Tuesday, 8 February 2011

US Priorities in South Asia Spelled Out

US Priorities in South Asia Spelled Out
Wednesday, 26 January 2011 09:02 Ernest Corea

WASHINGTON D.C. (IDN) - The U.S. has three primary objectives in South and Central Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Robert O. Blake said, during an analysis of regional policy he recently presented at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas. These are to:

- Support international efforts in Afghanistan;
- Build a strategic partnership with India; and
- Develop more durable and stable relations with the Central Asian countries.

Blake is a senior professional diplomat who joined the foreign service in 1985. His positions have included Executive Assistant to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. Immediately before taking on his current duties, he was Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives.

As Assistant Secretary at the head of the State Department's Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Blake deals primarily with the region from Sri Lanka in the south to Kazakhstan in the north, from Maldives to Bhutan, with a Special Representative taking the primary job of coordinating policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Blake pointed out that while this part of the world is primarily defined for many Americans by the challenges faced in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the region is also marked by great promise and opportunity.

Central Asia lies at a critical strategic crossroads, bordering Afghanistan, China, Russia and Iran, which is why the U.S. wants to continue to expand engagement and cooperation with this critical region.

As for South Asia, with India as its thriving anchor, it is a region of growing strategic and commercial importance to the United States in the critical Indian Ocean area.


Following are excerpts from Blake’s comments as prepared for delivery:

My bureau's single most important priority is supporting stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. The (U.S.) President, Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton, Secretary (of Defence Robert) Gates and other members of the Cabinet have spent countless hours reviewing and honing our efforts in the region. I am pleased to say that Central Asia and India have played a critical role in supporting coalition efforts in the region.

The Northern Distribution Network -- the NDN -- runs through most of the Central Asian countries, supplies a growing percentage of provisions for our military effort and offers an alternative to the more widely used southern supply route through Pakistan.

The NDN increasingly offers the people of the Central Asian countries the opportunity to sell goods and services to NATO troops in Afghanistan, and we hope it can help catalyze greater trade and economic cooperation between Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Even beyond the NDN, the Central Asian nations have underpinned our efforts to fight the Taliban and rebuild Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan hosts the Manas transit center, which facilitates troop transport and supports refueling missions for coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Electricity from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan power the lights of Kabul, while the completion of a railhead in Mazar-e-Sharif this year will link the Uzbek and Afghan railways. Cultivating broad and long-lasting relationships with the Central Asian countries is the only way to ensure a common understanding and gain their long-term support for our efforts in Afghanistan.


We hope that the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, which will enter into force on February 11, will also lead to increased trade between Afghanistan and its northern neighbors Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Further afield, we also see the agreement as opening an opportunity for India and Pakistan to ramp up commercial engagement.

South Asian countries also have supported international efforts to rebuild Afghanistan. Bangladesh's largest NGO, Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC), runs activities in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces.

India has been a major contributor to reconstruction, with more than $1.3 billion in assistance so far, including the construction of highways, transmission lines, and the parliament building.

As a sign of our close partnership in the region, the President announced during his landmark visit to India in November (2010) that we would work with India on women's empowerment and capacity building in Afghanistan.


These projects with India in Afghanistan mark a small but important part of a significant new global development -- the emergence of a global strategic partnership between India and the United States.

As President Obama said in his November 8 speech to the Indian Parliament, "For the first time ever, our governments are working together across the whole range of common challenges that we face. Now, let me say it as clearly as I can: The U.S. not only welcomes India as a rising global power, we fervently support it, and we have worked to help make it a reality."

India's democracy, diversity and knowledge-based society make it special, a model of a tolerant pluralistic society in the region, and one that now actively seeks to work with the U.S. and others to help solve problems on a global level.


Growing ties between our societies, our economies and our governments have helped sustain and accelerate India's rise. The nearly three million Indian-Americans (in the U.S.) provide a powerful connection between us, as do the more than 100,000 Indian students studying in U.S. universities.

Bilateral trade has more than tripled in the last decade, creating jobs and opportunities for both of us. Cooperation in counter-terrorism and defense modernization is at unprecedented levels.

The strength of India's economy makes it the powerhouse of South and Central Asia's growth. India's economy grew about 7.4 percent in 2010; one of the fastest in the world, and by 2025 India is expected to become the 3rd largest economy in the world, behind the United States and China. Its middle class now numbers 300 million and is expected to double over the next 20 years.

India's growing economic power has also made it among the fastest growing investors in the United States. Over the last decade, investment from India to the United States grew at an annualized rate of 53% reaching an estimated $4.4 billion in 2009.

Engagement across the U.S. and Indian governments has never been as robust and comprehensive as it is today. The President's dramatic visit to India highlighted the vast ties between our two countries, and our cooperation on critical issues ranging from climate change, to counter-terrorism, nonproliferation and energy diversity.

President Obama acknowledged India's growing role in the world by endorsing India for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.


Our people-to-people linkages likewise have grown tremendously. During his stop in Mumbai, President Obama announced business and defense deals that exceeded $14.9 billion, with $9.5 billion in U.S. export content, supporting the creation of over 50,000 jobs.

We will build on the President's visit in the coming year through an intensive program of collaborative activities, high-profile visits and even greater engagement. Of particular note, we welcome the opportunity to work with India closely during its two-year tenure on the UN Security Council, which started January 1.

On the business side, Commerce Secretary (Gary) Locke will travel to India in February to attend Aero India, the biannual Indian aerial fair that has grown in importance as India itself has grown. India will soon announce the winners of a tender worth up to $12 billion to supply 126 medium multi-range combat aircraft -- a competition in which both Boeing and Lockheed Martin have entered their jets.

Secretary Clinton and other Cabinet officials will also travel to India this spring for the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, which oversees the entire spectrum of our cooperation.

I could go on into our joint activities to promote healthy families, reinforce food security in Africa, engage in regional consultations, develop innovative clean energy, bring monsoon forecasting data to farmers…and the list goes on. What we ultimately aim to do is develop the habits of cooperation that establish a partnership that will shape the 21st century in a way that bring peace and prosperity to the world.


A review of my bureau would not be complete without mentioning the other South Asian countries that neighbor India: Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Maldives. The growth of India has overshadowed the progress made in all of these countries.

Bangladesh has experienced an average of 6% growth in GDP over the last 18 years, which has helped lift millions of Bangladeshis out of poverty. Houston, with its large Bangladeshi diaspora community, has undoubtedly contributed to the $11 billion in global remittances Bangladesh receives each year.

Bangladesh, with its inclusive growth model and newly stable government, represents another potential powerhouse in the neighborhood. The investigation into the Nobel prize-winning Grameen Bank, however, has raised concerns. Secretary Clinton has urged the government to maintain its democratic values and ensure its investigation is impartial and balanced.

Nepal and Sri Lanka have both ended terrible internal conflicts in the last few years, but each must now secure the peace. In Katmandu last week (January 6), the UN Mission for Nepal withdrew, putting responsibility for completing the peace process squarely in the hands of Nepal's fractious parties. The U.S. Government will continue to support the peace process.

I urged all the parties to continue to respect their own commitments under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and said it is incumbent upon Nepal’s leaders to bring the peace process to a much needed conclusion. The U.S. was pleased that the parties reached agreement on arrangements to continue the monitoring of arms and the armies. We hope that same spirit will help the parties reach agreement on the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist army personnel into the Nepalese army and police, and on a new constitution.


While Sri Lanka's economy has thrived since the end of its brutal civil war, its reconciliation has proceeded more slowly. I hope that the government will act on the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission it set up, as part of wider efforts that will be needed to help establish a lasting peace.

South Asia's smallest countries, Bhutan and Maldives, both experienced peaceful transitions to democracy in 2008. The Bhutanese model of Gross National Happiness has shaped new thinking about economic growth in developing countries, and Bhutan is on track to achieve all of its Millennium Development Goals.

And the moderate Muslim nation of the Maldives, now led by a former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, has punched above its weight in the global debate on climate change, and thought of innovative ways to illustrate the plight of its sinking atolls. The Cabinet meeting it held underwater certainly captured the attention of the world.

The region's diversity opens many opportunities; it also presents a challenge in our efforts to encourage these disparate countries to work together. We have many obstacles to overcome still, but I hope that our effort to rebuild Afghanistan and develop deeper relations throughout the region will contribute to this vision.

2011 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is on the IDN editorial board and President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

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