Safety in numbers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 July, 2007, 12:00am

As China and Russia seek to cement their strategic partnership and create a multipolar world in which the United States will find it much more difficult to dominate international affairs, it is tempting to see the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) as an expanding bulwark against western influence in Eurasia.

Founded in Shanghai in 2001, the regional group has six full members: China, Russia, and four former Soviet republics in Central Asia - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The SCO will hold its annual summit next month, and other neighbouring states are flocking to associate themselves with the group at the highest possible level.

Among them is Iran, which is seeking protection and allies in its battle to fend off pressure from the US, Europe and other countries that suspect it is secretly trying to develop atomic weapons in the guise of a peaceful nuclear programme. Iran is already an observer member of the SCO and its hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is scheduled to attend the August 16 summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, as a distinguished guest. This is intensifying speculation that Tehran may join the group as a full member.

When the US asked, several years ago, to send observers to SCO summits, its request was refused. Then Iran, along with India, Pakistan and Mongolia, were admitted as observer members. At their 2005 summit, the SCO leaders called on the US and its Nato partners, which had been given military facilities in Central Asia after al-Qaeda's attacks on America on September 11, 2001, to set a timetable for withdrawal. At about the same time, Uzbekistan expelled US forces stationed on its territory.

It seemed that a co-ordinated attempt was under way to exclude the US and its western partners from Central Asia. But since then, there have been other developments that suggest the SCO should not be seen as an anti-western alliance. For a start, if it does take in new full members, they could include - in addition to Iran - Mongolia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, all of which have close ties with the US.

Meanwhile, Russia's relations with Iran have gone sharply downhill over the nuclear issue and the related problem of Iran's potential ballistic missile threat to Europe and the US.

The Chinese and Russian defence ministers insisted at a preparatory meeting in Bishkek last month that the SCO was a counterterrorism group, not one directed against any third country. As if to emphasise that point, the SCO nations will hold their biggest combined military operation yet, from August 9 - 17. Chinese media says that the exercise, involving several thousand personnel, is designed to crack down on terrorism, separatism and extremism, and to maintain regional peace and security.

Michael Richardson is a security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment