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Exclusive:'This is a visit the President has been anticipating'

By Aziz Haniffa
Last updated on: September 26, 2014 13:20 IST
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'The threat that India faces and the threat the United States faces is not just to the homeland, but to our people and to our institutions wherever they may be.' In an exclusive conversation with Aziz Haniffa/, US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai Biswal outlines the importance of Prime Minister Modi's visit for America.

In Washington, DC, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet with President Barack Obama, centre, Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Secretary of State John Kerry, right. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Image: In Washington, DC, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet with President Barack Obama, centre, Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Secretary of State John Kerry, right. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Since President Barack Obama called Narendra Modi to congratulate him on his landslide election victory and invited the new Indian prime minister to visit him in the White House, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal, the administration's point person for South Asia has been working on making the visit a success.

She has been virtually working and traveling 24/7 with the rest of the inter-agency team that has been assembled to make the summit between Obama and Modi as seamless as possible, attending to the logistics, developing policy to be articulated, and keeping her boss, US Secretary of State John Kerry, informed of how the game plan is evolving.

In an exclusive interview with Aziz Haniffa/ in her sixth floor office at the State Department, Biswal acknowledged that the Obama administration is pulling out all the stops for Prime Minister Modi.

Are you guys pulling out all the stops to welcome Prime Minister Modi?

We are looking forward to a very good visit. This is a visit that the President has been anticipating and I know for Secretary (of State John F) Kerry, the trip to New Delhi this summer was an early kind of attempt to help start the relationship between Prime Minister Modi and the new government on exactly the kind of path of shared interests and shared goals. So, we are very much looking forward to it and think it's going to be a very good visit.

The President is having him over for dinner on September 29 and then there's the summit the next morning and the formal luncheon hosted by Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary Kerry. What are going to be the substantive issues and concerns on the table?

I believe one of the key things that the prime minister has talked about is the priority he places on India's domestic transformation. And, certainly from the perspective of the United States, what the President has clearly indicated and what the secretary has talked about is that we very much want to support that vision of development -- Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas -- is something that Secretary Kerry has said is the kind of vision that we can all get behind and endorse and support.

So, we will be looking to see how we can partner and collaborate on India's economic agenda, how we can partner and collaborate in supporting the prime minister in some of the challenges in India that he has said he wants to tackle -- whether it is on issues like water and sanitation, or energy, or economic opportunity or skills.

So, these are all areas that we want to advance and so we will be looking to see how we can do that and what are some of the specific ways we can do that.

We also have a vast area of cooperation on security interests, whether it's regional, whether it's internal security issues, counter-terrorism issues. So, we will be looking to see how we can advance the work that we have been doing and build upon it and take it to new heights.

With apologies to all vegetarians, will there be any 'Here's the beef' moments?

Yes, everybody likes to focus upon that. But what I would say is that, of course, we will have things we will be able to point to, but what I tell people is that it's really not about how you can on October 1 -- after it's wheels up -- go through a check-list of deliverables.

It's really about what the engagement and effort over the next 12 months, the next 24 months is going to be and how we try to bring it forward and bring it to fruition and implementation these areas that we set forth during this summit.

So, yes, we will have concrete things that we will be looking at and talking about, but it's also going to be about this renewed and intensive engagement -- this shared work-plan as you might call it -- in moving that forward.

And, from everything I've heard about the prime minister, he is very focused on implementations, not just announcements, and we welcome that. That will be a very good focus for the relationship.

The Bilateral Investment Treaty has been on the table for a while and then the crown jewels in recent years of the relationship has been defence cooperation. Defence sales, which was like zero 10 years ago, is over $10 billion now.

Will there be any progress on these -- perhaps a signing of the BIT and movement on defence sales and the Pentagon's DTTI (Defence Trade and Technology Initiative)?

Image: Nisha Desai Biswal at her swearing-in ceremony in Washington, DC. Photograph: Kind Courtesy: US Department of State

On the Bilateral Investment Treaty, this is something we think will be in the interests of both countries, but there is an awful lot of work that would need to be done to move us toward that. And, we are nowhere near a point where that is a proximate goal. But it is a shared desire to focus on that.

But there is a lot we can do on the economic engagement between our two countries and that we are doing.

In terms of the defence partnership, (Defence) Secretary (Chuck) Hagel was there in early August and had some very strong visits and good meetings and came away very optimistic that we can intensify the defence partnership.

So, I look forward to having some things that we can talk about in terms of how specifically we will look to intensify that partnership.

The most transformational manifestation of the US-India strategic partnership in recent years was the nuclear deal. But that has been in limbo for six years now and India has made clear there will be no compromising on the Nuclear Liability Bill passed in the Parliament.

In your recent briefings at the New York Foreign Press Centre and the Asia Society's Asia Connect series, you spoke of this being a tough issue and predicted that there is no low-hanging fruit to be plucked on this visit.

This is a huge disappointment because the US business lobby, the US Congress, the Indian-American community spent considerable time and treasure going to bat for this deal. So, how do you move the relationship forward in terms of a strategic partnership when the most transformational agreement in US-India ties is still out there hanging?

I would answer your question in this way. One, while there has not been an expedited and accelerated implementation of the civil nuclear deal because there are these tricky, complicated, complex challenges which are deeply technical, that's not to say that we have given up on it on either side.

In fact, to the contrary, I believe, there is renewed interest, renewed intensity, in trying to work through these very complicated issues that continue to constrain us -- issues of liability, issues of how we work through accountability of fissile material and all kinds of things that the technical experts on both sides need to sit down and work through all these things and there is a desire to do that.

So, what you will see is a renewed focus on having that level of engagement to find a way forward.

Image: The nuclear deal was transformational, path-breaking, and it brought India and US together around a shared set of ideals and objectives, says Nisha Desai Biswal. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

What I was seeking to say in saying that this was not quick or easy or low-hanging fruit is that sometimes people are very focused on summit diplomacy -- on saying that when two leaders come together, let's have a slew of announcements and when they are not meeting, things are not happening.

What I see is a recognition in both countries and by both leaders that what's called for here is the intensity of effort and engagement to work through these issues, and I am confident that's what we'll see on the civilian nuke deal.

The civil nuke deal was transformational, was path-breaking, and it brought our two countries, our two systems, our two people together around a shared set of ideals and objectives. In that sense it has delivered on its promise because we are now working together across the board in so many different areas and in so many shared goals and interests that weren't the case.

So much of the distrust and misunderstandings have cleared away and we do have a greater recognition of the power and the potential of this partnership. So, in that sense, the nuke deal kind of achieved some singular impacts.

We continue to work aggressively for the potential of nuclear energy and what that would mean for hundreds of millions of Indians who currently have inadequate access for power.

And, so, that will continue to be work planned as we move forward.

Unlike Japan or China, the US has no institutional mechanism to invest in massive infrastructure development in India. For example, you are never going to have the President of the United States promising or pledging $100 billion in investment for help in infrastructure development in India. Doesn't that put the US at a distinct disadvantage?

I don't believe so. I believe American companies are some of the most competitive companies in the world today. They bring some of the most cutting edge technologies and they bring a whole slew of best practices in terms of management, effectiveness, efficiency, transparency and accountability, and the way they do business.

And when they see an attractive environment in which to invest, in which to manufacture, in which to trade, they surge to that market.

What we see is that as the prime minister and his team go about making the case for India Inc, making the case for how they seek to create that enabling environment, we are confident that the relationship between the American economy and the Indian economy would continue to grow and strengthen.

And, it doesn't require government to direct financing, and government to direct investment. There is a natural inclination for the innovation and entrepreneurship of the American private sector to seek out partnership with the innovation and entrepreneurship, which is very manifest in India.

And, it's a win-win for both economies and I am confident that as India continues to take steps to open its economy, to create greater efficiency in its economy and greater transparency, that American companies will be investing in much greater scale.

If you look at what we are already doing -- we have $28 billion in American investment in India -- I can see that growing and scaling rapidly based on the economic growth and the enabling environment that India is seeking to bring about.

US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel speaks on 'Achieving the Potential of the US-India Strategic Partnership' in New Delhi. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

In terms of Prime Minister Modi's foreign policy outreach, as expected his first visit was to Japan and it was highly successful going by all accounts. Then the Australian prime minister and the Chinese president came calling.

So, in some ways, in spite of the very intensive summer where US officials were concerned -- Secretary Kerry going out there with Secretary (of Commerce Penny) Pritzker followed by Secretary Hagel -- the US seems to be way down in the pecking order and it seems to be like a pretty strategic move by Prime Minister Modi in terms of where his foreign policy priorities lie.

First of all, it's not a race to see who can have what meeting first and who can have what visit first.

I really do think that as the prime minister has sought to engage the region, that is something that we have welcomed. We believe that he is doing exactly the right thing for India to strengthen relationships across the region and in the neighborhood and across Asia.

We think that that's a good thing, because we see Asia as playing an increasingly important role in driving global economic growth and certainly our own rebalance to Asia is founded on the understanding that America's prosperity and America's security is increasingly in the coming years and decades going to be impacted by the prosperity and the security of Asia.

So, we are deeply intertwined and invested in each other.

And, within the Asian landscape, India's rise, India's growth, is going to be a major part of the story.

So, one, we want India to have strong ties and relations within Asia, and two, we are committed to playing an important role in partnering with India and being part of that Asian story as it unfolds.

With regard to India pulling the rug under the World Trade Organization vis-a-vis the Trade Facilitation Agreement, wasn't it embarrassing that at the same time that Secretary Kerry and Pritzker were in Delhi, India says no to the WTO?

We had a lot of conversations at the time and since then, throughout the summer, about the WTO and the failure of TFA implementation to move forward.

As Secretary Kerry pointed out at the time, we deeply understand and are empathetic with India's concerns on food security. We understand how important this issue is for India.

At the same time, we are concerned that an international agreement that was reached in Bali would be undermined at this critical juncture when we are at the point of implementing the Trade Facilitation Agreement, which will benefit all developing economies, including India's.

So, our hope is that we can find a way for India to be able to allow TFA implementation to move forward -- it is a consensus agreement and does require that consensus to move forward.

We don't want India to be an outlier -- we want India to be part of the solution. And, we welcome the opportunity to better understand, to better support, India's efforts around its food security concerns.

So, we hope that we can find a way forward.

The world is watching India and assessing India's reliability as a partner in these multilateral fora, in these regional and global and regional agreements, and so, we hope that India will send the right signals and we are willing to sit down and work with them to find a way forward.

Senator John McCain, in a major speech on Strengthening US-India Relations, in terms of countering and combating international terrorism, declared, 'Imagine if India can be part of the coalition in the fight against ISIS or ISIL.' Would the US like to co-opt India as a partner in the coalition against the Islamic State?

An F/A-18F Super Hornet returns after conducting strike missions against ISIS. Photograph: Reuters

We have many shared challenges and shared goals and we certainly have for example, shared interests on security. Our counter-terrorism cooperation became more intensified and robust after the Mumbai attacks, which brought home to both countries -- both societies -- the need for us to be able to work together to counter these kinds of challenges.

So, we look forward to continue to work very closely with India on those kinds of threats -- whether you define the threat as Al Qaeda on the Indian subcontinent, or you define that threat as other terrorist groups and extremist ideologies, we know that we will continue to work together and share information and intelligence to boost capabilities where we can and to track those individuals and organisations that pose a threat to both our countries and both of our peoples.

But whether that comes together in some concrete manifestation in terms of ISIL, it's too early to tell.

But it's clear that the body of work that we are engaging in is going to advance our efforts for both countries to be able to manage and mitigate against these kinds of threats and to provide greater security for our people and our institutions and our interests at home and abroad. Because the threat that India faces and the threat the United States faces is not just to the homeland, but to our people and to our institutions wherever they may be.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC