Tuesday, September 15, 2009

U.S. Warily Eyes Agenda Of Shanghai Organization


U.S. Warily Eyes Agenda Of Shanghai Organization

By Wendell Minnick, Taipei, and Gopal Ratnam, Washington

When representatives of China, India, Russia, Iran and eight other Asian and Pacific Rim countries meet in Shanghai June 15, U.S. officials will be watching closely.

They want to know whether the five-year-old Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), now a six-member group with five observer countries, will become a threat along the lines of the Warsaw Pact or Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Their suspicion is that the group will become a focal point of efforts to control the oil reserves of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.

The group grew out of the Shanghai Five, which was established in 1996 to resolve border disputes among Russia, China and three new countries that emerged from the shattered remains of the Soviet Union. The SCO itself was established in June 2001 to address larger security issues; members included China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan joined later, and in 2004 and 2005, observer status was granted to India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan.

The organization is headquartered in Beijing; its chairmanship rotates.

On the Agenda

Iran’s petition to become a full member will likely top the agenda at the SCO’s fifth annual summit, regional analysts said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly plans to attend the summit. He may get support from China, whose ties to Iran have steadily grown. Beijing has sent missile technology, advanced arms and $100 billion for Iranian energy production; Iran is China’s third-largest supplier of oil.

One analyst said the decision would likely be dictated by China and Russia, but that any move to grant membership would likely have to include India, Pakistan and Mongolia. Christopher Brown, director of the Menges Hemispheric Security Program at the Center for Security Policy, Washington, also said it was likely that Belarus would be given observer status.

Another analyst, Ivan Safran-chuk of the Moscow office of the U.S.-based Center for Defense Information, predicted that Iran would not likely get full membership status, although its ties as an observer would keep members from voicing anti-Iranian positions.

Washington is exerting no pressure to deny Iran full membership, a U.S. State Department official said. But he cautioned that “Iran is causing a great deal of trouble in the world and people should not go out of their way to offer them another platform to express their views.”

U.S. officials are seeking the support of China and Russia in its attempt to persuade the U.N. Security Council to levy sanctions on Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

The issue of U.S. troops in Central Asia may also come up. Last July, the SCO called on its Central Asian members to eject U.S. troops from their countries, a move met in Washington with “concern,” said a State Department official.

Now Kyrgyzstan is upping the annual usage fees it charges the Pentagon to use its Manas airbase at the Bishkek International Airport from $2.7 million to $200 million. Failure to pay could lead to eviction, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev has said. The State Department official said U.S. officials soon would be discussing it with their Kyrgyz counterparts.

Meanwhile, Russia set up a base in Kyrgyzstan at Kant, only 30 kilometers from the Manas base. Moscow pays no rent, thanks to a regional collective security pact.

In 2005, Uzbekistan evicted U.S. forces from the Karashi-Khanabad air base, known as “K-2,” after Washington called for an investigation into a May 12 crackdown that left hundreds of protesters dead in Andijan. If Washington were forced out of Manas, it would be left only with bases in faraway South Korea and Turkey to support its forces in Afghanistan.

Assessing SCO

U.S. officials are uncomfortable with the SCO’s maneuverings.

The SCO “is trying to ask us to leave the area in a hurry,” said Peter Rodman, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. The SCO’s agenda will be part of the discussions when Rodman, Robert Zoellick, deputy secretary of state, and other senior Bush administration officials visit Bejing in the coming months, he told reporters.

The Center for Security Policy’s Brown calls SCO “a dangerous organization” that “most Americans have never heard of.

“On the military side, something that is often overlooked is that, with the observer states, the SCO currently enjoys a larger advantage over NATO in terms of number of military personnel that the Warsaw Pact ever did,” said Brown.

But not everyone sees the group as a threat.

“SCO is not looking at NATO as a model. SCO is more global and universal,” CDI’s Safranchuk said.

The SCO does not have a mutual-defense provision, though its members often come together for military exercises.

He said that although China was attempting to move the group to tackle economic issues, not all the members are happy with that.

“It is worth keeping in mind that China is lobbying an economic agenda for SCO, while originally it was created as security body and most of the work is still security-related. Chinese economic interest in SCO makes some countries like Kazakhstan concerned,” he said.

Kazakhstan, therefore, looks to the NATO-style Collective Security Treaty Organization — a Russian-led mutual-defense group that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — as a counterbalance to the China-led SCO, he said.

Dartmouth College professor William Wohlforth called talk of the SCO’s threat “hyperbole.”

“SCO is small and does not have a lot of resources; it is mainly about enhancing regional security and anti-terrorism — goals the U.S. shares. To be sure, it’s partly a tool of states that want to see a lower U.S. profile in the region. But thus far, its efforts in that regard do not appear to have been a high priority or particularly effective.” •