Thursday, June 15, 2006

Shanghai Surprise

The Wall Street Journal:
For troubling double-speak from autocratic nuclear powers, look no further than today's Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Shanghai. There, the heads of China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran, among others, will discuss the SCO's "peaceful development." Given the group's aggressive anti-American bent and growing political clout, that's cause for concern. READ MORE

Until recently, the SCO elicited predictable yawns from most Western capitals, and for good reason. Launched in 1996 as the "Shanghai Five" -- China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan -- the group worried mostly about resolving border disputes and keeping an eye on minority ethnic groups like China's long-suppressed Uighurs.

But it quickly evolved. Three years on, the five extended their mandate to include fighting terrorism and other cross-border menaces. That had merit. Central Asia is peppered with nasty outfits, like Nepal's Maoist insurgency, which literally bleed across borders. In 2001, the group renamed itself and expanded to include Uzbekistan, which was struggling at the time with a domestic, al Qaeda-linked, radical Islamic movement.

Last year's meetings hinted at a different mission. "Peace Mission 2005," a massive military exercise funded mostly by China, showcased the SCO's nascent military muscle. Then, the summit participants inked a resolution calling for the U.S. to quit military bases in Uzbekistan, which it eventually did. That success may embolden the SCO -- particularly with presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this year -- to press for a more lenient treatment of Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Beijing denies that the SCO has aspirations to be an Eastern version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Even if that were the goal, it would take years for the SCO's signatories to develop common procedures and interoperable technologies. But given the amount of weaponry that they sell to one another, that's feasible, given time. Allowing the U.S. to observe its exercises might ease some of those fears.

It's the SCO's growing political weight that currently worries us. The grouping clearly has grand pretensions. Russian President Vladimir Putin dubbed it an "influential regional organization" in an article this week. The United Nations inaugurated an SCO secretariat in 2004, and SCO representatives have reached out to the OSCE and the Association of Southeast Asian nations.

The SCO is eyeing an expansion past its clubby authoritarian roots, too. This year, it extended "observer" status to democracies like India and Afghanistan, the leaders of which are attending today's meetings. For Mongolia, a democratic nation physically squeezed between Russia and China, keeping a close eye on the SCO is probably a good idea. But beyond energy interests -- which admittedly are large -- it's hard to see why New Delhi or Kabul would itch for closer political ties to the SCO, a grouping that, for instance, Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is itching to join. That's one more point for the U.S. Congress to examine as it considers the recently negotiated U.S.-India nuclear deal.

Today's summit represents another example of China quietly extending its influence into parts of the world that Western, free nations have ignored. Beijing has invested heavily in transport links to its Central Asian neighbors over the past decade, for instance, and trade -- and political goodwill -- has spiked accordingly. "Uzbekistan sees China as a reliable and magnificent neighbor and partner," Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov quipped yesterday. Russo-Sino relations may not be as close, but it's convenient, for now, to cooperate within the SCO to reduce American influence in Central Asia.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remarked that it's "passing strange that one would want to bring into an organization that says it is against terrorism one of the leading terrorist nations in the world: Iran." For an organization that says it wants to play a useful regional role in combatting terrorism, inviting a terrorist state to join suggests that it has other goals in mind.