Global Policy Forum

Shanghai Group Aims to Keep US in Check


By Sergei Blagov

Asia Times
June 19, 2004

While refraining from overt criticism of the United States, an emerging organization that embraces Russia, China, and Central Asian states has indicated its concern over American unilateralism in the region. When the presidents of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - a six-member group that comprises Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - met in Tashkent on Thursday, they pledged to address regional security concerns. The SCO also vowed to become a full-fledged international organization. In fact, its efforts can be seen as aimed at countering US clout in the region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret of the fact that Moscow has been keen to use a variety of groups to exert its influence across the region. "The voice of Russia will be heard here," Putin told reporters after the summit. To ensure its voice is heard, Moscow relies on economic incentives. Russia is to continue providing economic aid, including low cost energy supplies, to the former Soviet states, notably members of the SCO, Putin said in Tashkent.

Before the SCO summit, Putin and Uzbek President Islam Karimov signed a partnership agreement and a US$1 billion 35-year production-sharing agreement (PSA) to develop Uzbek natural gas deposits. Under the PSA, top Russian oil producer LUKoil is to develop the Kandym, Khauzak and Shady gas fields in the south of the country, which have 280 billion cubic meters of proven reserves. LUKoil will have a 90% share in the project, with Uzbekistan's Uzbekneftegaz holding the remaining 10%. Russia's natural gas monopoly Gazprom is also to invest $1 billion in Uzbekistan, Putin announced. Gazprom's investment will boost Russian involvement in Uzbekistan to $2.5 billion, Karimov said.

China came up with its own economic carrot . President Hu Jintao reportedly offered nearly $1 billion in credit to the SCO Central Asian states to boost economic cooperation.

The SCO leaders were joined by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai attended the talks as a guest, while the SCO granted Mongolia observer status. However, the SCO approved creation of the SCO-Afghanistan contact group. Putin said the SCO was open to other states, but it was too early to discuss Afghanistan's membership. "We are all interested in normalization in Afghanistan, but any state should fit certain parameters to become a member of the SCO," Putin said without elaborating further. "We should not rush with accepting new SCO members," Uzbek President Islam Karimov said, adding that he expressed Russia's and China's opinion as well.

It was not said in public, of course, but Russian commentators explained the SCO's reservations over Afghanistan's membership as being due to Karzai's largely pro-American stance. Russia's Kommersant daily commented that an ultimate goal of the "certain parameters" argument was to limit growing US influence in the region.

The presidents signed the Tashkent Declaration, which calls for enhanced cooperation with Asia-Pacific forums, as well as urging the creation of a "cooperative system of regional security" in the Asia-Pacific. In the declaration, the leaders also called for close cooperation with the United Nations, yet another implicit criticism of American unilateralism. The leaders also launched the SCO anti-terror center in Tashkent, a think tank and information exchange center for member states.

China has been seen as increasing its security ties in Central Asia through the SCO. Notably, China has committed itself for the first time to a regional collective security agreement. The SCO anti-terrorist rapid deployment forces could be used to help enforce border security along with other members of the Shanghai group. Nonetheless, the SCO still seeks to be a geopolitical player in Central Asian security developments, a trend also reflected in bilateral defense ties between Russia and China. Last December, Moscow and Beijing clinched a deal under which China would procure $2 billion worth of Russian military hardware and technologies in 2004.

When in June 2001 the informal Shanghai Five group of states became the SCO, member states envisioned the organization as a counterweight to growing US economic and political influence. In June 2002, the leaders of the five states plus Uzbekistan agreed to base the SCO secretariat in Beijing and to establish the joint anti-terrorism center. Russia and China have reluctantly tolerated the US strategic presence in Central Asia. They are concerned that permanent American bases in the region would be primarily designed to limit Beijing and Moscow's influence in Central Asia.

Meanwhile, the US has made moves toward establishing a long-term presence in Central Asia, in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. During a visit to Uzbekistan last February, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicated that the US wanted to establish operating facilities and not permanent bases. In pledging that a potential US presence does not mean a large-scale military deployment, US officials hope to limit Russian and Chinese opposition to these plans for Central Asia.

Moscow has been insisting that the US military presence in the region is temporary and should be ended after anti-terrorism action in Afghanistan. Russia would accept US bases in Central Asia no longer than the anti-terrorism operation in Afghanistan, Moscow has repeatedly reiterated. It is understood that Karimov has drifted towards Russia after being targeted by Western criticism over human rights violations. In the meantime, Russia has been keen to rely on any post-Soviet grouping in order to push its agenda in Central Eurasia. Last month, Russia moved to join a purely Central Asian grouping, the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Moreover, on June 18-19, two Russia-dominated post-Soviet groupings, the Eurasian Economic Commonwealth (EEC) and Collective Security Organization Treaty (CSTO), hold their summits in the Kazakhstan capital, Astana. The EEC summit is to discuss multilateral economic integration, while the CSTO is to address regional security concerns.

Russia's - and presumably China's - perceived strategic purpose remains to counterweigh American and Western influence in Central Eurasia. However, the SCO and other groupings are yet to prove their viability as vehicles to check US unilateralism in the region.

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