Remarks
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
November 18, 2009


As Prepared

Representative Faleomavaega, Representative McKeon, Distinguished Ambassadors, ambassadors and representatives from the Central Asian embassies in Washington, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan Dr. Kairat Umarov, ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be able to join you to launch the Congressional Caucus on Central Asia.

I want to thank Representative Faleomavaega and Representative McKeon for inviting me here today -- and for taking the important initiative to establish this Caucus.

The Caucus will play a valuable role to focus greater attention on U.S. relations with the countries of Central Asia at a time when Central Asia is once again at a critical strategic crossroads.

I would like to offer a few remarks about why the Obama Administration places a high priority on building partnerships in the Central Asian region and how we are working to broaden and deepen our partnerships in pursuit of common interests.

For thousands of years, Central Asia served as a bridge between East and West, North and South. The Silk Road carried goods and people, as well as ideas, cultures, and technology. And Central Asia can play an equally important role again.
Central Asia’s economic growth and political development can produce more reliable partners for combating global challenges, from non-proliferation to counter-narcotics to energy security. Our Central Asian partners already are playing an important role in our efforts to confront violent extremists in Afghanistan. The energy resources of Central Asia can be a force for predictability in the global economy, ensuring diversity of sources and markets and transit routes, while at the same time bringing a new sense of economic possibility in the region itself.

A New Approach

The Obama Administration has placed a high priority on building partnerships and enhancing our political engagement in Central Asia.

Since becoming Assistant Secretary, I have traveled to each of the five Central Asian republics, and I've met with senior officials from each of the countries here in Washington and in New York.

What I've heard -- again and again -- from our friends in Central Asia is a renewed interest in stronger ties and practical cooperation between us.

Last July, I accompanied Under Secretary Bill Burns as part of an Interagency delegation to the region. The message we delivered was straightforward: the United States has an important interest in stability, prosperity, security, and economic and political modernization in Central Asia, and we seek to work with the governments and peoples of the region toward those ends.

We want to focus on mutual interests, building on common ground wherever it exists. However, we won't avoid dealing plainly with our differences.

Annual Bilateral Consultations

Therefore, to find ways to strengthen our ties and broaden our cooperation, we proposed the establishment of a high-level, bilateral mechanism with each Central Asian country, to include a structured, annual dialogue.

The Annual Bilateral Consultations will cover a full range of issues: political issues; security issues, including counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism; the human dimension, including democratic reform, rule of law, human rights, and relations with NGOs; and economic and development issues, including trade and investment, health, and education.

We're developing the substantive work plans for these consultations, and I am looking forward to the inaugural meetings with each of the five countries in the next several months.

We aim to conduct these consultations in a spirit of mutual respect, which means that we won’t pretend to have a monopoly on wisdom, or seek to impose our system or to preach or patronize, but we will expect the same kind of respect in return and won’t hesitate to speak, as friends, on issues like human rights or corruption.

Security and Energy

While the annual dialogues will make our partnerships broader and deeper, we will continue to move forward on the security and energy issues that make the region unique.

The events of September 11, 2001, made obvious our common security concerns -- and our common interests in a stable future for Afghanistan. The countries of Central Asia have contributed to Coalition efforts in Afghanistan, including supplying much-needed electricity to Kabul, providing foods and medicines, and facilitating the transport of non-lethal supplies through the region into Afghanistan.

There is great potential for the Northern Distribution Network to improve transportation infrastructure and stimulate trade routes connecting Central to the growing markets of South Asia, which will have a lasting economic impact.

The United States also has important commercial interests in the region. Central Asia possesses significant reserves of oil, gas, and minerals that can help meet growing demand. U.S. energy companies have invested billions to develop hydrocarbon reserves. The energy resources of Central Asia can be a force for predictability in the global economy, providing diversity of sources and transit routes, while also driving economic development in the region itself.

And while energy is important, we would also like to expand our commercial ties to Central Asia to other sectors of the economy. We are doing so by reinvigorating mechanisms such as the Trade and Investment Agreement, the Council of which met here in October.

The United States will continue to be a strong advocate of building modern political institutions, based on respect for universal principles of human rights, justice, and dignity. Such institutions bolster security, stability, and rule of law and reduce corruption thereby serving as foundations for regional security and economic development.

Democracy itself is also about more than just elections – its development depends on protection of minority rights and freedom of expression, as well as a fair and effective judiciary.

We also believe that an active civil society, a free media, and the rule of law serve as vital spurs for both economic modernization and good governance, which is why we continue to provide technical assistance and training to support networks of NGOs, to strengthen and protect the practice of journalism, to increase judicial capacity, and to develop local government in Central Asia.

Conclusion

I believe that all of us here today would like to see progress in our relations with the countries of Central Asia across a full range of issues. We understand that positive steps in one area can reinforce forward movement in other areas. Healthier and more prosperous societies are better able to sustain their own security -- and to contribute to regional security -- just as security against extremists provides space for the development of modern economic and political institutions.

Again, I welcome the establishment of this Congressional Caucus on Central Asia. It will complement the Obama Administration’s own expanded engagement with this important region. I look forward to working closely with the Members of the Caucus to promote deeper and broader engagement between the United States and Central Asia.