Shanghai spirit

Print edition : July 14, 2006

Presidents of SCO member-countries - Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan), Kurmanbek Bakiyev (Kyrgyzstan), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Emomali Rakmonov (Tajikistan), Hu Jintao (China) and Nursultan Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan) in Shanghai. - AP

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's fifth summit points to increasing solidarity.

THE Chinese government billed the fifth summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) held on June 15 as the biggest diplomatic event in the Chinese calendar this year. On attendance were the heads of state of all the six member-countries and all observer nations, barring India. The Indian government's decision to send Petroleum Minister Murli Deora, known as the most pro-United States Minister in the Cabinet, has not been explained satisfactorily. A prominent Indian Left leader said it would have been better to send an official U.S. representative instead.

The presence of India's relatively low-profile representative was scarcely noticed. The group photo of the leaders taken during the summit says it all. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Pakistani counterpart Pervez Musharraf hogged the limelight with the other heads of state. For reasons of protocol, Deora could not be accommodated in the frame. External Affairs Ministry officials claim that too much is being read into the absence of the Indian Prime Minister at the summit. They point out that Natwar Singh represented India as External Affairs Minister at last year's SCO summit. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had attended the 2004 SCO summit. Indian Prime Ministers never miss an opportunity to attend Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits, though they are not full-fledged members of the group.

New Delhi's stated aim is to join the SCO. The Presidents of Pakistan and Iran made a fervent pitch for full membership. Mongolia and Belarus too want to sign up. However, Chinese Vice Prime Minister Li Hui ruled out early expansion. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the SCO "is not a closed and exclusive club whose lines of demarcation have been clearly drawn".

Ever since the nuclear deal with the U.S. was signed, New Delhi has been bending over backwards to keep Washington in good humour. Senior Bush administration officials have been openly stated that the SCO is fast becoming an anti-U.S. group and has the potential to emerge as a counter-weight to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Both the Chinese and Russian leaderships have denied that they want to turn the SCO into the "NATO of the East". The SCO member-countries occupy a huge swathe of geographical area on the Asian and European continents (30 million square kilometres; 1.48 billion people). The organisation groups Russia and China with the four Central Asian nations - Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Three of the SCO members are among the largest energy producers in the world. If Iran is allowed entry, then the SCO, according to a Western academic, will be "essentially an OPEC [Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries] with a bomb".

Beijing and Moscow have made no secret of their unhappiness with the U.S. military presence in their region. The Russian and Chinese governments have indicated to Washington that they want the U.S. bases shifted from their backyard. At last year's summit in Tashkent, the SCO had formally demanded the removal of U.S. bases from Central Asia. Uzbekistan terminated a lease agreement with the U.S. to establish a big military base on its soil.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan too are under strong pressure to terminate their lease agreements with the U.S. to establish military bases on their territory. Kyrgyzstan has raised the rent sixfold for the U.S. base and has demanded a further $100 million as aid from the U.S. for this year. There are predictions that it is only a matter of time for the SCO and the West to be on a collision course. U.S. analysts say that Russia and China are using the SCO to try and squeeze the U.S. out of the region.

According to many experts, another important reason for India's low profile at the summit was the presence of Ahmadinejad. Washington wants the international community to treat Iran as an outcast. Ahmadinejad is being demonised by Western governments and the media. The U.S. has been openly advising New Delhi to keep a safe distance from Teheran on the diplomatic front. It signalled its displeasure over the Non-Aligned Movement Ministers' resolution in Kuala Lumpur in May that supported Iran's position on the nuclear issue.

U.S. Senator Tom Lantos, who is said to be an influential voice on Capitol Hill, said in the third week of June that India's chances of getting its nuclear deal approved by the U.S. Congress would be jeopardised if it supported Iran in any way. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney criticised the SCO's invitation to Ahmadinejad, saying the "leading terrorist nation in the world is being invited to a professedly anti-terror organisation". Senior Chinese officials were quick to clarify that they did not consider Iran "a terrorist state". It was the first time that Ahmadinejad was sharing the dais with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin since his election last year.

As the proceedings of the summit illustrated, the focus of the SCO has clearly shifted from fighting "terrorism" to more important issues relating to energy. Chinese officials have stressed the need to secure a steady energy supply. "By focussing on a strategy of securing energy from Central Asia and Russia, we can minimise conflict with the U.S., which is dependent on the Middle East [West Asia]," Jin Riguang, an energy adviser to the Chinese government told a Western news agency. Analysts say that China's growing energy needs and the U.S' military expansionism coupled with its oil requirements puts both countries on confrontation mode. Ahmadinejad was quick to offer "energy cooperation" to the SCO states. "We want the SCO to develop into a powerful body influential in regional and international politics, economics and trade, serving to block the threats and unlawful strong-arm interference from various countries," he said in a speech aired on Chinese national television.

A declaration issued by the SCO in Beijing stated that the member-countries would not "allow their territories to be used to undermine the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of other member-states". Hu Jintao expressed the hope that the international community "would respect the social system and the road to development independently chosen by SCO members and observer countries". The declaration adopted at the summit said that the SCO's success until now was owing to its consistent adherence to the "Shanghai Spirit" of "mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for multi-civilisations and pursuit of common development". It emphasised that the "Shanghai Spirit" was a model that would transcend ideological differences and help discard the lingering Cold War mentality.

Of the 10 documents signed at the summit, only four relate to security and counter-terrorism. The economic and trade agreements signed in Beijing are expected to accelerate economic integration among the member-states. As many as 127 joint economic projects are under way in Central Asia. Putin and Ahmadinejad, after a bilateral meeting in Shanghai, proposed the creation of a "SCO Energy Club". This proposal immediately evoked criticism from the West. The fear is that this could be the first step towards the creation of another energy cartel.

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