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August 19, 2007 6:44 pm

Shanghaied by Russia and China

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Not for decades have Russia and China been so self-confident. Not for nearly half a century have ties between Moscow and Beijing been so fraternal. No wonder interest has risen in the regional organisation the two countries have set up together, along with four central Asian states.

On the face of it, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation is everything that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger – who sought to keep Russia and China apart – tried to prevent. But the west should not view the SCO as an antagonist.

It is true that last week’s SCO summit in Kyrgyzstan was accompanied by military exercises in the Ural mountains featuring 6,000 Chinese and Russian troops, together with a few soldiers from other member states. It is also the case that some summit attendees proposed grand, if vague, plans to form a giant energy bloc and that President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad of Iran, one of the west’s least favourite figures, participated in the event as an observer.

But at root the SCO’s main goals are to maintain “stability” in central Asia against competing bids for influence from the west, Islamists and drug traffickers, and to safeguard energy supplies. These may not all be particularly elevated aims but nor are they highly threatening.

Indeed, the main figures at the Bishkek summit took pains to avoid provocative statements about the US – with the exception of a call by Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s maverick president, for the west to “demilitarise” Afghanistan. Russia and China steered clear of any moves to bring Iran into the organisation – again so as to avoid Washington’s ire.

Increased co-operation between Moscow and Beijing is, all the same, now an important fact of life. In many ways the west should welcome this. It is surely better that two such important states now trade oil, rather than shots, across their borders.

Europe and the US also need to work more on a central Asian strategy of their own. This is an increasingly important region, for security, economic and political reasons. In the past, the west erred by throwing its lot in with unsavoury characters such as Mr Karimov.

Western powers must now work more on co-operation with business and political groups across the region – and with the SCO itself – to make democracy and liberalisation more attractive to central Asian peoples and elites. The SCO should be a stepping stone to central Asia’s engagement with the rest of the world, not just a jointly owned subsidiary of Moscow and Beijing.

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