Speaking January 25 at the forum of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake acknowledged that the Obama administration is balancing competing priorities in the region, such as combating drug trafficking and terrorism while also promoting economic integration, human rights and good governance.
“We do not see our engagement with Central Asia as an either-or choice between developing security relationships at the expense of core values like human rights. Progress on one issue can help reinforce, or create incentives for, progress on other issues,” Blake said in his prepared remarks.
The U.S. effort to strengthen its relationships with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan “should not impinge upon our strong support for democratic development and universally recognized human rights,” he said.
In all five nations, the Obama administration’s engagement is consistently focused on “political liberalization, good governance, civil society capacity building and addressing human rights concerns,” as well as other interests such as nuclear nonproliferation, energy, economic development and educational exchanges, he said.
He added that U.S. officials are engaging not only with the governments in the region, but also with civil society groups and the people themselves through such avenues as the annual bilateral consultation process.
“These consultations are a face-to-face, structured dialogue based on a jointly developed agenda that promotes candid discussions on the full spectrum of bilateral issues, including human rights, religious freedom, science and technology collaboration, economic development, defense cooperation and other subjects either side would like to discuss,” Blake said.
The Obama administration sees its vision for transition in Afghanistan in 2014, when Afghans will assume full security responsibility for their country, as a working strategy that can be expanded for the broader region, he said. Blake said Central Asian support for Afghanistan’s economic and political development is very much in those countries’ own interests.
“A peaceful, stable, prosperous and democratic future for the Central Asian states is directly linked to the prospects for peace, stability, prosperity and democracy in Afghanistan,” he said.
The United States is promoting greater economic integration in the region and strongly supports the New Silk Road project, a long-term economic vision to transform Afghanistan into a hub of transport and trade, connecting markets in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
“Our hope is to encourage all of the countries of the region and beyond to help build a network of roads, bridges, pipelines and rail lines to facilitate the goal of embedding Afghanistan more firmly into its neighborhood and helping Afghanistan realize its goal of creating an economy based more on trade than aid,” Blake said.
“If Afghanistan is firmly integrated into the economic life of the region, it will be better able to attract private investment, continue to develop and benefit from its vast mineral resources and provide increasing economic opportunity for its people, men and women alike,” he said.
Along with the regional benefits from a stable, secure and prosperous Afghanistan, Blake said, Central Asia’s significant energy resources also offer “a motivating factor for regional economic development and integration.”
However, he said, intraregional trade has been “lagging” due to the need for Central Asian countries to overcome bilateral obstacles such as border crossings and tariffs, as well as internal problems like corruption, contradictory foreign investment rules and “a less-than-transparent and unpredictable regulatory environment.”
Blake said the Asian Development Bank-led Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation program (CAREC) offers an important regional coordination mechanism. The program “envisions a transformation of the region through transport corridors and energy infrastructure in order to sustain economic growth,” he said.
“We hope the Central Asian states will continue to work independently, through CAREC, through other institutional arrangements and with partners like the United States to reduce the barriers to trade and transportation so that greater regional economic integration will become a reality,” Blake said.