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Rediff.com  » News » 'Clinton to unveil a new counter-terror pact during India visit'

'Clinton to unveil a new counter-terror pact during India visit'

July 18, 2011 08:04 IST
The Obama administration's point man for South Asia, United States Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, tells rediff.com%2FIndia' target='_blank'>rediff.com/India Abroad's Aziz Haniffa in this exclusive interview that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who co-chairs the second US-India Strategic Dialogue with External Affairs Minister S M Krishna on Tuesday, will announce a new counter-terrorism cooperation agreement in the wake of the latest Mumbai attacks, in addition to a bilateral investment treaty.

Blake, who will be at Clinton's side during the dialogue, told rediff.com on the eve of the talks before catching a plane to leave for New Delhi, that there would be also other tangible deliverables on education and energy that Clinton would announce and also publicly acknowledge India's crucial role in Afghanistan's transition as US troops begin their phased withdrawal from that war-ravaged country.

On the contentious issue of the Nuclear Liability Law passed by the Parliament, which has been an utter disappointment to US business and industry that went to bat for the passage of the US-India civil nuclear agreement and were expecting as a quid pro quo, a large slice of India's nuclear energy market, Blake predicted that 'perhaps there might be implementing legislation of some sort,' to alleviate the concerns of American firms, but that 'it's up to India to decide how it's going to do this,' and that he does not 'want to be seen as dictating in any way, that.' Excerpts:

Both the President and the Secretary, almost immediately on the news of the Mumbai attacks, strongly issued statements condemning it, and Secretary Clinton, even though she is not visiting Mumbai this time around, made it very clear that she would go ahead with her visit to India. Was this a deliberate show of support and that this kind of terrorism would not deter her from going to India to continue propelling the relationship?

Absolutely. We wanted very quickly to condemn the despicable acts of violence that took place in Mumbai on July 13 and to make it crystal clear that we stand resolutely with the people of India against such acts of terrorism. And, to also be clear that we intend to proceed with the very ambitious agenda that we have for the strategic dialogue that the secretary will chair with External Affairs Minister S M Krishna.

Will this latest act of terrorism in India redouble US-India counter-terrorism efforts? I guess it's a no-brainer that terrorism would be a major priority during this second strategic dialogue and become virtually the number one priority issue?

I would say that counter-terrorism cooperation already has been the number one priority issue between the US and India. As you know, cooperation in this particular area has expanded dramatically since the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai and the most recent milestone in that was the visit by our Secretary of Homeland Security (Janet Napolitano) to Delhi for the inauguration of our Homeland Security Dialogue with (Home) Minister Chidambaram and his colleagues.

We are pleased that the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ms (Jane Holl) Lute will be on the trip with Secretary Clinton. So, indeed, we expect counter-terrorism to be a very important focus of our talks on Tuesday.

Could it also lead to sort of joint operations with India against those terrorism havens if they are found in Pakistan? After all, the US continues to launch drone attacks in Pakistan.

I don't want to speculate about joint operations. I don't think that's on the agenda. (But) We think it's most important for Pakistan itself to fulfill the undertakings that it has already made that it will not allow its territory to be used as a platform from which terrorists can operate to attack the United States, India, or any other country.

If it is found that the attacks emanated from Pakistan, will the US once again counsel India to exercise restraint?

Certainly. Although I must say, I haven't seen any evidence to that yet. To my knowledge, the appropriate Indian authorities are working on this. From all the indications that I have seen, it does seem to point to a domestic source. But, again, of course that will…these investigations are ongoing and our Indian friends have to lead on that.

Coming to the Strategic Dialogue itself. Following the MMRCA disappointment, India's abstention on the Libya 'no fly zone' Security Council vote, and the fact that implementation of the nuclear deal is still in limbo, some have argued that the fizz has sort of gone out of the relationship after the initial euphoria following President's (Obama) trip. Is this contention flawed?

This contention is flawed. We are very excited about the upcoming strategic dialogue and we feel that we have quite an important agenda ahead of us. We are going to be talking about very important strategic issues like how do we advance security and stability in Asia, how we help to do more together the process of transition in Afghanistan. And, then how do we give further impetus to the extraordinary progress we've already made in our own bilateral partnership, particularly in areas like counter-terrorism, trade and investment and people to people ties.

But some may argue that the only substantive outcome of the trip was the removal of export controls on the Indian Space Research Organisation and the Defence Research and Development Organisation and that the UN endorsement (of US support for India's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council) for all the hoopla was purely symbolic and may never come to pass. And, we haven't seen much enthusiasm on the US part on this score? What would you say to all that?

Again, I would say that's a real disservice to the huge range of things that were announced by the President. Of course, he was particularly focused on a lot of the economic partnership agreements that were announced, particularly the $15 billion in new exports -- both on the economic side but also n the military side.

But also again, on this very important notion that as we look ahead to the 21st century about who are going to be the most important countries in the world that we need to work with and that it is in our advantage to work with, India is at the very top of that list.

And, so, we are now in the process of putting together the building blocks of that relationship so that we will work even more closely. And, I would just stress that certainly the United States and India are not going to agree on everything -- that's true of any partnership. But I would say that we do have converging interests and we agree more and more on things and again, it is so much in the interests of the United States to work with a country that is already the world's largest democracy, a country that is going to be the third-largest economy in the world by the year 2030, and a country that itself, wants to take greater responsibility for managing the central challenges facing the world.

So, this is a clear impetus for the United States and India to do more and that what the strategic dialogue is all about.

Are there going to be any tangibles on this trip? Aneesh Chopra, the White House Chief Technology Officer was telling me that he's going to be on this trip and along with Sam Pitroda there are going to be some e-governance initiatives unveiled both in terms of government transparency and also to assist even the panchayat systems?

Correct. I don't want to get out in front of … I don't want to announce things that the Secretary is going to be announcing, but Aneesh is right. We will be talking about that.

We will be announcing quite a lot of things. There will be some new announcements on trade and investment -- both in terms of a bilateral investment treaty -- but also how can we move our energy partnership forward.

You are going to see more announcements on the counter-terrorism font. You are going to see announcements on the people to people side, particularly education. A very new important initiative that we are undertaking now that will encourage more interns and students from the United States to go to India to match the huge number of Indian students that are in the United States.

And, then also, a new initiative to encourage what we call sub-national engagements -- that is, working more and more to encourage governors and mayors from the United States to come to India to meet with their counterparts and vice versa.

Increasingly, a lot of this…the real action that is taking place, is taking place at the state level -- both in India and in the United States. So, we want to capitalise on that and so we are going to do that.

On the nuclear liability law, which has been a real downer for the US business and industry, not to mention even the Indian industry, did you misspeak at the East-West Center on Monday (July 11) when you said that the US expectation, quote, that India will be working on new legislation to implement their liability law? Senior Indian embassy officials briefing us on the upcoming talks said there would be absolutely no change in the legislation, which is set in stone and that best, there may be only some tweaking of the regulations?

Again, India needs to speak for itself on this matter. We have expressed our concerns in the past about the current legislation that is on the books and that it needs to be made consistent with the international norms for this that you are familiar with. India, as you know has committed to ratifying the Convention on Supplementary Compensation by the end of the year, which we certainly welcome.

So, things are on track and I don't want to in any way suggest that we have concerns about what's going on. We are working closely with our Indian friends and we hope to be able to implement civil nuclear cooperation as soon as possible.

And is (India's) signing the CSC going to be enough?

Again, as I said, there is still some work to be done. Perhaps there might be implementing legislation of some sort. This is really up to India to decide and how it's going to do this.

And, I don't want to be seen as dictating in any way, that. But, again, we have a good conversation. We have a good understanding of what needs to be done.

And, I guess that's going to be on the agenda too?

Certainly, because it's such an important opportunity, not only for businesses who would like to do more in this area, but also for India, because it will help us address some of the important energy needs that they have.

As you know Strobe Talbott received India Abroad's inaugural Friend of India Award and thank you very much for the video message that you sent to our awards ceremony last month. He told me that India and the US can never be allies and that at best, only strategic partners. He believed that there is still a segment in the Indian government and legislature, those who want to hold on to India's non-aligned status. Do you think this concept vis-à-vis India today is dead and even if it has survived that it is anachronistic?

Again, I say, the United States and India are never going to agree on everything and that's true between the United States and the United Kingdom as well. But what I would stress is the enormous progress that has taken place over the last 10 years and the enormous changes that have taken place in India.

And, so, that the trends show that in fact, the United States and India are working much more closely together on all of these important issues and that India itself is playing an increasingly important global role and we've seen increasingly important and helpful role played by India on everything from nonproliferation to climate change to a lot of government to government types of initiatives that you talked about -- that Aneesh Chopra is working on.

So, again, the trends are very, very positive and certainly there is always going to be people in each of out countries that might prefer to go more slowly but the trend lines are clear and our senior leaders themselves are both deeply committed to this and that's going to ensure that this will continue to drive progress forward.

Finally, how can the US alleviate India's concerns over what may be perceived as a premature withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan especially since the Taliban is still a potent force. I believe this is going to be a priority in the Strategic Dialogue too in terms of regional issues, and there has been a lot of concern in India that once again (if US pulls out its troops) Pakistan may take on a role in terms of using their proxies in Afghanistan. So, how can the US alleviate India's concerns on this issue?

This will be an important topic for our conversation with External Affair Minister Krishna and the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the secretary's talks on Tuesday because these are extremely important issues both for the United States and for India.

Again, I would underline that there is quite significant strategic convergence in our views but it is always important to continue to share information. One of the themes you will hear the Secretary stressing is the importance that we attack to India's continued engagement in Afghanistan and the importance that will be playing in ensuring the success to support the transition that is taking place now in Afghanistan -- both the military transition but also the economic transition.

And, increasingly, obviously all of us want an Afghanistan that will be able to stand on its own two feet and provide for its own people both security but also economically. And, that the economic piece of that is so, so important and India's $2 billion that has been pledged as a result of the PM's very successful visit recently to Afghanistan, will be a crucial part of that economic transition taking place.

And, indeed, one of our important priorities over the next one to two years, will be to work closely with India, with Central Asia, and with Pakistan, to give great impetus to the regional integration that must take place, and to open up those trade routes and allow…provide mechanisms for more investments by countries like India but also others, so that Afghanistan can really prosper and so that young people in Afghanistan will not seek to join terrorist groups, but will have true economic and other opportunities.

And, again, India has such an important role to play and this will be quite an important theme of not only the private discussions but what the Secretary speaks about publicly.

And, in this regard, will you keep India apprised of whatever negotiations you'll are having with the Taliban?

Certainly. There's already quite good consultations that take place on a very regular basis. Obviously, we don't talk about these things too much because these are quite sensitive matters.

But, again, the level of dialogue has been quite good, and, again, our discussions on Tuesday will be yet another opportunity to do that.

Image: Robert Blake |  Photohgraph: Reuters

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC