Russia, China and Iran are part of a little-known regional power bloc
The notion of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez showing up in Russia and Iran to build stronger relationships may be slightly terrifying to the West, but it’s not the only troubling alliance under construction. Central Asia—rich in oil and gas and located within striking distance of Afghanistan and the Middle East—is once again contested ground, with the U.S., Russia and China scrambling to build influence. The latest gambit by the Russians and Chinese is diplomatic. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization—consisting of China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan—was formed in 2001. No one took much notice; Russia seemed to be moving to democracy, and the SCO focused on border disputes and issues of trade and drug trafficking.
But the group’s influence and ambition is growing, as is its defiance of the West. Iran was awarded observer status last year, much to U.S. annoyance. “Part of it is to rub Washington’s nose in it,” says Aurel Braun, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “To show the United States that they may think they are this unchallenged superpower, but we can defy the United States on this.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was welcomed to a five-year anniversary SCO summit in Shanghai last month. Amid cries for Iran to be made a full member, he called on the SCO to combine its might and “prevent the threats of domineering powers and their aggressive interference in global affairs.” A spokesman for the U.S. State Department told Maclean’s that Ahmadinejad’s invitation “concerned” the United States.
Some now fear the SCO could become a rival to NATO. At the group’s summit last month,
Islam Karimov, the despotic president of Uzbekistan, said that the SCO was not targeting anyone: “Our actions are not aimed at the interests of other countries and do not signal the formation of another bloc.” But the group also declared that different models of “social development” should not be used as a pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries: “Model[s] of social development should not be ‘exported.’ ” In other words: we don’t want your democracy here.
It is unclear how far the SCO will go to oppose the West. Its two most powerful members, Russia and China, have an acrimonious relationship. According to Braun, Russia sought a partnership with China within the SCO as a means to contain it. “Sometimes it is better to keep a potential enemy inside your tent,” he says, adding that Russia would prefer some U.S. presence in Central Asia to act as a buffer against China. But the organization has held joint military exercises, and more are planned for next year. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov has said the member states “should, if needed, help neighbouring states block and possibly destroy” invaders. Those words must be sweet music for Ahmadinejad, who wants Iran to shelter under the SCO’s umbrella as a full member.
That would give the SCO control over even more of the world’s oil and gas. This doesn’t bother some analysts. “I’ve never been of the view that you have to be highly influential in a region to get it to sell you oil,” says Lt.Gen. William Odom (retired), a professor at Yale and former director of the National Security Agency. But others fear an anti-Western alliance that combines energy resources and nuclear power. “It is potentially harmful,” says David Wall, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank in Britain. “We should be watching very carefully.” Wall says that only a year ago, NATO officials laughed at him when he warned about the growth of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. He says they’re not laughing anymore. M
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