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Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu and Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs Ramin Toloui, Previewing Secretary Blinken’s Upcoming Travel to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and India

MR PATEL:  Hey everybody, good morning and thanks so much for joining us today.  As indicated, this call is to preview Secretary Blinken’s upcoming travel to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and India.  This call is on the record and will be embargoed until the call’s conclusion.

Joining me today for this briefing is – are two assistant secretaries, Assistant Secretary for South Central Asia Don Lu and our Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs Ramin Toloui.  Both of them will offer some brief opening remarks, and then we’ll have some time to work through some questions.

So, with that, let me turn it over to Assistant Secretary Lu.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LU:  Thank you, Vedant.  As I was telling Ramin, we don’t usually get this much interest in our SCA land, so thanks for dialing in, colleagues.

I’m going to start by saying a few words about the Secretary’s travel to Central Asia, then turn it over to Ramin to cover the boring G20 stuff, and then I’ll come back at the end to say a few words about the Secretary’s participation in the Asian Quad.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Remember, Don, this is on the record.  (Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LU:  The Secretary will be traveling to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  It’s his first trip to Central Asia as the Secretary of State.  The centerpiece of that two-day visit will be a C5+1 – so Central Asian 5 plus the United States – ministerial with all five foreign ministers of the Central Asian countries.  That will happen in Astana on the 28th of February.

It’s the fourth time the Secretary will have met with the foreign ministers of the Quad.  This is our seventh anniversary of – I’m sorry, not the Quad – the C5+1 – seventh anniversary of C5+1.  And no secretary before Secretary Blinken has engaged so intensively with this regional grouping.

Of course, this is against the backdrop of the anniversary of the Russian war in Ukraine and the pressure that the economies and societies of this part of the world are under.  Our main goal is to show that the United States is a reliable partner, and we see the difficulties that these economies are facing – high food prices, high fuel prices, high unemployment, difficulty in exporting their goods, slow post-COVID recovery, and a large influx of migrants from Russia – that we see these difficulties and that we are working to support people in the region.

The Secretary will also meet individually with each of the five foreign ministers, and he’ll be meeting with the Uzbek and Kazakh presidents.  In both capitals, he will have a civil society event with students.

Ramin, turning it over to you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Don, thanks a lot.  Vedant, thank you for arranging this, and thanks to all of our – the journalists who’ve joined.

So, the purpose of the G20 is to bring together the major economies of the world to tackle common challenges.  We will be discussing food security, energy security, health security, the climate crisis, development, humanitarian challenges, and other issues that require international coordination, like the proliferation of illicit synthetic drugs.

Secretary Blinken will discuss the range of things that the United States is doing to address these global challenges.  That includes the $13.5 billion that the United States committed last year to address emergency food needs, as well as strengthen food systems for the medium term.  It includes actions like the $450 million that the United States has pledged to the pandemic fund, as well as $1.3 billion per year the U.S. will invest under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to support health care workers fighting HIV/AIDS, and it will include many other things.

It is also an unfortunate reality that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not only itself a threat to sovereignty and territorial integrity of states – Russia’s invasion also makes so many of these critical global challenges, from food insecurity to energy insecurity, worse.  This was recognized yesterday in the resolution overwhelmingly adopted by the UN General Assembly calling for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, and we will call on Russia to heed the will of the international community and stop its illegal war.

Secretary Blinken looks forward to going to Delhi as part of India’s G20 presidency year.  We look forward to doing everything we can to support India’s work to make its G20 presidency a success.  There is no shortage of common challenges, and we want to deepen our partnership with other G20 countries to address these challenges.

Don, did you want to say anything else?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LU:  Yeah, just a short thing to close on the India part of the visit.  The Secretary will be meeting, while in New Delhi, with his counterpart, the Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar.  They’ll talk about our strategic partner partnership but really focus on how we’re working together in the Asian Quad, in the G20, what we’re doing on defense cooperation, and the Initiative for Critical and Emerging Technologies that is being run out of the White House and the prime minister’s office.

On March 3rd, the Secretary will also participate in a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Asian Quad, which is the United States, India, Japan, and Australia.

What will be even more interesting is immediately following that ministerial meeting, the Secretary will participate in a panel at the Raisina Dialogue.  Raisina is an annual discussion that is co-hosted by the Indian foreign ministry and the Open Research Forum.  And what will be interesting about this I’m not aware that they’ve ever had an hour-long public event where the four foreign ministers have had a chance to talk about the Quad, and to demonstrate how it is getting tangible and concrete things done in the Indo-Pacific.  I think we’re going to hear about what we’re doing on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief.  We’ll hear about what we’re doing to improve security in the Indo-Pacific, in the Maritime Domain Awareness space.  (Inaudible) will talk about achievements on vaccine diplomacy, and then you’ll hear about the launch of the Quad fellows program, and a recent business and investment forum.

With that, let me turn it back over to Vedant for the questions.

MR PATEL:  Thanks so much for that.  Operator, will you remind our reporters the instructions for asking a question?

OPERATOR:  Absolutely, thank you.  And ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, you may press 1 and then 0.  If you are using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers.  Once again, if you do have a question, you may press 1 and then 0 at this time.

MR PATEL:  Great.  Why don’t we first go to the line of Matt Lee with the Associated Press?

QUESTION:  Hi there.  Can you all hear me?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LU:  Yep.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  I can hear you.

QUESTION:  Excellent, okay.  So, listen, I’m not going to ask about potential meetings with the Chinese and the Russians in Delhi, but I’m sure others will.  But I do want to ask you about the fact that every single one of the countries that – the three countries that the Secretary is visiting abstained in yesterday’s security – General Assembly resolution vote on Ukraine, as did every single one of the C5.  So, I’m just – I’m wondering, how much of a concern is this?  How much is – of the Secretary’s meetings will be devoted to trying to convince these countries – with the exception of India, that were all actually part of the Soviet Union not so long ago – to change their minds?  And how concerned are you about the fact that they haven’t taken a more – a stance that’s more aligned with yours on Ukraine?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LU:  Great questions, thanks.  Let me batch together both the Central Asians and the Indians to say that from the beginning of this conflict – and even before the conflict, we’ve had deep and sustained conversations about the conflict itself, but also what it means to the region.  It’s clear to us that the countries of Central Asia and India have had long, complex relations with Russia.  I don’t think they’re going to end those relations anytime soon.  But we are talking to them about the role that they can play in this conflict.

What we know is that India and the five Central Asian states have sent tons of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.  The Central Asian states and India have spoken out in favor of territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty.  We may not share the same approach every day on Ukraine, but I think we do share the goal that this conflict end, and it end based on principles in the UN Charter.

MR PATEL:  Thanks so much.  Let’s next go to the line of John Hudson with The Washington Post.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks.  Matt didn’t want to take the bait, but I will.  It – does the Secretary have any interest or openness with meeting his Russian or Chinese counterparts, while he’s in India?  And can you just talk a little bit about what is on the agenda in terms of having discussions on the sidelines pertaining to India – pertaining to China and Russia?  What will they be trying to convince other countries of when it comes to those two agenda items?

MR PATEL:  Before I turn it over to Assistant Secretary Toloui to talk about any G20 programming or the agenda broadly, let me just say that as it relates to the Secretary’s schedule, a major multilateral summit like the G20, of course, lends itself to the potential for bilateral engagements on the margins.  We don’t have any specific scheduling updates to offer, but what I will just say broadly is that as it relates to the PRC, you saw the Secretary be very clear about this – even in the aftermath of his engagements at the Munich Security Conference, that the United States believes that it’s important to keep lines of communications open.  But I don’t have any specific meetings to preview or get ahead of at this time.

Ramin?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  Thanks for the question.  First of all, a lot of the conversations we’re going to be having in the meeting room and also on the sidelines of the meeting room are going to be focused on solutions to these pressing global problems.  And we, the United States, have a lot to point to that we are doing to try to address issues of critical importance to not only the countries in that room, but many developing and emerging countries outside of that room.  And we’ll be looking at how to partner with other G20 members to address those challenges, whether it’s food insecurity, energy insecurity, fundamental development challenges, et cetera.

As it relates to Russia, we’re going to be continuing to engage our counterparts to underscore the damage that Russia’s war of aggression has caused, to encourage all G20 partners to redouble their calls for a just, peaceful, and lasting end to the Kremlin’s war consistent with UN Charter principles.  We note that Russia has not demonstrated any good-faith efforts or serious interest in finding such a resolution and, in fact, has escalated its attacks on Ukraine’s people and infrastructure.

So, we’ll continue to describe in clear terms what’s happening in Ukraine, explain our position, which is shared by the vast majority of members of the UN General Assembly and a supermajority of the G20.

MR PATEL:  Let’s next go to the line of Shaun Tandon with AFP.

QUESTION:  Hey there.  Thanks for doing this call.  I wanted to pursue a little bit further my colleague’s questions and the responses.  When it comes to the role of Russia, besides the question of a potential meeting – I presume there’s not going to be one, but – with Lavrov, what’s your view on the Indians’ role in the G20 and how they’ve dealt with Russia?  I know that last year in Indonesia, there was a lot of talk about should the Indonesians be inviting them.  Are you comfortable having Lavrov in the room?  And when it comes to the upcoming G20 summit in September, what’s your view on whether the Indians should invite Putin?  Would that be a concern for you?

And if I could just broaden the discussion on Central Asia, that – Don was talking about the role that these countries can play, and I guess that India’s in that as well, but with Central Asia, China, of course, has also been very active there.  What is the United States – what’s the message more broadly with Central Asian countries going to be?  Is there a sense that the U.S. can offer an alternative to Russia and China?  How does that play out?  Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LU:  Let me – thank you, Shaun.  Let me try to answer that second question first.  We have said over and over to Central Asian partners and throughout the Indo-Pacific – and around the world that we are not asking for countries to choose between us and Russia or us and China.  Instead, we are interested in showing that the United States has something to offer, that we can be a reliable partner.  And so – I, before this current job, spent three years in Central Asia as an ambassador in the Kyrgyz Republic – I do think the countries there want to see a role for the United States, for Europe, for Türkiye because they can see that we have something to offer.  We have something to offer in terms of engagement economically, but we also have something to offer in terms of the values that we bring to the table.  And so, we’ll have that on display during the Secretary’s visit and be looking to draw a line under how our engagement is different from the engagement of Moscow and Beijing.

The second question was about India and Russia.  Maybe I could just take a step back, and then I don’t know if Ramin would like to add more specifically in the G20 context.  We have said before, the Secretary has said India has had a long and complicated history with Russia going back to the Cold War days, that – that is a deep and sustained relationship over many decades.  It is our hope that India will use that influence with Russia to support an end to this conflict, and as Foreign Minister Jaishankar has said, end to the conflict according to the principles of the UN Charter: territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Ramin?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  With respect to Russia’s presence, Russia Minister Lavrov was in attendance at the foreign ministers’ meeting last July.  The – Secretary Blinken and others in the G20 used that as an opportunity to clearly articulate the damage that Russia was doing by virtue of its illegal war in Ukraine.  And that is the way that we will continue to engage when we have that opportunity and if the Russian foreign minister is in the room.

MR PATEL:  Thanks so much.  Let’s next go to the line of Vivian Salama with The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION:  Hi, everyone.  Thanks so much for doing this.  I kind of wanted to follow up on the previous question, but also on other colleagues’ questions about the role that the U.S. sees itself playing, particularly with the Central Asian countries.  A number of the officials I’ve spoken to, especially in the past year, tell me that they sense that there’s a bit of, like, hesitation or reluctance on the side of Washington to increase its presence currently or its assistance or whatever – however you want to phrase it – to those countries, because Russia and China in some cases are so deeply entrenched in every element of their society, and it complicates matters for the U.S. to get involved.  And so, I’m curious if you can address that and see, like, how you circumvent those kinds of issues that might come up as a result of their long and deep history with especially Russia, but also China’s increasing role in the region.

And then secondly, I just wanted to ask you, with regard to sanctions, if there have been any concerns – maybe particularly with Kazakhstan – on Russia using these countries as sort of a intermediary or a go-around to some sanctions, and whether or not those discussions come into play in these meetings.  Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LU:  Thanks, Vivian.  Let me maybe start with the second question.  So, we are watching sanctions compliance very closely around the world, including in Central Asia.  I would argue there are some real successes in our engagement with Central Asian countries.  I would use the experience we have had in – sorry, in Kazakhstan, to illustrate that.  So, we have issued a license so that the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, CPC, is able to transfer Kazakh oil markets.  It’s a pipeline that goes through Russia.  But again, the purpose of these sanctions is to target entities in Russia that are fueling Putin’s war in Ukraine, it’s not to harm the interests of Central Asian republics or their peoples or their economies.  Here’s an illustration of how we have made sure the world knows it’s fine to use Kazakh oil that comes out of this pipeline.

Similarly, there are three banks in Kazakhstan that have been transformed from Russian subsidiary banks in Kazakhstan to wholly-owned Kazakh banks as a result of our cooperation with Kazakhstan to provide licenses that have allowed for the transfer of these banking assets into Kazakh-owned hands.  There is real progress that we have seen, as a result of these sanctions in decoupling aspects of the Central Asian economy from Russia.  And we’re going to continue to encourage Central Asian republics along this direction.

Second question was about hesitation from the United States to engage in Central Asia.  Again, I just came out of three years serving there.  I would say quite the opposite.  We – as I mentioned, Secretary Blinken has – this will be his fourth time engaging with foreign ministers of the region.  He will be traveling to both countries, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but also receiving and having separate meetings with each of the foreign ministers from that region.

In addition, we have committed $41.5 million in new assistance this year to Central Asia to support food security, but also to support economies that we see are struggling, and that this money we intend to use to help them explore new export routes, to retrain their workforce, to reduce unemployment, and to spur private sector growth.  I think you’ll see, when the Secretary is out in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, additional announcements of our deepened engagement in that region.  So, I hope by the end of this visit you will be convinced that we are very serious about engaging the five Central Asian states.

Ramin.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  I’ll just make a broader point about sanctions evasion.  In the measures that were announced today, it includes actions against those who support Russia’s war machine, those who are providing material or financial lifeline to this war of aggression – and in particular, actors that are connected to sanctions evasion activities.  So, this continues to be a very important area of focus globally in our targeting for our sanctions actions.

MR PATEL:  Let’s next go to the line of Lalit Jha with the Press Trust of India.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you for doing this.  I wanted to ask you about the bilateral talks the Secretary will be having with the external affairs minister.  How big China issue is in the bilateral talks now?  And would he also be discussing about two India’s neighbor which are facing economic problems because of Chinese loans, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LU:  Thanks, Lalit.  This is Don again.  I don’t know exactly what the Secretary is going to raise with his counterpart in New Delhi.  Maybe I could take a step back to say that we have had serious conversations about China, both before the latest scandal over this surveillance balloon but in the aftermath.  And so, I fully expect those conversations will continue.

Concerning Chinese loans to countries in India’s immediate neighborhood, we are deeply concerned that loans may be used for coercive leverage.  And we are talking to India, talking to countries of the region about how we help countries to make their own decisions and not decisions that might be compelled by any outside partner, including China.

MR PATEL:  Let’s – we’ve only got time for a couple more questions.  Let’s go to the line of Iain Marlow with Bloomberg News.

QUESTION:  Hey, guys.  Can you hear me?

MR PATEL:  Yep, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Perfect, thanks.  Thanks for doing this.  Assistant Secretary Toloui, I’m just wondering, just on the G20, Bloomberg had a report – one of my colleagues there – that India didn’t really want to use the word “war” to describe Russia’s invasion, and I know there’s been some difficulties with the G20 in the past in terms of language and communiques and those sorts of things.  But I guess I’m just wondering if you’re worried that India’s close ties with Russia here is going to make their hosting of the G20, particularly on the heels of this one-year anniversary – if that’s going to make things awkward a bit for the U.S. and allies.  Are you talking to India behind the scenes to try and nudge them a little bit on Russia?

And I guess I’m just wondering more specifically what you guys are planning in terms of calling out Russia at the G20, if there’s anything in particular you guys plan.  I know food security’s a focus, but is there anything else?

And for Assistant Secretary Lu, I guess I’m just wondering – you talked about India’s shifting relations with Russia.  I’m just wondering you could maybe talk about the defense relationship, in particular.  They’ve obviously had a huge reliance on Russian weapons over the years, co-produced different weapon systems.  How do you see that going?  Are you encouraged by the signs of how they’ve looked at the war in Ukraine, for instance?

And just a second one – it seems there’s a bit of an emphasis on the Quad here, given this panel that you guys plan and the meeting.  I’m just wondering whether you could say anything about India’s sort of reluctance in recent years to be engaged more on the military and security side of things in the Quad, as opposed to the sort of more anodyne sort of health and other aspects of the Quad that may not irk China as much.  So, I guess I’m just wondering if I could get your thoughts on that.  Thanks so much, guys.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LU:  Iain, that was like 45 questions.  (Laughter.)  Let me start (inaudible) 45.  So, we have said clearly – all four Asian Quad members have said clearly – the Quad is not a military alliance.  The Quad is not, in fact, an organization that is against any single country or group of countries.  The Quad stands for trying to provoke – promote activities and values that support the Indo-Pacific – free and open Indo-Pacific, but Indo-Pacific that’s prosperous and supports the values that we as these four countries represent.

In terms of India’s military relationship with Russia, I can’t speak for India, of course.  What we know globally is Russia is having a really difficult time fulfilling orders for military contracts.  We see plenty of evidence of that around the world.  And if you look at press reporting, I think you can see the Indians are also wondering whether Russia will be able to provide for its defenses.

Let me just say one word on how India responds to the war, and then I’ll turn it over to Ramin.  India uses the word “war” all the time.  You heard Prime Minister Modi say, in August, now is not the era for war.  You heard External Affairs Minister Jaishankar say in September, at the UN, that we need this war to end through diplomatic means and along the principles of the UN Charter, reinforcing territorial integrity and sovereignty.  And then, in November you heard the Indian defense minister say the threat to use nuclear weapons by Russia is totally unacceptable and at odds with the basic tenets of humanity.  So, I don’t particularly see a reluctance to use the word “war.”  I think they use it all the time.

Ramin.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY TOLOUI:  I don’t want to speak to what particular statements will be associated with the G20.  I think the fact is that – I don’t want to prejudge that.  I think the fact is that there is a supermajority of G20 members that have clearly indicated Russia’s war of aggression is illegal and damaging the global economy and the welfare of so many people around the globe.  And I think that that will be – that will – that fact will be clear at the G20 meeting.

MR PATEL:  Great.  Let’s go to – final question to Simon Lewis with Reuters.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you, Vedant.  Yes, I just wanted to zoom in on Kazakhstan – one question – given the unrest – I think an attempted coup and Russian intervention, or possible intervention that happened earlier last year.  I wonder if Assistant Secretary Lu – if you had an – sort of an assessment on where the country sort of is after that and whether that’s moved it – maybe in slightly simple terms moved it in – closer to being a country that the U.S. can work more closely with.

And more broadly, in the Central Asian aspect of the trip, what are the prospects – obviously democracy and human rights are a big part of this administration’s professed policy on foreign policy, but how is the region kind of faring in terms of the people of the region being able to determine the future of their countries themselves?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LU:  Thanks.  Maybe I’ll say a general word about human rights in Central Asia, and then I’ll specifically focus on the events in Kazakhstan from a year ago.  Advancing human rights in Central Asia has always been a top priority of the United States.  We are committed to supporting the protection of vulnerable populations in Central Asia.  That includes refugees, asylum seekers, LGBTQI+ persons, women, and girls.  In Kazakhstan, specifically, we have been committed for the support of reforms set out by President Tokayev and full implementation of those reforms – to include the ending of torture in prisons, in places of detention.  And we have encouraged the government to hold perpetrators of torture accountable.

I point out two instances in which that’s happened in Kazakhstan in the last couple of months.  In January, three policemen were found guilty of torture in Kazakhstan,  related to film footage they had of torture that was carried in the immediate wake of the violence last January – over a year ago.  And then last month, five additional policemen were convicted of torture related to the use of a hot iron to compel confessions by those detained after the violence in January.  So, plenty of more work to do in Central Asia broadly and in Kazakhstan, but we see some reason to be hopeful that we are seeing that some individuals are being held accountable for torture.

The last thing I would say on human rights is in Uzbekistan, a place where there have been really, serious human rights problems for years, last year we saw an enormous shift in forced and child labor in the cotton harvests.  So, the International Labor Organization has recently said that they can see that it has been fully eliminated in Uzbekistan as a result of the reforms – and that happened in the course of just over a year.  It’s really quite remarkable.  I don’t know that we have seen that sort of speedy progress paralleled anywhere else in the world.

Over.

MR PATEL:  Thanks so much.  And I want to thank everybody for joining today’s call.  As a reminder, this call was on the record and embargoed until the call’s conclusion, which will be shortly.  And thanks again to Don and Ramin for their time as well.  And we’ll talk to you all very soon.

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/previewing-secretary-blinkens-upcoming-travel-to-kazakhstan-uzbekistan-and-india/

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