The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has begun its annual summit amid growing questions about its role as a regional hedge against U.S. influence. Though multilateral organizations have enjoyed scant success among the post-Soviet states of Central Asia, the SCO is an exception, as explained in this new Backgrounder. The group's burgeoning influence in the region was highlighted by the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said his country's inclusion in the group could "prevent the threats of domineering powers and their aggressive interference in global affairs" (Guardian). Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not mention Iran in their opening summit addresses, but they are both scheduled to meet with Ahmadinejad in the next two days (Reuters).
Formed at China's behest five years ago, the SCO began as a sleepy club of six states—China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—whose mandate involved little more than resolving Beijing's outstanding border disputes and improving trade, energy, and development ties in the region. Four years later, the SCO paved the way for the U.S. military's ejection from its base in Uzbekistan, outlined in this Backgrounder. Iran—one of four observer states along with India, Pakistan, and Mongolia—is clamoring to become a full-fledged member (Zaman).
Indeed, the SCO has emerged as a powerful force in an increasingly important region. Its mandate has evolved to include counterterrorism, joint military exercises, and efforts to curb drug smuggling (RFE/RL). Between its member and observer states, the SCO holds a large chunk of the world's natural gas supplies and nuclear ammunition. Some analysts even suggest the group has the potential to become an Eastern version of NATO, a conjecture the SCO's executive general has sought to dispel (RIA Novosti).
While the policy orientations of the group's members may overlap on a number of issues—chief among them their suspicion of U.S. designs on the region—yawning gaps remain between the regional outlooks of the SCO's two flagship members: Russia and China. Neither has indicated any interest in allowing Iran to become a full-fledged member anytime soon. Nor would either of these states want to see the SCO act as a check to their own ambitions in a region both consider their 'near abroad' (AsiaTimes).
The future shape and composition of the Shanghai group, what the Guardian's Simon Tisdale calls a "dictators' club," should have enormous impact on U.S. economic, military, and geopolitical interests in Central Asia. Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment breaks down these interests, while RFE/RL's Daniel Kimmage looks at the orientation of the SCO after last summer’s newsworthy summit.