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Transcript of Media Briefing by Indian Ambassador in Washington DC on Prime Minister’s Ongoing Visit (September 26, 2013)

September 27, 2013

Official Spokesperson (Shri Syed Akbaruddin): Good afternoon friends and thank you very much for being here. We have with us Ambassador Nirupama Rao. We had requested her to speak to you and give you a contextual background to tomorrow’s meeting between Prime Minister and President Obama and she has agreed to that. We have requested her to speak for a few minutes and then she will be available to answer a few questions. She has another appointment at around 5 and so she has to leave. So of necessity we will have to be brief with this.

With those introductory remarks I would request Ambassador Rao to make her opening remarks.

Indian Ambassador to USA (Shrimati Nirupama Rao): Thank you Akbar. Good afternoon friends and sorry to have kept you waiting entirely due to the traffic in Washington.

As you know, this will be the third summit meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Barak Obama. You have seen the arrival statement by Prime Minister that was issued a few hours ago. That gives you the context and essentially tells you a little about the setting for the visit.

As you know also from your previous briefings, a great deal has been achieved in the relationship, in the strategic partnership between India and the United States in recent years. In the true sense of the word it is what has been termed a full-spectrum relationship. It is a relationship that obviously has bilateral relevance and substance, but it also has a relevance that extends to the regional situation as also the larger global environment.

Prime Minister Singh and President Obama will meet, as you know, tomorrow morning at the White House, and their meeting will be followed by lunch. Thereafter, Prime Minister departs for New York for the meeting of the UN General Assembly.

When you look at the bilateral relations between India and the United States, I think it is worthy to note that this relationship has obviously a political aspect to it; this is a relationship between two of the world’s largest and most important democracies. I am not saying it just for the sake of it, I think there is a true concordance of many interests here, shared interests and shared concerns definitely, apart from the fact that we share values also as democracies.

In terms of what we have achieved in the last few years, the strategic dialogue which, as you know, was instituted in 2010 has come to encompass not only trade and business areas but also our cooperation on homeland security, on defence cooperation, energy security, and higher education.

In fact in all the discussion and comments on the visit that I have seen from our learned friends in the media, I do not believe much attention has been devoted to the fact that education and our cooperation in education has become one of the pillars of our partnership today. I think this has enormous relevance and that is where I think the development dimension to this relationship becomes so important. That is because as a large developing country with the challenges that we face, our cooperation for instance in energy, our cooperation in education is, I believe, of the utmost relevance because it touches the lives of people in our country.

The Indian American community here, which numbers more than three million today, has also played a very crucial and very constructive role in cementing the ties and the good relations between the two countries. The community has really been mainstreamed into American life today. You can see what I mean by the fact that we have leading Indian Americans in politics, in the Administration, in the legal profession. You are aware of Congressman Ami Bera who is the third Indian American to have been elected to the House of Representatives after Congressman Dalip Singh Saund in the 50s; and Mr. Bobby Jindal who is now Governor of Louisiana. Dr. Ami Bera is the third such Indian American elected Congress. We also have two Governors - I mentioned Governor Jindal in Louisiana and Governor Nikki Haley in South Carolina.

Just today, Judge Sri Srinivasan is being sworn in to the DC Court of Appeals. It is a very prestigious position and again goes to show how far the Indian American community has come in this country. They have been truly bridge builders between our two nations.

President Obama and Prime Minister Singh shared a deep understanding, a deep friendship; and they hold each other in high esteem. I think that certainly goes a long way to the promoting of understanding and also focus on our partnership, what we have achieved, to review what we have done so far in the last few years, but also to set the pace, the direction and to help accelerate the momentum of our cooperation.

Our trade and business ties have grown significantly in the last few years. Trade in goods and services amounted to, as you know, US$ 100 billion in this last year. The services industry in India, particularly the IT industry, has been an engine of growth in this relationship, which is why the ongoing discussion about the comprehensive immigration reform in this country. That aspect of the reform that touches skilled non-immigrant visas has been receiving our close attention in the last few months. I am sure you will have questions to raise on that but I just thought I will flag that issue.

From the US side of course there are issues that have been raised from time to time about the investment and economic reform process in India, which we have sought to address in a candid and open and transparent manner. And I think this does go a long way to bridging of differences and enabling a better meeting of minds on some of these issues.

From our side obviously we would like the United States to understand the development challenges that we face, the situation in which we live in terms of the environment around us. And I believe the fact that the dialogue mechanisms between India and the United States have multiplied to such an extent is proof of the fact that we are discussing a whole gamut, a whole spectrum of issues of mutual concern - be they bilateral, be they regional, be they global. And that is where of course our dialogue for instance on terrorism and counterterrorism occupies such relevance, our dialogue on maritime security, our dialogue on East Asia, Central Asia, West Asia and our cooperation in the whole theatre, in the whole, shall I say, space of the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific becomes very relevant. We have had of course high-level engagements this year which I think you will have taken note of. We had the Strategic Dialogue in New Delhi in June this year where US Secretary of State John Kerry visited India for discussions with our External Affairs Minister Mr. Salman Khurshid. And subsequently in July this year we had the visit of Vice-President Joseph Biden to India also which you would have covered.

I believe I should stop here and take your questions because time is short and I wanted to keep more time for questions rather than give you just a statement.

Official Spokesperson: The floor is open for questions.

Question: You have not really talked too much about cooperation on the issue of terror. Now in the wake of the Jammu attacks particularly I wanted to know whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is going to raise India’s concerns with terror particularly cross-border terror with President Obama? I ask that because there is a longstanding award announced by the US on the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba founder Hafiz Saeed which does not seem to have gone anywhere. Is India really looking to put more pressure on Pakistan Government perhaps through its relations with the US?

Indian Ambassador to USA: Obviously we have not let this matter go off the radar. My statement was brief so I did not dwell too much on what we have been doing on homeland security cooperation and counterterrorism issues. But this issue concerning the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, the activities of Hafiz Saeed are very much on the agenda of discussions that we have with the United States at every given opportunity. So, I do not see any diminution of our concerns on this issue or any staying away from raising these issues when the opportunity arises, and especially because the issue cross-border terrorism and the threat that we continue to face, our homeland in India continues to face, on this issue is a matter of very great concerns nationally for us as a country.And I believe the United States is aware of the depth and the profundity of our concerns on this issue. The fact is that Lashkar-e-Tayyiba is not just a group confined in its activities to the subcontinent or to cross-border terrorism. They have become virtually a global terrorist combine and their activities affect lives and endanger security in more than one country. I think the United States is aware of that and is concerned about it.

Question: It is not only the Indian-American community but also you have played a great role. You are a household name on the Capital Hill as also among the Indian American community, and thank you for what you are doing for our great country India. My question is, when Prime Minister landed, we just saw a White House statement that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will be welcomed in the White House. What message you think is Washington sending to India when our Prime Minister has just landed and not even met with President Obama?

And what do you think about this upcoming meeting between Prime Minister and President, and the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan in New York? Do you think their meeting will also be discussed tomorrow in the White House?

Indian Ambassador to USA:
First of all, I would advise you not to let your imagination run riot.

The fact is that the White House did issue a statement about the impending visit of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif I believe on October 23. The US and Pakistan have a bilateral relationship. It is a longstanding relationship. Visits are exchanged from time to time. And I do not believe you need to let this get under your skin. Our relationship with the United States stands on its own merits. The depth, as I said, and the range and the extent of our dialogue and our relationship with the United States stands on its own, stands on its own merits. I do not believe that there is any reason for us to feel any lack of confidence or for us to be expressing undue concern about the fact that there is a visit impending by a democratically-elected Prime Minister of Pakistan to the United States. And there is something else about …

Question: About the meeting between the two Prime Ministers.

Indian Ambassador to USA: I am not here to talk about that. I am here as the Ambassador to the United States. I will confine myself to India-US relations.

Official Spokesperson: Can I request each one of you just to ask one question please?

Question: Ambassador Rao, India for the first time has used pretty strong language on US surveillance in the IBSA statement that has said that it is a serious violation of national sovereignty and incompatible with democratic coexistence between friendly countries. Is this an issue that Dr. Manmohan Singh is going to raise with Mr. Obama that it is not right for strategic partners to be spying and snooping to this extent of planting devices on your Embassy? Is this going to come up tomorrow?

Indian Ambassador to USA: I cannot say specifically whether it will come up tomorrow, but I can inform you very unequivocally that we have raised this issue with the American side and they know of our concerns on this issue. I would not want to deny the fact that we have expressed our position, our concerns to the United States on this matter. In fact that given the level of friendship and mutual confidence between our two countries we need to understand why these things happen.

At the same time, let me also tell you that we cannot just go by what the media is saying on these issues. The two Governments need to sit down and discuss this in a dispassionate, in an objective way. Let me also tell you that on cyber related matters there is already an ongoing and a fairly, I would say, productive dialogue between our two countries.

Question: Madam Rao, how does India propose to take up its concerns regarding the changes in US visa norms which America plans to bring in which would affect India’s highly-skilled IT professionals?

Indian Ambassador to USA: We certainly intend to take it up, as we had on the last few occasions when we have had the opportunity to have these high-level meetings with the United States. This comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill is still a work in progress. It is still before the House of Representatives and it has been dissected into several parts while being discussed. We really do not know what the final outcome, what the final shape, what the final content of this Bill would be.

But the portion that relates to non-immigrant skilled visas, which is where the matter that you raised comes in, is certainly something that we are keeping very closely under watch. That is because if these restrictions were to become a reality, then the business model that many of our India-based IT companies follow in this country stands to be adversely affected. We certainly do not want to see that happen, neither do we want to see restrictions placed on the numbers of H1B visas that these companies can legitimately I believe seek when they do business in this country.

So, we have been very candid and very forthright in expressing our views. I myself had been a frequent visitor to Capital Hill to discuss these issues. I have spoken in the US media on this matter. And I believe that our concerns are understood by a lot of the interlocutors with whom we have had the occasion to discuss this. But what the outcome of the Bill will be at this moment is very difficult to say. And even if you were to ask your US interlocutors, they would not be able to give you an answer just now.

Question: Ambassador Rao, is there a sense that what was meant to be the showpiece of the Indo-US equation, which is the nuclear deal, is somehow lying in cold storage in the sense that it has not been operationalised, that nuclear commerce has not taken off, that liability laws of India have been a major issue? And are we going to see some sort of …(Inaudible)…? We were expecting that it would be announced yesterday or today, that has not happened. Where exactly do we stand on this?

Indian Ambassador to USA: That does not mean it is not going to happen, first of all I want to say that. As far as civil nuclear cooperation is concerned, it is certainly not in cold storage because the two sides – the NPCIL and the Westinghouse Electric Corporation - just to give you an example are in active discussion about, as you said the Pre-Early Works Agreement and the small contract as it is called. And I think it is very near fruition, those efforts are very near closure. So, I would encourage you to believe and to hope that there will be good outcomes.

And please also understand, when it comes to a nuclear power plant and when it comes to all the technical and commercial aspects that need to be discussed and agreed to vis-à-vis any country - leave the United States aside for the moment - these things are bound to take time. It is a painstaking discussion process that has to be gone through. But I can tell you one thing that progress, even if it has been slow, has been steady and has been sure.

Question: Madam, you spoke about …(Inaudible)… India and the United States over a whole range of regional and global issues. But yet we differ on some very fundamental situations like for example Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. Do you see a bridging of differences or dissension on these three specific issues at tomorrow’s talks?

Indian Ambassador to USA: That is what friends are for. We do not have to agree all the time on everything that we discuss. The point is that today when we sit down with the United States we have the ability to very transparently and candidly set forth what our concerns are on a given issue. I would not say that our minds do not meet on many of these issues.

Let us take Syria and the whole chemical weapons issue in Syria. We were very clear from the outcome that we are completely and unequivocally against the use of weapons of mass destruction, in this case chemical weapons, in Syria. And we have expressed our satisfaction with the fact that there is now an agreement to eradicate the chemical weapons in Syria, and that a process is already under way to make that effective and make that a reality.

Similarly when it comes to Afghanistan, take the dialogue between India and the United States on Afghanistan. We also had a trilateral dialogue, as you know among India, Afghanistan and the United States. And why do we have that dialogue? That is because the essential goal for all of us, all right-thinking countries - and I would obviously include India and also the United States in that category - like Afghanistan to be secure, to be stable, to be peaceful, to be freed of the threat of terror and the incidents of violence that have plagued it for so long in its recent history. So, as far as the aim is concerned, I do not think there is any difference, any contradiction here between India and the United States.

Next year you have a very crucial year in Afghanistan. You have the Presidential elections and you also have the drawdown and withdrawal of foreign troops. India and the United States have been in discussion about the 2014 situation. But the calendar does not end with 2014. There is 2015, there is 2016 and all the years after that. Obviously we have a long-term perspective. We are in discussion with the United States about seeing how we can ensure that the fruits of development in Afghanistan that we have seen over the last twelve years are not in any way vitiated by the scenarios that confront Afghanistan today. How do we secure all the good and the progress that has happened in Afghanistan over the last few years? On that I think both India and the United States have a common concern about seeing that that good is not vitiated.

On Iran, I think on the nuclear issue concerning Iran India has been very clear in its position that Iran has the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. But there are questions about its nuclear programme that the IAEA and the international community has addressed to that country which obviously need to be fully explained and clarified. But ultimately what India has always sought to say to our foreign friends and interlocutors is that these problems that confront that region, that confront Iran, must be solved through dialogue, and through discussion; and that military conflict and violence cannot be the way out of this situation.

Question: Madam Ambassador, you have mentioned that a major area of cooperation between India and the USA is education. Is Prime Minister going to take up that issue here? And what is going to be your major concern in the area of education?

Indian Ambassador to USA: It is not about concerns so much as priorities, let me say that. The occasion for that is provided to our Prime Minister and President of the United States is not only to discuss the way forward in the relationship but also to review the progress that we have made so far. In that context, the Higher Education Dialogue between the two countries, to my mind and I think to the mind of all observers, would be that we have been able to concretise areas of cooperation in the field of higher education particularly.

As you know, the median age in India today is about 28 and there are millions, I think over 200 million children, in school today in India after the Right to Education became a reality. Now every year the numbers of children moving, let us say, from Grade 8 to Grade 9 onwards would suggest that this challenge that we are going to face as far as providing higher education as also skill development and capacity building for these young Indians is going to be a major priority for the country, it is already a major priority.

And where the United States and India are discussing these issues is in the area of skill development and capacity building. Now, I remember when Vice-President Biden came to India he said the community college system here in the United States is one of the best kept secrets in this country, and everywhere in this country, wherever there are industrial conglomerations or factories or urban development, there is a network of community colleges that feeds the industry, that allows people to be trained.

Go anywhere. Even if it is an aircraft building industry, I went to Boeing the other day, I went to Seattle and I saw, there are many community colleges around the Boeing establishment there which train people in fairly high technology skills to take up jobs in these industrial establishments and that is really why we are very seriously looking at the community college example and experience in this country so that we can dovetail it. Of course we will have to adapt it to meet our requirements because we have our ITIs, we have our vocational training institutes and all already in our country. But we have already signed an MoU between the All India Council of Technical Education and the American Association of Community Colleges to set up about 200 community colleges in India, and work is already under way.

The second area is faculty development, particularly junior faculty development. We have the C.V. Raman Fellowships and others that look at faculty development and train young faculty from India for attachment and small capsules of training in the universities here.

The third area of course would be looking at how we can use the experience of online education. We already have online education in our country. We have the open university system and we have used space technology for online education. But today with the optic fibre connectivity that is coming up all over India, the concept of the massive open online courses, what they call the MOOCs in this country, has also been the subject of discussion between India and the United States. IIT Bombay has already signed an MoU with Edex, which is a MOOCs provider in Boston, to start work in this area.

So, there is the whole concept of empowerment involved here with education. That is why I think when we look at the strategic partnership between India and the United States I think we need to also focus on these areas which really help change the lives of people.

Question: …(Inaudible)… with the India Caucus both the House and Senate …(Inaudible)… slowing down in the …(Inaudible)…

Indian Ambassador to USA: First of all, I do not think there has been a slowing down in the activities of the India Caucus because I can tell you from personal experience that the members of the India Caucus are so focused on India. There has been a resolution, if you have seen, welcoming the visit of our Prime Minister, which has really been taken forward, let us say, by Senators like Senator Mark Warner who co-chairs the India Caucus in the Senate. I myself in my personal meetings with Congressmen and Senators from the Caucus have always found them extremely positive about the relationship. They work very closely with the Indian American community also in their constituencies. So, it has been a very good experience for me personally to understand how the Caucus has been able to really grow and also to stand up for so many issues that helped the partnership and the relationship go forward.

Coming to Prime Minister’s meetings, tomorrow he is a meeting President Obama and, as I said, he has lunch with President Obama at the White House. Then he goes on to New York. Tomorrow evening he will meet with a group of American CEOs. As of now we do not have any meetings with the Congressional Caucus.

And please remember, it is a working visit, Prime Minister is making a working visit. So, time is of essence here. We have a limited time space in which to do a lot of things.

Question: Just a follow-up on the nuclear issue. Will the Pre-Early Works Agreement take care of India’s nuclear liability law?Indian Ambassador to USA: I think we have torn this thing to threads already. But anyway, at this stage, the Early Works and the Small Contract is really going to look at the technical, commercial aspects on the basis of which you build future discussion. I am not going into this issue further. Please understand, and I tried to say this again and again I am sure I said in Delhi also, that on issues like liability, there is a law that Parliament has passed and there is no question of contravening, going beyond the four corners of that law. Please understand that.

Question: Madam, you mentioned in your remarks when answering one of the questions that things may look that they are moving slow but they are steady. Just to take that …(Inaudible)… we have a strategic partnership. But is there a sense that somewhere …(Inaudible)… in bureaucratic procedures, systemic problems and are these things actually coming in the way of or have affected the pace of progress of this partnership?

Indian Ambassador to USA: I think what is remarkable about this partnership is that you see it in living colour. I do not think there is anything that is hidden. I am not going to be getting into an argument with you about – is there a bureaucratic slowness or stagnation on either side. Bureaucracies will be bureaucracies. I do not believe that you can wave a wand and make everything perfect. What I want to emphasise is that there is political will and a sense of direction about where this relationship is headed, and it is headed in the right direction. It has achieved a great deal in the last few years, and it will continue I think to achieve the potential that it is meant to achieve in the years to come as far as trade, as far as economic engagement is concerned, as far as our defence and strategic cooperation, the dialogues that we have on various regional and multilateral issues. I think ultimately common ground is found even if there are differences that we have to reserve from time to time.

Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much. With that we come to the end of this event.

Indian Ambassador to USA: Thank you very much.

(Concluded)



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