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Sunday, June 27, 2004


Asian antiterror group finds its footing

HONG KONG -- Last week the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an international antiterrorist group formed by China, Russia and four Central Asian countries only months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, inaugurated a new antiterrorism center in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. The fledgling group held a summit meeting to mark the establishment of its organizational structure.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a speech to launch the Regional Antiterrorism Structure, called for efforts to tackle the problems of both regional confrontation and poverty, which he said are the roots of terrorism. "Terrorism," he said, "is not automatically related to certain ethnic groups or religions."

Uzbekistan was the last leg of the president's four-nation trip, which also took him to Poland, Romania and Hungary. The presidential travels vividly reflected the multifaceted nature of China's foreign policy. His visit to East European countries sought to cement China's relations with three former Warsaw Pact members that are now members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In Uzbekistan, which together with China, Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, cofounded the SCO, the Chinese president signed 10 agreements with his Uzbek counterpart, President Islam Karimov. These included a declaration of friendship and cooperation, an agreement on technical and economic cooperation, a memorandum on plans for trade, investment and financial cooperation, a cultural program for 2004-07 and an accord between the justice ministries of the two countries.

There was also an accord in which the Chinese government promised several loans to the Uzbek government. All together, they reflect the web of ties that China is weaving with Uzbekistan and, indeed, virtually all of its neighbors.

It remains to be seen how effective an antiterror organization the SCO will turn out to be. David Lewis, director of the Central Asia project for the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict prevention organization, said the six countries will need to do more than just pledge to work together.

"I think [SCO's] effectiveness will only be proved if it can broaden the scope of questions it can address to include economic development, trade and wider political questions in the region," he said.

"As a narrow security bloc, it is going to be of minimal effectiveness, particularly as many of the problems of terrorism in the region have really much broader causes than simply militant Islamic ideology. And unless they can somehow begin to address some of those causes, they will not overcome the problem."

As far as China is concerned, it appears clear that Beijing is aware of the need to widen the scope of SCO's activities. Hu, in his speech, emphasized the importance of expanding economic relations among the members. "We should fully take advantage of the high complementary economy among members and the rich natural resources and start cooperation in various forms," he said.

During his visit, as if to illustrate what he meant, China and Uzbekistan signed an oil exploration agreement to develop a closer partnership on surveying and drilling for oil and gas. China is a major oil importer and is seeking to diversify its sources of oil rather than rely on the politically unstable Middle East. Increasingly, energy security has become an important component of Chinese diplomacy.

The Tashkent summit marks the end of the first stage of SCO development. Now that the structures are in place, with a secretariat in Beijing and an antiterrorism center in Tashkent, it is time for the group to translate talk into action. The organization clearly feels the need to consolidate before expanding. The group made it clear that it was not going to consider expansion for the time being. So far, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan have expressed interest in joining. In Tashkent, Mongolia was given observer status.

The SCO suggested cooperation with regional organizations. In a statement, the SCO countries said they "are inviting international organizations and forums in the Asia-Pacific to gradually set up a partnership network of multilateral associations by concluding relevant agreements between them, including the granting of observer status to each other on a mutual basis."

Many believe that the SCO has a hidden agenda: to keep American influence out of Central Asia. It now remains to be seen how effective SCO proves itself as an organization that will cooperate with the U.S. and other countries in the war on terror.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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