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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities in India

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

New York, NY
August 14, 2014

State Dept Image/Aug 14, 2014/New York, NY

Date: 08/14/2014 Location: New York, NY Description: Nish Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South can Central Asian Affairs, briefs at the New York Foreign Press Center on ''U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities in India.'' - State Dept Image

3:00 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Well, good afternoon to those of you here, and our colleagues over in Washington, hello, we see you.

Just a brief introduction: We want to thank you for being here and also to welcome Assistant Secretary Biswal, who is the Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs. So we’ll just hand the mike over to you, you can just give your comments about your recent travel to India and the dialogue that happened there, we’ll open it up to questions. I will facilitate from here back and forth. And Washington, of course, you have the mike at any time, so if you have a question, feel free to pipe in.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Thanks, Melissa, and thank all of you. I know I have been wanting to come up here to New York and just do a session particularly focusing on the U.S.-India relationship, which is at a pivotal moment of opportunity, and now is a good time with the visits of Secretaries Kerry and Pritzker and Hagel just concluded in the past few weeks to be able to do that. And I’ll just share a few top lines, but really, I wanted to use this as a session to maybe answer any questions or address any specific topics that you here or in Washington want to discuss.

But this is an important opportunity. I think that, as was evidenced by the fact that on the day that the election results were announced President Obama called then Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi and congratulated him and invited him as a recognition of the importance that this relationship and this partnership plays in the U.S. frame, and our hopes and aspirations for that relationship.

And in the past month, from the end of June to the end of July, we’ve seen a very intensive engagement from the U.S. with the visits of Deputy Secretary Burns and with the visit of Secretary Hagel during the Strategic Dialogue where he was accompanied by Secretary Pritzker, by Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Poneman, and the Under Secretary for Homeland Security Frank Taylor, and then quickly followed by the visit of Secretary Hagel, that this is a relationship that carries a great deal of importance and meaning to the United States and is at a critical moment of opportunity. And we want to make sure we work very closely with our counterparts in India in realizing that opportunity.

So the Strategic Dialogue was really a forum whereby we were able to sit down with our counterparts in the Indian Government, and most particularly for Secretary Kerry with the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who hosted the Strategic Dialogue, to lay a bit of a path for where we want to focus our efforts and what kinds of actions and initiatives we want to try to bring to bear. And the Strategic Dialogue focused on the areas of economic opportunity and economic partnership, energy security, homeland security, and how we can work more closely together not only bilaterally, but regionally and globally in our bilateral engagements with the Ministry of External Affairs in our conversations with them.

The Secretary came away from those meetings and from, most particularly, his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 1st with a conviction that there is an enormous amount of energy and an enormous amount of opportunity, possibility that we want to focus on. Both the prime minister and the Secretary were very focused on taking all of that positive energy and making it, translating it into concrete actions, and essentially tasked both teams to work together over the next six weeks to see how we can create some specific initiatives and specific actions that can be launched during the visit of Prime Minister Modi in September and during his meetings and discussions with the President. And that is what we’re about right now, what we are undertaking right now.

There’s – in the sphere of economic, there’s a great deal of desire to look and see what we can do to create or stand up a infrastructure platform that would allow American companies to be able to focus their tools, their technologies, their capabilities around the priorities that have been identified by the Indian Government. And so this would essentially allow a bit of information analysis and matchmaking of sorts to take place, and this is something that both sides are working together to try to stand up and see what we can bring about. We’re also very focused on the prime minister’s desire to boost manufacturing, and we’ve already seen investments by some major U.S. companies into creating manufacturing platforms in India, and we think that there are more possibilities ahead.

But fundamentally, for these things to really launch in a big way, we also, both countries, need to work together to creature the right enabling environment so that the regulatory environment and the policy environment is one that is conducive of attracting the maximum amount of investment and collaboration. And that requires actions in both countries from both sides, and so we are looking to see how we can work together to advance that.

Energy security is another area that the Indian Government has identified as a key priority, and this is one where the United States has had a very strong partnership and collaboration. But we know that there is much more we can do. And we talked about how we can particularly make more robust the cooperation on clean energy. We have done a great deal through the collaborations with our Department of Energy and USAID on the partnership for advancing clean energy. And we want to see what additional things we can do, including launching a off-grid alliance, including looking at ways that we can help connect renewable technologies to the grid, and other ways that we can help bring access to energy for the 400 million Indians who currently are unserved or underserved by the grid.

Homeland security and counterterrorism is another priority that both countries share. And we talked about both the history, post-Mumbai, of intelligence sharing and technical training that has been launched, but also how we can deepen and strengthen that. And there are specific and concrete steps that both sides are working on, including reinvigorating the joint working group on counterterrorism and creating a consolidated homeland security dialogue. There are specific tools and technologies that I think India is interested in greater collaboration on, and we’re looking at what we can do to create a technology partnership on homeland security that can help provide some of those tools and technologies to combat terrorism.

We – like I said, we’ll be working over the coming weeks to create some specific initiatives on these areas that can be launched. We certainly also expect that we will work very closely together with India in the region. This is something that has been an expressed desire of the Indian Government and the Ministry of External Affairs, and one that we very much welcome and support. We had some good conversations with the foreign minister, with the prime minister, with the national security advisor with respect to the transition in Afghanistan.

And as you know, the Secretary has now made two visits to Afghanistan to work with the political parties and the candidates to try to continue to work towards a progress on the election on the second round. And his most recent visit, I think, yielded on a framework agreement that both candidates were able to sign on to, and we look forward to working with India and engaging India in that process. We know that the stability and security and prosperity of Afghanistan also holds a vital interest to India, and India’s been an important partner and contributor, particularly on the economic assistance. And so we want to continue to work with them on that.

And we talked about how we can also collaborate and work together more broadly in the region, and the Secretary very much appreciated and acknowledged the important steps that India had taken with respect to the region. And the prime minister talked about his vision of greater economic cooperation in the South Asia region, particularly through SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation], and that’s certainly something that we welcome and support and are happy to play whatever role would be constructive and useful along those lines.

The Secretary’s visit was followed shortly thereafter by the visit of Secretary Hagel, where there was a great deal of discussion and progress on the defense partnership. And we look forward to seeing how we can expand upon and build upon the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative that had been launched previously and under the direction of Deputy Secretary Ash Carter. Secretary Hagel has asked Under Secretary Frank Kendall to take that on, and so the Under Secretary and his team will be working with us and with our Indian counterparts to see what we want to try to move forward in that respect, in keeping with the fall visit.

So we have a pretty ambitious roadmap and workload over the next six weeks, and we look forward to a very substantive and consequential visit for the prime minister and look forward to being able to really put a great deal of meat on the bones, as they say, in terms of this very important relationship that the President has defined – characterized as a defining partnership for the United States in the 21st century.

So why don’t I pause there and turn this into a little bit more of a discussion and answer any questions? Do you want to start?

QUESTION: Yes, please. Thank you. If I can just follow up with these (inaudible), and you’ve mentioned that everybody’s working towards this summit meeting where all eyes will be on what Mr. Modi and President Obama discuss. And both the countries sort of want to put aside the differences that emerged, whether it was regarding the visa issue of Mr. Modi, as well as the arrest of the Indian diplomat. You’ve mentioned that you want to put the meat on the bones, so to say. What specifics or what large announcements can we expect from the highest level of leadership from India and the U.S. to sort of take this relationship forward, leave aside the differences, and then sort of work ahead and ensure that the relationship does become a strategic relationship in the future?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, that’s exactly what these various conversations by these three cabinet secretaries over the last two weeks have been about, and these are the critical areas of priority. And I failed to mention that we also had very good conversations in terms of education and skills and how we can partner to advance the prime minister’s desire to really boost access to higher education, vocational training and such, to create the skills base. And so that’s another area that we’ll be looking to see – the collaboration on space – and we were joined at the strategic dialogue by both the associate director of NASA and the head of ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisation], Dr. Radhakrishnan.

So these are all areas where we are looking to see some concrete announcements. I don’t have that to give to you right now, but those are – that’s really what the homework assignment has been for the two sides to be working on over the next six weeks. And there are a few – probably a few other areas. And as you know, this is a very broad relationship between our two countries, between our two societies, and so it’s not about one or two things. It’s really about how we are partnering across the large scope of our two democracies to advance shared goals and objectives.

I see Narayan over there. Yeah. Hi.

QUESTION: Hi, Nisha. How are you? My question to you is – you mentioned energy a couple of times. And I mean, the nuclear – civil nuclear cooperation has kind of ground to a halt. I mean, there’s been small progress with the MOU and so on. But can you give us a sense of whether we can at all expect any further progress on that when the prime minister is here?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: I don’t know if there’s going to be something major by the time of the prime minister’s visit. But clearly, the biggest and most pressing issue on trying to advance the civil nuclear cooperation is on addressing the liability issue. I think we have heard some positive inclinations from the Indian side on trying to find a way forward. I don’t know that we have any specifics on what that way forward is or what the timetable for that is. And so we want to work with our Indian counterparts and start those conversations and see how we can move forward. And I think that there is a great deal of eagerness on both sides to try to resume that conversation.

QUESTION: To quickly follow up, one of the means of moving forward, as you said, which has been suggested is the use of the regulations, of the rules to circumvent some of the more difficult aspects of the liability bill. Have you got a sense from U.S. nuclear corporations that that actually might work for them? Are they hopeful? Can you give us a sense of that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Yeah, I don’t know. I think that there have to be more focused and comprehensive conversations that bring together industry and government and I’m sure the teams of legal experts to try to work through all of those issues to see exactly what’s needed. And I’m not in a position to say that there’s a specific solution that would work one way or the other, because we don’t have specifics to consider and to look at. But what I can say is that from the conversations that have been had is that there is a desire on both sides to find a way forward. And so now what remains is for teams to be able to come together and to figure out exactly what that is and how and on what timetable.

Like I said, I’m not anticipating that this is necessarily something that could happen in time for the September visit. But frankly, what we’re looking for is the path forward and not necessarily something that is happening in a matter of weeks.

QUESTION: Shall I keep going, or does someone else want to --

MODERATOR: You can ask another question since you’re the (inaudible).

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Got to be careful, though. He could go for the whole half hour.

QUESTION: The other thing you mentioned significantly was the Mumbai – sorry. I just have a bunch of questions. Feel free to interrupt me – the Mumbai attacks and counterterrorism cooperation after that. And one question that’s come up repeatedly in that regard is the question of India’s access to David Coleman Headley, who’s in a jail here. I don’t know whether the PM plans to bring that up with you, but did that come up, firstly, in the SD – in the Strategic Dialogue? And if it does come up while he’s here, what is the U.S.’s view? What will you answer him?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, of course, the United States has granted access in this matter. And we’re aware of the ongoing requests from our Indian counterparts for additional access, and that’s something that is under discussion. The United States is very committed to working with India to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks and to advance cooperation between the United States and India to ensure that such an attack does not happen in the future. And I think that both countries have suffered great losses at the hands of terrorism, and both countries have learned costly lessons that we are putting into place to better secure our peoples and our institutions.

MODERATOR: Any other questions (inaudible)? Do you have any?

QUESTION: Yes, just sort of a follow-up. On the economic front, I mean, there were a lot of expectations right now riding on Mr. Modi and the budget that he presented, but clearly not many sort of high-profile reforms have been (inaudible) yet. U.S. is keen on sort of developing the defense sector economic growth with India. What expectations do you have when Mr. Modi visits here? Sort of – would you – would the U.S. be willing to tell Mr. Modi as to what – the need for reforms and sort of press so that the U.S. companies can invest in so many sectors that you’ve mentioned, open sort of – the Indian economy is opened to the U.S. companies more?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Yeah. Yoshita, this is really not about what the U.S. needs as much as what India needs and what India needs to do to get what it needs. And I think that what we have been careful to do is to not make this about the United States. It’s about the prime minister’s vision and the prime minister’s agenda and what is best going to enable that vision to come about. I think that for India to be able to attract the kind of investment and the kind of cutting-edge modern technology it needs to address certain issues that inhibit that. We are ready and stand ready to partner with India and to facilitate as much collaboration as we can. We know that American companies are very eager to invest in India.

We also know that American companies have some of the same concerns that Indian companies have with respect to protection of intellectual property, particularly as India becomes more and more an innovator and originator of content, that having the appropriate safeguards will allow an innovation economy to really take root and to flourish and to grow. And so we look forward to working with and partnering with our Indian colleagues on how to make that come about. We want to do that in the spirit of partnership, and we’re confident that we will be able to make progress in that vein.

We think that there have been some important steps taken and some important signals sent. Clearly, these are just first steps. But these are also early days in a new administration, and I think that all of us need to be cognizant that this is an administration that is two and a half months old. And so let us both set high expectations, but also temper ourselves on the time frame within which we want to see those expectations met. I think that the government needs to have a firm vision and a path forward, but that the rest of us need to have some patience with which we engage this new government on that path. And certainly we have very high hopes for the direction and the vision and the ambition that the prime minister has laid out, and what that means for India and what that means for the U.S.-India partnership.

MODERATOR: Washington.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Arina Lebedeva. I am from ITAR-TASS News Agency, and I have only one question: Does the U.S. try to put pressure on India to prevent it from increasing of trade relations with Russia as parts of American sanction policy?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: We have never in any of our relationships in the region, whether it’s with India, with countries of Central Asia or any other, forced countries to choose in their relationships. We want India to have a very important and constructive and positive relationship with Russia, which it does. We want India to continue to have a very important and positive and constructive relationship with China, which it does. And we want India to have a very important and positive and constructive relationship with the United States. We don’t see this as a zero-sum. We think that India will make its own choices based on its own interests, but we also recognize that we have information, analysis, and perspectives to bring to bear and to share, and we do. And we will continue to do that. And we will continue to make the case that we think that Russia needs to abide by international norms and standards in terms of how it conducts itself with respect to Ukraine. And we will continue to make that case with all of our friends and allow them to make their own choices as it is dictated by their own information and their analysis and their interests.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi Nisha, I’m back. So a couple of other follow-up questions on the Strategic Dialogue. One thing that I think the External Affairs Minister Mrs. Swaraj brought up in her press conference was the whole question of the intelligence surveillance by the NSA and/or other agencies here on the BJP. And it was pretty clear from her remarks that there was a sense of disenchantment about such activities. What sort of assurances did the Secretary give her or give India, and is there going to be any follow up on that? How can Indian official and other entities know that they’re not going to be spied upon?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: I think the Secretary addressed this quite fully and definitively in his own comments on this during that same press conference, and I don’t have much more to add to that. And these are ongoing discussions that we hold in private, and generally speaking, don’t comment on the nature of those discussions in a public forum. So I don’t really have anything to add to what the Secretary put forward.

QUESTION: The second question I wanted to ask you is, there’s a lot – obviously, a lot of anticipation about Mr. Modi’s visit here. And there’s the whole visa ban thing which happened for nine years before this. And does his visit truly mean that the U.S. does not have any concerns about his human rights record? Is that what we should take away from his coming here?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: I think what you should take away from the President’s invitation to Prime Minister Modi is our great hope, anticipation, and expectation of this partnership with this government and with this leader on the basis of the very important vision that he has put forward for India – a vision that is on inclusive and sustainable economic growth and prosperity for all Indians.

And frankly, the prime minister has gone a step further and has talked about a shared prosperity for the entire region, one that helps and benefits the economies not only of India but of its neighbors. And that is certainly something that President Obama has said that he very much supports and wants to strengthen and partner on. And I think that we are looking forward, not backward, and we are engaging on that basis. And we see an opportunity to engage with in a very broad and fulsome way.

Our relationship with India has also been on the basis of shared values – shared values of our two democracies, shared values of religious freedom and tolerance, shared values of opportunity for all, including for equal opportunity and access for women and girls. And so these are issues that we will continue to collaborate on and discuss, because we have lessons that we’ve learned along the way of how we’ve addressed these issues, and we continue to grapple with these issues in our own country.

And I think the Vice President talks about it in a very compelling way when he talks about the whole history that he has had on addressing the issue of violence against women in the United States and the role that he played in drafting the landmark legislation that has sought to create greater security for women in the United States, and what we can do to partner with and share in some of those experiences.

So this is really about a dialogue on how both countries can benefit each other and learn from each other across the wide spectrum of issues.

QUESTION: And just to quickly follow up on that, so you – since the new government came into power in India, there have been a few high-profile incidents which you could broadly classify as communal tensions or interreligious tensions, whether it was the force-feeding incident or riots in Saharanpur, or several others. And so too there have been continuing incidents of violence against women.

So I guess my question to you is – I know it’s – I know you do feel that it’s early days and you’ve said that, but do you still – are there any parts of this dialogue that you’ll keep on the table when the prime minister is here, whether it’s human rights in a religious context or in the context of women?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: These are issues that are always on the table in every relationship that we have and in every dialogue and discussion that we have with our friends around the world. And we will certainly continue to have those discussions with India and with the prime minister and his team, because that has been a key part of the dialogue since its inception. And frankly, there are many areas where India has very important lessons to share. I mean, some of the things that India has done on transparency and open government are things that we want to be able to share more broadly. So I think we have a discussion that is broad and full and very much based on sharing lessons of both countries. I will say we continue to grapple in our own country with these issues, as you probably can see from the headlines in our country. So I don’t think that there is a finished product here in either country, and that is the nature of democracy, which is that it is always evolving and always perfecting. And we want to partner in that process.

MODERATOR: Any last questions in New York?

QUESTION: I have a question.


QUESTION: On – and just concerns about the immigration bill and India’s concerns in agriculture food subsidy on the whole WTO stance, would that also be sort of – because clearly that, as you said, it’s not finished yet, there’s no sort of final product on that. So would these concerns also be discussed at the meeting and sort of to put forward a roadmap as to how these concerns in the future can be addressed or taken through –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: I have not – we’re six weeks away from a summit meeting. I imagine that we will have a very broad discussion between the two leaders and between the two teams that will encompass a wide range of issues. I would hesitate right now to give you kind of the list of what’s on the menu, what’s on the agenda. I think that we will be looking to see how we can deepen and strengthen this partnership and where we see great areas of convergence, and also what we can do – where we see areas of divergence to try to bring more convergence into those areas. So I think we are looking at a very robust agenda and we’re very much looking forward to the visit.

Thank you all very much. I really appreciate the opportunity. I know it’s the August season, and so I appreciate all of you taking the time to spend a little bit of time with us.

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