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Ami Bera, Robert Blake discuss India ties, Afghan troop pullout

Last updated on: February 27, 2013 13:23 IST

The only Indian American lawmaker in the United States Congress, Dr Amerish ‘Ami’ Bera, on Tuesday made his debut as a member of a Congressional Committee that has jurisdiction over matters pertaining to South Asia.

Bera is a Democrat from California and a freshman member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

He said, “America's pivot to Asia is critical at this juncture and is a much-needed evolution of our foreign policy, particularly our shift to South Asia, as we look at building a critical strategy around our relationship with India.”

He said, “The US-Indian relationship is critical and vital to us both economically and strategically. And we find ourselves at a moment in time when we are going to be drawing down our troops in Afghanistan, India has a critical role in holding onto and maintaining some of the gains that we've made.”

“India has a critical role in helping anchor stability in that region,” he added.

Bera also said, “Economically, you know, trade with India is vital. For my home state, California, we export over $3.7 billion of products annually. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.”

He asserted, “If we can strengthen our trading relationship and open up India's export markets, this will be very strategic in a bilateral way to both countries.”

During the interaction that followed with the Obama administration witness, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Robert Blake, Bera asked the senior US official to “comment on what some of the perceived threats are to that relationship and to the economic opportunities that exist.”

Blake responded, “The main threat is the declining growth rate that has occurred in India, because of declining investment.”

“And, because there has been a slowdown in the economic reform efforts of, you know, over the past several years. It's no secret that the Indian Parliament has been tied up in knots over debates about corruption and other such things. And so very little has gotten done.”
Blake acknowledged, “To its credit, they did pass a quite important reform to open up India for foreign direct investment in the multi-brand retail sector, which we think is very, very important.”

He noted that “They have taken some steps to try to accelerate the approval process for foreign investment. But much more needs to be done and I think the Indians fully recognise that.”

Blake said, “Certainly, our companies, through the US-India Business Council, have given them a very rich menu of suggestions of things that could be done to open up in the areas of banking, in areas of retail, in the areas of things like defence, all of which would -- insurance is another one -- that would tremendously increase the levels of foreign-direct investment and help boost the levels of growth in India.”

Bera said it was a no-brainer that “opening up India's markets is beneficial both to our economy and our companies and certainly helps India become a much more modern economy,” and asked Blake, “Are there strategic things that we can do diplomatically to help speed along this process?”

Blake said, “We have a range of economic dialogues that we conduct with our Indian counterparts. The US trade representative has something called a trade policy forum. So there are a number of different initiatives under way to help remove some of the blockages that do occur.

“But I should say that even with some of these problems, India remains one of the fastest growing economies in the world at 5 percent. And it's projected to be the third largest economy in the world by 2025. And our own trade continues to grow very substantially. It has quadrupled over the last eight years and it is growing at roughly 20 percent a year,” he said.

Blake added, “Obviously, we would like to do even more, but I think we are very happy with the progress that has been made.”

Bera also grilled Blake on the importance of the strategic relationship with India as the US begins to draw down its troops in Afghanistan and asked why the US saw as New Delhi’s specific role in helping to maintain stability in Afghanistan and the region as a whole. 

Blake, lauding Bera for his question as “a timely one,” pointed out, “We have just finished our latest trilateral dialogue with India and Afghanistan last week that I represented the United States at in Delhi, and we appreciate very much the significant role that India is playing in Afghanistan. In fact, we see India as kind of the economic linchpin for the future.”

“As our troops draw down, as their spending draws down, it's going to be much more important now to establish a private-sector basis for the Afghan economy and to make a trade-based economy and not an aid-based economy,” he said.

And, in this regard, Blake said, “India has such an important role to play in that. First, it has a very large investment programme. It has invested in things like the Hajigak iron ore deposit that is going to be probably an $8 to $10 billion investment. It hosted a major investment conference last year to promote foreign investment into Afghanistan. It has its own very substantial assistance programme of approximately $2 billion.”

India had, said Blake, “Embraced this regional integration vision that Secretary Clinton and now Secretary Kerry have endorsed to open up all of these trade links, to allow for, for example, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and other forms of infrastructure -- road, rail and other openings -- that will link up this region in a very significant way.”

“And India is really at the heart of all of those efforts and is such an important partner for us,” Blake added.

Aziz Haniffa In Washington, DC