Digital Briefing with Ambassador Alice G. Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs

MAY 20, 2020


Moderator:  Hello, I would like to welcome journalists to today’s virtual press briefing with Ambassador Alice Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.  Ambassador Wells, thank you so much for joining us today, and I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.

Ambassador Wells:  No, and thank you and thank everyone for joining the call.  And before I take questions, I want to start with about 10 minutes’ review of some of the major accomplishments during the last three years when I’ve headed the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, and I’m going to start with Afghanistan.

As President Trump made clear when he took office, we needed to take a serious look at the costs of the U.S. presence there, both in terms of taxpayer dollars but also in terms of the risks to our service members.  And one of his first acts as Commander-in-Chief was to order a policy review, which produced the South Asia Strategy that he announced in summer 2017.  And nearly three years later, the core principles of that strategy – that the war will end via a political settlement and not on the battlefield, that our policy will be guided by conditions on the ground, that Pakistan must take decisive action against militant groups, and that India is an important partner in Afghanistan’s development – continue to guide us.

And after over a year of direct talks led by Ambassador Khalilzad with the Taliban, we signed a U.S.-Taliban agreement in February in which the Taliban committed that Afghanistan will never again be a base for international terrorism.  Now, the United States is upholding its end of this commitment by bringing troops home while continuing to closely watch the Taliban’s actions and respond when necessary to defend Afghan Security Forces.

Progress to the next phase of the political negotiations has been difficult.  You’ve heard Ambassador Khalilzad address that directly.  The level of violence is unacceptable, and it’s the responsibility of the Taliban to significantly reduce that violence.  While we welcome the formation of an inclusive government by President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah, we’re looking for rapid implementation of their agreement and immediate steps to reach an intra-Afghan negotiation.  The Afghan Government and the Taliban should combine forces both against COVID-19 and the other terrorist groups like ISIS-Khorasan, whose ruthless and evil attacks we tragically saw last week.

The South Asia Strategy also marked a fundamental change in the U.S. approach to Pakistan, seeking to hold Pakistan accountable for the presence of terrorist and militant groups on its soil.  The strategy made clear that Pakistan needed to take decisive action against these groups, particularly those that support the conflict in Afghanistan and threaten regional stability.  President Trump’s suspension of security assistance in January 2018 demonstrated our resolve.  And since then, we’ve seen constructive steps by Pakistan to encourage the Taliban to advance the Afghan peace process.  Pakistan has also taken initial steps toward curtailing other terrorist groups that threaten the region, such as arresting and prosecuting Lashkar-e Tayyiba leader Hafiz Saeed and beginning to dismantle terrorist financing structures.  And as Pakistan’s commitment to peace in the region has grown, we are seeing initial growth in our U.S.-Pakistan relationship as well, particularly in trade.

I’d like to pivot to India.  It’s a critical actor not just for our South Asia Strategy but also for the vision of the Indo-Pacific region that President Trump put forward in November of 2017.  Now, we have welcomed India’s emergence as a leading global power and as a net security provider in the region, and we have committed the United States to deepening the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership.  We are working more closely together than ever before to advance shared ambitions.  And you see this in the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, the reinvigoration of the Quad mechanism, the enhancement of military cooperation through joint exercises, increasing defense trade, increasing regional security support through our Counterterrorism Joint Working Group and Homeland Security Dialogue, and expanding cooperation in space.  And the visit of Prime Minister Modi to the U.S. in 2017 and last year and President Trump’s visit to India this February really showcased the closeness between our leaders and our nations.

The last three years has also seen significant growth in the U.S.-Bangladesh relationship.  Bangladesh has rightly been commended for the generous response of its government and people to the Rohingya refugee crisis and their cooperation with international humanitarian partners.  The United States is the single largest contributor of assistance to the Rohingya crisis, but Bangladesh is much more than just a host nation for refugees; it is a country that has achieved impressive economic growth over the last decade, accompanied by strides in human development.  It plays an important role in the Indian Ocean region, and our security cooperation has grown closer.  And we encourage Bangladesh to renew its commitments to democratic institutions and governing structures, which we think will further growth in our bilateral relationship that’s based on shared values.

Sri Lanka continues to be a valued partner in the Indo-Pacific as well.  The strength of this partnership was on display following the horrific terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday 2019, when the United States offered full support to the immediate manhunt, the longer-term rebuilding, and sustained counterterrorism effort.  The Sri Lankan Government advancing justice, accountability, reconciliation, and human rights we believe will foster its long-term stability and prosperity.

Moving a little bit further southwest, I would just like to remind everyone of the remarkable 2018 elections in the Maldives, when 90 percent of the eligible population turned out to vote.  Since that election of the reform-minded President Solih, we have dramatically scaled up our cooperation and assistance as the Maldives has rebalanced its foreign policy, reinvigorated its democratic institutions, and redoubled its efforts against terrorists.

And we have also strengthened our ties with the Himalayan partners.  We continue to make strides in supporting Nepal’s transition into a full-fledged constitutional federal republic.  And in summer 2019, former Deputy Secretary Sullivan made a historic visit to the Kingdom of Bhutan, the highest-level U.S. Executive Branch official to visit in over two decades.

The third guiding strategy that I have helped to develop and implement has been the administration’s new Strategy for Central Asia.  The Central Asia Strategy affirms the rock-solid U.S. commitment to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of the Central Asian states.  The strategy encourages greater connectivity and cooperation within Central Asia and the restoration of the region’s historical ties with Afghanistan.  We are working with the Central Asian states bilaterally but also in the C5+1 construct.  The Secretary’s February trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and the participation in two of the C5+1 ministerials, as well as an upcoming trilateral meeting that will be hosted by Under Secretary Hale with his counterparts from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, demonstrate our enduring commitment to partnership, peace, and shared prosperity.

And before I take your questions, I’d just like to reinforce that the United States will be a reliable partner in helping countries of the region on the path to economy recovery as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.  We have provided over $96 million in COVID-related assistance to the region, but this is really on top of what has been $6 billion in public health investments over the last two decades.  We are joining other voices in the region and globally calling on China to offer transparent relief from the Belt and Road predatory loans that the countries are now suffering from.  Our private sector, our partnership with international financial institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and Asian Development Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, will use these partnerships to help ensure that countries reemerge from this crisis on stable footing, and we urge others to join us in this global effort.

I look forward to your questions.  And again, thank you very much for attending today’s event.

Moderator:  Thanks, Ambassador Wells.  Our first question was submitted in advance from Karokhel Danish with Pajhwok Afghan News in Afghanistan.  They ask: “What is your finding after long and hard work with Pakistan and Afghanistan?  Will Pakistan help the Afghan peace process?”

Ambassador Wells:  Well, it’s deeply in Pakistan’s interest to advance the peace process.  I think as Pakistani leaders like to say, Pakistan is second only to Afghanistan in being able to benefit from regional stability and peace.  And so we have seen over the last year solid cooperation between Ambassador Khalilzad and the Pakistani civilian and military leadership to encourage the Taliban to take steps to reach the negotiating table.  And certainly the advancement and improvement in the foundation for a stronger U.S.-Pakistan partnership is premised on our ability to work together constructively to advance peace.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question is a live caller.  It’s Naveed Akbar.  Naveed, if you could state your media outlet, please, before asking your question.

Question:  Yes, I want to ask Ambassador Alice Wells that how do you see the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor?  And the U.S. has mainly criticized this economic corridor, so what’s the U.S. stance now and how much do you see that it can be beneficial for the region and for Pakistan at large?

Ambassador Wells:  As is the case with CPEC and with any other development projects, we, the United States, support investment that meets international standards, that upholds environmental and labor standards, that’s sustainable, that benefits the people of the region.  I’ve enumerated my concerns and the United States Government’s concerns over CPEC – over the lack of transparency involved in the projects, over the unfair rates of profit that are guaranteed to Chinese parastatal organizations, to the distortions that it’s caused in the Pakistan economy, including by the massive imbalance in trade that Pakistan now has with China.

And I think at a time of crisis like COVID, when the world is reeling from the economic consequences of having shut down parts of the economy, it is really incumbent on China to take steps to alleviate the burden that this predatory and unsustainable and unfair lending is going to cause Pakistan.

So we certainly hope that China will join in either waiving debt, renegotiating these loans, in creating a fair and transparent deal for the Pakistani people.

Moderator:  Thanks for that question.  Our next question comes from Seema Sirohi with Economic Times in India.  She asks: “Ambassador Wells, how do you view the recent flareups on the India-China border?”

Ambassador Wells:  So flareups on the border, I think, are a reminder that Chinese aggression is not always just rhetorical.  And so whether it’s in the South China Sea or whether it’s along the border with India, we continue to see provocations and disturbing behavior by China that raises questions about how China seeks to use its growing power.

And that is why you have seen, I think, a rallying of likeminded nations, whether it’s in the – whether it’s through ASEAN or through other diplomatic groupings, the trilateral that the United States has with Japan and India, the quadrilateral with Australia, the conversations that are taking place globally, as to how we can reinforce the principles of the post-World War II economic order that supported free and open trade that helped lift all boats, including the Chinese boat.

What we want to see is an international system that provides benefit to everyone, and not a system in which there is suzerainty to China.  And so I think in this instance the border disputes are a reminder of the threat posed by China.

Moderator:  Thank you for that answer.  Our next question, let’s turn to Central Asia.  We have a question from Ikhtiyor Rakhman with Korrespondent in Uzbekistan.  He asks about the fact that you’ve been working in Central Asia for a while now, and he wants – his question relates to your views on the success and weaknesses of reforms in Uzbekistan.  How do you assess the reform process in Uzbekistan during the past three years since you’ve held this position?

Ambassador Wells:  Right.  Well, if I could sort of pull back a little bit, I opened the first U.S. embassy in Tajikistan, and I have spent my entire career watching the countries of Central Asia develop, and I think it’s been a tremendous accomplishment to see all five countries determine to uphold their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence.  And it is not an inconsiderable achievement given where the countries started from 27, 28 years ago.

And so it’s been a real privilege to be able to work on U.S. programs that have helped to support independence, and whether it’s through economic development programs, assisting countries as they navigate their entrance into the World Trade Organization, providing technical assistance, whether it’s to the government, to nongovernmental organizations, media, to the judiciary, to institutions that are vital to the democratic development of any country.

But I think clearly in the last three years the transformative change in the region has been the political transition to President Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan, and the reform program that President Mirziyoyev has laid out is breathtaking and it’s opened up new avenues for cooperation, new avenues for growth.  It opens up the region to greater connectivity, connectivity with Afghanistan, Pakistan, hopefully to India.  It opens up opportunities, I think, to unleash the potential of this 30-plus-million-person country that traditionally has been the engine of Central Asia.

So we’re very excited by the promise of the reforms.  As I’ve said before, reform is difficult.  There are always going to be resistants.  There will always be two steps forward and one step back.  And I think the message is that the United States is determined and committed to supporting this long-term, methodical progress toward a more democratic and open society in Uzbekistan.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Now let’s go to a question, a live question from Pakistan.  We have Khalid Mahmood from Express News TV in Pakistan.  Please go ahead.  That is Khalid Mahmood.  You’re unmuted.  Please go ahead with your question.  Okay, we’re going to go back then again to Central Asia.  Maybe Khalid will join us in a moment.

We have Oksana Skiban joining us from the news agency  She is asking about women’s rights in South and Central Asia.  “How do you assess gender policies in these regions, and which of the Asian countries would you say that have made the most progress on women’s rights and protecting women’s rights?”

Ambassador Wells:  So the advancement of women and their ability to participate in the formal economic space is really critical to the growth of any society, and we certainly have seen that in the United States, where women now comprise a significant portion of the workforce and have added considerably to the GDP and the entrepreneurial talent of my country.  And so we have, because we’re so committed to the role of women and our – and because we so strongly believe that whether it’s in war or peace, women’s voice is essential – we have three women’s councils.  One is a U.S.-Afghan, U.S.-Pakistan, and a U.S.-India Women’s Council, where we’re also trying to harness the private sector in creating more opportunities, whether it’s for mentoring women, providing internships, providing more job opportunities, working with the government to ensure that both the legal but also some of the cultural barriers to women’s employment can be overcome.

It’s tough overcoming some of the social and cultural restrictions or inhibitions on women working.  Cultures – culture is real.  It matters and it reverberates throughout society.  And so in a country like India, you have seen the number of women participating in the formal workforce actually decline over the last several years.  So this is a challenge that every country in the region, even the most dynamic and open economies, have to contend with.  It’s very hard to compare countries so I don’t want to do that, because the countries of the region have very different backgrounds.

But I want to – whether it’s – in every policy that we promote, we look at it also through the prism of gender.  And one example of that is the Afghan peace process, where it’s critically important that women be heard, that women who have finally over the last 19 years in Afghanistan been able to access schools, access the workforce, it’s critical that their role, their voice, their rights not be lost.  And so you’ve seen the United States advocate for, lobby for the inclusion of women in the negotiating team.  You’ve seen us train women to be negotiators, to provide technical assistance, on top of what has been over $2 billion of investment in Afghanistan in women’s development alone.

Moderator:  Thank you for that answer.  Let’s go again to a live question from Parikshit Luthra with CNBC-TV18 in India.  Parikshit, please go ahead.

Question:  Right.  Ambassador Wells, thank you for joining us.  Our question is about Indo-U.S. trade relations.  Recently the Indian Government has come out with an economic package to support the Indian industry.  How do you view that?  And do you expect the Indo-U.S. trade deal to be concluded this year, even a limited one?  Are you hopeful of that?

Ambassador Wells:  Trade is very important to the U.S.-India relationship.  Our two-way, bilateral trade with India totaled a record almost $150 billion last year.  We’ve seen important growth in the trade relationship, including energy, which increased, I think, by over 24 percent last year.  Obviously, President Trump is very focused on the trade relationship and our concern is that India remains still a quite protected market that can be difficult and sometimes not provide a level playing field for foreign companies.  And so USTR, the U.S. Trade Representative, and India are continuing to work toward a deal.  I can’t predict whether a deal will be reached this year, but the impetus for achieving a trade deal is very much present.

And I think what we should focus on, again, in this post-pandemic environment when countries are looking at a little bit of de-globalization and of onshoring more of the critical production, at the same time that that is taking place I think there’s a very vigorous effort to diversify supply chains.  And this is a real moment of opportunity for India by adopting more open and welcoming policies, by reducing tariffs that allow manufacturing companies inside of India to be part of a global supply chain.  It’s a real moment of opportunity for us to create trusted supply chain relationships with one another.  And India as one of the world’s foremost producers of pharmaceuticals, of generic drugs, of vaccinations, is going to play a critically important role in the treatment and health of the world as we move out of the pandemic.

And so I think it would really be an opportunity for us to focus on how to ensure that all of the entrepreneurism and all of the sort of trade ties and the people-to-people ties that have buttressed this relationship, like, how do we bring all of this together to create greater growth and prosperity for both of our people?

Moderator:  Thanks for that answer.  We have a few questions on U.S. assistance around the coronavirus.  I’m just going to ask a couple of them in one question, and maybe you could speak to U.S. assistance for the region writ large.  But a question from Abduvali Saybnazarov with 24 Radio Channel in Uzbekistan asks how much the U.S. Government is supporting the Uzbek media after the pandemic.  And then we also have a question from Tanzim Anwar in Bangladesh with Sangbad Sangstha asking about the economic impact of the coronavirus on Bangladesh and how the U.S. Government will continue to assist Bangladesh to keep its export supply chain to the United States in place and prospering.

Ambassador Wells:  So let me start just more broadly with COVID assistance because I think it really is a testament to the generosity of the American people as well as the commitment of the American Government to international public health.  America – all of America, the government and the people together have provided more than $6.5 billion in assistance and donations, and that’s about 60 percent of the global effort.  And it reflects, again, a historic commitment of America to the region.  The – as I mentioned, the 6.5 billion that’s been invested in – or excuse me, the over $140 billion in global health assistance that America has provided over the last two decades.

And so what you’ve seen since COVID has broken out in the South and Central Asia region is about $98 million in COVID-specific, whether it’s technical assistance or PPE or other kinds of material support for governments as they seek to address the crisis.  And as America also comes out of the pandemic, we’re going to be even better prepared to provide more assistance to our partners.

But I think we’re very proud of the fact that it’s not just the American Government, but it’s also American people, it’s faith-based organizations, it’s private sector corporations – Boeing, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, a good corporate social responsibility that’s taking place.  And I want to underscore that America will stand with the world in responding to all of the effects of this crisis, both health and economic, working bilaterally, through the G20 and G7, through the OECD, through the multilateral lending institutions.

What we’ve seen in a country like Bangladesh – again, a dynamic entrepreneurial society whose social indicators have been a real success story, and the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and lifting women up in particular has been so noteworthy – we see the devastating impact of the disease with the cutting off of supply lines, the unfortunate, if only temporary, loss of markets as a result of disruptions in the ready-made garments sector.

Now, already we’re seeking to address that.  We’re trying to match-make between Bangladeshi manufacturers and consumers in America for critical medical supplies, as the Bangladeshi factories are retooling and seeking new markets.  And we will continue to look for all opportunities to be able to increase the trade and investment relationship between our two countries.

America remains or has been the largest export market for Bangladesh.  We’re very important to Bangladesh’s economic health.  And again, I think at a time of some de-risking from China, from diverse – at a time of diversification of global supply chains, this very, very painful time can also be a moment of opportunity for Bangladesh.

Moderator:  Thanks for that answer.  As a reminder, we do have a lot of questions so please upvote those questions that you’d most like us to ask.  Let’s go again to a participant who would like to ask a live question.  Hamid Haidari with TV1 in Afghanistan.  Hamid Haidari, please go ahead.  You’re live.

Question:  Thank you so much, Ms. Ambassador.  First, let me thank for your all support that you have done for Afghanistan in the past years, and definitely people will not forget you.  My question is – my first question is about as the violence has been increasing in Afghanistan and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani also has ordered the offensive against the Taliban, how do you see the future of the peace process?  Because there is a belief among Afghans here in Afghanistan that maybe the peace process will not be implemented in the next five years.  Do you believe in that or not?

The second is:  We have the violence that belongs to ISIS nowadays.  They have done some suicide bombings in Kabul and in Ghor province.  How much this violence will affect the peace process, especially the peace agreement that has been signed between the U.S. and the Taliban?  Thank you so much.

Ambassador Wells:  I absolutely believe that there will be a peace process within the five years, and the sooner the better.  I mean, obviously we’re pushing very hard for a beginning to intra-Afghan negotiations, for the Taliban and for the Afghan Government and Afghan political figures, cutting across society, sitting down together.  And the sooner that the two reach the negotiating table, the sooner that steps are taken to create that confidence through a reduction in violence and prisoner releases, the better.  I haven’t met a single Afghan who doesn’t want peace and who doesn’t prioritize peace.

And so the level of violence currently is absolutely unacceptable.  And you see – you see Ambassador Khalilzad in Doha engaging with the Taliban now on just that set of questions.  But we also – we also acknowledge that any peace process is very difficult.  And we’ve always anticipated it would be hard and that there would be obstacles that would have to be overcome, and that at times all parties to the peace process have created obstacles to its rapid – to its rapid start.

It’s not a time to give up.  It’s a time to double down because, as you rightly pointed out, there are groups like ISIS now taking root in Afghanistan who have no respect for Afghans, have no respect for Afghanistan as a nation-state, have no respect for the religion of Afghanistan, who have committed the most despicable acts of violence – I mean, so despicable that they won’t even acknowledge their attack on the maternity clinic.

And so it is against groups like ISIS that we believe the Afghan Government and Taliban should make common cause.  And you’re only going to be able to defeat the most vicious of these terrorists by reaching a peace agreement that allows a unified and total response to the terrorist threat posed by these other terrorist organizations.

Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question comes from Suhasini Haidar with The Hindu in India.  He asks: “You said that the Taliban is committed to stop international terrorism, but the U.S.-Taliban deal actually only mentions groups that target the U.S. and its allies.  This is not a commitment to stop the LET and JEM from operating in Afghanistan.  Do you disagree with India for not wanting to open talks with the Taliban?”

Ambassador Wells:  The Taliban have made commitments against international terrorism, and I’ll let the agreement and the negotiation stand on their own without commenting.  But America’s commitment is to ensure that Afghanistan can never again be used as a – as a base for external terrorism, terrorism directed against us, the region, our friends and partners.  And obviously India – it’s up to India to determine how best to support the peace process.  Obviously, India is a very important actor in Afghanistan – the $3 billion in assistance that has already been pledged to the country that has touched, I think, literally every province in Afghanistan.

The diplomatic and political support that India traditionally has provided to Afghans is – India’s going to be a critical player and is a critical player, which is why you saw Ambassador Khalilzad travel to New Delhi during the height of the COVID lockdown, even, because it was so critical that these conversations and consultations continue between our two countries.  And again, we defer to India as to whether it wants to engage directly with the Taliban.  But in a – in a situation where we are seeking through a negotiated political settlement to have the Taliban as part of that political governing structure, that government’s relationship with India will – should be close.  And we believe that a healthy Afghanistan is going to need to have a healthy relationship with India.

Moderator:  Thank you.  For the next question, let’s turn to another live question from Mahabir Paudyal in – with Republica in Nepal.

Question:  Namaste, Your Excellency.  Thank you very much for this program you are organizing for the brief.  I have a couple of questions.  Like, in Nepal, the Indo-Pacific Strategy about which Nepali public came to know, mainly after your interview with Republica in 2018, it’s been a matter of big debate in Kathmandu.  And now it’s been seen as a countermeasure to – of China, a lot of interpretations and even misinterpretations.  And now, after the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant, which was associated with Indo-Pacific Strategy, in Kathmandu there has been a political divide.  The ruling party is now opposed to – some of the leaders of ruling party are opposed to endorsing the Indo – this MCC to the parliament.  Others are in favor of endorsing it.  So there has been this division.

And there is also some, even – there is also a speculation that the Chinese will not want MCC to be endorsed, and therefore, there have been oppositions from a section of leaders from the ruling party.  So how have you been assessing this situation in Nepal on MCC, on China, on Indo-Pacific Strategy?  So [inaudible].

Ambassador Wells:  And I thank you for the question.  And I agree with you that there’s been a great deal of misinformation and, frankly, disinformation about America’s assistance to Nepal.  I mean, for instance, the Millennium Challenge Corporation was established in 2004.  It is completely unrelated to President Trump’s vision of an Indo-Pacific that’s free and open.  And it completely obscures the fact that this program is specifically designed by Congress to provide poverty alleviation through creating greater confidence in a country’s ability to implement economic programs that are designed to unlock the blockages to growth.

And in Nepal, the MCC program, which the government also committed another 130 million in additional funds above the 500 million that we seek to allocate, it’s designed to promote hydroelectricity transmission, including sales across border, and also to reform the road structure so that you open up the economy and you also open up the economy, potentially, to increased foreign direct investment.  And the fact that this grant assistance – not a loan, grant assistance – and the potential of this grant assistance has become a political football is disturbing.  Now, I was very pleased to see the foreign minister’s strong defense of the MCC.  I’m confident that the Government of Nepal is sovereign, that it does not take dictation from China, and that it will do what is in the best interests of its country to advance the economic welfare of its people.

But don’t – we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the MCC, not only is it a standalone project, a standalone development program, it’s only one of many programs that the United States has utilized to help grow our relations with Nepal and to help Nepal develop, whether it’s the economic assistance we provide every year of over $120 million, whether it’s the humanitarian assistance on top of that, whether it’s the Peace Corps, whether it’s the cultural preservation funds that we have utilized to help Nepal repair its antiquities after the earthquake.  We’re committed to our relationship with the Nepal people.

So I would surmise that the latest debate that we’ve seen about MCC is much more about internal politics in Nepal, and I would certainly hope that the leadership of your nation, with – who negotiated this agreement – this brought in all major political parties during the negotiations over three years – that the leaders of your nation are going to stand up for the people of Nepal and move forward with the MCC.

Moderator:  For our next question, we’re going to go to a question that was submitted here on the board.  It’s from Aslan Sydykov with AKIpress News Agency in Kyrgyzstan.  He asks: “Now we see rising competition between the United States and China, how do you think this will affect Central Asia?”

Ambassador Wells:  Well, our relations with Central Asia, again, stand on their own.  And we expect and support that the countries of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, will have balanced and mutually beneficial relations with all the countries of the region.  And so this is – should not be a zero-sum proposition.  And America’s engagement with Central Asia has been about opening Central Asia up to the world, about ensuring that Central Asia has the sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity it needs to develop and deepen its democratic institutions.

We’ve had a terrific historic partnership with Kyrgyzstan from the very – from the birth of Kyrgyzstan, from Kyrgyzstan’s more accelerated embrace of democracy and democratic institutions.  We’ve supported whether it’s the development of your media and nongovernmental sector but also training programs across ministries.  We’ve supported Kyrgyzstan’s WTO ambitions.  And so I think it’s been a full-blown relationship that included, during the height of the Northern Distribution Network, the Manas Base, which helped support trying to bring stability to Afghanistan.

We think now under this bilateral relationship, but also in our C5 relationship, we need to focus on how to increase economic prosperity and trade and investment – that’s critical – and how to increase the intra-regional connectivity, including to the south to Afghanistan.  And so we’ve welcomed the high-level engagements that we’ve had with the Kyrgyz Government, including most recently in February by Secretary Pompeo.

Moderator:  Thanks for that answer.  We have so many questions to get to, but unfortunately, we’re running out of time.  Let’s go to one more question from Khiromon Bakoeva calling in with – from Tajikistan with Radio Ozodi.

Question:  Hello.  It seems that the outbreak of coronavirus in Tajikistan has exposed the real attitude of Tajik authorities towards the pandemic.  The Tajik Government only on April 30th admitted there’s coronavirus in the country.  Did you have a chance to raise the issue of the coronavirus outbreak with Tajik officials?

And briefly, a second question:  Over the last year we have been hearing a lot of criticism toward U.S. Government that it continues to support autocratic regime in Tajikistan.  Many civil activists, NGOs, and independent media claim that in recent years they were getting less support compared to first years of 21st century.  Do you share these concerns?  Thank you.

Ambassador Wells:  I think of course our embassy in Dushanbe has active conversations with the government about all issues, including COVID and the COVID response.  We’ve provided some assistance to the Government of Tajikistan.  We’re committed to providing more assistance as we move through this crisis.  We were concerned and have been concerned about some of the repression of – some of the steps taken that have made it harder for there to be an open and transparent media environment in Tajikistan.  As you know, the United States Government has spoken out forcefully for the accreditation of Ozodi as well as spoken out against what has been some of the very disturbing acts of violence against members of the media, against journalists in Tajikistan.  Particularly during this time of crisis, it’s absolutely essential that there be transparent information that individuals understand what to do, that they have access to facts and factual reporting to navigate the crisis.  And so we will continue to advocate for that very strenuously.

In terms of assistance and assistance over time, I mean, obviously Tajikistan is at a different place today than it was at the time of independence.  The kinds of programs that we utilize have changed.  But we are a major supplier of assistance and a major provider of assistance to Tajikistan.

When I was visiting, I had the opportunity to go down to the border where I’ve seen the over $30 million in recent border assistance, whether it’s been the hardware in terms of special vehicles or border posts, physical posts, or whether it’s been the software, the advanced radar surveillance technology.  We continue to have active exchange programs.  We recently were in the process – we recently just returned, I think, 47 exchange participants who had been sort of stuck here in the United States as a result of the pandemic.  But we deeply value these programs, getting people to people, young people also over to the United States so we create more ambassadors for the relationship.  So I don’t think there’s any reduction in commitment to the relationship, and certainly Tajikistan, as a frontline state to the Afghanistan conflict, we have a very important stake in Tajikistan being able to provide that level of regional stability.

Moderator:  Thank you, Ambassador Wells.  We are – I’m so sorry, we have so many questions.  We are just unfortunately out of time.  Ambassador Wells, thank you so much for your time.  Do you have any closing words that you would like to offer?

Ambassador Wells:  Thank you, I would.  I mean, I just – we’re all living in challenging times as a result of COVID, but my three years in this position certainly leaves me confident about the strength of the U.S. partnerships in the region and our ability to confront diplomatic, economic, and security challenges together.  The bureau will now be very capably led by our senior bureau official, Tom Vajda.  But more importantly, I think, the region figures so prominently in the National Security Strategy of the United States and in these very important lines of effort that President Trump has prioritized in achieving regional peace in Afghanistan and in reaffirming the independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of Central Asia, and in affirming again the free and open system of trade and values that has helped the globe but will certainly – should certainly drive Indo-Pacific developments over the next generation.

So we’ve got a lot of work to do, and we have the means to do it and the will to do it and the need to do it, again, in the wake of this very destabilizing global event.  So thank you very much and I hope that you all and your families stay safe.  Bye-bye.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Unfortunately, that is all the time that we have for today.  Thank you for your questions and thank you, Ambassador Wells, for joining us.  We will send links shortly to all of our participating journalists to the recording of this briefing, and we’ll provide a transcript as soon as it’s available.  We’d also love to hear your feedback and you can contact us at any time at  Thanks again for your participation and we hope that you can join us for a future briefing.