THE WHITE HOUSE
PRESS BRIEFING BY
5:30 P.M. (L)
MR. BERGER: Here I am, ready or not. Let me begin by giving you some readout from the meeting between President Clinton and the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, today. The Prime Minister began the meeting by warmly welcoming the President to Bangladesh and noting with, I think, great pride that this was the first-ever visit by a President of the United States to Bangladesh. She spoke quite eloquently about their commitment to democracy and determination to resolve issues through the ballot, and not by the bullet.
She raised a number of specific issues with the President. I think you heard her speak later at the Embassy about the question of the three individuals who are implicated in the murder of her father, who are in the United States. She expressed a strong view that she would hope that they would be deported. I'll come back -- the President later said that he -- that we were seeking to have them removed from the United States, that they were in the midst of judicial proceedings, that he believed that we should seek that result. And he proposed that the United States and Bangladesh negotiate an extradition treaty so that matters such as this can be handled more expeditiously in the future.
She talked, as you heard at the Embassy, a great deal about her commitment to increase the living standards of the people of this country. She talked about both the enormous challenges here, but also the great achievements -- the 65-percent literacy rate that's been achieved; food self-sufficiency; 40 percent of the budget for social development; 1.2 million women in specific develop programs; 1 billion disbursed by the government in microcredit.
She talked about the importance of the bilateral relationship with the United States and how, many times in the past, going back to some of the natural disasters, as well as our very active aid program, we have been strong friends of Bangladesh.
She mentioned the increasing trade relationship between the United States and Bangladesh. There was $653 million in trade in 1991; $2.2 billion in '99. The largest export of Bangladesh to the United States is textiles. She asked the President whether he would consider a significant increase in the textile quota. Textile exports from Bangladesh to the United States were $1.8 billion last year. The President noted that there is a 10-percent increase in the quota that's built into the phase-down of the quota and said he would look into whether anything further could be done, but that would probably be difficult.
U.S. investment in Bangladesh over the last four years, I believe, was $750 million.
She spoke about the strong commitment of this country to peace and to being a leader for peace in the region; the progress they've made in settling problems with their neighbors, ending insurgency; and, of course, being the first country in this region to both sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
She asked the President to consider relief of the PL-480 debt; there's $700 million or $400 million, depending on which figures you look at. The President indicated to her that we were going to -- while he did not have the authority under the law to do that, we were going to invoke for the first time a new law that the President spoke about at the Embassy, essentially debt for nature, that enabled us to relieve $6 million of debt to release money that can be used to maintain the tropical forests.
She raised the issue of Bangladeshis in the United States who were out of status and would like to remain.
The President then responded -- he said he was honored to be here as the first United States President. He thanked Bangladesh for the friendship that they have continually manifested toward the United States; their leadership in the United States Security Council; their role in peacekeeping from Haiti to Bosnia to Kosovo to Kuwait; the leadership on non-proliferation; the progress they've made in child labor and the condition of women; and on microcredit.
He said, where do we go from here, what else can we do. He specifically focused, talked a bit about the problem of potable water, drinking water, and indicated we would try to do more in that area. Also in the rural economic development area and turned to Secretary Daley and suggested that he perhaps try to do some more in the investment area.
There was a rather long discussion of energy. As you know, Bangladesh has substantial natural gas reserves. There is some uncertainty with respect to what the quantity of those reserves are, but they're quite substantial. The Prime Minister said they were determined to maintain 50 years of reserves for the children of Bangladesh. The President said that that was a sensible policy, but if reserves turned out to be greater than that, that this could be an important element of Bangladesh's development and offered to have a U.S. geological survey team come here and assess what the reserves are. They've been estimated anywhere between 10 and 40 trillion feet of natural gas reserves.
As the President invited the Prime Minister to come to Washington in October, she accepted that invitation. And I think that's about it, so why don't I now take your questions.
Q Sandy, what can you tell us -- what, if anything, has President Assad said about the meeting this Sunday? Is there any chance at all from the Syrian position that would precipitate this meeting?
MR. BERGER: The President has been in ongoing contact with President Assad and with Prime Minister Barak during the period since the Shepherdstown talks in an effort to find a way to resume those negotiations. As the President pointed out earlier today, we are very pleased that, through the direct contact between Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat, with efforts by the President, by Secretary Albright, by our Special Envoy, Dennis Ross, we're now seeing the resumption of the Palestinian-Israeli talks. And, in fact, there are teams from the Palestinians and the Israelis who are coming to Washington this week to resume those negotiations.
The task now is to resume the Syrian negotiations. On the basis of his conversations with the two leaders, I think the President felt the next logical step was for him to meet directly with President Assad. He's had many direct, face-to-face conversations with Prime Minister Barak. And there are some things that are best discussed face-to-face, leader to leader. So I would hope that this could contribute to a process by which the Syrian-Israeli negotiations can be resumed. But we have no certainty of that.
Q Is the President taking any specific proposal to Assad, or is it just a general pushing of him in the direction of peace and negotiations?
MR. BERGER: I think the President will present to President Assad his impressions of how the process of negotiations can be resumed, based upon the extensive conversations that he's had with both Prime Minister Barak and President Assad, but is not taking a specific American proposal.
Q A continuation of Shepherdstown or something different?
MR. BERGER: A resumption of direct negotiations between Syria and Israel.
Q And the impressions that the President is taking with him to the meeting, do they not constitute some idea, American ideas to push the process along?
MR. BERGER: I think I will stay exactly what I -- repeat exactly what I said. The President's impressions about how to get the negotiations resumed, based upon the discussions that he has had over time with Assad and Barak.
Q You said something, they're best discussed face-to-face, leader-to-leader. Is it time for Barak to meet face-to-face, leader-to-leader with Assad?
MR. BERGER: Well, I think the next step is for President Clinton to meet with President Assad.
Q How would you describe the events in Southern Lebanon as affecting the process? That has unfolded since Shepherdstown.
MR. BERGER: Well, I think the violence in Southern Lebanon is not a positive development and we've urged restraint on all parties and compliance with previous agreements and I'm glad that things have quieted down.
Q Coming back from Bangladesh, do you have any ideas if there are any commitments from the U.S. companies -- how much more investment will be made to --
MR. BERGER: Well, American investment has increased significantly over the past four years, as I said, by almost $1 billion -- three-quarters of a billion dollars. I think there is tremendous potential here. This is, I think, a country with a very promising future and I think the President believes that. I'm sure the President will go back and encourage American companies to focus on Bangladesh; and I think Secretary Daley will also bring some attention to it, as well.
Q You could look at this resumption of talks in two ways. One way that in these phone calls between the President and Assad, that some progress is being made, and the President will give his impressions and that things could be wrapped up in relatively fast time. Or you could look at it the other way and say, things have been very, very rocky and there's a fair way to go.
MR. BERGER: Yes. (Laughter.)
Q Which one is it?
MR. BERGER: I think it's a good thing that the President is meeting with President Assad. I don't think that -- I think that it is a step in a process that hopefully can lead to a resumption of negotiations. But that is by no means assured.
Q Sandy, can you tell us something about your upcoming trip to China? And that was planned, I guess, before the Taiwan vote. How has that changed things for your plans, for what you hope to accomplish?
MR. BERGER: Well, this is a trip that has been scheduled for some time, several weeks. There has been a regular dialogue that the National Security Advisor has had, going back to early in this administration, with Chinese officials, once a year, to look at the issues ahead for the year. And it's in that spirit that this meeting was arranged.
I'm sure we'll discuss a wide range of issues, including the questions involving, hopefully, a resumption of dialogue across the Taiwan Straits.
Q But what specifically are you going to tell them about what the U.S. will do, in terms of aggression against Taiwan?
MR. BERGER: I'm going to say that we believe that the issue between Taiwan -- the future relationship between Taiwan and China must be resolved through peaceful means. And we would encourage a resumption of dialogue.
I think the statements that Mr. Chen has made in the last 24 or 48 hours have been conciliatory. The statements from the Chinese side have been, I think, measured. And I think this is a time to now seize upon an opportunity that exists to resume a dialogue between Taipei and Beijing.
Q Can we go back just to the Assad thing for one second. You said before that you're happy, you're glad that things have quieted down in Southern Lebanon. This coupled with the President's meeting, does this indicate that the U.S. is now pleased, or satisfied, with the steps that Damascus took to use its influence to rein in Hezbollah?
MR. BERGER: Well, we have consistently urged the government of Syria to exercise its influence to try to restrain the groups in southern Lebanon from engaging in violent acts.
Q Well, yes, but you had -- there had been complaints from many in the administration that they weren't doing enough, very publicly saying that they hadn't done enough, and that it made it more and more difficult to resume the talks. So the question is, I mean, have they now done enough that -- things have quieted down, that makes this meeting more --
MR. BERGER: I think it always remains a volatile area. And again, we will continue to urge the Syrian government to use its influence to encourage restraint.
Q The Israeli-Syrian talks are one of several parts of the world where the President's been involved for some time in trying to bring about peace talks or negotiations. And I wonder if you think the President feels some urgency now to get some of them done because of his own political calendar?
MR. BERGER: No. I think the timetable here in these things is not driven largely by our electoral timetable. The fact is that the timetable in the Middle East is driven by Barak, Assad and Arafat. They each have their own, I think, imperatives.
I believe Prime Minister Barak has made it very clear that he wants to try to achieve a comprehensive peace this year. I think President Assad has indicated that he is determined to try to seek a peace agreement, and Chairman Arafat has. Time is not the friend of peace in the Middle East, and I think any sense of urgency comes from their clock, and not our clock.
I think in Northern Ireland, for two years people have enjoyed the benefits of the Good Friday Agreement and the people of Ireland don't want to go back -- people of Northern Ireland don't want to go back. And we're coming up on a second year anniversary. There are some significant problems that have arisen in terms of keeping the process going, but I would say even during this period there still is a maintenance of peace.
So I think there tends to kind of over-estimate the extent to which the people around the world are driven by our timetable. They're driven by their own timetables. I think in the Middle East there is a factor which is relevant. I think the fact is that all of the parties have a particular trust in President Clinton and I think they believe that he can be helpful in achieving the goal that they seek. But I don't think that -- I think the impetus comes from the dynamic of the region.
Q The Indian Prime Minister yesterday said India will not make any decisions on security under pressure. Looking ahead to the talks that start tomorrow, do you have any indication at all that India is ready to move in our direction in any way on nuclear policy, on talking to Pakistanis, any of these security issues?
MR. BERGER: We have no intention of pressuring the Indians. I'm sure the President will discuss with the Prime Minister a range of issues, including the opportunity for a new partnership between India and the United States, but also why we believe that it is not in India's interest in the long run for there to be a nuclear arms race that diverts resources and raises dangers. But that is a judgment ultimately that the government and people of India will have to make.
Q The President, just before he left, and the Secretary of State also said that curbing India's nuclear -- is essential for the relationship to grow. While at the same time, the U.S. has been saying that it's going to have a broad-based relationship which is not going to be held hostage to a single issue. But isn't this a case of holding the nuclear -- hostage in the sense of pressing India all the time?
MR. BERGER: I think what the Secretary of State said is that progress on the nonproliferation agenda is important for our relationship to reach its full potential. There are certain sanctions that are mandated by U.S. law, and we have indicated to the government of India and the government of Pakistan certain steps, certain interim steps that we believe would be useful in de-escalating the tension, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, including stronger export controls. These are all things that the government and people of India will decide ultimately to do if they believe in their judgment it is in their self-interest. We happen to think it is in their self-interest to have a de-escalation of tensions and de-escalation of an arms race.
We believe we need to -- we believe there is a unique opportunity to strengthen our partnership with India, but there are some constraints on the full realization of that, which relate to the nonproliferation agenda.
Q -- extend his invitation to visit U.S. to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. Is he going to do the same for the Prime Minister of India and General Musharraf of Pakistan?
MR. BERGER: I'm sorry, I didn't -- well, we haven't reached those stops yet, so we'll wait and see.
Q Sandy, is there something specific that you think President Assad wants to hear from President Clinton?
MR. BERGER: I think that both Prime Minister Barak and President Assad want to -- want some understanding or some sense that, in the final analysis, if there are peace negotiations, that their needs can be met. And I think that obviously any negotiation involves compromise and flexibility. But I think, as I say, what the President will be discussing is his views on how to get the process resumed.
Q Can you tell us if the bilateral with the Prime Minister, did the subject of the change to the President's schedule today come up at all? And can you give us any more detailed explanation for --
MR. BERGER: It was, obviously, mentioned. It was not discussed at length. I'm not going to go much further than the President went. We had specific information which led us to the conclusion that traveling to the village was inadvisable.
Q Can you kindly tell us why President cancelled his tour to --
MR. BERGER: I think I just answered the question. But since I didn't hear your question, I have to rely on Mr. Hammer. And if I didn't answer your question, it's his fault.
MR. HAMMER: That's right.
Q -- Pakistan with the recent shooting of one of the main lawyers for Nawaz Sharif. And as you all know, the former Prime Minister was truly forthcoming in signing the Washington accord handed out by the White House, President Clinton. At the risk of creating domestic opposition at home, is President Clinton planning to discuss the issue of the probable imprisonment -- during his meeting with General Musharraf?
MR. BERGER: I'm sure the question of the ultimate disposition of former Prime Minister Sharif will be raised.
Q After the President give Assad his impressions of how the peace talks can be presumed, what then? Does he want Assad to say, well, this is a good idea, we'll go this way or what does he want?
MR. BERGER: I do not expect there to be an immediately result from this meeting on Sunday. I expect that President Assad will go back; we'll comeback to Washington; and we will continue the process.
THE PRESS: Thank you very much.
END 6:00 P.M. (L)