Washington — The United States is engaging the nations of Central Asia on a broad and deep range of issues with the goal of helping them to build a prosperous region that offers increased stability and a greater voice for civil society.
Speaking to Indiana University’s Inner Asia and Uralic National Resource Center October 18, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake said he believes that U.S. engagement with Central Asia will not lead to another round of the “Great Game,” where external powers try to dominate a region. Instead, he said, the region can look forward to what he called a “Great Gain,” in which the United States and its Central Asian partners, plus Russia, China and other international entities, work together toward greater economic opportunities.
Blake said after Afghanistan assumes full responsibility for its security in 2014, the United States will remain committed to the success of the country's security transition and to regional security, as Afghanistan moves from an economy based on aid to one based on trade.
“The best way to achieve that is to integrate Afghanistan into the region,” Blake said. “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.”
In essence, the United States envisions the creation of a “New Silk Road” that integrates the economies of Central and South Asia, with Afghanistan at its center, Blake said.
The assistant secretary cited examples of concrete steps that Central Asian nations are taking to make this vision a reality:
• Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are implementing electricity projects that supply power to meet the rising demand in Afghanistan and could later supply power to Pakistan.
• Uzbekistan has constructed a rail line to Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan and is considering extending the line to Herat in western Afghanistan. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan are building another rail line that will provide a new trade route and outlet for Afghan goods through the Caspian.
• Plans to construct a gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are progressing, as evidenced by their discussions to form a consortium to implement the project.
Blake said while the Central Asian countries recognize the necessity and benefits of greater regional economic coordination, there remains much to do to seize those opportunities. He said the Central Asian nations will need to ensure rule of law, reduce corruption and other border crossing impediments, protect copyrights and other forms of intellectual property, eliminate onerous and contradictory foreign investment rules and reform the opaque and unpredictable regulatory environments.
As the United States continues to engage with the region, it is expanding dialogues on human rights, civil society and democracy. Blake said in the preceding 12 months, the United States provided $26.6 million in support of democratic reforms, human rights, rule of law, access to information and invigorating civil society.
“We have seen some progress, but far more needs to be done,” he said.
He said the United States is working to increase people-to-people contacts with Central Asia.
“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,” he said.