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Shanghai Cooperation Organization Holds Biggest War Games Ahead of Leaders Summit

Some 6,000 troops from China, Russia and four Central Asian states will hold their biggest-ever joint counterterrorism military exercise. Some analysts suggest the group, known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, is evolving into an anti-West defense alliance and Iran is looking to join. VOA's Heda Bayron, in our Asia News Center in Hong Kong, has more on the security implications.

At least 1,600 Chinese soldiers, 2,000 Russian military personnel and defense forces from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are part of this year's exercises called "Peace Mission 2007" taking place in the Russian Urals and in China's Xinjiang region.

The anti-terrorism exercises are the biggest ever by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization since it was formed in 2001 as a consultation group on border security issues. In the past six years, the SCO has branched out to included economic and defense relations among its members.

Some security and regional analysts suggest the SCO is evolving into more of a defense alliance aimed at countering U.S. global influence and military actions in its neighborhood, namely Afghanistan.

The first anti-Western indication came two years ago when the SCO called on the United States and its NATO allies to set a timetable for withdrawal of forces from Central Asia. The Uzbek government also evicted the U.S. military.

Analysts say Russia appears to be the driving force and is eager to steer the SCO toward a NATO-like defense alliance. This comes at a time when Moscow has deep differences with the Washington over the U.S. plan to deploy missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland.

In another sign of Russian influence, the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization of former Soviet republics are expected to sign a memorandum of understanding later this month to cooperate on security issues.

Russia is also pushing for membership for Iran - the Bush administration's chief nemesis on the world stage.

Iran has observer status in the SCO and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to again push for full membership during the SCO summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on August 16. If Iran becomes the seventh member, it would only strengthen the perception that is SCO is an anti-West grouping.

Despite these moves, the other big power broker in the group, China, may have other ideas. China has invested millions of dollars in trade, oil and gas, and infrastructure projects in Central Asian states in recent years and has an economic priority. Mark Katz, a politics professor at George Mason University in the United States, explains.

"It seems that the Chinese want to do more in the economic realm while the Russians seem to want to see it more as a security organization," he said. "It [Russia] seems to want to see themselves as a leader of it [the SCO] and I don't see the Chinese going along with that. I'm not certain that China is all that enthusiastic to have Iran join. Whereas the Russians seem to be very willing to see their relations with the U.S. deteriorate, the Chinese aren't. They want good relations with the SCO but they want good relations with the U.S. as well."

Security realities in the region may also halt the SCO's anti-U.S. drift.

The Taleban's resurgence in Afghanistan is worrying some SCO members, particularly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which share porous borders with Afghanistan.

Professor Iwashita Akihiro, an SCO expert at Hokkaido University in Japan, says some SCO members may be rethinking their opposition to U.S. military presence in the region.

"The Afghanistan situation is worsening and neighboring countries within the SCO feel again the strong threat from Islamic fundamentalists. It [SCO] might go forward a step to reconstruct relations with the United States and other Western countries," said Akihiro.

One thing that the SCO members seem to agree on is closer cooperation in the fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism.

China says it continues to face discontent and separatist threats from the Muslim Uighur people in Xinjiang autonomous region, while Russia is fighting separatist Chechen rebels. In 2005, at least 187 people were killed when Uzbek government forces fired at a crowd in Andijon, which the government described was an armed uprising by Islamic extremists.

So for now, these biggest ever anti-terrorism exercises serve all members interests - whether or not the SCO grows into a full-fledged defense alliance.