For long after the Berlin Wall was toppled, NATO seemed to be morally adrift as its primary raison d'être, opposing the Soviet Union, vanished. A flicker of meaning was returned to it after 9/11 as the 'global war on terror' took form, and the specter of Islamic terrorism hit Bali, London and Madrid. However, it was not until the war in Afghanistan began to formerly engage NATO troops in January 2006 that the alliance recovered its sense of purpose.
Since its inception, much has been made in Western diplomatic and military circles of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an association regrouping the powers of China, Russia, and the strategically vital states of Central Asia. Almost immediately, suspicions arose about the growing influence of the SCO. This deepened as nations such as Iran and Pakistan gained observer status, an honor refused to the United States when it applied in 2005. However, similarly to NATO, the SCO has lacked a defining ideology. It originally seemed to operate mainly as a regional counter-weight for NATO expansionist views into the former Soviet Union. Indeed, for China, this was an essential element in the creation of the SCO as it saw American influence surrounding it from South Korea to Japan to India and even to traditional ally, Pakistan.
However, in the last few years, any antagonism between the two mega-groups has been principally idealistic, confined to venomous speeches by Iranian Preisdent Mahmoud Ahmedinejad using the pulpit the SCO afforded him. Although large-scale disagreements remain between the US-centric NATO and China-centric SCO, the nations involved seem to slowly be realizing what opportunities cooperation could afford them, instead of a renewal of the 19th century's 'Great Game'.
The major topic of cooperation has been the war in Afghanistan, as all participants realizing the frightening implications should Al-Qaeda's ideology be allowed to proliferate, or worse, should Pakistan fall prey to those seeking its ruin. Since the war began, NATO and SCO member nations have been engaging in one-to-one negotiations. First, the US negotiated to use Uzbek border crossings to resupply their troops, followed by the establishment of bases and supply points in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. A huge hurdle was cleared recently when Russia announced it would allow increased NATO usage of its roads and airspace to help in the effort.
China, despite wisely refusing any military involvement in the Afghan conflict, has nevertheless a huge stake in empowering the civilian component of the country's reconstruction. This has ranged from training Afghan minesweeping squads and police forces, to exploiting avenues for commerce. From copper mines to providing mobile phone services, to Chinese restaurants opening up in Kabul, China's commercial instincts have awoken to the mineral wealth and business opportunities existing in Afghanistan. These may prove as financially beneficial for Chinese companies as they will be life-saving for Afghan civilians. It is not a tough stretch to view NATO and SCO creating a symbiotic net for Afghans, the US and NATO fighting for military security, and the Chinese developing untapped mineral resources and providing jobs for the local workforce.
These efforts in Afghanistan enter directly into the prime directives of both organizations. The anti-terrorism wing of the SCO has been progressing in recent years, most recently with the "Peace Mission 2010" drill in Kazakhstan. The SCO is also combating terrorism across a wide swathe of Asia, from Chechnya to Xinjiang. In doing so, its operations are directly in line with NATO, which has long worried about the spread of Islamic extremism spawning more trouble in sensitive countries such as Kazakhstan, where many of the USSR's former nuclear silos remain in perilous disrepair.
With Wen Jiabao meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this week to resolve outstanding gas pricing issues, and with the NATO countries building pipelines to tap new oil and gas sources in around the Caspian and Black Sea, the energy debate is another one where hostility and mistrust must be replaced with dialogue.
Perhaps Sultan Ahmed Baheen, Afghan Ambassador to China said it best: "We believe that Afghanistan should be the ground for cooperation of civilizations, not competition between countries. I think there is room for everyone in Afghanistan."
Afghanistan. Anti-terrorism. Energy. How many more reasons need there be?