All sides must tread carefully in Central Asia
As it marks its fifth anniversary this week, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) is causing nothing short of a stir. Non-members are flirting with joining the six-nation grouping, while the west is clamouring to know what it is up to.
The attention that the seemingly unassuming body gets - its name sheds no light on its true nature - is entirely understandable. Officially billed as a trade and security forum, the SCO's members are China, Russia, and the four Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Together, they control the biggest land mass on Earth, from the eastern shores of Asia to Europe in the west.
China and Russia are powers in their own right. But it is how the four republics - and other nations in the region - play one power against another that is drawing the greatest attention. The four republics flank the western fringes of China and the southern edges of Russia, and form a gateway between two continents. For centuries they fell under the influence of either Russia or China, until Britain came into the picture in the 19th century. Britain's imperial ambitions led it to engage in a Great Game in competition with Russia to lay claim to the region.
Today, the big picture has not changed, except that the United States has replaced Britain as the 'outsider'. The countervailing power that America is able to offer against Russian and Chinese influence is one that the four republics happily exploit. Since they broke free from the former Soviet Union, they have brought in the world's biggest power to advise them on various matters, from democratic development to energy exploration. The American campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan gave them the excuse to station forces at air bases in Uzbekistan - which it has recently had to vacate - and Kyrgyzstan.
The establishment of the SCO was China's - and Russia's - attempt to assert their might over an area that falls within their traditional sphere of influence. Over the past five years, it has enhanced co-operation on anti-terrorism. The republics have agreed not to support the independence struggles of ethnic groups in China that have ancestral ties with them. However, there has been much less joint action on the energy front. Instead, the republics have been trying to get the best deals from the competing big powers and are more inclined to work with the west.
Still, the potential might of the group is causing unease in Washington and other western capitals. Two recent developments are particularly worrying. Pakistan enjoys observer status on the SCO, but President Pervez Musharraf is said to have offered China an 'energy corridor' to the Middle East in exchange for full membership. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, another observer, has volunteered to address the group's birthday party.
Beijing has since stated that it has no plan to enlarge the SCO's membership. It has also played down the Iranian president's presence. The statements can be interpreted as a clear signal to the US that China has no intention to compete for influence directly with the world's greatest power - at least not at this stage.
Pakistan has been a key ally of America in South Asia, but was upset by a recent decision by the US to provide nuclear technology to India, its traditional enemy. Iran is involved in a row with Washington over its alleged programme to produce weapons-grade uranium. SCO membership for Pakistan and closer ties with Iran now would be interpreted by Washington as unfriendly moves by Beijing, which would gain little from either development.
Given the SCO's geopolitical importance, its every move is bound to be closely watched by all those who feel they have a stake in Central Asia. Perhaps Washington can take comfort in the fact that it is still far better ensconced in the region than Beijing or Moscow. But it must appreciate that this is not a situation that pleases China or Russia.