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Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells Remarks to Traveling Press

Alice G. Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
St Regis
Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan
February 2, 2020

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Christina and then Kyra.

QUESTION: In the meeting today, did you talk about the number of foreign fighters that Kazakhstan has taken back from Iraq and Syria, whether they expect that number to – it's a pretty big number, right? They're one of the leaders – whether they are happy with the U.S. level of support for what they're doing and if there are any concrete steps to address the ISIS brides and women and children in camps like Al-Roj.

MS WELLS: The Secretary congratulated and thanked the Government of Kazakhstan for their very forward-learning posture in bringing back around 600 foreign terrorist fighters, spouses, and children. And the United States has provided technical assistance, psychologists who specialize in deradicalization and some of the psychosocial issues that you could expect to arise, particularly among children who have been exposed to such a heinous environment.

The Kazakhstanis have been very appreciative of our support. We discussed how we can better let the lessons be learned from the Kazakhstani experience. They recently hosted a meeting that brought other interested nations together. We talked about potentially forming a center of excellence to try to distill some of the practices.

Obviously, this is – we're learning lessons as we go, and as Kazakhstan deals with the first, second, and third-order effects of these returnees, this is information we want to get out.

QUESTION: Did they ask for money or more support from the U.S.?

MS WELLS: No, I think they continue – I mean, they would like to continue to receive the kind of professional exchanges and dialogue and sort of networking that we're helping to provide.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, Kyra.

QUESTION: Yeah, just to follow up on that, I think that was the question we all were very interested in. And you talk about the lessons you're learning along the way. How risky is this? Do you see this as a risk? How are you handling that part of it? I mean, this is no easy situation.

MS WELLS: No, absolutely, it's not. And that's why, again, I think we have to step back and really appreciate what Kazakhstan has taken up. I mean, the allegiance that Kazakhstan has to its citizens and the obligation that Kazakhstan feels to settle this issue and to resolve the ideological threat potentially posed by its citizens is quite brave. We wish more of our partners and allies had the same stance towards bringing back their citizens from either Syria or Iraq.

So I think this is very much going to be a learn-as-you-go. Everybody wants to take a conservative posture. I think we can be grateful that Kazakhstan has the resources and the government structure and the commitment to methodically deal with this challenge. And so we benefit as much or more from what Kazakhstan has undertaken.

MS ORTAGUS: Matt, did you have a China question?

QUESTION: Yes. So everywhere the Secretary has been, and I presume you as well, have been a discussion about the perils and the dangers of Chinese investment, the structure of loans and that kind of thing. And I'm just wondering if here in Kazakhstan, given the proximity to China, if that isn't more of a – is it more of a problem or more of a danger? Or even if it isn't, what was your message to them?

MS WELLS: Right. This really came up in the context of our discussion of commercial issues writ large. I mean, we certainly believe that American companies have much to offer Kazakhstan and since Kazakhstan's very beginning have played an extraordinary role in the development of Kazakhstan's economy through the massive investments in the oil and gas sector.

And what we've learned from Chevron and Shell and ExxonMobil is that Western firms bring transparency, they bring development and technology transfer. Over 95 percent of workers in those categories are Kazakhstani. There's been a real commitment to lifting Kazakhstan's capabilities up through this investment process.

That can't be said of all foreign investors. Now, I think if you look at the region, Kazakhstan, because it has more resources, has been much more of a partner in the infrastructure projects that are being developed here. And we – the Secretary was briefed by the head of the Astana International Financial Center from the projects and the infrastructure programs that Kazakhstan is working sometimes in joint venture with the Chinese but often on their own. And unlike neighboring countries, I think China is the seventh largest foreign direct investor here. So the same kinds of issues that have emerged in neighboring countries have not been as prevalent in Kazakhstan, but certainly the lesson that we would want to emphasize is go with the investor that's committed to a partnership that benefits those people.

QUESTION: Did any of these – did anyone – oh, sorry. I was just following up.

QUESTION: I just – if you could characterize at all how the discussions went regarding the Uighur issues and re-education camps in China, if that came up. And obviously, that's an issue that affects Kazakhs as well, but how – what happened on this trip on that issue?

MS WELLS: Right. The Secretary had, I think, a very moving meeting with ethnic Kazakhs who either have family members who are – have been interned in China or who themselves have left China and have brought the stories with them. And it was devastating to hear the personal loss and the deprivation of liberty and the abuse of these individuals, quite moving. And the Secretary obviously discussed the dimensions of the challenge faced by China's internment of upwards of a million citizens.

I think what we've seen in Kazakhstan is we've been grateful for the fact that there are nongovernmental organizations operating here who have been able to help provide you, the international community, with facts about what's taking place next door. I know that Kazakhstan itself cares deeply about the status of ethnic Kazakhs and has its own program of providing visas and support for ethnic Kazakhs who make their way here.

But this is not a Kazakhstan problem; it's a global challenge that we face in really bringing to light this massive violation of human rights that we all have to call the Chinese on.

MS ORTAGUS: Anybody else? One?

QUESTION: Did any one of those issues dominate the conversations today? Was there something the Kazakhs really wanted to focus on? Was there something the U.S. really wanted to focus on?

MS WELLS: It was really broad ranging, everything from either visas to Afghanistan and in between, and it reflects what is a very mature partnership that we have with the Government of Kazakhstan. We have an Enhanced Strategic Partnership Dialogue which I think over the last year resulted – I think the foreign minister joked – in almost every cabinet member of Kazakhstan making their way to the United States on one kind of trip or factfinding mission or the other. And so we're very pleased to grow out this relationship. The Secretary will be meeting with both President Tokayev and First President Nazarbayev, and the sort of continuity and stability that we've seen in Kazakhstan's policies have really translated into a deepening and growing strategic relationship.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks, Alice.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

QUESTION: Thank you so much.

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