US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal believes the India-US nuclear deal is not in limbo and it is for India and Pakistan to set the pace for conversations to resolve their issues. Rediff.com's Aziz Haniffa reports from Washington, DC.
Nisha Desai Biswal, the new point person for South Asia in the Barck Obama administration, believes the landmark India-United States civilian nuclear agreement is a 'tremendous and powerful symbol of the relationship.'
The deal -- which was signed amid much fanfare five years ago, but is yet to be implemented -- Biswal said, is not the be-all and end-all of the strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi.
Biswal, the newly-appointed Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, is the first Indian American to hold this position.
At a press conference at the Foreign Press Centre in Washington on Tuesday, December 3, Rediff.com asked her about the deep angst among US business and industry that had lobbied feverishly for this deal, but now finds the agreement in a state of limbo because of Parliament's Nuclear Liability law.
But Biswal refused to acknowledge that the deal was in limbo.
"The agreement between the United States and India has been a tremendous and powerful symbol of the relationship. I don't think it is in limbo -- I think we are making progress," she said.
But Biswal admitted, "Is it as fast and as full as we would like it to be? No, I think that there are definitely steps that we think would help move things along."
She reiterated, "I think that the small contract agreement that was announced during Prime Minister (Manmohan) Singh's visit was an important step in the right direction, and I am hopeful that that we 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," she added.
Biswal continued to assert 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."
Asked how she saw the US-India relationship evolving during the next three years of President Obama's term, perhaps after a pause during the forthcoming general election in India, she shot back, "First of all, I don't think we have a pause at all. I think that we are continuing to move forward over the next six months and we are very much looking forward to receiving the foreign secretary (Sujatha Singh) next week, and I know we have an energy dialogue slated for early next year."
"I don't think that there is any pause. I think everything is moving forward," Biswal insisted. "The relationship will continue to strengthen and deepen and grow, and I think that increasingly it is not just a bilateral relationship, but it is a regional and a global relationship."
"As President Obama most aptly characterised it," Biswal said, "this is a partnership and a relationship that is one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, and that is because it is a partnership based on shared values, shared approaches. 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."
Asked what the US is doing to bring about a rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad to resolve some of the longstanding disputes including Kashmir which lies at the heart of tensions between the two countries, Biswal said, "There has not been any change in the long-held US policy with respect to relations between India and Pakistan."
"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," she said.
"Frankly, let me say that a good place to start is on the trade front, because it is a win-win for both countries," Biswal added. "I think cross-border trade right now between India and Pakistan is somewhere in the range of two-and-a-half billion (dollars). But both sides have seen the potential for that to grow to 10 billion, easily."
But she acknowledged, "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, benefit the entire region and unleash tremendous economic potential."
During the conference, Biswal warned Sri Lanka that if there is no progress vis-a-vis initiating a probe into the alleged war crimes perpetrated by the island nation's government during the military offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam in 2009, the international community's patience "will start to wear thin."
Asked if the US would go along with British Prime Minister David Cameron's deadline to the Sri Lankan government during the recently concluded Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Colombo, Biswal responded on a diplomatic note, saying, "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."
But Biswal warned that the international community could not be expected to wait forever, saying, "I think that the patience of the international community, if real progress is not seen, particularly on issues of accountability, will start to wear thin."
Biswal, who recently returned from Bangladesh, exhorted all parties in that country to eschew violence in the forthcoming election in the wake of reports that the main Opposition party in Dhaka, along with its ally, the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami, is seeking military intervention to grab power.
Speaking on the situation in Bangladesh, Biswal said, "Since I just came from Dhaka, let me just say that while we really welcome the announcement of elections on January 5, we do think that there is an urgent call for concerted efforts at dialogue to bring the two major political parties closer togethe."
"We also call on all sides to restrain violence. Violence has no place in the democratic process. And we think it is very important that all sides find ways to move forward to have free, fair, credible, peaceful or violence-free elections in Bangladesh," she said.
When pressed on reports about the Opposition's maneuvers with the Jamaat-e-Islami to get the military involved in its favour, Biswal said, "My visit to Bangladesh was an important one for me because I see such enormous progress and such enormous future potential in Bangladesh. The major challenge in my opinion that stands in the way of Bangladesh realising that future is if there is not a political transition that is free, fair, smooth, and acceptable to the Bangladeshi people."