blue shirt – no.

QUESTION: Matthew Pennington from Associated Press. Can I ask you about Sri Lanka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Yes.

QUESTION: During the Commonwealth heads of government summit recently, the British prime minister effectively sort of set a deadline saying that he wanted to see progress on accountability issues of alleged war crimes by March, or he would seek a UN-backed commission of inquiry or something of that nature. Does the U.S. support that position and do you think it’s appropriate to set a deadline like that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: The United States and really all of our friends across the international community have underscored the need for Sri Lanka to make progress on issues of reconciliation, on issues of accountability, and on issues of human rights, ongoing concerns about the political space and human rights in the country. And we are committed to working with our friends in Sri Lanka to see that progress. We would like to see Sri Lanka address these issues through its own processes, and we hope that that can, in fact, be the case.

I think that the patience of the international community, if real progress is not seen, particularly on issues of accountability, that patience will start to wear thin. And so we urge our friends in Sri Lanka to use the opportunity to show some concrete steps that their own processes have yielded. Through the LLRC, there are a set of recommendations. I think that those are exactly the points that we’d like to see progress on and we’d encourage them to do that.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’re going to go back to the fourth row end, and then we’ll come up front here.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for the opportunity. I am Ali Imran representing Associated Press of Pakistan.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Hi.

QUESTION: Hi. You have talked eloquently about regional connectivity and Silk Road initiative. One important factor is improvement in Pakistan-India relations --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Absolutely.

QUESTION: -- towards that end. Can you tell us what the U.S. is doing and what the U.S. can do to help the two countries improve their relations and resolve some of the longstanding disputes including Kashmir which lies at the heart of tensions between the two countries, and also revive their stalled peace process? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, let me just start by saying that there’s not been any change in the long-held U.S. policy that with respect to relations between India and Pakistan, and particularly with respect to issues regarding Kashmir, that it is for India-Pakistan to set the pace, the scope, and really the nature of those conversations and that process. The United States supports any improvements in the overall relationship, and we have seen important overtures by both countries towards dialogue. We welcomed the fact that the Prime Minister Sharif and Prime Minister Singh had a meeting in New York last fall, and we welcome all dialogue and all improvements in that relationship.

Frankly, let me say that a good place to start is on the trade front, because it’s a win-win for both countries. I think cross-border trade right now between India and Pakistan is somewhere in the range of two and a half billion. But both sides have seen the potential for that to grow to 10 billion, easily. And that requires both sides to really come together around these sets of issues. So anything that will encourage cross-border trade will benefit both countries and really will benefit the entire region and will unleash tremendous economic potential. So trade and energy are areas where we think that there is tremendous potential and we’d love to see more progress.

MODERATOR: I think we have time for just one more question at this point, and we’ll go here to the --

QUESTION: Yusif Babanli, Azerbaijan State Telegraph Agency.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: You know I lived in Baku for a little while.

QUESTION: Good, yeah. I read that. My question is about Azerbaijan. As you know, it’s often cited as an emerging energy security contributor to Europe, and through southern gas corridor. What are your hopes for the Trans-Caspian Pipeline gas pipeline ever realizing on the scale of one to 10 – 10 being highest? And what should the Administration do to increase its support for this project? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: We’re very supportive of all efforts to broaden and strengthen the energy connectivity the energy grid across the region. And while I don’t really have a specific response for you, I’m happy to – as I get further into my brief, quite honestly, I’m happy to engage with you more on that. But let me just say I think that there’s tremendous, tremendous benefit to the entire region to strengthen the connectivity and the grids for bringing energy-rich countries into greater connectivity with those countries that are looking for more sources of energy for their economies. So I’d like to see that move forward, but honestly, I’ll have to get back to you on the specifics.

MODERATOR: I’m sorry that we don’t have more time today, but as you said, this is not her last time here. I want to thank you for coming – Assistant Secretary --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: I’m getting on a plane in a couple of hours --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: -- which is why I’m on such a tight schedule.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much and we look forward to having you again.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: And I look forward to doing this again. Thank you.

 

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