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Shanghai Cooperation Organization Flexes Political Muscle

A regional group bringing together China, Russia and several central Asian countries has called for the withdrawal of American troops from bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the group known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a relatively new regional entity.

It started in 1996, and was first known as the Shanghai Five, bringing together Russia, China and three central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Those three countries share borders with either Russia or China - or both.

Martha Brill Olcott is central Asian expert with the Washington D.C.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She says, originally, the organization was formed to try to resolve disputed border issues between member nations.

"Once it got through that first threshold, the member states decided that they saw a need for an organization that had a broader economic and security mandate, something that would, in theory, at least, mirror the kinds of functions that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe takes for itself," she says. "It has yet to evolve into something that institutionalized, to be sure. But once it set this broader mission for itself, it was possible for other states to join, and to accept the invitation to join, because, now, it was no longer just border states. It was at that point that Uzbekistan was approached and accepted membership."

Once Uzbekistan joined, in June 2001, the group became known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Analysts say it is intriguing to have a regional entity that has Russia and China involved.

"Central Asia has historically been part of Russia's back yard, or what the Russians sometimes refer to as the near abroad," says Philip Saunders, senior research fellow at the National Defense University. "And, of course, during the Soviet Union days, it was formally part of the Soviet Union. Once that broke up in 1991, the countries that had been Soviet republics became independent countries. So, it's an area where Russia has always taken a parochial interest, and regarded it as part of its back yard, and been jealous of any foreign involvement or foreign interest there. Then, for China, once the Soviet Union broke up, they became very actively involved in the region, with one of the initial reasons being that they wanted to secure diplomatic recognition of all the states, in order not to provide an opportunity for Taiwan to establish diplomatic relations."

Many analysts see China as the driving force behind the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO. They say Beijing sees the group as a means of expanding its influence in the region. One of those experts is Filip Noubell, with the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He is based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital.

It's a sort of new institution, a new entity which is strongly led by China," he says. "And, that is the most interesting part, because China used to consider central Asia still as a former Soviet area, and was quite little informed about the reality of all the central Asian states that are actually very different. China does share borders with three of them: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It does not have geographic borders with Uzbekistan, but China is very interested in some of the natural resources that are in central Asia, mostly oil and gas, obviously, because of its booming economy. So, Beijing is finally acknowledging that this region is key, is central for its foreign policy, for its economic policy, and, not only because of its natural resources, but also because of the sort of reshaping of the entire region."

Analysts say, since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has been involved in central Asia, supporting new governments there, even though many of them are authoritarian. Washington is also interested in getting U.S. companies' access to the energy resources in the region.

Philip Saunders, with the National Defense University, says, following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States, the U.S. presence changed dramatically, with American forces stationed at two bases - one in Kyrgyzstan and the other in Uzbekistan. They are there to support the U.S. war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

"So, that's the new dimension in the region, and it's one that has made both China and Russia nervous, to have U.S. military forces operating in central Asia - for Russia, in states that used to be part of the Soviet Union, for China, in states that share a common border," he said. "And then, you add one other new element, which is the wave of democratization, or at least political change, taking place in central Asia, in Georgia, in Ukraine, where you have had authoritarian governments being overthrown by popular movements, although it's fair to say that doesn't always mean being replaced by real democratic leaders. But that's another new dimension, and for China and Russia, for different reasons, that's one that is seen as potentially dangerous."

During their recent summit meeting, countries from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization warned against outside meddling, calling for non-interference in internal affairs, a veiled criticism of the United States. They also called for the United States to set a deadline for the pullout of American forces from central Asian bases.

Analysts say this represents a new development for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as it begins to exert political muscle on the international stage. They say the group has certainly grown in stature from its initial days of dealing solely with border issues.