The Obama administration's nominee to become the new top diplomat dealing with Central Asia had her confirmation hearing in the Senate last week. And if it was anything to go by, Central Asia continues to fade further and further into the periphery of U.S. policymaking.
The nominee, Nisha Desai Biswal, would succeed Robert Blake as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. Biswal is currently the assistant administrator for Asia at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and during the hearing, she faced no tough questions and there is no indication she won't be confirmed.
In her prepared statement, the most detailed remarks were devoted to the U.S.'s New Silk Road Initiative:
We are clear-eyed about the challenges of promoting greater regional cooperation, but we also see the potential and opportunities. It’s telling that since former Secretary Clinton first articulated the “New Silk Road” vision in 2011, the region has adopted its own vision of greater connectivity and integration. The Administration welcomes partnership with other key players in the greater region, like China, to achieve this important goal that, in the end, will bolster peace, stability, and prosperity for all the peoples of South and Central Asia.
Important regional infrastructure linkages are already developing. Uzbekistan has built a rail line from its border to Afghanistan’s key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and now Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have agreed to build a rail line linking their two countries via Afghanistan. Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India are making progress on the proposed TAPI gas pipeline. Pakistan recently announced its intention to sign the intergovernmental agreement on CASA-1000, which would substantially link the electrical grids of Afghanistan and Pakistan with those of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for the very first time. And we hope that Pakistan and India will continue taking steps towards trade normalization. Perhaps most importantly, and for the first time, all of the countries in the region are either WTO members or on a path or exploring steps towards accession.
She also touched on the region's support for the war effort in Afghanistan...
Kazakhstan, with its support for the Afghan Security Forces and training of Afghans in Kazakh universities as well as hosting the Istanbul process ministerial and the P5+1 talks, has demonstrated its importance as a leader in the region. In fact, Mr. Chairman, all five Central Asian states have provided vital support for our mission in Afghanistan, including through the Northern Distribution Network. That support will be all the more important in the months and years ahead.
... and human rights problems in the region:
In Uzbekistan, where we are seeing some steps toward addressing the problem of forced labor, we will remain closely engaged to press for steady progress toward ending this practice and continue to press on human rights concerns. Across Central Asia, where freedom of religion remains heavily circumscribed, we are steadfastly championing this core American and universal value.
She also included Kyrgyzstan on a list of countries in the region (along with Nepal, Bhutan, and Maldives) which "embrace democratic values."
One shouldn't expect too much from a testimony like this, it is for the most part designed to be as unobjectionable as possible to ease the confirmation of the nominee. But the heavy focus on the New Silk Road will dismay the many Central Asia-watchers in Washington who have little faith that there is anything to the plan.
What was most telling about the hearing, though, from the perspective of a Central Asia watcher, was how little discussion there was about Central Asia. With a portfolio including India (where, incidentally, Biswal was born), Central Asia will naturally play second fiddle. But Central Asia got only cursory treatment by the senators questioning her, while India was discussed in far more detail (even Bangladesh and Sri Lanka got more careful treatment than any Central Asian country). One question by Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, who chaired the hearing, on regional integration just teed up Biswal to repeat the New Silk Road talking points. A long question/statement by Florida Republican Marco Rubio about religious freedom (by which, given the many examples he cited, he meant specifically freedom to practice Christianity) mentioned Uzbekistan, and the fact that the government there regulates which translation of the Bible you can own, and how many copies. Biswal responded by saying that religious freedom is, and should continue to be, high on the agenda of U.S. relations with South and Central Asia, without giving any specifics.
The final question, by Kaine again, also dealt with Central Asia and offered Biswal the best chance to expound on relations with Central Asia. Kaine asked an open-ended question about how, given that U.S. relations with those countries "has been driven" by the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, what the "opportunities and challenges" were for the U.S. in that region in the years to come. Biswal answered:
The United States, because of its engagement in Afghanistan, has had the opportunity to establish deeper relationships with the countries of Central Asia. Understanding that we have many concerns about many of these countries, I think it's been a positive that we have been able to engage in a dialogue and discourse with all five Central Asian states and that we have annual bilateral consultations, and a strategic partnership with Kazakhstan, which allows us to talk about how the United States can engage with and support the economic development priorities of all these countries and also engage in discourse about the areas where we have disagreements. But that dialogue is important to advance these issues. They will not be advanced overnight and easily. But if we have a presence and a continuing engagement in the region then we will be far more likely to see some results over the course of time. And it is certainly critical that we see Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, a region that historically has been one of the least connected in the world in terms of trade and economy, that we see that region become more integrated. And that is something that will advance the interests of all in the region. And so we would like to see a Central Asia that has greater connections with South Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan and that is only something that we can advance through our ongoing engagements.
Again, it's telling that she ended up at the New Silk Road. Unfortunately none of the senators asked what, exactly, the New Silk Road is.