The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is holding a four-day meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, starting Friday. While the summit will doubtless end with the usual flurry of statements emphasizing peace and prosperity for member states, the gathering will be most notable for what is absent from the declarations, a vision of what the grouping actually entails, particularly as regards energy exports.
Within the SCO, both the Russian Federation and China have security concerns; they share a commonality with their fellow SCO members about rising Islamic militancy in Eurasia, but after that their security concerns diverge, with Russia primarily looking westward toward NATO’s relentless eastward expansion and the possible basing of U.S. anti-ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe; China’s security concerns are largely to the east, most notably over U.S. policy toward Taiwan and possible disruptions of Chinese maritime energy imports from the Middle East.
The one point on which both Moscow and Beijing concur is to limit or end U.S. military influence in Central Asia, and the SCO scored a notable triumph towards that end when in late 2005 Uzbekistan unilaterally ended U.S. access to its airbase facilities in Karshi-Khanabad in the aftermath of the May Andijan uprising.
Last month Nezavisimaya Gazeta opined, “Up until now, the United States has persistently promoted the ideas of a neo-liberal industrial-consumerist system in Central Asia.” Prepare for discussants in Tashkent to spend a great deal of time discussing what comes next.
The issue is now whether the SCO summit will hearken its benevolent colleagues in Moscow and Beijing or continue to listen to the dulcet siren songs of the West’s persistent “neo-liberal industrial-consumerist system.”
Despite soothing noises from both Moscow and Beijing, given geographical realities, it would seem more than likely that Central Asia will use the SCO seminar to advance heretical naked capitalist agendas, i.e., boosting remuneration rates for its energy exports, flipping Russia and China into a nasty bidding war for Central Asian energy.
Security has been heightened in Tashkent for the event. Among those attending are Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Kyrgyz acting Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, Tajik Prime Minister Akil Akilov, Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev, SCO General Secretary Bolat Nurgaliyev and Myrzakan Subanov, director of the Executive Committee of the SCO's regional anti-terror agency, along with observers from India, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
According to the Chinese media, Mirziyayev, Zubkov, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko were behind Wen’s invitation.
At carefully papered-over polar opposites on the issue are Russia and China, the dominant SCO members. While Moscow views the alliance primarily as a loose military grouping designed to combat outside (read: U.S.) military influence in the region, Beijing, while ostensibly supporting Russia’s opposition to "hegemony," is even more interested in SCO junior members’ energy assets.
The SCO was founded in Shanghai in 2001 and comprises Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. SCO observer countries include India, Mongolia and Pakistan as well as Iran. In a pointed rebuff to the Bush administration, Washington’s request for observer status was rebuffed.
While none of the SCO’s energy discussions are likely to be made public, Moscow and Beijing’s differing interpretations of how best to develop the hydrocarbon assets of their Central Asian colleagues is bound to be the focus of many “frank and candid” diplomatic discussions.
In advance of the meeting, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov is offering bland assurances that Russia’s colonialist policy is a thing of the past and that Moscow is willing to deal with its SCO Central Asian partners as equals.
"The long-term friendship and cooperation agreement signed by the SCO leaders in August will be a contributing factor,” he said. “At the same time, Russia intends to adjust the program of economic cooperation between the SCO members until the year 2020 -- which was approved in 2003 -- in order to ensure a more active and effective implementation of the designated projects."
In a sop to his colleagues from Beijing, Zubkov added: "The building of energy infrastructure and transmission lines which will allow for meeting China's growing demand for electricity is one of the priority and promising projects."
What is of interest in Zubkov’s remarks is that they pointedly lack any reference to Central Asian hydrocarbons but instead discuss electrical exports, hardly a gift to Beijing, as Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan in particular, already generate surplus amounts of electricity.
Amid the upcoming SCO air-kisses in Tashkent, the only question is how Moscow and Beijing will resolve their mutual interest in Central Asian energy reserves; while Moscow controls export routes, China is offering financing for 4,000-mile pipelines and 30-year contracts. For Central Asians, isolated as they are from the global market, the choice seems to be between the devil you know and the devils with contracts lasting for decades.