Russian President Dimitri Medvedev met his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao and the leaders of four ex-Soviet Central Asian nations on Wednesday in a bid to secure support for Russia in its standoff with the West over Georgia. Medvedev flew to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan for two days of consultations with his partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This group was formed as a reaction to NATO's growing influence in the region.
Critics fear the SCO is becoming a threat to Western-led security groupings
After the fall of the Soviet Union, China, Russia and the key central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan came together in 1996 to form a new regional grouping, which they called the “Shanghai Five”. The group’s original main focus was to discuss border security and military tension among members.
In 2001, the Shanghai Five expanded with the entry of new member Uzbekistan and changed its name to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO signed a declaration aiming to take regional co-operation to new heights and promote joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region.
In 2004, the SCO was given observer status at the UN General Assembly. Since then, Mongolia, India, Pakistan and Iran have attained observer status at the SCO and Afghanistan has become one of the organisation’s key "dialogue partners".
Over time, the group broadened its priorities. The fact that almost all of its member states were affected by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and that most of them are now facing the problems of rising Islamist insurgency, made it crucial that it concentrate more extensively on security-related issues such as combating terrorism.
The group also focuses on the region’s social development, and on tackling crime and drug trafficking, promoting trade and boosting economic cooperation.
The groups’ rising influence has prompted remarks from critics that it could emerge as counterweight to similar Western-led security organisations, especially NATO.
Alexander Rahr from the German Society for Foreign Policy in Berlin doubted that this would happen any time soon: “The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation could become a counterweight to NATO and to the West, but only in 10 or 15 years’ time.”
“However, it is really noticeable that Russia, China, India and Pakistan have been trying to co-operate with the Central Asian countries in this organisation on issues such as energy security, the fight against terrorism and in questions of economic development.”
Oil-rich member states
The organisation, which brings together major oil-rich countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan, is also keen on expanding energy ties among member states.
Iran, which currently is one of the observer countries, wants to play a more important role here -- Tehran has made an official request to become a full member of the organisation. But although Moscow and Beijing have opposed the harsh UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran, some experts say they are still wary of admitting Iran as a full member to the SCO.
“Russia and China know very well that Iran’s entry could antagonise their ties with the US because the US thinks that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, which could threaten Israel and has been mobilising other Western powers against Iran. So I don’t think that Iran really has a chance of becoming a full member of the group. Relations with the US are obviously very important strategically for China and Russia,” said Rahr.
Iran’s desire to become a member of the SCO has triggered alarm in Washington. Earlier this year, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher clearly said that although the SCO was not a military alliance like the Warsaw Pact if it were to move in that direction then the US would take action.