By Howard W. French – Copyright The New York Times
Published: June 15, 2006
SHANGHAI Five years after its founding as an obscure regional organization with a nondescript name, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization opened its annual gathering Thursday in the city it was named after amid a flush of interest from outsiders eager to join.
As much as a sign of its own success, the growing interest in the six-member organization that groups China, Russia and four of their Central Asian neighbors – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – reflects the growing power and assertiveness of its two largest members.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia created a splash after the meeting’s opening sessions, saying that Iran had agreed to a proposal by the organization to enter into talks to settle the dispute over its suspected nuclear weapons development program. “The Iranian side responded positively to the six-nation proposal for a way out of the crisis,” Putin said after meeting with Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
No details of the agreement were made public, nor was any date for negotiations announced. If they result in negotiations to forswear the development of nuclear weapons, bringing Iran to the table would represent a major coup for the fledgling organization.
The group’s rise has also been strongly boosted by booming global energy markets. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization unites one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing energy consumers, China, with several of the largest producers, and the politics of the global energy market have proved a powerful draw to many nonmembers, from Iran to India and Pakistan, which are attending the meeting as observer nations.
Other countries that are attending in that capacity, or have reportedly expressed interest in the organization, range from Mongolia and Afghanistan to New Zealand.
With oil prices near historic highs, competition over supplies escalating, and rivalries over planned pipelines toward major markets in Europe and the Far East intensifying, the United States, Europe, Russia and China are all stepping up their diplomatic courtship of big producers in Central Asia. Regional analysts say the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is emerging as yet another player in a crowded web of diplomatic and military ties. For many in the region, particularly the smaller nations, this jockeying promises benefits of all sorts, whether measured in aid, security guarantees or energy investments.
The attendance of Iran, which is locked in a diplomatic confrontation with the United States and other Western nations over its nuclear program, highlights a dilemma of the organization, whose fast rise could put it on a collision course with Washington.
Countering the United States’ influence in Central Asia is an essential, if undeclared, objective of Beijing and Moscow, but China in particular seems loath to make frontal diplomatic and strategic challenges to Washington at a time when Beijing prefers to focus on building its economy and, as a consequence, it strength. Chinese officials stated as much several days before the summit began, when the organization’s secretary general, Zhang Deguang, declared that the body had no ambitions to become a military bloc, or to become an eastern version of NATO.
With Iran pressing for membership, Chinese officials and those of other nations have also made it clear that they are not ready to consider expanding the organization, although a “contact group” has been formed to explore observer status for Afghanistan, whose president, Hamid Karzai, was expected to attend the meetings as a special guest.
“This is a time of challenge and opportunity for China,” said Shen Dingli, a foreign relations expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, referring to Iran’s presence at the meeting. “The challenge is that you may not feel happy. The opportunity is that China has good reason to handle its own diplomacy, to advance its bilateral relations, and to shape Iran-China ties in a more mature direction. You encourage them to be more responsible, and if China can do this and produce a good outcome, this will advance China’s image as a responsible stakeholder.”
Shen said he expected that the summit would concentrate on issues that hark back to the organization’s origins, including the development of new energy projects and new anti-terrorism measures, including the drawing up of a list of specific groups to target.
Some close overseas observers of the organization said that for all of the interest it has generated recently, its list of achievements remained short.
“This is a very small group, whose operating budget is less than $30 million, and whose staff numbers just a few dozen people,” said Alexandre Mansourov, an expert in Asian affairs at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. “There is a lot of spin surrounding it, but it’s still in its infancy, and its importance really pales compared to what’s happening in bilateral terms between China and Russia, the two big players. If anything, they are doing this to irritate us.”
In addition to Iran, Pakistan, an ally of the United States whose ties with China are strengthening, has reportedly bid to join the organization, proposing the construction of an “energy corridor” across its territory to link East Asia with the Middle East.
“If the organization expands in the future, it is more likely to consider geographical factors first,” said Zhao Huasheng, director of the Center for Russian and Central Asia Studies at Fudan University. “Neighboring countries, like Mongolia, are more likely to join. Distant countries are less likely, because their concerns are different and cooperation with them would be more complicated.”
By Howard W. French – Copyright The New York Times