July 1, 2020
The Brussels Hub
Moderator: Hello. I would like to welcome journalists to today’s virtual press briefing with Jonathan Henick, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia from the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department. You can also view this briefing in Russian by clicking on the flag below to change the language. [Speaking in Russian.]
We will try to get to as many questions as possible in the approximately 30 minutes that we have today, so please show your support and like the questions that you’d most like us to cover. You can notice – notify us of any technical difficulties by using the chat box or by emailing us at [email protected] [Speaking in Russian.]
With that, let’s get started. Deputy Assistant Secretary Henick, thank you so much for joining us today, and I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
DAS Henick: Thank you, Vanessa, and welcome to all the journalists who are on the line today. It’s my pleasure to be here. I have – I’m delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the latest C5+1 High-Level Dialogue that Secretary Pompeo and Under Secretary David Hale participated in virtually with the five foreign ministers in Central Asia yesterday.
Yesterday’s meeting was a follow-on to the C5+1 ministerial meeting held in Tashkent in February during Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In the C5+1 High-Level Dialogue, Secretary Pompeo, Under Secretary Hale, and Central Asian foreign ministers discussed the many challenges we’re still facing today as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. In addressing these new challenges together, the Secretary reiterated the United States’ steadfast support for and longstanding commitment to the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all five Central Asian states. These principles remain the cornerstone of our U.S. Central Asia strategy.
Secretary Pompeo has consistently emphasized that the United States has a vested interest in Central Asia’s stability, prosperity, and security. Our policy has always been to ensure that each Central Asian state has the freedom to choose from a variety of options and partners in pursuing their own national interests and to not depend on any one country for their trade, development, and future success. We envision and are working toward a better connected, more prosperous, and more secure Central Asia region, which will benefit the C5 countries, the United States, and the global community.
Yesterday’s meeting was a reaffirmation of our joint commitment to the C5+1 platform. Since its creation, this platform has emerged as an example of the flexible and inclusive multilateralism that the United States seeks to advance. Joint projects implemented under the C5+1 auspices support our shared goals of increasing economic connectivity and trade, mitigating environmental challenges, and collaboratively addressing security threats. Only by working together can we achieve and build a more connected, prosperous, and secure Central Asia region.
One of the primary agenda items at yesterday’s C5+1 High-Level Dialogue was the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the global economy and within the Central Asian region. COVID-19 poses unprecedented challenges to economic growth and to the movement of goods and people across borders for each of our countries. As our efforts through the C5+1 framework show, we believe that regional partnership and greater economic integration are keys to prosperity and resilience. The United States has long been a leading partner in building health system capacity, including to address diseases like tuberculosis and HIV. Over the past decade or so, we’ve provided over $500 million in health-related assistance to the Central Asian countries, and during this crisis alone we’ve provided another $25 million, which is intended to help support partner countries to prevent and control infection, bolster health screening, communicate risks to citizens, and coordinate readiness and response efforts.
In addition, as a leading shareholder in the world – in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the United States has been instrumental in these institutions’ provision of nearly $3 billion in COVID response aid to the Central Asian states, and we are leading negotiations on the Paris Club/G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative, which can provide Central Asian countries with millions more in debt relief.
One of the other main agenda items in the High-Level Dialogue was economic resilience. As we look beyond the immediate COVID-19 crisis to long-term recovery, the United States encourages our partners in Central Asia to strengthen economic diversification and resilience by accelerating political and market-oriented economic reforms, including protections for human rights and strengthening favorable investment conditions that will attract the U.S. and other foreign investment critical for post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
So the Central Asian states must continue to pursue critical and long-overdue structural reforms that can guarantee sustainable, long-term political stability and economic growth for the people of Central Asia. Our commitment to Central Asia will not waiver as we work together to rebuild – to rebuild to achieve partnership, peace, and prosperity in the post-COVID-19 period.
Finally, yesterday’s C5+1 also discussed regional peace and security, including the Afghan peace process. Ambassador Khalilzad reiterated the urgency of preserving the positive momentum of recent developments and starting the intra-Afghan negotiations that we hope will end – bring an end to the war in Afghanistan for the benefit of all Afghans and for Afghanistan’s neighbors. The United States believes that a stable and economically prosperous Afghanistan is critical for regional peace and security in Central Asia. We appreciate the vital cooperation and assistance of our partners in the C5+1 as we all work towards this shared goal.
To continue the conversation at yesterday’s C5+1 and continue our cooperation on critical regional issues, meeting participants tasked the respective ministries with a detailed new work plan for the C5+1 working groups, which will begin to work immediately to implement those decisions.
And with that, I look forward to taking your questions. Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those opening remarks. We will now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing.
Our first two questions come from Ikhtiyor Abdurakhmanov with Korrespondent.uz in Uzbekistan [correction: question was submitted by Kirill Krivosheev with Kommersant Daily.] He asks, “Did the United States inform Central Asian states about American plans in Afghanistan? Will these states get any military equipment used in Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw?”
DAS Henick: So yes, as I indicated, a good portion of the discussion yesterday was to update our Central Asian partners on the progress in the Afghanistan peace negotiations, to elicit, again, their continued support for those negotiations, as well as for the important kind of economic rebuilding that we think will be key to stability in Afghanistan and Central Asia following any kind of peace agreement.
As far as military equipment, that’s obviously a question – I think it’s a little premature to be looking at what we do with military equipment in Afghanistan. In the past, I know that there have been instances where military equipment has been offered to our Central Asian partners. That’s really a question that we’ll have to be addressing down the road and one that should be addressed to our – to my Department of Defense colleagues.
Moderator: Okay, thank you for that answer. Our next question also comes from the same journalist with Korrespondent.uz in Uzbekistan [correction: question was submitted by Kirill Krivosheev with Kommersant Daily.]. He asks whether you can comment on ongoing talks with Uzbekistan regarding their joining the Eurasian Economic Union as an observer?
DAS Henick: So I’m unable to comment on those talks. Of course the United States is not a member of the Eurasian Economic Union. Those are discussions that are discussions between Uzbekistan and the EAEU. And I would just maybe comment that we all – I know it’s also a subject of great interest for the people of Uzbekistan. We certainly support Uzbekistan’s desire to get access to more foreign markets and to access to foreign investment, and we hope that the people of Uzbekistan will carefully consider all potential regional blocs and trade linkages and hopefully their WTO membership as well as they choose what they believe is in the best interests of the country.
Moderator: Thanks for that answer. Our next question comes from Arsen Madinov in Kazakhstan. He asks, “What is the main strategy of mutual cooperation with Kazakhstan, and what are the most important aims or goals in Central Asia?”
DAS Henick: So Kazakhstan of course is a critical partner of the United States and has been, I think, the recipient to date of the lion’s share of U.S. private investment. Much of that investment is in the extractive industries field, of course in energy, but increasingly we’re seeing increased interest in other sectors as well, including aerospace, including agriculture. Our – I would say our goals, however, as I outlined in my statement at the top, which is that we see Kazakhstan as well as the other Central Asian states as key partners, and we have a shared interest in the prosperity, stability, and independence of the people of Central Asia, and we believe that that prosperity and stability depends on continued cooperation – the kind of cooperation that we have through the C5+1 – but it also depends on, I think, economic reforms that’ll secure continued foreign investment that will be key to the continued economic growth and diversification of the economies of the region.
Moderator: Thanks for that answer. For our next question let’s go to Yuriy Chernogaev with the Telegram – the Telegram-channel in Uzbekistan. He asks, “After the coalition leaves Afghanistan, the situation there will become more dangerous. Are there plans from the U.S. side to invite Uzbek military, for example, to participate in protecting stability?”
DAS Henick: So we are – as I’ve noted, we have a shared interest in stability in Afghanistan and in Central Asia, and of course I would agree with the questioner that the stability of Afghanistan, I think, will certainly affect the future of Central Asia as well. So those discussions are already underway. We are working very closely with our Central Asian partners as well as with the Afghanistan Government on border security issues, on trafficking issues, on trying to control the – to deal with the terrorist problem, to control the flow of narcotics, and certainly within the C5+1 we have a security working group which is working extensively on these issues with – between the United States and the C5 partners, but we are actively also exploring going forward how we can also bring Afghanistan into those discussions and into those projects and activities in order to contribute to the future stability of the region.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes to us from Kubat Kasymbekov with RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service. They ask, “Kyrgyzstan was included on the expanded U.S. travel ban list at the beginning of the year. What should the Kyrgyz Government do to get off of this immigration-ban list? Do we have any new developments in this regard?”
DAS Henick: So since that announcement, we have been working very, very closely with the Government of Kyrgyzstan to bolster our information-sharing about potential terrorists and criminal activities, to share information about documents, including travel documents, including examples of lost documents. And I have to say we’re very pleased with the cooperation we’ve been receiving, and so that cooperation is going to continue, and at some point in the future we will review where we are in terms of that sort of information-sharing and be able to review Kyrgyzstan’s status on that list.
Moderator: Thank you. For our next question let’s turn to Kirill Krivosheev with Kommersant. He asks, “Did Secretary Pompeo mention and comment on the ongoing talks with Uzbekistan about joining the Eurasian Economic Union as an observer?” I believe you already spoke to that. And then also he asks, “Did you – did the U.S. inform the Central Asian states about American plans in Afghanistan? Will the states get any military use – military equipment used in Afghanistan after NATO forces’ withdrawal?” I also think you commented on that, but do you have any further thoughts on either of those questions.
DAS Henick: No, it’s interesting that it’s a question of – that’s come up a couple of times. No, I’ll just reiterate that we did not discuss the EAEU. We certainly did discuss the need for the countries of Central Asia to engage in economic reforms to open up the region to more foreign investment. We discussed the need for the region to be better connected to global markets. And we certainly support any and all efforts by these countries that will achieve those objectives.
Moderator: Thanks for that answer. As a reminder to our journalists, please feel free to type in your questions. You can also write your questions in Russian, if that is preferred. For our next question let’s go to a – let’s go back to Korrespondent in Uzbekistan. Our journalist asks about the development of the transport corridor in the C5+1 format. He asks – he says that, “It has already been five years since the first meeting was organized with the participation of the heads of foreign affairs of the six countries, in Samarkand. However, this project seems to be a little bit delayed because, for example, Uzbekistan is only considering such a task as joining the World Trade Union [sic] after so many years. What is the reason for the delays in reaching agreements and making decisions?”
DAS Henick: So I – let me put it this way. The type of transportation corridors and infrastructure investments that we’ve been discussing in the C5+1 framework have also been discussed in the framework of the Asian Development Bank and the CAREC project. They’ve also been discussed bilaterally between many of the countries in the region. We’re talking about extremely large and complex projects that involve connecting electricity grids, building potentially pipelines, roads, railroads, as well as the sort of *soft software* of facilitating movement across borders, which means having a common approach to how cargo traffic and passengers are checked. And so this is, I think, inherently going to be a long-term and ongoing project. I think it would be overly simplistic to think of it as a simple kind of corridor that’s built.
And so I believe that quite a bit of progress has been made in these – towards this goal. Just to name one project the United States has supported, that is the Central Asia Regional Energy Market project that is being implemented through our USAID colleagues, and that project envisions rebuilding the connections of the energy markets in Central Asia so that where there are, for example, countries that at a particular time of year have a surplus, they are able to sell that surplus energy to whichever other countries in the region are able to offer the best price for that energy. This addresses things – it’s advantageous to energy suppliers but also to the energy buyers in the region. World Bank estimates are that the – a lack of connections, the lack of an integrated energy market in the region, is costing the region over a billion dollars a year.
So that’s just one example of an ongoing project. We’ve – another issue which has been raised is certainly connections between Central Asia and Afghanistan. That would be another route to be able to get energy to foreign markets. Obviously, it depends in large part on the continued stability in Afghanistan, and those, again, are projects which will take years, whether it’s railroad projects or pipeline projects.
So the C5+1, I think, is a useful platform for marshalling political support and for setting priorities for these – for various projects within this type of transportation corridor, but I don’t think it would be fair to say that the projects – the corridor itself has been delayed. These are ongoing efforts that we would expect to continue for many, many years.
Moderator: Thank you for that answer. Our next question comes to us from Fariza Kalimurzina with the Kazakh National TV broadcaster. She asks, “Is the United States planning to increase financing and military support of Central Asian countries after it leaves Afghanistan?”
DAS Henick: I can’t speak to – specifically to military support, but the United States certainly does remain committed to the stability of the region, including the stability of Afghanistan and the stability of Central Asia, and we see all of these countries as critical partners of the United States. We have, I think, active security cooperation with all of these countries. It includes partnerships with our various state National Guards. It includes participation in military exchange programs. It includes military training. It includes support for border security facilities, and in certain cases it certainly includes support for providing equipment and a certain amount of infrastructure.
I believe we’ll be reassessing the needs of the region and where the United – how the United States can best contribute to the security and stability of the region going forward, but I’m not in a position right now to talk about sort of specific future plans.
Moderator: Thank you for that answer. Our next question comes to us from Veronika Bezumova. She asks, “What were the main results that were achieved in terms of cooperation, C5+1 cooperation?”
DAS Henick: So again, I think these high-level meetings are an opportunity to sort of check in at the political level, but the C5+1 cooperation is ongoing and happens on a day-to-day basis, including through the three working groups we’ve set up, but also on the ground through the various activities and programs that are implemented underneath these working groups. So the – I’d say the results of the – the advantage of the meeting yesterday was to do some priority-setting, and we hope to release publicly soon some of the decisions that were announced in terms of some of the priorities that we are going to task the working groups with going forward, and at the same time it was an opportunity to – for the ministers to be able to kind of share what their latest concerns and interests are.
So in terms of results, we hope to be able to release publicly, I think, a statement of our chairman, which will provide a little bit more detail on the meeting, as well as in the coming days a work plan for the working groups, and we will be providing regular updates, I think, in the coming months on all of these projects and activities.
Moderator: Thanks for that answer. As a reminder to our journalists, if you’d like to join the questions queue, please just type in your question. Our next question – for our next question we’ll go back to Kubat Kasymbekov with RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service. He asks, “An additional question on Kyrgyzstan: When does the United States expect to sign a new strategic agreement with the Kyrgyz Government, which was denounced by Bishkek several years ago?”
DAS Henick: So we have no plans for any kind of military agreement, if that’s what the question is. However, we are in the process of negotiating a bilateral cooperation agreement with the Government of Kyrgyzstan, which would regularize and facilitate our ability to continue to provide assistance to Kyrgyzstan. We are, we believe, in the late stages of hopefully being able to finalize that agreement, but it would be too soon for me to be able to make any kind of announcements today.
Moderator: Okay, thank you very much for that. Unfortunately, that is all the time that we have for today. Thank you so much for your questions, to all of our journalists who participated from around the region, and thank you, Deputy Assistant Secretary Henick, for taking the time to speak with us today. We will send links shortly to all of our participants to – with the recording of this briefing, and we will also provide a transcript as soon as it is available, and we will also translate the transcript into Russian.
We’d love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at [email protected] Again, thank you for your participation and we hope that you can join us for another press briefing soon.
DAS Henick: Great. Thanks for hosting me, Vanessa, and thanks to everybody who participated. Bye-bye.
Moderator: Thank you.