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Background Briefing on U.S.-Central Asian Relations

13 December 2019





MODERATOR: As the business cards indicate, this is [Senior State Department Official]. He’s going to talk about sort of a follow-up to the Kazakhstan foreign minister’s visit here and then talk a little more generally about the region.

QUESTION: Is this on the record?

MODERATOR: This will be on background, attribution to a senior State Department official

QUESTION: Even the opening part?

MODERATOR: Even the opening and questions. Okay. Please, sir, go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. I’m going to start off with a little bit of a statement, but then I’m happy to go wherever you guys want to take it. So thank you, [Moderator], and thanks to all of you for being here on Friday. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about our engagement with Central Asia.

Central Asia has been and remains an important crossroads for human civilization. Although this region is remote and largely unknown to most Americans, Central Asia has nevertheless been at the nexus of global transit routes for centuries. Since the five countries of Central Asia achieved their independence 28 years ago, the United States has been consistent in our commitment to their independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. We have a vested interest in their stability, prosperity, and security. We seek to increase the region’s resilience and ability to address transnational security threats. We encourage political reform to ensure the protection of human rights and the strengthening of democratic institutions, and we support measures to promote conditions that are conducive to local and American investment, as well as create opportunities for employment and prosperity for the people of Central Asia.

The United States and our partners in Central Asia share a common goal of bringing peace and security to Afghanistan. Ensuring stability and reintegrating Afghanistan back into the broader region will open doors to increased economic connectivity and opportunity throughout Central Asia.

In support of those goals, Secretary Pompeo hosted the Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi yesterday. They discussed —

QUESTION: Was that just yesterday?


QUESTION: That’s new.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They discussed – time flies. They discussed President Tokayev’s ambitious reform agenda, including ways to strengthen the fundamental freedoms of the people of Kazakhstan, as well as further deepen our bilateral relations. This visit was a clear sign of our deepening partnership with Central Asia.

To intensify our engagement with Central Asia, in 2015 the United States created a new platform for cooperation known as the C5+1, a diplomatic forum for dialogue and joint efforts to address our common challenges. Over the last couple of years in particular, the C5+1 has developed as a valuable platform for diplomatic engagement that has guided our regional cooperation and has begun to implement significant joint projects.

Secretary Pompeo hosted his Central Asian counterparts for a C5+1 dialogue here in the United States on the sidelines of UNGA last September, and among other issues, their conversation addressed the important subject of the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters from Syria and Iraq. The Central Asian states have made tremendous progress in repatriating several hundred citizens from Syria and Iraq back to their countries, setting a positive example, in fact, for the rest of the world.

Kazakhstan, for example, has repatriated more than 600 of its citizens. We applaud Kazakhstan’s leadership and vision, and we look forward to continuing to work with and support the Government of Kazakhstan in this humanitarian effort.

In August, Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale visited Tashkent and Nur-Sultan, where he participated in a C5+1 high-level security discussion. There too we had substantive discussions on a range of issues including how best to strengthen support for economic transformation and regional cooperation, address regional security challenges, and promote peace and prosperity in Central Asia and neighboring Afghanistan.

The Central Asian countries have also recognized the importance of working together and the value of closer connectivity and cooperation. They’ve begun to meet regularly amongst themselves, including most recently at the heads of state – at the head-of-state level for the second consecutive year at a consultative meeting on November 29th in Tashkent.

In addition to the C5+1 meetings, we’ve also intensified our bilateral diplomatic engagements with Central Asia. In July, I led a U.S. delegation to Kyrgyzstan to hold our annual bilateral consultations, our first in over four years, where we had productive dialogue on human rights, education, security, and economic cooperation.

In November, we hosted Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rasit Meredow for the sixth Annual Bilateral Consultations here in Washington. We discussed ways to deepen our cooperation on areas of mutual interest such as security, counterterrorism, education, cultural cooperation, and we had frank discussions about some of the more contentious issues, including on human rights.

After that, we welcomed Kazakhstani Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Ashikbayev in Washington just last week for our Enhanced Strategic Partnership Dialogue, and there we discussed all aspects of our bilateral relationship, including regional stability, security, economic development, trade, and human rights. And we look forward to continuing our bilateral engagements with Central Asia next year by hosting the Tajik and Uzbek Government delegations for annual consultations in Washington in the spring.

This regional and bilateral engagement reflects the objectives and priorities embedded in the Trump administration’s new Central Asia strategy, which we hope to brief publicly soon. The strategy will highlight our commitment to deepening our political, economic, and military engagement with Central Asia.

I’d like to end by underscoring one urgent issue that has featured prominently in our bilateral and regional discussions, particularly given the proximity and border that some of these countries share with neighboring China, and that is the Chinese Government’s rampant abuse of the human rights and religious freedom of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. We call on Beijing to end this campaign of repression and immediately release the over 1 million individuals arbitrarily detained in camps. We urge other governments to join us in condemnation of the Chinese Government’s actions. We understand that our Central Asian partners face pressure to deny refuge to those fleeing from this systematic abuse of human rights. It is each country’s sovereign right to help those who ask for assistance, and a fundamental obligation of all law-abiding nations to refrain from returning asylum seekers who face persecution or punishment.

With that –

MODERATOR: Now we’ll take some questions, if you can just identify – Carol.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Carol Morello with The Washington Post. How concerned are you about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan? Under the previous president, it had one of the worst records in the entire world – was just terrible, grisly. And I understand it’s gotten a little better, but are people – particularly ethnic minorities from China who come back to any of these countries, do you think they’re safe going to these countries? Because none of them have stellar human rights records themselves.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I don’t think it’s fair to compare what we’re seeing happening in western China to the human rights records of these countries, just to start out with. I mean, we’re talking about something on a completely different order of magnitude.

You’re correct, however, that countries – all the countries in this region I think still have a way to go to – in order to continue to improve their human rights record. You’re also correct that Uzbekistan, under the previous president, Islam Karimov, I think had a particularly troubling record in terms of human rights, and also that the new president, Mirziyoyev, over the last few years since he took power has actually taken a number of we think significant steps to improve the human rights record, including release of prisoners, steps on religious freedom to start to register religious organizations, measures to improve the media freedom environment.

So I’m – I don’t want to suggest by any means that their record is perfect, but we do continue to raise in our bilateral discussions with each of these countries our continuing concerns on human rights. We articulate those concerns in our regular annual reports on human rights and religious freedom and trafficking in persons, and we are doing what we can to really work with them to try to bring about continued improvements.

QUESTION: Is it safe for refugees to go there? To any country —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: If we’re specifically talking about refugees from western China, I think that it’s definitely a vast improvement on the situation that they face in western China. And we have – while we have seen some reports that some of these people are subject to some harassment, these are concerns that we’ve raised with the relevant governments, and they have by and large held to their commitments to ensure that asylum-seekers are given a chance to have their asylum status reviewed, and also to ensure that people who are – could potentially face persecution back in China are not sent back to China.

MODERATOR: Yeah. Shaun.

QUESTION: Can I follow up, actually, on a couple of those points? Kazakhstan in particular – have you actually seen cases in which Chinese nationals, whether they’re ethnic Kazakhs or Uighurs, are sent back? I know that they recently announced they would return some ethnic Kazakhs.


QUESTION: Is it actually something that’s happened? And was that something that’s been raised directly with the United States in terms of these?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So we raise our concern about the treatment of asylum seekers on a regular basis. We have not seen, to my knowledge, any cases where Kazakhstan has forcibly returned any asylum seekers. The case you’re referring to – there are a couple cases that are still pending the judicial process in Kazakhstan. There was a statement made by a Kazakh official that suggested that they might be subject to forcible return, but we’re waiting to see how the judicial process plays out, and meanwhile continuing to remind Kazakhstan of its international obligations.

MODERATOR: Good. Jonathan?

QUESTION: Hi. Jonathan Landay with Reuters. To what extent is there tension, however, between these – the review of these asylum seekers’ status and their safety in those countries; and the fact that these countries are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, that there’s enormous economic interests that China has in these countries, can use that as leverage? Is that dynamic at play? And how does the United States neutralize that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s definitely at play. I mean, and just to add to your question, these are countries which have long borders, in many cases, with China, and have important economic and trade relationships with China. So I think as I indicated in my opening statement, we recognize that these countries are in a difficult position of having to balance the concerns and pressure from their large neighbor while at the same time adhering to their international obligations.

And as a result of that, I think you will notice, if you look at kind of public reporting, that the officials in these countries have, generally speaking, not been publicly critical of what’s going on in Xinjiang. But at the same time, their populations – there are certainly a number of people in their population who are aware of what’s going on and are concerned. There have even been cases of small public protests on behalf of the victims in China, and these governments are just trying to navigate a very difficult, I think, position vis-a-vis their relationship with their neighbors and their obligations.

QUESTION: Can I do a follow-up? Former Secretary Tillerson at one point talked about the need for the United States and other Western countries to create loan mechanisms that would allow these countries to get foreign loans, but at much lower interest rates than China, and therefore protect them from getting – falling into Chinese debt traps. There doesn’t seem to have been any follow-up on that. Is the United States – is this Trump administration looking at the possibility as part of your Central Asia strategy that you’re going to announce providing some kind of mechanism that would give them access to foreign capital, foreign investment at lower interest rates than they currently get from the Chinese?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. Well, let me answer the question two ways. One is there is a mechanism, and it’s the new International Financial Development – it’s Development Finance Corporation, which I believe – I don’t know the latest details, but I believe has been authorized by Congress and is in the process of being stood up. This will combine OPIC, I believe, and a part of what used to be part of USAID. It will have a new infusion of capital and will have, I think, more flexibility than some of its predecessor organizations in being able to address exactly this issue.

At the same time, we’re not in a position to compete with China in terms of, like, offering the kind of infrastructure investment that China offers. As you all well know, the United States does not dictate to American companies where they should go and invest or do business, and in fact, we believe quite strongly that a – any kind of successful, sustainable growth strategy for any country around the world really has to recognize that investment needs to be led by the private sector. These projects need to be commercially viable and commercially sustainable. And that to attract that kind of private sector investment, you need to create a business-friendly investment climate that – where intellectual property is respected, where the sanctity of contracts is observed, where there’s an independent judiciary.

And so these are conversations that we’re having with all of these countries, which are actively seeking more American and Western investment, and a number of them – I mean Kazakhstan in particular, increasingly Uzbekistan as well – have made considerable strides in that direction to improve their business climate.

MODERATOR: Cool. John.

QUESTION: Hi. John Hudson with The Washington Post. To what extent are you seeing the – China’s One Belt, One Road strategy creating some tensions in Central Asia with Russia, if at all? And is there any sort of plan to maybe exploit those tensions that might happen between Russia and China over China’s inroads into Central Asia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. Well, you only have to look at a map to see that Central Asia is right in the backyard of both of these countries. Russia has an – not only an enormous border with Kazakhstan, but a long history of close contact with Central Asia. Russian remains a widely used language in the region, and there are – particularly with older generations – still a lot of cultural connections to Moscow.

In terms of – I think both countries retain, I think, a strong interest in the region and an interest in maintaining those ties. In terms of conflict between them, I’d have to, of course, refer that question to Moscow and Beijing.

What we have seen is we’ve seen a real desire on the part of each of these countries and the region as a whole to pursue closer relationships with the United States and with the West. And that may be, in fact, motivated in part by a feeling of pressure from these other larger neighbors and a desire to have a counterweight – other alternatives – as they seek to pursue their international relations going forward. And I think that, in part, explains the real enthusiasm we’ve seen for the C5 platform, and a real desire to promote more regional connectivity, and I think there’s a recognition on the part of these countries that they are stronger if – and more independent if they’re able to kind of cooperate and trade and do business more effectively with one another.

QUESTION: And so if they’re starting to hedge, these Central Asian countries, what’s the advantageous play for the United States? What’s the opportunity?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean, as I said up front, our policy has been pretty consistent since independence, and you’ll see that reflected in our new Central Asia strategy as well, and that is we want to – we want these countries to be sovereign, independent, and we want them to enjoy territorial integrity. And that means vis-a-vis their neighbors but – or vis-a-vis themselves. Whatever may come in the future, we think it is – American national security interests are served if these countries are able to develop as independent countries that – and also pursue the kind of reforms that we think they need to in order to have access to Western investment and Western markets.

MODERATOR: Cool. Conor.

QUESTION: Conor Finnegan from ABC News. Just a quick follow-up on the Xinjiang issue. You said that some of the refugees and asylum seekers in these Central Asian countries have faced harassment. Is that by the local governments or is that by – is there any evidence of Chinese officials or unofficials in these countries harassing them?

And then just a second question: You said the U.S. has a vested interest in the stability of these countries. How would you rate their stability at this moment, especially in Kazakhstan, given the leadership transition and the fact that there are protests sort of sweeping across different regions of the world but that don’t seem to have reached Central Asia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. So on the first question, we’ve seen reports of potential harassment. I couldn’t speak to who’s conducting that harassment. Certainly, we do track to the extent we are able the well-being of asylum seekers in these countries, and by and large, the – and we’re talking primarily Kazakhstan here – has adhered to its international obligations.

In terms of your second question, remind me again. It was?

QUESTION: The stability of these different countries, particularly Kazakhstan.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, yeah. The – I think the main concern that we have and certainly the countries of the region have is, of course, their border with Afghanistan. And there is certainly concern about the flow of terrorist fighters from Afghanistan, and there’s concern that instability in Afghanistan could adversely affect the stability of the countries of the region. We don’t have – I mean, we’re not on red alert or anything. There have – you may – if you take a look at recent press reports, there was an incident on the border of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan a few weeks ago which – and we’re still piecing together all the information behind that particular attack, but it does appear to have been a terrorist attack, and there does appear to have been some sort of connection with ISIS.

Whether or not the perpetrators came from Afghanistan or whether they were indigenous to Tajikistan I think is still kind of an open question, but it does I think point to the very real concern that all of these countries need to do more to work on their border security, their ability to address not only foreign terrorist flows but also the flow of narcotics across the region, trafficking. And these are issues that we discuss regularly with them and we have a number of – both bilaterally and regionally – projects that are trying to help them address these shared challenges.

In terms of the protests in Kazakhstan, I think that’s really more of an indication, we believe, of real signs of – glimmers of real democracy and public opinion there. Our concern is less, I think, one of stability and more one that we’d like to see the government do more in the area of allowing freedom of assembly and creating opportunities for people to have their voice heard.


QUESTION: Hi. Tracy Wilkinson with The Los Angeles Times. You mentioned that – early on that Kazakhstan was a positive example of repatriating former, I guess, ISIS fighters.


QUESTION: Six hundred, you said?


QUESTION: And family members.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Most of – in fact, we’re talking about a couple of dozen actual foreign terrorist fighters. The rest would actually be family members.

QUESTION: Or children and spouses. What kind of incentives do – does the United States give Kazakhstan? Do you help pay for reintegration? Do you require a certain number be jailed? What kind of incentives are there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So we have, as a matter of principle, encouraged I think all countries to take back their citizens who have been involved in this conflict in Iraq and Syria. There’s no financial incentive, if that’s what you’re implying. We did assist with the transportation of some of the – of some of these FTFs and family members, and we have offered and continue to offer bilateral cooperation to help them with the rehabilitation and reintegration of these people. And that takes the form of sending over American experts who are experts in sort of post-traumatic stress and can help assess the medical and social needs of the – of these people.

We work – we just worked with Kazakhstan to co-host a Strong Cities conference. The Strong Cities Network is a network that’s supported by our bureau for counterterrorism around the world. It includes cities from dozens of different countries, and these cities, usually at the municipal level, are sharing their best practices on counterterrorism and countering violent extremism. And so we saw this as a really valuable opportunity for Kazakhstan to benefit from this international experience by hosting this conference. It was just this week in Almaty, and that’s just another example of how we hope to continue to work with them on this issue going forward.

To be perfectly honest, this is – it’s not just – bringing back the fighters and family members is just the first step. It’s going to be a process that’ll last years, I think, to really see whether or not they’re able to successfully rehabilitate and reintegrate these people.

As far as the fighters themselves and – so it’s up to the governments involved to decide whether or not and how to prosecute the actual fighters. In the case of Kazakhstan, they are prosecuting the actual foreign terrorist fighters. We work with them to make sure that whatever evidence is available from the conflict zone is made available to law enforcement authorities so that they can pursue judicial cases against those terrorists.

MODERATOR: Time for one more. Abbie.

QUESTION: You obviously – holding up Kazakhstan as an example of the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters, but what are you seeing in the rest of the region regarding their willingness to take back —


QUESTION: — their fighters? And also, on Xinjiang, is there any economic incentive that you are providing to people in that region to make sure that they are taking in asylum seekers?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On your second question, no, there’s no economic incentive. We are asking these countries, as we ask all of our partners around the world, to simply abide by their international obligations. As far as the first question, both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have also taken back, I think, primarily family members so far. Kyrgyzstan, I understand, is considering it as well. The numbers are not as large as what we’ve seen in Kazakhstan, but I think there are still a number of their nationals who are in the conflict zone, and so it’s an area where we hope to continue to work with them and help them bring folks back.

I should add that we do have certain criteria that we impose on countries before we’re willing to lend them material assistance in the form of transportation and other things, and that is things like ensuring that foreign terrorist fighter – we would – there would be access to visit their – them in prison, just make sure that these people are going into a situation where their basic human civil rights will be respected.

QUESTION: Can I just get one more on Afghanistan? As we look to conclude an agreement with the Taliban, is there a role the Central Asian countries are playing in helping that process?


QUESTION: Any thoughts on that —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So, I mean, I don’t want to overstep. Obviously, I can’t speak to the actual peace process, but I certainly can say that each of these countries has been – is extremely cooperative and supportive of that peace process. It’s a good question because a number of these countries, particularly the ones that border Afghanistan, have long histories and relationships with Afghanistan. There are large numbers of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks and Turkmen who live in Afghanistan, and in many cases, those communities and leaders among those communities have longstanding relationships with the countries and the governments of this region.

But to a government, they have all been extremely supportive of the process, have used those relationships to encourage active participation in our peace and reconciliation efforts, and we have standing offers from multiple governments to continue to assist going forward.

MODERATOR: Super. All right. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.