WASHINGTON, June 16 (UPI) -- When the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was formed on June 15, 2001, almost no one in the U.S. media took any notice of it. But they are starting to pay attention now.
On Thursday, the fifth birthday of the SCO, which one of its founders, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin liked to refer to as "the Shanghai Pact", leaders and senior representatives of more than half the world's population returned to Shanghai, the financial capital of China, for the meeting.
The SCO groups Russia and China -- two of the world's three top nuclear powers -- with the four former Soviet Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The summit was not a mere celebratory affair. Russian President Vladimir Putin, its co-founder, made certain of that.
In the presence of Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Putin announced after the SCO summit's opening meeting that the organization had made a proposal -- whose details were not yet released -- to Tehran to resolve its nuclear dispute with the United States and the European Union over Tehran's nuclear program. And Putin said the Iranian delegation, led by Ahmadinejad, had "responded positively to the six-nation proposal for a way out of the crisis."
American critics of the SCO, including the Bush administration, remain in denial about the group's geopolitical significance. They argue that the organization does not have any unified military command structure like NATO, or the old Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, founded in 1955.
(Ironically, Jiang liked to call the SCO the Shanghai Pact in reference to the old Warsaw Pact and, presumably, its role in keeping the Soviet Union's buffer zone of dependent Central European satellite states securely in line through the Cold War. China wants U.S. influence, democratic enthusiasms and Islamic extremism alike kept out of its own backyard in Central Asia.)
However, NATO and the Warsaw Pact were both historical anomalies among the important alliances of history. They were products of a unique time and place -- the four-and-a-half decades long global contest between Western capitalism and democracy led by the United States and the ideology of international communism spearheaded by the Soviet Union. Through almost all of the rest of modern history, alliances of great nations have usually gone to war with each other without any centralized military command binding their alliances together.
During World War II, for example, Germany, Japan and Italy often took major strategic positions, and even declared war on other nations or launched major attacks, without bothering to inform each other in advance. And strategic cooperation between the Western allies of Britain and the United States on one side and the Soviet Union on the other of the Grand Alliance against Nazi Germany was minimal and always strained.
The SCO, by contrast, has already succeeded in bringing Russia and China together in military coordination far closer than they ever were during the Cold War.
Even before the famous Sino-Soviet split went public in 1958, the Soviets and the Chinese communists never held any major military exercises together. But since the founding of the SCO, Russia and China have held three sets of joint military exercises. The most important one was in August 2005 on and around the Shandung peninsula of northwest China. At least 10,000 troops from both nations, including naval forces, air forces and amphibious formations, practiced problems of landing against a hostile defended shore. The exercises were somewhat misleadingly labelled anti-terrorist exercises. But the most likely target of such amphibious landings by China would be the offshore island of Taiwan, which is supported by the United States and whose total independence is fiercely opposed by Beijing.
Apart from the ambitious joint Russian-Chinese miltiary exercises, the leaders of the SCO had much to celebrate at their fifth birthday party this week. Islamic extremism has so far been contained in Uzbekistan and it has certainly been rolled back in Tajkikstan, which remains in an uneasy peace after a ferocious, civil war following the collapse of the Soviet Union that cost at least 50,000 lives.
And over the past year, the SCO has seen its most notable successes yet in rolling back U.S. influence in Central Asia. The toppling of President Askar Askayev in Kyrgyzstan and major anti-government demonstrations spearheaded by Islamists in the Uzbek city of Andijan alarmed governments in the region and led to Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov expelling the United States from its strategically vital air bases in the country. Even Askayev's successor in Kyrgyzstan, President Kurmanbek Bakayev, has sought closer relations with Moscow than Washington since taking over.
The SCO is also riding high because two of its members -- Russia and Kazakhstan -- are booming with oil at around $70 a barrel, as it is their primary export and source of foreign currency. China's enormous economic growth is continuing around eight percent a year. And China continues to stack up yearly trade surpluses of more than $200 billion against the United States.
Strikingly, an old traditional U.S. ally in Asia and a cherished new one -- Pakistan and India -- were both welcomed observers at the SCO and are seeking closer ties with the organization.
Also, the SCO's continental and international reach is extending so far and so fast that other countries -- from Mongolia and Afghanistan all the way to New Zealand -- are looking to develop their own ties with it.
The SCO has come a long way in the past five years. How far is it going to go in the next five?