"OPEC WITH NUCLEAR WEAPONS"
IRAN, RUSSIA AND CHINA ALLIANCE STRIKES FEAR INTO THE US & EU
For the first five years of its existence, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation was thought of as little more than a talking shop for central Asian leaders.
Yet since the annual summit in Shanghai last week of the six-nation group – its members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – diplomats have been trying to decide if the organisation is now becoming an important political entity.
This is partly down to Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the controversial Iranian president, who visited the Shanghai summit as an observer and talked of his desire for Iran to enter the SCO. His presence prompted speculation that the SCO could provide a diplomatic lifeline to Iran and hamper efforts to persuade Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment programme.
But as high oil prices have intensified the jostling for political power in central Asia, the questions raised by the SCO summit go much deeper. The group appears to underline China’s ever-expanding influence in the region and is taking a more confrontational attitude to the US. Critics in the US have tagged it with labels such as “Oriental Nato” and “Opec with nuclear weapons”.
“The SCO is emerging as a focus of global power which is competing with the US,” says Ariel Cohen, a Russia and Eurasia specialist at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think-tank in the US.
“Its agenda, especially after Ahmadi-Nejad’s performance, is clear: to dictate to the US how things are done, and at what pace.”
The SCO has its roots in a group called the Shanghai Five set up in 1996 to analyse territorial disputes in central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It evolved into the SCO in 2001 with a focus on security and economic co-operation.
Diplomats say the SCO is beginning to establish an identity for itself, partly based on opposition to the US making greater inroads into the region.
Motivated by what regional leaders saw as US involvement in the wave of popular unrest in former Soviet republics in 2005, the group first began to flex its muscles last year when it called on the US to set a date for closing its military bases in central Asia. Uzbekistan later asked the US to leave, while Kyrgyzstan has threatened to evict the US from its last military base in the region unless it increases the rent it pays on aircraft landing and refuelling 100-fold.
At the summit last week the six countries focused on Afghanistan, promising to combine forces to tackle the heroin trade and the deteriorating security position, in what some analysts said was a challenge to the US. Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov criticised the “low effectiveness” of the international coalition forces in Afghanistan and complained that they had not curbed drug smuggling.
“Terrorism and extremism are key factors in the region,” says Hu Jian, deputy director of the SCO Research Centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS). “And Afghanistan has been a cradle for terrorism and extremism since the US invasion.”
The SCO is also becoming an ambassador for the Chinese approach to international affairs, which involves a strict policy of non-interference in other countries and eschews comparisons of human rights situations. The summit’s final declaration included favoured Chinese formulations such as opposition to “exporting models of social development” and an emphasis on combating not just terrorism and extremism but also “separatism” – a term China usually uses to refer to pro-independence politicians in Taiwan but which is also directed at some members of Muslim minorities in western China.
For all the bluster at the summit, Professor Hu at SASS insists the SCO is not opposed to the US – China favours “multiple layers of co-operation”, he says – while Mr Cohen points out that China is much less keen on stoking anti-Americanism than some other countries are, in part because of the strong trading links.
Washington, he says, should respond to the SCO’s rise by strengthening ties with more friendly nations in the region, such as Kazakhstan.
Despite the surge of interest in the group, however, some analysts believe the influence of the SCO is being greatly overestimated.
Kirill Nourzhanov, an expert on central Asia at the Australian National University, said the organisation had so far proved to be little more than a photo opportunity for high ranking leaders. It has only a very small secretariat with no real working bodies, “no common economic space” and very little military co-operation, he says.
In Moscow, he adds, the SCO is considered a relatively unimportant channel for diplomacy in the region.
“They just get together now and again and make it known that they don’t like the US, and that’s about where it stops,” he says. “The image of a mighty and organically anti-western military alliance is misleading.”