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Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit prepares to open in Bishkek

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Joshua Kucera
Publication Date 15 August 2007
Cite as EurasiaNet, Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit prepares to open in Bishkek, 15 August 2007, available at: [accessed 16 December 2017]
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Joshua Kucera 8/15/07

Leaders of Central and South Asian nations are arriving in Bishkek to attend the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The fact that the presidents of all six member states are scheduled to attend is just one of several indicators of the organization's rising regional importance.

As the hosts wrapped up final preparations, an element of uncertainty has surrounded this year's summit. There have been hints that the meeting could make a splash by announcing an accession blueprint for potential new members, such as Iran and Turkmenistan. Or the summiteers could announce the creation of a natural gas cartel. Another possibility is an agreement on counter-terrorism information security.

Some analysts believe that such ambitious projects may be foiled by the conflicting interests of SCO member states, in particular the two largest, Russia and China. The only thing that seems certain so far is that the summit will issue an "agreement on long-term friendly neighbor relations," in the words of Kyrgyzstan's foreign minister, Ednan Karabayev.

"There is talk that Russia would really like to make a significant geo-political statement through this summit, but it is questionable whether the members can agree on such an issue in order to provide a joint statement," said Sean Roberts, Central Asia Fellow at Georgetown University. "It's more likely that the summit will issue some vague statements about the need for the international community to respect the sovereignty of states and to prevent intervention in the internal affairs of the region."

The presidents of the six SCO member countries – Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – all are attending. In addition, the presidents of Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Mongolia are scheduled to participate, along with the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan.

Iran, Turkmenistan, India, Pakistan and Mongolia all have expressed interest in becoming full members of the SCO. But officials from China and Russia have said that new members will not be admitted at this summit, saying that the mechanism for adding new members has not yet been worked out. Adding more members may also dilute the organization's anti-US orientation, as none of the aspirants – with the notable exception of Iran – share China and Russia's determination to limit US involvement in Central Asia.

Beijing and Moscow at present likely see Iranian membership as problematic. The chief concerns of Chinese and Russian leaders are that extending membership to Iran would be interpreted as an endorsement of Iran's nuclear program. Beijing and Moscow also worry about entanglement in a possible US-Iranian confrontation, as Tehran, if it were an SCO member, could invoke a mutual defense clause in the event of a potential US attack on Iranian territory. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The participation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov are attracting the most attention. For Berdimuhammedov, his presence in Bishkek is another sign of his increasingly active foreign policy, notwithstanding his stated desire to continue his predecessor's policy of neutrality.

"I'm sure that Berdimuhammedov would very much like to be included in the SCO 'club' – it would be a sign that Turkmenistan is being integrated into regional decision making more explicitly," Roberts said. "Since the SCO isn't technically a military alliance, it would likely not be seen as taking a 'non-neutral' stance."

Ahmadinejad is thought to be generally interested in the SCO's efforts to check US influence in Central Asia. In particular, the Iranian leader is expected to seek assurances from the summit host, Kyrgyzstan, that an American air base outside of Bishkek would not be used for any potential US attack on Iran. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Two years ago the SCO summit in Astana produced a document demanding that Washington set a timetable for the withdrawal of its military personnel based in Central Asia, the most audacious challenge that presence has yet received. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Now that the summit is taking place in Bishkek, just a few miles from the United States' only remaining base in an SCO country, it is focusing attention again on the base.

Karabayev, the Kyrgyz foreign minister, has already tried downplayed speculation about the possible use of the US facility at Manas in a hypothetical strike against Iran. He insisted that the lease terms call for the base to be used only in support of ongoing military actions in Afghanistan. "According to the agreement [between the United States and Kyrgyzstan], the base can not be used for any [unrelated] military operations," he said in an interview earlier this month on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The summit takes place on the day that large-scale military exercises under the auspices of the SCO conclude. The exercises, including 6,500 troops mainly from Russia and China but also including units from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan began in the Chinese region of Xinjiang and then moved to Chelyabinsk, in the Russian Urals.

The prospect of real military operations conducted jointly by Russia and China still appears remote, and many question the viability of a long-term military alliance between the two countries, regardless of their temporary shared interest in stemming Islamist activity and US influence in Central Asia.

"Over the long term, China is poised for strategic competition with Russia – the traditional overlord, which resents US and Chinese presence in its old 'backyard' of Central Asia – once Islamist terrorism subsides," said Russell Ong, a China security expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

"In many ways, for the Russians [the SCO] is seen as a counterbalance to the OSCE, especially given the obvious similarities in the names of the two organizations," Roberts said. "The problem is that the SCO has different meaning for each of its members, and it is this fact that makes it unlikely to serve a concrete role in international relations.... In particular, it's naïve to think that the SCO demonstrates a united military position between Russia and China, which, in essence, are distrustful of each other."

Editor's Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Posted August 15, 2007 © Eurasianet

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