WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for more cooperation in fighting terrorism and spurring economic growth as he met on August 3 with foreign ministers from the five Central Asian states.
The key meeting in Washington, the second such gathering, comes as the United States tries to re-engage in a region that is dominated by Russia and China, and is facing increasing danger from political instability and Islamic terrorism.
The five ex-Soviet countries -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- all have historical ties with Moscow. All have also watched nervously as Russia moved in 2014 to seize Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and stoke conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In his opening remarks, Kerry said the talks would focus not only on violent extremism and economic growth, but also environmental degradation.
"Today we hope to make further progress, through a new regional approach, built around initiatives on counterterrorism, trade and investment, economic development, and clean energy," he said.
In a nod to the jitters felt over Russia's policies in Ukraine, Kerry said the United States supports "without hesitation, the sovereignty, the territorial integrity, and the independence of each Central Asian state."
U.S. diplomats also made reference to longstanding human rights concerns that have troubled U.S. relations with most, if not, all the five countries.
Uzbekistan is notorious for using torture against inmates, and jailing rights activists on trumped up criminal charges. Kyrgyzstan's jailing of an ethnic Uzbek rights activist and journalist prompted criticism from the U.S. State Department and soured ties between the two countries.
"Make no mistake, our work together is not going to prevent us from continuing the dialogue that we’ve already engaged in on other areas of concern," he said, "including the need for transparency and accountability in governance, and the importance of such basic human rights as freedom of religion, speech, and association."
In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Washington moved to deepen ties with many of the Central Asian states, utilizing bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to ferry troops and materiel to the war it was leading in Afghanistan.
But Moscow grew wary of the U.S. military presence in what it viewed as its backyard, and leaned on Central Asian states to stop aiding the American-led war effort.
U.S. companies have long sought greater access to the region's bounty of natural resources. Kazakhstan is home to major uranium deposits, for example, and some of the world's largest oil and gas reserves.
The region has faced threats from homegrown Islamic terrorism for years; recently, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have all seen their nationals travel to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State extremist group.
Concern has also grown in recent years about potential political instability stemming from the age of the leaders of the region's two largest countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Both Nursultan Nazarbaev and his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, are in their late 70s and both have been in power since the Soviet collapse, building governments that heavily focused on their leadership and style.
Experts have warned that the death of either could result in major jockeying for power among the elites and competing clans within the two countries.