WASHINGTON -- Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken says the United States will "continue to advocate for free media and more open political systems" in Central Asia, a strategic region that lies between Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran.
In a speech at the Brookings Institution think tank on March 31 following a review of the U.S. strategy in Central Asia, Blinken said the United States will also "urge the release of people who are imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their political views or religious faith."
Blinken said he was laying out a part of "the vision of our policy" in what he called "a region of enormous potential...that could act as an economic bridge from Istanbul to Shanghai and provide opportunities for our own businesses, technologies, and innovations to take root."
He said the U.S. approach to the region will be based in part on the idea that the United States' "own security is enhanced by a more stable, secure Central Asia that contributes to global efforts to combat terrorism and violent extremism."
He said such stability "can best be achieved if the nations of Central Asia are sovereign and independent countries, fully capable of securing their own borders, connected with each other and with the emerging economies of Asia, and benefiting from governments that are accountable to their citizens."
Senior U.S. officials regularly say they are raising human rights issues with the governments in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, while saying a balanced approach is needed.
Rights advocates have accused the United States of engaging in a Faustian bargain that entails slighting human rights concerns in order to secure cooperation on counterterrorism and other security matters.
Blinken reiterated Washington's view that U.S. efforts to boost trade in the region, including through Washington's New Silk Road initiative, can be complementary to a parallel initiative by China to pour tens of billions of dollars into developing infrastructure in Central Asia.
"We don't see China's involvement in Central Asia in zero-sum terms," he said.
Blinken stressed that the United States supports the right of governments in the region to forge their own economic and foreign policies.
He denounced "Russia's actions on its periphery, including its violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine" and said Central Asian governments "understand the dangers posed by Russia better than most."
Blinken added that the nations of Central Asia are "also feeling the impact of Russia's economic weakness more than most."
Russia's economic troubles amid falling oil prices and Western sanctions over the Kremlin's interference in Ukraine have had a ripple effect on Central Asian nations.
The decline in the value of the ruble has dented remittances from millions of Central Asian migrants working in Russia and put pressure local producers forced to compete against cheaper Russian goods.
"We understand that anxiety and we're committed to leveraging our own economic tools to help Central Asia diversify their economies and interlink their markets," Blinken said.
Blinken’s comments came after Richard Hoagland, the U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, said "patient" diplomacy is more effective than sanctions or "public naming and shaming" in efforts to improve the records of Central Asian nations in areas like human rights.
"What tends to work better is to build relationships with likeminded senior officials in those countries … who can then advocate their own views to their leadership," Hoagland said at a March 30 event at Georgetown University in Washington.
The five Central Asian governments have faced criticism from rights watchdogs and Western officials for alleged rights abuses.
A "patient, traditional, reality-based diplomacy does consistently, on a case-by-case basis, work in Central Asia" where issues like human rights and religious freedoms are concerned, Hoagland said.
Hoagland added that Washington is "consistently engaged" with the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan -- "to improve their track records on human rights with the clear recognition that effecting change in this area will be difficult and will definitely require long-term engagement."
"Progress takes place slowly, and we must convince each government that reforms are in its national interests," he added.