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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Indiana University's Inner Asian and Uralic Natural Resource Center
October 18, 2012


 Thank you for that warm welcome and for inviting me to participate in the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Indiana University’s Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center and of its rich history as our only national resource center focusing on Inner Asia. I understand we are funding two major university partnership programs between Indiana University and Afghan universities. We are pleased to be part of your wider efforts.

This is a momentous time for the Central Asian region. I am delighted to be with you today to speak about our policy priorities in Central Asia, and why we believe our engagement will lead not to another round of the Great Game, as some have suggested, but rather will contribute to the achievement of a “Great Gain” for Central Asian countries and all those that partner with them.

To that end, I’ll discuss our security engagement in Central Asia, the United States’ commitment to Afghanistan’s security transition, the momentum that we see building around the New Silk Road regional integration vision, and the importance of supporting human rights and democratic reforms and creating space for civil society. By working together with our Central Asian partners, other important countries including China and Russia, and a wide range of other international actors, we can create a prosperous region that offers “great gains” for all. Let me start with security.

U.S. Security Engagement in Central Asia

Security in Central Asia is a key strategic interest for the United States – and of course for each of the Central Asian countries, particularly as they look ahead to the transition in Afghanistan post-2014. Our security cooperation with these nations focuses on enhancing border security, strengthening regional counternarcotics efforts, countering violent extremism, and working towards a stable, secure Afghanistan.

Expanding our cooperation in this arena not only helps countries deal with security challenges; it helps solidify our diplomatic ties and deepen and broaden our partnerships. If a country is willing to cooperate in the area of national security, they are more likely to cooperate in other areas as well. But security cooperation is not the end goal.

Instead, we have built on the momentum created in our security discussions to broaden and deepen our bilateral relationships. Today, we hold Annual Bilateral Consultations (or, in the case of Kazakhstan, a Strategic Partnership Dialogue) with each of the Central Asian states. Through the ABCs, we have established a mechanism through which we review in detail every element of our relationship, from security assistance to economic investment issues, educational and cultural exchanges, to human rights and democratic reform.

It is important to note that we always take into account the political, economic, military and human rights situation of a partner country when deciding what kind of security cooperation to pursue. As an example, we provide only nonlethal assistance to Uzbekistan because of our concerns about its human rights record. But we continue to engage, making it clear that our relationship can reach its full potential only when Uzbekistan meets its human rights obligations.

Turning to some of our specific security priorities, we have excellent cooperation with Kazakhstan on nonproliferation issues ranging from proliferation prevention to improvement of the regulatory framework for strategic trade controls, and we look forward to building on our cooperation on mutual security concerns with complementing progress in human rights, and labor and religious freedoms.

In Kyrgyzstan, which also hosts the Manas Transit Center through which all of our troops going to Afghanistan pass, we are helping the new democratically elected government to reform the security sector and to address issues related to corruption and rule of law. We are also helping the government improve services for citizens.

The Northern Distribution Network, or NDN, is perhaps the clearest example of the benefits to the U.S. our security engagement with the Central Asian countries has yielded. Over the past year, we have seen how the NDN provided critically important alternate routes for our nonlethal cargo transiting to and from Afghanistan, particularly when we were experiencing challenging moments in our relationship with Pakistan.

Afghan Security Transition

In addition to our important bilateral security relationships, the United States helps facilitate increased regional coordination and support for Afghanistan. The Central Asian countries are vital partners in support of the International Security Assistance Force’s efforts against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, especially as Afghanistan increasingly takes the lead for its own security, as it has done now for over 75 percent of its population. None of us has an interest in seeing Afghanistan ever again become a platform from which Al-Qaida or others could attack our homeland.

The Central Asian countries will remain important partners as a NATO Enduring Presence replaces the ISAF mission in 2014, and as Afghanistan embarks upon its Transformation Decade between 2015 and 2024. Afghanistan will increase coordination with NATO on internal security and with its neighbors on shared issues such as border security and combating flows of narcotics and other contraband.

The United States is likely to maintain a presence in Afghanistan, the particulars of which will be negotiated over the next year. We are committed to the success of Afghanistan’s security transition and to regional security, and we have communicated this commitment to our Central Asian partners.

As Secretary Clinton has pointed out many times, a secure, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan can only exist in a secure, stable, and prosperous region. As the security, political, and economic transitions in Afghanistan proceed, its neighbors in Central Asia will have increasingly important roles to play. The leaders of the Central Asian states understand the increasingly intertwined nature of security and the need for regional coordination.

In working with the states that border Afghanistan or are impacted by Afghan security issues, I know that all recognize the depth and complexity of the challenge of ensuring regional security in what is a tough neighborhood. The resolve of the international community to deepen the roots of Afghanistan’s security is strong, as evidenced by the success of last May’s NATO Summit in Chicago. Together, the international community and the Government of Afghanistan agreed to fund the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) at a level of about $4 billion per year, in the period after 2014. In July, in Tokyo, international leaders met again and pledged over $16 billion in civilian aid from more than 70 international donors. But Afghanistan also has responsibilities. That’s why the donors and Afghanistan also agreed on a “Mutual Accountability Framework” to improve governance in Afghanistan.

These are significant contributions, but perhaps just as important is the way in which the international community has rallied to support Afghanistan and the region. Unlike past approaches in the mold of the “Great Game,” in which one or a few countries directed top-down change without regard to local input, today’s integrated approach enjoys broad based, regional support.

The New Silk Road: From “Will” to “How”

Security assistance and cooperation with our Central Asian partners are important, but not enough to help ensure future prosperity. As Afghanistan assumes full responsibility for its security, and most foreign troops leave; Afghanistan also will need to transition economically from an aid to a trade-based economy. The best way to achieve that is to integrate Afghanistan into the larger region. The more Afghanistan is integrated economically into its regional neighborhood, the more it will be able to attract private investment, benefit from its vast mineral resources, and provide economic opportunity for its citizens.

That is the essence of the New Silk Road vision, outlined by Secretary Clinton last summer during her landmark speech in Chennai: to strengthen regional economic integration and promote economic opportunity between South and Central Asia with Afghanistan at its center.

Regional governments can do this first through trade liberalization – which includes the reduction of non-tariff trade barriers, improved regulatory regimes, transparent border clearance procedures, and coordinated policies. And second, through energy and infrastructure investment to connect goods, services, and people.

Now, many of you have likely been hearing about the New Silk Road vision for some time and are familiar with how the conversation around the vision has evolved in the last year. Where we used to hear, skepticism and questions about “how can this possibly happen?” we now instead hear, “how can we support efforts that are already underway?”

Today, the states of South and Central Asia agree on the importance of greater cooperation and integration. They are participating actively in regional mechanisms such as the Istanbul Process, in which the countries of the region are strengthening cooperation through seven confidence-building measures, including combating narcotics and terrorism, disaster management, and infrastructure development: And they also embrace the goals of the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, or RECCA, which is helping to facilitate greater economic integration.

Most importantly, the countries in the region themselves are providing assistance to Afghanistan to help ensure Afghanistan’s future stability, and their own. At the most recent RECCA meeting in March, the countries of the region agreed for the first time to advance a series of projects and reform initiatives that can help unlock the region’s potential for private investment, greater trade and transit, and increased economic growth.

The Central Asian states are taking concrete steps -- and committing their own funds -- to implement the RECCA-V action plan and to enhance their integration with key sectors of the Afghan economy. Let me give you a few examples:

  • Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan are providing electricity to meet rising energy demand in Afghanistan, and through projects such as CASA-1000, electrical lines running through Afghanistan could someday transfer surplus hydropower from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Uzbekistan has constructed a rail line to Mazar-e-Sharif and is considering its extension to Herat. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan are building another rail line that will provide a new trade route and outlet for Afghan goods through the Caspian.
  • Kazakhstan provides assistance to educate Afghan students and has expressed its intention to establish a Central Asia Disaster Management Agency.

When we speak of rail lines, we should not overlook the economic potential of the NDN. The existing infrastructure and transit routes used to transport military cargo can and should be used by the private sector to continue trade across the region, where there is ample opportunity for growth. The economic potential of a more open and integrated region – full of untapped human and natural resources – is virtually unlimited.

Another key piece of regional infrastructure will be pipelines. There has been good progress on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, or TAPI, including the recent roadshow in Singapore, New York, and London with representatives of all four countries. These countries and the participating companies are now in discussions to form a consortium and keep moving forward. As the countries of Central Asia pursue greater energy independence, the strong link between water and energy – something the Soviets capitalized on in establishing the unified, regional grid – will require coordination to ensure growth and stability throughout the region.

Another strong priority to boost regional integration is to open markets through the WTO accession progress. Over the past year, the U.S. has signed bilateral agreements with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

Both countries hope to accede in 2013, joining Kyrgyzstan, which has been a member since 1998. And we are encouraged that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have begun to review possible accession. Taken together, these efforts are clear signals of a desire to increase trade, both within the region and beyond.

Regional mechanisms likewise have an important role to play. The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program, or CAREC, facilitated by the Asian Development Bank and led by the countries of the region, is an important part of the New Silk Road vision. CAREC includes Afghanistan and Pakistan and envisions a transformation of the region through transport corridors and energy infrastructure to drive economic growth. By 2020, the CAREC Program will have mobilized $20 billion to improve six corridors that traverse Central Asia.

Three of the CAREC corridors link the economic hubs of Europe and the Russian Federation with East Asia, while the other three link East Asia, Europe, and the Russian Federation with South Asia and the Middle East. The recent signing of the Cross-Border Transport Agreement by Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan under the auspices of CAREC is another good example of progress in this area.

Engaging women in economic activity is another imperative for regional integration. Last year at the Women’s Economic Symposium in Bishkek, we hosted 200 dynamic women business leaders from across the region and invested $1.7 million to provide training and promote women-run business networks and trade hubs. In December, we will hold a similar event in Dhaka, where a major goal will be to link networks of women entrepreneurs from Central and South Asia.

The United States will continue to engage our Central Asian partners and support these initiatives. But we are not alone in our support for the region’s development. In contrast to the politics of the past, when a few great powers treated the region as a chessboard, today we see that deep international coordination is critically important.

Some might argue that even today it would be better if two or three countries imposed a top-down recipe for economic transition and tried to force others to fall into line with that vision. But I would argue the opposite: regional economic transition can succeed only when led by the region, alongside contributions and deep buy-in from the international community.

Whether we are discussing RECCA, CAREC, TAPI, or CASA-1000, I believe the message is clear: the countries of Central Asia and their neighbors recognize the need for greater regional economic coordination, and they see the benefits as well. We support this approach as a mechanism to increase coordination among the Central Asian states, to grow Afghanistan’s economy, and, ultimately, to create a deep network of economic activity that spans from Kazakhstan to Russia, China, Turkey, India, and beyond.

Success will depend on the involvement of a wide range of nongovernmental partners, including the ADB, World Bank, Aga Khan Development Network, and many others. The amount of infrastructure development that is needed in Afghanistan and throughout the region is considerable, and certainly more than any one country or actor can support.

There is much to do. To seize the opportunities for increased integration and cooperation, the region’s countries will need to overcome bilateral obstacles; ensure the rule of law; reduce corruption and non-tariff barriers to trade, such as border crossing impediments, lack of protection for intellectual property and copyrights, and onerous and contradictory foreign investment rules; and they need to address often opaque and unpredictable regulatory environments.

Progress on removing these impediments would spur greater interest by U.S. companies in the region. We already have seen strong indicators of American and other foreign companies’ interest in doing business in Central Asia. At our Annual Bilateral Consultation with Uzbekistan, held in August in Tashkent, we were joined by delegations from twenty-five major American companies like GE and Boeing, all looking to explore opportunities in Central Asia. In Ashgabat this May, more than 100 U.S. companies participated in a U.S. business exhibition, organized by our embassy in Turkmenistan and held in tandem with a forum sponsored by the U.S.-Turkmenistan Business Council.

The Future of Democracy in Central Asia

U.S. engagement in Central Asia on regional economic ties and the stability and security of Afghanistan has brought opportunities for expanded dialogue on human rights and democracy. In FY 2012, we provided $26.6 million in support of democratic reforms, human rights and rule of law, access to information, and civil society. We have seen some progress, but far more needs to be done.

Kyrgyzstan has seen peaceful transitions of power since 2010, testifying to the growing strength of its democratic institutions, in particular the parliament and judicial system, which are receiving strong support from the U.S., although underlying issues of ethnic reconciliation and integration remain unresolved. But all Central Asia states continue to struggle to put into practice the values enshrined in their OSCE commitments, in the UN human rights treaties to which they have acceded, and in their own domestic laws.

We continue to use every opportunity for engagement to urge the Central Asian states to address human rights and democracy concerns and to ensure space for peaceful exercise of fundamental rights, including those of assembly, expression, association, religious belief, and respect for ethnic minorities.

We also continue to emphasize that respect for the right to free speech, free media and peaceful worship reduces the appeal of violent extremism and contributes to sustainable and effective governance over the long term. Put simply, institutions like a free press and an active civil society, far from being threats, are valuable feedback mechanisms that can help governments be more responsive and avoid the pitfalls of the Arab Spring. Likewise, strengthening the rule of law and democratic institutions will help build transparent and predictable political and investment climates that can promote economic growth benefiting all the citizens of these countries, not just a small elite.

The Annual Bilateral Consultation mechanism that I discussed earlier has been a springboard for deepening our engagement with civil society and advancing democracy and human rights. This August, I had the privilege of co-chairing the first-ever Civil Society Forum held as part of our ABC with Uzbekistan.

For the first time, we witnessed civil society representatives and members of the Uzbek parliament and government speaking frankly with each other. We hope this dialogue can expand and move into joint actions. We have had similarly productive civil society interactions during our consultations with Kazakhstan.

We are also exploring ways to increase our people-to people ties with Central Asia and among Central Asians. To take one example, over 40,000 Americans and Kazakhstanis have participated in State Department-sponsored bilateral exchanges in the last 20 years. In 2011 alone, about 50 American colleges and universities hosted 3,188 students from throughout Central Asia, including 1,890 from Kazakhstan and 560 from Uzbekistan. However, in many cases, the enthusiasm expressed by governments needs to be backed up with increased institutional support for initiatives like the Fulbright program, the English Language Fellows programs, and higher education cooperation.


As I look toward the future, I am optimistic about the future of the region and the United States’ continued commitment to the stability and growth of Central Asia. Today we enjoy regular, sustained contacts with all the Central Asian states on a broad and deep range of issues. The agenda and candor of our dialogue increase every year. Our assistance to the region in the areas of economic development, health and education, border security, counternarcotics, democratic reform, and strengthening civil society will continue to play an important part in advancing our objectives.

In any diplomatic relationship, one must establish a common framework of trust, a mechanism for communication, and a vision for the future that benefits all peoples. We have come a long way in establishing these with our Central Asian partners, and today, we look forward to a future where the countries and people of Central Asia work together and with the international community for peace and security, democracy and improved governance, economic development and prosperity.

The good news is that the United States is not alone in its desire to see a better, more prosperous future in Central Asia and the wider region. We will continue to work with a wide range of actors, through mechanisms such as the Istanbul Process, the Heart of Asia conference series, and RECCA to build an integrated economy that offers great gains for all, including economic prosperity, increased stability, and a greater voice for civil society. Although the pace of change can be slow and the challenges substantial, I am more convinced than ever that principled, persistent, consistent, and constructive engagement with our partners will bring the change we seek.

Thank you.

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