Shanghai Cooperation Organization: a foundation for multilateral cooperation in Asia

Gathering in St. Petersburg on Friday, leaders of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will sign constituent documents of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The documents in question are yet to undergo some formalities, including ratification in national parliaments -- but nevertheless, the organization is already being viewed as a substantial reality on the world arena.

The same could be said about SCO's predecessor, the annual forum called the Shanghai Five, which gathered leaders of five countries /without Uzbekistan/, even though those were very simple meetings, which had no secretariat, no investment programs, nothing of what international organizations usually do.

The Five was respected as a giant -- an organization comprising five states that covered a huge territory between the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Ocean. And still, this geopolitical sandwich, in which Central Asia was placed between two giants /Russia and China/, was important, above all, as a regional organization focusing exclusively on Central Asia.

Moreover, the Five was born from one single complex problem -- borders and military matters. In fact, it was an answer to Islamic extremism and separatism, which imperiled /in the strategic vacuum that formed after the disintegration of the USSR/ China, Central Asia, and -- indirectly -- Russia. It was after a while that members of the Five came to a conclusion that pulling troops farther from borders and agreeing not to use the territory of one state to shelter an enemy of the other was not enough to solve the problem. What was needed was all-round development of the region, which consists, apart from populated areas, also the thinly populated or altogether uninhabited western outskirts of China, adjacent Central Asian territories, and neighbours with a difficult internal situation /Afghanistan, for instance/.

The idea to transform the Shanghai Five into a fully fledged organization comprising six states surfaced before the events of September 11th, before the war in Afghanistan, before the setting up of US military bases in Central Asia. It is quite a different matter that September 11th shook up members of the future SCO and forced them to reconsider the situation in the region, eventually leading them to an /unexpected/ conclusion that the SCO is more important and more topical today than it was before.

Probably the best example to illustrate this is Uzbekistan, practically a newcomer in the SCO. Don't forget this country joined the Five when the threat emanating from Afghanistan-based Taleban became too apparent and too dangerous for its own security. As soon as the Americans unleashed their war against Taleban, Tashkent's position in respect of its /seemingly settled/ membership in the SCO began to waver, demonstrating Central Asia's attitude to Russia and China. It was assumed that Tashkent believed all military and economic problems would be safely settled by the USA. Now however, Uzbeks have settled down to work on the key structures of the SCO, maybe a bit shy and hesitating in the diplomatic sense, but nevertheless inspired by their President Islam Karimov's words about his country having made a "conscious choice." Many think that the main advantage of the SCO is its unusually well-organized structure and the mechanisms of its future activity. There aren't that many interstate organizations in the world that annually gather presidents, premiers, foreign ministers, ministers of economy, defence, security, etc.... Although naturally, the highest level of cooperation was achieved in the security sphere. No wonder -- after all, this cooperation is several years old. In fact, the sides are so pleased with it that they don't think it necessary to have common above-national headquarters and international armed forces as in NATO. A coordinating center based in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek and other actions taken in the framework of the Shanghai Convention on Measures to Combat Separatism and Extremism so far are quite enough.

It is still unclear what will be done about economic interaction, the most promising aspect of future activity in the SCO. The first stage of this activity can so far be described with the phrase "energy, pipelines, management of nature, water resources." But there's nothing concrete about it right now, since SCO members are still collecting and processing information dealing with this particular sphere.

SCO members are yet to find the key projects that will be implemented in the framework of their organization. It is for this purpose that prime ministers of the six countries will gather for a meeting in September, 2002. The SCO will start creating a material basis for regional cooperation only after 2003.

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