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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Update on U.S. Policy in South and Central Asia

Nisha Desai Biswal
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs

Washington, DC


1:30 P.M. EST
 
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, thank you very much. And listen, thank you all for coming out on a snowy day. I know that can pose some logistical challenges.
 
Really what I wanted to do today is – we haven’t had a chance to sit down and chat in a little while, and it has been a fairly active period. We had a pretty intense wrap-up to 2014 and a pretty intense beginning to 2015, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to be able to sit with you, share a few perspectives on developments in the region, and then really to just also be able to have a conversation and answer questions that you may have. So I’m going to make just a few opening remarks for just a couple of minutes, but then I really want to turn this over to you and kind of see what questions I can answer and discussion we can engage in. So obviously the most intensive aspect of engagement in the region in the past several months has been on the India relationship. And we did have a very big and I think very successful visit by the President to India on January 26th to be chief guest for Republic Day. And it was not only a very important symbolic visit, not only very important in terms of all of the very positive atmospherics and the opportunity to convey deepening of the relationship and the convergence of our societies, our economies, and our objectives bilaterally, regionally, and globally, it was an important visit in terms of the agreements and outcomes as well that emanated between the meeting of the two leaders and our two teams, the work that went into the lead-up as well.
 
It was also important because both leaders committed not only in these agreements and outcomes, but were very focused on ensuring that these agreements and outcomes are operationalized and implemented. And frankly, even before many of us had left Delhi, we were talking about next steps. And I know now that the foreign secretary and Ambassador Rich Verma have agreed to a process that they will chair in Delhi on ensuring that the implementation moves forward aggressively. And we’re certainly working very hard here in Washington to supplement those efforts and to make sure that we are moving things across the interagency in a timely fashion.
 
We’ve also had very important opportunities in other aspects of our relationships across the region. And certainly the presidential election in Sri Lanka in January was a key moment and a key opportunity. That a new government coming into place with a commitment towards democratic governance, towards combating corruption, and towards creating inclusive opportunity for all Sri Lankans to us represents an important and hopeful moment for Sri Lanka to be able to deepen its own democratic traditions and to create enduring peace, reconciliation, and prosperity for all Sri Lankans.
 
We believe that that government has taken some important steps since it has come into power, but we know that there is a very long road ahead and much, much work to be done. But as Secretary Kerry underscored in his meeting with the foreign minister during his visit here, during the foreign minister’s visit here, that Sri Lanka is not alone in this endeavor and that the United States is a willing partner and supporter in this very important undertaking.
 
We also had this past week – last week – a global conference on countering violent extremism. During that conference, we had representatives from a number of delegations from our countries in the South and Central Asia region. And we had an opportunity to engage with them both during the conference and also in bilateral consultations and had the opportunity to underscore the importance of accountable governance, of political space, of respect for civil society and for religious freedom as being key elements of our work together as countries, as societies, in countering violent extremism. And those were important conversations and discussions to be had.
With respect to Bangladesh, Secretary Kerry had the opportunity to meet with the foreign minister and underscore a number of these principles as they discussed the political impasse and continuing violence in Bangladesh and our concern about that situation and our hope for a improvement in that situation. And the Secretary underscored that there is no space for violent tactics by political parties, but at the same time that there is a need to ensure that government provides space for political – for peaceful political expression and for an inclusive political process and that fundamental freedoms for the media and for civil society are respected.
 
We had the opportunity with delegations from Central Asia also to advance our bilateral relationship. The Kazak delegation was led by the prosecutor general. And we were very pleased that we were able to conclude the MLAT Treaty, the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, between our two countries and have a signing of that treaty during that visit, and look forward to our continuing engagements in coming months.
We have a number of engagements teed up with Central Asian counterparts, including our annual bilateral consultations, which we will have with our Turkmenistan counterparts and our Kyrgyz Republic counterparts later this spring.
 
And so it’s been a time of very intense activity and a lot of progress made on a lot of important relationships and important issues, and we look forward to continuing that. Why don’t I just stop there and see what questions I can answer and what additional discussion would be useful to you.
 
MODERATOR: If you have questions, please raise your hand. Yes.
 
QUESTION: Matthew Pennington from AP.
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Hi, Matt.
 
QUESTION: You mentioned Bangladesh. This week the – an arrest warrant was issued for the oppositional leader, former Prime Minister Zia. Does the United States consider that to be a politically motivated case? And sort of following on a bit from that, I know the U.S. has expressed concern about the political violence, including by the opposition. Do you see any role for the United States in sort of mediating somehow in this standoff, which has been going on for – since the elections a year ago?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, first of all, I’m not going to speculate on the charges that have been levied, except to say that we do hope and expect that there will be due process in terms of any – pursuing of any charges in any legal procedures. And we do think that it’s very important that for Bangladesh, as a democracy, to have space for a viable political opposition. And while we have a great deal of concern about the level of political violence and think it’s incumbent upon all political parties to repudiate violence, it’s also equally important that government provides space for peaceful political opposition to be able to exist and to create inclusive political processes.
 
These are matters that are going to need to be addressed internally. I think the Secretary has stated that he stands ready to provide whatever support the United States can provide to support resolution of these issues. And we are in very regular contact with all aspects of Bangladeshi society – the government, opposition, civil society, et cetera. But these are fundamentally issues that require internal resolution.
 
QUESTION: Yashwant Raj from Hindustan Times. Could you comment on developments in Maldives? Both the U.S. and India have taken a similar position against – on the issue of the terror case that has been made against the former president. So are you in discussions with India on this? And what are the discussions?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: So as was noted and as our spokesperson stated earlier this week, we have expressed concern about the developments in Maldives and have called for, again, the exercising of due process in how charges are pursued, and have also expressed that Maldives – the Government of the Maldives needs to act in ways that help to restore confidence in its democracy and its democratic institutions amongst the Maldivian people. And they need to respect the space for political protest and demonstrations which we have seen unfold.
 
With respect to our conversations with the Indians, the foreign secretary was in town last week and we had a robust set of discussions on bilateral, regional, and global issues. And we seek to have a strong relationship with our Indian counterparts where we can share perspectives and share analysis on a range of issues. I’m not going to get into the details of those conversations, but I think we want to see a growing collaboration and coordination with our colleagues on a range of matters, and we certainly had very fulsome discussions with the foreign secretary during his visit.
 
MODERATOR: Let’s go to New York.
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Hi.
 
QUESTION: Yes, this is Mushfiqul from Bangladesh, Just News BD. You are encouraging the current Government of Bangladesh to engage a dialogue with the opposition to maintain peace and stability and restore democracy, but the government is telling that – including prime minister – they will not accept any foreign influence, including United States. So do you think it will affect to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in Bangladesh? And you already noticed that the issue of (inaudible). What is your comment on these issues?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: So I’ve already addressed your last point in the question that Matt asked earlier, but I’ll just say we fundamentally believe that these are internal issues that need to be resolved by the Bangladeshi people and by the political leadership in Bangladesh. We do have concern that there is a continuing political impasse and that there is a continuing violence, and we hope that government and opposition leaders can address these issues and can improve and advance beyond that political impasse. We have restated our concern that all political parties need to reject and renounce violence and – but we do also believe that there should be space in a democracy for a viable opposition and a more inclusive political process.
 
MODERATOR: Yes, back of the room.
 
QUESTION: Thanks. Actually, it’s a supplementary question regarding Bangladesh. I’m from Voice of America; Salim is my name. Recently, one political leader was arrested; his name is Mahmudur Rahman Manna. He had a telephone conversation with one opposition leader living in New York that he was doing conspiracy to bring military – to do some discussion about the movement with the military of Bangladesh and some other political issues. What – do you think this kind of arrest is legitimate, or – in the eye of United --
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Yeah, so I’m not going to comment on individual and specific cases, because I certainly don’t have all the information and the facts to be able to comment on them. But I will reiterate our strong feeling that there needs to be space for civil society; that fundamental freedoms of media and of civil society need to be respected in a democracy and a democratic society like Bangladesh. And we would hope that that would be the case.
 
MODERATOR: Hi. Yes, back here.
 
QUESTION: Narayan Lakshman of The Hindu.
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Hi.
 
QUESTION: Nisha, I wanted to ask you about the civil nuclear deal, which is one of the major achievements. And in terms of implementation, people I’ve spoken to here who would say they could speak for the nuclear – U.S. nuclear industry have said that there hasn’t been any major outreach besides explaining the FAQ-style notes that the NEA put out and so on, and they do have concerns about that note in terms of – it maybe doesn’t fully dispel doubts about section 17b and 46. Could you elaborate on where the discussions stand, and could you dispel some of those doubts that they might have?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Look, I think that we had a major breakthrough in advancing the civil nuclear cooperation and that we, the United States, and the Indian Government reached understandings on these issues of nuclear liability. I think the Indian side has put forward certain additional information and clarifications on their interpretations. We are exchanging information and – on those details between our two countries as well.
 
We believe, at the end of the day, that industry will have to draw their own conclusions and make their own decisions with respect to the commercial opportunities that exist and the parameters under which they’re ready to start down that path. But we believe that India has clarified its compliance within the Vienna Convention on Supplementary Compensation, and that that has provided an understanding on which we believe this can move forward. They’ve also put forward additional information with respect to insurance pools that can also, I think, provide additional risk mitigation. And so I think that from our perspective, these understandings are important in being able to advance civil nuclear cooperation and move towards commercial opportunities.
 
QUESTION: If I could just follow up – oh, sorry. Just to follow up on that, so the specific concern that the insurance – I mean, sorry, the nuclear companies here have mentioned is that for section 17b, a contract cannot supersede statute or the courts, so in essence, it can’t supersede the liability law. And the Indian NEA has explained that in the contract, the ability to channel liability to the supplier can be left out, essentially, or can – it doesn’t have to be enforced through the contract.
 
And secondly, for section 46, tort law, the companies are concerned, I think, that it just relies – the notes say that it relies on parliamentary debate at the time, but the debate really swings both ways if you look at the transcript of different MPs. So there’s a lack of clarity on that. How do you explain these two points?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: So I’m not going to get into the weeds. I think that the Government of India is providing further information and clarification through their Q&A that they have been putting forward, and I think that there have been some additional statements, including by the prime minister, that also, I think, provide further clarity. And we also know that, for example, we are in the process of exchanging communication that help to clarify these issues, and so I’m not going to get ahead of that process.
 
We have an ongoing process, and the contact group is continuing its work to address any areas that require further clarification, but we do believe that the understandings that were reached between the United States and India during the visit of the President fundamentally address the outstanding concerns that we had and advance civil nuclear cooperation. So in that sense, we do believe that this was a significant breakthrough.
 
QUESTION: Okay. Zhiger Sarsenov, TV Channel Kazakhstan, Khaber Agency. I would like to know – as you know, Kazakhstan will hold a early presidential election on 26 April this year. And because of next economic crisis and the people of Kazakhstan want to successful continue strategic plans of Kazakh Government, what do you think about this situation? How much is in decision?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: I mean, it’s – the electoral timetable is obviously an internal decision of the Kazakh Government. We have a very strong relationship between our two countries. We look forward to continuing and deepening our bilateral partnership, and we look forward to engaging over the coming months before and after the elections on that course.
 
QUESTION: Thank you.
 
MODERATOR: Any other questions in the room? Yes, in the back.
 
QUESTION: Hi.
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Hi.
 
QUESTION: I’m Chidu Rajghatta from Times of India. Nisha, can you give us some insight into the President’s Siri Fort speech and his message on religious intolerance? And also the subsequent messages out of the White House, including the speech on violent extremism. And while at it, can you tell us what exactly – what do these terms mean? What does violent extremism – does gun violence in the United States by supporters of NRA count as violent extremism, or mass incarceration of black people count as intolerance? What exactly do these terms mean when the U.S. gives out these messages to the rest of the world?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, first of all, I am not going to offer any insights into the President’s thinking. I think you would have to ask the President, ask the White House for that. I think the speech – which I think was a very powerful speech and I got very positive feedback, frankly, from everyone that I spoke to, both within government and elsewhere. The speech, I think, speaks for itself, and it speaks about shared values, frankly, that define our partnership and our relationship. And the President, in recent weeks, has talked quite compellingly about the need for all of us to be perfecting our own societies, our own democracies, as we seek to create a more perfect union, as he put it.
 
QUESTION: But it’s fair to assume that the speech was addressed as much to the United States itself as --
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: I think the President was quite clear in that, and I can’t add anything more to the very eloquent and very compelling message that he himself put out there, both in that Siri Fort speech but also in subsequent remarks that he has made, including the remarks that he made at the Conference on Countering Violent Extremism and the importance that we define our commonalities in – as societies, as civilians, and as faiths. And, I mean, I just have to say I was in the room for both occasions, and I personally felt just incredibly moved and inspired by the President’s words and his commitment to defining that which unites us rather than that which divides us.
And so I don’t have anything more to add on the President’s words, which I thought were quite self-explanatory and then compelling on these issues that confront all communities, all societies, all countries around the globe, and what we can do to work together to address the violent extremism that we encounter and what are more compelling, effective ways to bring societies together.
 
MODERATOR: Next, please.
 
QUESTION: Anton Chudakov for Russian news agency TASS. I am interested in United States and Russian cooperation in Afghanistan, what it’s about, its level or situation there.
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: I’m sorry, can you repeat? Russian --
 
QUESTION: United States cooperation in Afghanistan.
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: U.S.-Russian cooperation --
 
QUESTION: Yes.
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: -- in Afghanistan. Well, let me, first of all, just restate and clarify that in terms of the bilateral relationship with Afghanistan, that is under the purview of our Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Dan Feldman. But I do know that we have always valued the important role that Russia plays in addressing global challenges and the important role that Russia has played in advancing a peaceful Afghanistan. And we look forward to continuing to work with Russia on these important issues in the region and around the world. And I’ll just leave it at that, since, like I said, I don’t want to get further into the specifics of Afghanistan.
 
MODERATOR: Yes.
 
QUESTION: Just to follow up on Narayan’s question on the nuclear deal, is the deal – as an issue, is it – does it cease to be an issue between the two governments now; it’s only the private sector, or it continues to be an issue between the two governments, that the two governments will remain engaged on it?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: I would say that there is both. I mean, we have an ongoing process. The contact group that was launched during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States in September has met at least four or five, maybe half a dozen, times over the run-up to the President’s visit at the end of January. But it will continue to meet to engage and to address any areas that require further agreement or further clarification as we move forward. But we also recognize that, beyond the government-to-government understandings and agreements, that private companies will need to make their own determinations and draw their own conclusions and that they will need to have their own conversations to advance the commercial investments that they are contemplating.
 
MODERATOR: Are there any other questions in the room? Any final comments from you?
 
QUESTION: I don’t know. Maybe I can jump in with another one, then.
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Well, sure. One more. Go ahead. Go ahead.
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Okay. Go ahead. (Laughter.) I actually have something – someone waiting for me in the office, but --
 
QUESTION: No, so go back to this question on the speech, the Siri Fort speech. I’m not on the religious tolerance issue now. I just wanted to – as a fun fact, how did Shah Rukh Khan get in the speech? What was that – was that your input? I can’t see anybody else in this Administration putting that kind of information.
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: (Laughter.) I won’t claim credit for that. I do know that, first of all, that the President has his own long and deep personal history, interest, and engagement on India. And so I’m sure that there are many different avenues, including his own inputs, into some of the fun cultural references that I know were so well received. But the President’s interest and engagement on India far, far, far predates my involvement and, frankly, far predates his – even his political career. So --
 
MODERATOR: All right. And we have a question from Japan.
 
QUESTION: My name is Kuniaki Kitai. I’m from Jiji Press, a Japanese news agency. And I have one question about the violent extremism, namely the ISIL. And my question is: Do you have any indication that ISIL is extending their sphere of influence into Central Asia? And if you have, do you have any information that – to how many militant or how many citizens in the region would go and engage with them?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: We do have very strong concerns about the efforts that ISIL has made to recruit foreign fighters, including from Central Asia. This is a issue of concern for every one of the Central Asian states and an area of discussion between the United States and each of the countries, as we seek to work together to address the efforts made by ISIL, to recruit foreign fighters, to attract financial flows. And so this is an area of concern for all of the countries in South and Central Asia and an issue of discussion for the United States in our bilateral discussions with each of the countries of South and Central Asia.
 
QUESTION: On that, can I just quickly follow up? So have you --
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: Very, very last question. I do actually have to be back.
 
QUESTION: Has the U.S. Administration asked President – sorry, Prime Minister Modi for his – if he could – if he’d be interested in joining in the fight against ISIL? And what has the response been so far?
 
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BISWAL: We have certainly had very robust discussions between our two governments, including at the leader level, about the threat that violent extremism poses, and specifically the threat posed by ISIL, and ways that we can work together to counter that threat. And whether India decides to formally join the coalition to combat ISIL or whether India takes other steps is for India to determine. But we value and welcome the cooperation between our two countries, which is certainly growing and deepening on issues of combating terrorism and combating violent extremism.
 
With that, I just want to say thank you again. I really do value the opportunity to be able to engage with all of you and to advance understanding of U.S. policies in this very important region. So thank you.
 
MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone.
 
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