Central Asia in a Reconnecting Eurasia
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Thank you, John, for that kind introduction and for inviting me to be part of this event.
I’ve got to say that in the twenty plus years that I have worked in the policy community in Washington, as a Congressional staffer, at USAID, and now at the State Department, I’ve always benefited from the tremendous intellect that resides within this institution. And CSIS follows one of the key lessons imparted by one of my mentors Ambassador Bill Burns.
Bill, in his parting advice to foreign service officers at the State Department, said it is not enough to identify and understand a problem, you must offer solutions. I think one of the reasons CSIS has been ranked as one of the most influential think tanks is that it makes a conscious effort to provide policy recommendations and offer pragmatic solutions. I want to commend Dr. Hamre and the entire CSIS team for consistently making our jobs in government easier by providing such sound analysis and policy recommendations.
It’s also great to see here today so many of our partners who focus on Central Asia from the diplomatic community, from the Hill, and from civil society. Finally, I want to thank the fantastic scholars who authored these reports, Andrew Kuchins and Jeffrey Mankoff.
The uptick in attention on Central Asia around this town is much needed and long overdue.
The report’s focus on Central Asia’s vital role in a reconnecting Eurasia highlights both the critical opportunities and the daunting challenges facing the region.
While the report notes, and many are concerned about the geopolitical forces that are buffeting the region -- and we will get to those in a few minutes – this is also a time of substantial opportunity for the countries themselves, and for the United States.
Andrew and Jeff expertly paint a picture of a region of tremendous opportunity and potential to connect with, and profit from, regional and global markets.
And that is precisely why promoting Asian connectivity is a major pillar of our Central Asia strategy.
As Deputy Secretary Blinken outlined in his recent speech on Central Asia, enhanced U.S. security depends on stability in Central Asia, and stability in Central Asia is best achieved by sovereign, independent states with secure borders, connected economies, and accountable governments.
Corresponding to those goals, we are working on several lines of effort, with a focus on economic connectivity that will boost trade and investment, supporting more accountable and inclusive governance that respects human rights, and strengthening defense and law enforcement cooperation to create a more secure and stable region.
For millennia, the world’s most sought-after resources came from and moved through the countries of modern-day Central Asia.
This was not just about silks or spices: technologies fundamental to civilization’s progress like irrigation and animal husbandry, gunpowder and paper, travelled over the trade networks of the Eurasian steppe and were adapted, modified, and used to change the course of human history.
Music, religion, science, math, and philosophy also journeyed along these networks, influencing the cultures, societies, and institutions of Europe, the Middle East, Persia, India, China, and beyond.
The networks that traversed Eurasia connected humanity and allowed its civilizations to thrive economically, intellectually, and spiritually.
These historic connections were disrupted during most of the last century. But today, we see the global landscape looking more and more like it once did: the economic center of gravity is shifting back toward an integrated Eurasia that connects the Asia-Pacific and Europe, and independent, sovereign states in Central Asia are once again seeking to link and supply hungry markets to their east, west, north, and south – and to revive those long-lived but dormant trade networks of the past.
However, as Andrew and Jeff’s report demonstrates, in order for the region to become more connected, countries are going to need to take steps to remove trade barriers and boost infrastructure in the region.
And that is exactly what we are working to accomplish through our New Silk Road initiative.
We have four priority areas, which involve supporting the creation of a regional energy market, the development of trading systems and transport corridors, the streamlining of customs and border processes, and the networking of people and businesses.
On that first pillar, we’ve recently seen some real momentum in the creation of a Central Asia-South Asia Regional Energy Market.
The CASA-1000 electricity grid, which just last month moved from planning to implementation after a signing ceremony in Istanbul, will link Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Complementing CASA-1000 is the TUTAP grid, which will connect Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Eventually, the countries of Central Asia plan for these regional grids to extend into India, where hundreds of millions still lack reliable access to electricity.
Efforts to promote rules-based trade and develop transport corridors are also bearing fruit. We’ve worked intensely with Kazakhstan on its accession to the WTO, which it hopes to complete this year.
Tajikistan looks set to join Afghanistan and Pakistan’s transit-trade agreement, which they have made strides to implement.
And we’re pushing implementation of the Cross-Border Transport Agreement between the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, as well as advancing a similar proposed deal between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.
The completion of these and other arrangements will help companies move goods around and across the region for less money, at higher speeds, and in greater quantities.
What’s more, the closer Central Asia’s countries align on trade policy, the more attractive their markets will look to foreign investors, which can bring not just financing but also new technologies, management techniques, and access to international markets.
We’d certainly love to see more U.S. companies investing and succeeding in Central Asia, so we’re working hard to help create the environment and the opportunities for that to happen.
We’re also looking at ways that U.S. leadership can help improve east-west connectivity between Europe and Asia, which was actually first discussed as far back as the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
Through the ADB, the World Bank, and other multilaterals, we’re supporting the development of several trade and transit corridors that spread across all the Central Asian nations and branch west into Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the rest of Europe, south into Pakistan, and east into China.
There are a plethora of other trade and transport corridors under development: Lapis Lazuli, Silk Wind, Trans-Caucasus – the list will only grow larger as the region reconnects and takes advantage of shifts in global production and trade patterns.
But economic connectivity by itself is not enough to create enduring peace and prosperity. We need to support efforts to strengthen governance in the region and to increase transparency and accountability, promote environmentally sustainable growth policies, and create inclusive political and economic systems that provide opportunity for all - especially for women and ethnic minority populations. Central Asian states must ensure that they are equally focused on good governance as a fundamental aspect of a regional growth strategy.
By partnering economic connectivity with transparent, accountable and inclusive government, the countries of Central Asia can more effectively counter the forces of extremism and terrorism and provide a more hopeful future for their people.
I should note that, as tomorrow marks the tenth anniversary of the tragic events of Andijon, we must underscore to the countries of Central Asia, and to governments around the globe, that long-term stability and security cannot be achieved without respecting fundamental rights and freedoms.
This is not a theory or a belief – it is a truth that is borne out in the pages of history.
We know that no country has a perfect record on human rights, we know that our own is still a work in progress.
But our commitment to the endless task of protecting and advancing the rights of private citizens has made us a stronger and more resilient nation.
And that commitment doesn’t stop at our own borders, we carry it with us wherever we go – it is a core aspect of our foreign policy, and it informs and defines our engagements with societies and governments around the world, including in Central Asia.
We are cognizant, as we speak of concerns on human rights and religious freedom, that there is also a very real concern about violent extremism that unites us all. So we are supporting Kazakhstan’s initiative to host a regional conference in June on countering violent extremism, which they volunteered to do following a global summit we hosted here in DC earlier this year.
And we are deepening our partnerships on security cooperation –strengthening border security and working with law enforcement to counter narcotics and combat terrorism to ensure that the region is stable and secure.
In addition to countering violent extremism and transnational crime, the countries of Central Asia also must carefully balance relationships with neighbors in all directions.
This includes, to the north, their historically close and complex relations with Russia; to the east; growing commercial ties with China; to the south, on-going security concerns in Afghanistan; and, to the southwest, the potential impact of a nuclear agreement with Iran, which could open new routes to the sea.
And let me make clear here that we don’t see Central Asia as an arena for zero-sum geostrategic rivalry – everyone has a productive role to play, all boats can rise.
Whether it is the Eurasian Economic Union promoted by Russia or the One Road One Belt strategy promoted by China, all are interested in a more connected region. Our only stipulation is that trade should be inclusive, multidirectional, and rules-based.
The Eurasian Economic Union, for example, by reducing transit times and costs, could be a good thing, so long as it is trade-liberalizing and not trade-restricting, and does not end up undermining the international obligations of its member states.
And we welcome new multilateral institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which can meet some of the pressing needs of South and Central Asia, so long as it respects international standards and best practices.
As we look at the opportunities and challenges facing Central Asia, I would be remiss if I did not address the one that we are grappling with in South Asia in the aftermath of the tragic earthquake in Nepal. And indeed, today saw another earthquake strike that country.
We have all seen the heartbreaking images from Nepal – images of villages that have been flattened and landslides and avalanches that have permanently altered the landscape of Nepal.
Around the world, countries are looking at this earthquake and asking themselves, “Are we prepared for such an event if it were to happen here?” Nowhere is that question more pertinent than in Central Asia, which sits on the intersection of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates.
One estimate cited by the World Bank gave a 40 percent chance that a 9.0 magnitude quake would hit one of the cities of Central Asia within 20 years.
What is truly scary is that this study was done 19 years ago.
In the last 100 or so years, Tashkent, Ashgabat, Almaty, and Dushanbe have all experienced earthquakes of 7.3 magnitude or above – killing hundreds of thousands and leaving many more homeless.
So it is imperative that the countries of Central Asia work closely with the international community to build their resiliency and response capabilities to another major earthquake.
We sincerely hope that each country will take its seat at the table in regional discussions on these topics and others, especially those on economic cooperation – we’ll get the best results if everyone is involved and no one is sitting out.
To wrap up, I’ll just again emphasize that despite the challenges, I fundamentally believe this is a time of opportunity, when economic and political factors have aligned and Central Asia can resume its historical role as a nexus of global commerce, culture, and progress.
So, again, let me express my appreciation to CSIS for this important project, and a big thank you to all of you who are attending or watching today, especially our partners and friends from Central Asia.
The United States shares your vision of a reconnected region, and we will continue to work with you, side-by-side, to make that vision a reality.