More talk than action - so far

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 12:00am

A new anti-terrorism centre came into existence last week, in the Uzbeki capital of Tashkent. Called the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure, it was set up during a summit of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) - a regional security grouping that used the meeting to complete its new organisational structure.

The SCO was formed by China, Russia and four Central Asian countries, only months before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

President Hu Jintao, in a speech to mark the launching of the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure, called for efforts to tackle the problems of both regional confrontation and poverty, which he said were the roots of terrorism. 'Terrorism is not automatically related to certain ethnic groups or religions,' he said.

Uzbekistan was the last leg of the president's four-nation trip, which also took him to Poland, Romania and Hungary. The presidential travels vividly reflected the multifaceted nature of China's foreign policy. His visit to Eastern European countries sought to cement China's relations with three former Warsaw Pact members, which are now all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

In Uzbekistan, which together with China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan founded the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, Mr Hu signed 10 agreements with his counterpart, President Islam Karimov. These ranged from a declaration of friendship and co-operation to an agreement on technical and economic co-operation. They reflect the web of ties that China is weaving between itself and Uzbekistan and, indeed, virtually all of its neighbours.

It remains to be seen how effective an anti-terror organisation the SCO will turn out to be. David Lewis, director of the Central Asia project for the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict-prevention organisation, said the six countries will need to do more than just pledge to work together.

'I think as a narrow security bloc it is only ever going to be of minimal effectiveness, particularly as many of the problems of terrorism in the region have really much broader causes than simply militant Islamic ideology,' he said.

Beijing is apparently aware of the need to widen the scope of SCO's activities. In his speech, Mr Hu emphasised the importance of expanding economic relations among members. As if to illustrate what he meant, during his visit China and Uzbekistan signed an oil exploration agreement to develop a closer partnership on surveying and drilling for oil and gas. China is a major oil importer and is seeking to diversify its sources of oil rather than rely on the politically unstable Middle East.

The Tashkent summit marks the end of the first stage of the development of the SCO. Now that the structures are in place, with a secretariat in Beijing and an anti-terrorism centre in Tashkent, it is time for the group to translate talk into action. The organisation clearly feels the need to consolidate before expanding.

The SCO made it clear that it was not going to consider expansion for the time being. So far, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan have expressed interest in joining. The SCO also suggested co-operation with regional organisations.

The SCO members issued a statement saying they 'are inviting the international organisations and forums in the Asian-Pacific to gradually set up a partnership network of multilateral associations by concluding relevant agreements between them, including the granting of observer status to each other on a mutual basis'.

Many believe the SCO has a hidden agenda: to keep American influence out of Central Asia. It now remains to be seen how effective SCO proves itself as an organisation that will co-operate with the US and other countries in the war on terror.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator