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#31 - JRL 2006-171 - JRL Home
Central Asia: U.S. Wary Of Shanghai Grouping
By Breffni O'Rourke
Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

PRAGUE, July 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. State Department official says the United States should not worry too much about any threat emerging from the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Mann reassured members of Congress at a hearing in Washington on July 25 by a House of Representatives' international relations subcommittee that he does not view the SCO, which is dominated by China and Russia, as an emerging threat to Western interests.

Excluding U.S. From Central Asia

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican-Florida) told the hearing that the SCO's summit in June provided evidence that Russia and China have intensified efforts "to isolate the U.S. politically, militarily, and economically from Central Asia."

Her comments follow pointed remarks last month by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the United States should not be excluded from regional groupings, and he expressed surprise that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was invited to attend the SCO summit. The United States views Iran as a supporter of terrorism.

Mann acknowledged that the SCO had occasionally cut across U.S. interests; for instance, its 2005 summit called for Washington to set a timetable for the withdrawal of its military from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbekistan subsequently asked the United States to leave, and Kyrgyzstan signed a deal with the United States greatly increasing the fees it receives for hosting U.S. forces.

Natural Rivalry

Mann said that since then the tone of the SCO towards U.S. bases in the region has become more constructive. As quoted by AP, he expressed confidence that contacts with major institutions like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and NATO held enough interest for Central Asian members of the SCO to prevent them from developing a hostility toward the West.

Nevertheless, regional analysts say there remains a natural rivalry between the East and West for influence in Central Asia, particularly in view of its vast oil and gas reserves.

"The role of the Central Asian republics is as a kind of balancer between Russia and China [on the one hand] and the Western world [on the other], so it is a very important area for both sides, which strive to attract attention and offer cooperation [to the Central Asians]," says Keun-Wook Paik of the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs:

Keun-Wook Paik says that despite Mann's suggestion to the congressional panel that the United States can be relaxed on the issue of the SCO's ability to undermine Western influence in Central Asia, the administration of President George W. Bush is actually "very nervous" about the possibility that the Russians and Chinese might gain ground.

It does not like to particularly see Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, in the Caucasus, falling under Moscow's or Beijing's spell, nor the plans for new gas pipelines from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan going directly into China.

Conversely, Washington is in favor of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline inaugurated on July 13, which links the Azerbaijani oilfields with the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, and which Kazakhstan also plans to join.

Democratic Values Vs. Realpolitik

One predicament for the West is the autocratic nature of the Central Asian regimes. At the congressional hearing, Mann described the U.S. strategic goal in Central Asia as "to support their development as fully sovereign, democratic, stable, and prosperous nations."

In the meantime, Washington has to deal with the dictatorial or semidictatorial regimes as they are, which has caused some disquiet among human rights advocates at home and abroad.

"It is a contradiction one sees in the foreign policies of many governments -- the United States is only one of them -- that on the one hand there are governments, individuals, institutions, organizations, in the way a country is run in different parts of the world, and the rest of the world has to trade and deal with them; to what extent do you want to stop because they are autocratic, or not 100 percent democratic," says analyst Manochehi Takin of the Center for Global Energy Studies. "Really, it's more of a so-called realpolitik."

Continuing on this theme, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mann described Washington's relations with Central Asia as resting on three pillars: namely democratic reform, economic development, and security.

Singling out Kazakhstan, he said it is one of the leading performers in two of those divisions, but needs to improve its democratic life. Kazakhstan has been a focal point of U.S. diplomatic attention in Central Asia following the souring of relations with Uzbekistan.