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SCO opens with great political and economic fanfare

Updated On: Jun 16, 2006

In stark contrast to China’s low key presence at the Shangri-La Dialogue last month, the fifth annual Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit opened with great fanfare in Shanghai on June 15.

International spotlight and particularly, the US’ chagrin is on the participation of Iran and the presence of its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

100,000 lamps illuminated the city with 60,000 security staff manning the streets, as 796 reporters representing 128 media organizations from 27 countries and regions scurried around to cover the event that witnessed around US$2 billion worth of economic transactions on the sidelines. An entrepreneurs’ council was formally established as well with some 500 business people, government officials and scholars in attendance, including international organisation representatives from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The deals (‘big presents’), according to Xinhua News (June 13), will involve a highway project connecting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two high-voltage electricity lines in Tajikistan, a cement plant in Kyrgyzstan with a daily production of 2,500 tons, and a hydropower station in Kazakhstan. Inter-SCO member investment has thus far reached US$15 billion, covering the various sectors of oil and gas exploration, transportation, telecommunication, electricity, chemical industry, construction material, project contract and agriculture.

The founding impetus of the SCO came from the basis of strengthening trust and disarmament in border regions of China with RussiaKazakhstanKyrgyzstan andTajikistan - the "Shanghai Five" mechanism. On June 15, 2001, the first SCO summit witnessed the inclusion of Uzbekistan and the produced the Shanghai Convention on crackdown on the "three evil forces", terrorism, separatism and extremism.

The SCO regional grouping covers an area of over 30 million square kilometres, or about three fifths of Eurasia and the combined population of the member states amounts to 1.489 billion, accounting for about a quarter of the world's total. The regional organisation has observer status in the UN General Assembly, and has recently earned accolades from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for its growing influence and role in addressing issues of peace and security in Eurasia (through a model for equal partnership to promote political and economic stability).

During the summit, the SCO member states issued a joint communiqué to declare that the fight against the "three evil forces" remains a top priority, and to pledge closer cooperation on the world stage. Chinese President Hu Jintao also proposed the formation of a convention featuring “lasting good neighborhood relations and cooperation”, in line with one of the founding principles of the SCO, “the Shanghai Spirit”, that is characterised by the discourses of mutual trust, openness and transparency, non-coercion and consensus (Xinhua, June 15).

Yet recent moves by the SCO – with superpower members China and Russia at the frontlines – may reveal a different pulse guiding the organisation’s alternate modus operandi to counterbalance US dominance in the region.

The SCO has agreed to hold joint anti-terrorism exercises next year which will involve all six SCO member countries for the first time. In 2004 and 2005 alone, the SCO accepted MongoliaIndiaPakistan and Iran as observers. The most controversial SCO invitation is without doubt, Iran, over the UN Security Council’s ongoing deliberations over its nuclear programme. Elsewhere, the SCO’s anti-US agenda is strong, when it passed a resolution demanding US withdrawal from the air force base in Karshi KhanabadUzbekistan last year. This year saw Russia applying pressure on the remaining major US air base in the region in Kyrgyzstan.

Amid growing wariness from Washington, SCO member states have attempted to debunk the notion that SCO is a military-political bloc. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev remarked in an interview with the Noviye Izvestia daily that, “the SCO is a versatile organization and the development of cooperation between its defense ministries is no more than one aspect of its activity”. Chinese Assistant Minister of the Foreign Affairs, Li Hui, also defended that military ties among member states are not designed for intimidation of targeted nations, but are aimed at safeguarding regional stability.

Some analysts believe a tripartite alliance between Moscow, Beijing and Teheran via the SCO platform may be in the mix, over nuclear reactor, oil and gas, and weapons deals, while others dismiss the organization as “not particularly effective” as the SCO “lacks integration and has many weaknesses”.  What is clear, however, is that the US will be following its development very closely.

Sources:

SCO "does not target any country": Chinese official (China Daily, 13 June 2006)

Annan hails growing regional role of SCO (Xinhua, 13 June 2006)

Facts and figures about upcoming SCO summit (Xinhua, 13 June 2006)

SCO members to sign 2 bln USD worth deals during summit (Xinhua, 13 June 2006)

SCO stands on solid footing: Russian deputy FM (Xinhua, 14 June 2006)

SCO capable of solving problems independently: Russian official (Xinhua, 14 June 2006)

Putin hails SCO as new mode of int'l co-op (Xinhua, 14 June 2006)

Hu Jintao proposes lasting good neighborhood convention within SCO (Xinhua, 15 June 2006)

Presidents of SCO members meet for Shanghai summit (Xinhua, 15 June 2006)

Anti-terrorism should not allow double standards: official (Xinhua, 15 June 2006)

Chronology of SCO summits (Xinhua, 15 June 2006)

SCO, young regional group with vitality (Xinhua, 15 June 2006)

SCO members issue joint communiqué (Xinhua, 15 June 2006)

US casts wary eye on Central Asian summit (The Straits Times, 15 June 2006)

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: How the US can crash a cosy club (The Straits Times [Review], 15 June 2006)