Only days before the Putin-Bush meeting in Ljubljana, an even more significant meeting took place in Shanghai between Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, within the framework of the mechanism known until recently as the "Shanghai Five" or "Shanghai Forum". At the Shanghai meeting, Uzbekistan was welcomed as the institution's sixth full member. Documents were adopted bearing the titles, "Declaration of the Establishment of the 'Shanghai Cooperation Organization'" and the "Shanghai Covenant on the Suppression of Terrorism, Separatism and [Religious] Extremism". The name-change signals a move to establish a formal structure with a permanent secretariat in Shanghai, and to promote multilateral interministerial cooperation across a wide range of issue areas. It also signals, if one takes Beijing at its word, the incipient coalescence of a Sino-Russocentric geopolitical bloc in Asia. China's vision for such a bloc is to countervail any strategic vision that puts the United States at the forefront of twenty-first century global politics.
The Shanghai Five grouping was originally set up in 1996 in order to delimit and demilitarize the border between China and CIS countries (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan). Its main fundamental documents were the 1996 Agreement on Confidence-Building in the Military Sphere in the Border Areas, and the 1997 Agreement on Mutual Reduction of Military Forces in Border Areas. However, as the eruption of Islamic militancy in the region altered the participating countries' threat perceptions, the focus of cooperation has shifted to assuring political stability. Annual summits were initiated as from 1998. At the August 1999 summit in Bishkek, an agreement on combating terrorism was reached. Kyrgyzstan approved the setting-up of an "anti-terrorist center" in Bishkek itself, but this has not yet happened. At last year's meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the participating countries' defense ministers agreed to carry out joint military exercises and discuss improvements to the 1996 and 1997 agreements. It was also decided at the 2000 summit that it was desirable to convert the multilateral cooperation mechanism into a more formal regional institution. There was disagreement over what the name of the new organization should be. Russian sources in particular began to refer to it as the "Shanghai Forum" but this name was never officially adopted. President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan attended the 2000 summit in Dushanbe as an observer, and at the beginning of this year he communicated through diplomatic channels his interest in joining the revamped organization. After that request was favorably received, he announced the move to the press in mid-May. Towards the end of May, President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, on an official visit to Armenia, told Itar-Tass that the mid-June meeting in Shanghai itself would create a new international institution called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and that this organization would emphasize economic cooperation. However, foreign-affairs coverage in the Chinese media emphasized the significance of the organization in promoting the "multipolarization" of world politics and the foundation of a "new world order" based on "democratic, fair and rational" principles. Meanwhile, in the run-up to the conference, Chinese domestic press reports on the Shanghai meeting stressed the pre-existing propaganda strategy against the "three evil forces" of separatism, terrorism and (religious) extremism. For Western-targeted media, this was couched in terms of "law-enforcement cooperation."
An SCO meeting scheduled in Kazakhstan for September, which will be the organization's first meeting at the prime-ministerial level, is expected to focus on economic cooperation. It will have working relations with another regional diplomatic initiative, the also recently-institutionalized Conference on Interactions and Measures of Trust [i.e., Confidence-Building] in Asia (CIMTA), which Kazakhstan has promoted for the last decade. Other cooperation initiatives endorsed in Shanghai include a Chinese proposal for the six ministers of culture to meet in Beijing later this year and a Russian proposal that their disaster relief departments meet in Russia in the spring of 2002. There is also an intention to hold regular meetings of national ministers of education as an axis for developing cooperation in the "humanitarian" field. This is crucial to the long-term institutionalization of the cooperation, insofar as it involves the political socialization of the next generation. The Russian ambassador to Beijing, Igor Rogachev, repeatedly underlined in interviews the significance of Uzbekistan's adhesion to the group. Uzbekistan wavered over the last two years concerning its cooperation with the Shanghai group, because Karimov did not wish to fall under the influence of a security umbrella extended from Moscow. That is why he sought to establish a special relationship ("strategic partnership") with Washington in the mid- and late 1990s. However, a rapprochement with Moscow has been clearly in evidence since about a year ago.
Uzbekistan's admission to the SCO is a natural development of the consolidation of regional international systems after the end of the transition from the post-Cold War period. In this context, equally significant is Putin's declaration that the anticipated Sino-Russian treaty on "good-neighborly relations, friendship and cooperation" would establish "long-term guidelines" for bilateral relations. It is, however, possible that Uzbekistan's membership will complicate the functioning of the nascent SCO, engaging Russia and China more deeply and more quickly in Central Asia than may otherwise be anticipated. This is possibly the cases since the source of instability in Uzbekistan differs from that in the other SCO participants. In Uzbekistan (and to a lesser extent in China';s Xinjiang), instability results more from the government's domestic policies than from the militancy of any external terrorism groups. The creation of a joint rapid deployment force at an "anti-terrorism center" in Bishkek raises the specter, in the minds of some observers, of Chinese and Russian troops eventually stationed together in Central Asia at the core of a military and political bloc. Though unlikely, this prospect would certainly have implications for energy issues of strategic concern to Washington, as well as for China's opposition to U.S. attempts to build an nuclear missile defense system. It is noteworthy that the anti-terrorist center to be established in Bishkek will function as such a center for both the SCO and the CIS.
China's deputy foreign minister Liu Guchang equally emphasized the organization's "strategic blueprint" for multilateral relations and the need to promote economic and trade cooperation. This is in line with China's known intention to extend its influence over Central Asia through economic mechanisms over the next decades. China will use the SCO to militate against U.S. political and economic interests, as well as to increase pressure on its neighbors to act against Uighur militants. It is no accident that the Shanghai meeting occurred on the eve of the Putin-Bush meeting in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It allowed Russia and China to demonstrate yet again their accord on global issues, particularly on relations with the United States. Beijing seeks to use the SCO partly to promote its own global foreign policy agenda, while the Shanghai meeting allowed Putin to appear as Asia's principal interlocutor with the U.S. president, contributing to legitimizing Russia's anti-NMD stance in world public opinion outside Europe.
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First published in Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst 3, no. 14 (4 July 2001): 5–6.