- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

The trade and investment framework agreement the United States signed recently with Central Asian countries was motivated just as much by U.S. counterterror priorities as commercial considerations. The agreement is welcome, if overdue.

The United States has long had geopolitical interests in Central Asia. The five Asian nations that signed the agreement — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — gained independence from the Soviet Union more than a decade ago. For about 10 years, therefore, the United States has had a vested interest in ushering these countries into the global free-market system. Some of these countries, particularly Kazakhstan, are rich in energy resources, and their development will help fulfill President Bush’s objective of diversifying global energy resources. The agreement is geared toward finding ways to expand trade and investment, and is broadly seen as a precursor to a formal trade agreement.

The agreement won’t lead to a trade bonanza. U.S. exports to the region totaled $548.1 million last year, while imports amounted to $570.5 million. Still, Central Asian countries are an important frontier in the counterterror effort. While Muslim militancy has taken root in parts of South and Southwest Asia, it has appeared only sporadically in Central Asia. Muslim fundamentalists are trying to make inroads into the region, so the international community must remain vigilant. Trade and development will be an important vehicle for delivering hope and opportunity to the people of Central Asia, and a bulwark against nihilistic fundamentalism.

In touting the agreement, known as a TIFA, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick signaled the broad U.S. interest in the region. “We look forward to working closely through the TIFA to further strengthen our bilateral economic relationships and our relationship with the region as a whole,” he said.

Central Asian countries generally have a ways to go toward improving their records on human rights and democratic freedoms. A final trade agreement could be offered as a carrot for making headway in these areas. Economic development and democratization are important building blocks for modernization and a barrier to the global terrorist threat.

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