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A Warsaw Pact Grows in Shanghai

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This week the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)will hold its largest joint
military exercises to date

A few years back the SCO -- comprising China, Russia,
Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan -- put
itself on the map after effectively telling the U.S.
military to scram from Uzbekistan, where it leased a
base after the Twin Towers collapsed to help fight the
war in Afghanistan. Last year the SCO raised eyebrows
after flirting with accepting Iran, which is currently
an observer state, into its ranks. Should the Shanghai
club be seen as a threat to U.S. interests in Central
Asia? More broadly speaking, is this a serious
alliance bent on rivaling NATO, a neo-Warsaw Pact for
the post-Cold War era?

Not yet. But that does not make it a benign
organization to be brushed aside either. Indeed, the
SCO is emerging as a powerful player in a region
teeming with terrorists, drug pushers, and oil
pipelines. Meanwhile, the orientation of the group's
members are increasingly aligning to project a more
united front that is, if not hostile to, then
outwardly suspicious of U.S. military, economic,
geopolitical and -- some might say -- neo-imperialistic
interests in the region. Indeed, what began as a
sleepy institution in the late 1990s (then called the
Shanghai Five) to demilitarize China's western border
has morphed into a full-fledged security alliance with
bold intentions.

The Shanghai club is retooling its mission statement
to include not just regional trade, energy, and
development projects but also to expand its
counterterrorism operations, intelligence sharing, and
even election monitoring. The counterterrorism
exercises underway involve more than 6,000 troops from
all six members, backed by eighty warplanes and
helicoptors. If enlarged to include the group's four
observer states -- Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan, and
India -- currently under consideration, the SCO would
dwarf NATO's size and be home to large amounts of the
world's natural gas and nuclear ammo. "It would
essentially be an OPEC with bombs," the University of
Cambridge's David Wall told the Washington Times last
year.

Not surprisingly, the Shanghai group's rise coincides
with the United States' waning presence in the region.
With the situation in Afghanistan heating up, the U.S.
military is scrambling to find more bases after being
ejected from Uzbekistan last year. The future of its
airbase in Kyrgyzstan remains uncertain, given the
Kyrgyz government's requests for a rent hike.
Washington is cozying up to Kazakhstan to secure its
energy interests there. And reports were circulating
last summer that the U.S. may repair its broken
relationship with Uzbekistan, which was severed after
a mass slaughter of Uzbek protesters and prisoners in
Andijan a few years ago (some evidence has emerged
suggesting the massacre was not nearly as violent as
originally reported).

All of which makes the prospect of Iran's membership
into the SCO that much more worrisome. In response,
U.S. officials ratcheted up their criticism. "It
strikes me as passing strange that one would want to
bring into an organization that says it is against
terrorism one of the leading terrorist nations in the
world: Iran," former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
told a gathering of defense experts in Singapore last
summer.

Iran, growing ever isolated, is hoping to shore up
support for its nuclear ambitions among Central Asian
states, improve its economic ties with Russia and
China, and secure lucrative energy deals with them and
India. Given its testy relationship with its Middle
Eastern neighbors, Iran is looking eastward for allies
and trade partners. In the SCO, Tehran sees a club of
likeminded states that could provide it shelter as
pressure rises over its uranium-enrichment activities.
Allowing Iran into the club would only embolden its
theocratic government and remove its feeling of
international isolation.

Yet Tehran is not expected to get its wish for full
membership into the Shanghai club -- at least not yet.
For the moment, neither China nor Russia has indicated
any interest in adding more members to the SCO's
rosters, particularly ones with unpredictable foreign
policies like Iran. Nor would China or Russia want to
see the SCO act as a check to their own
neo-imperialistic ambitions in a region both consider
their "near abroad." Still, just the fact that Iran's
flirtations with the SCO are being seriously
entertained and not outwardly scoffed at should be
raising more hackles in Washington. More likely,
experts say, is the SCO will expand the powers of its
observer states, and give states like Iran limited
voting rights.

Even without Iran, the SCO may pose a potential
threat. China and Russia, whose relations have
improved in recent years and whose militaries have
begun to hold joint exercises, have effectively used
the SCO as an instrument to further their own agendas
in Central Asia. As their influence in the region
grows stronger, the SCO will inevitably rise in
stature. For the moment, though no mutual defense
clause exists in the SCO -- unlike NATO's Article
Five -- that could change as the group evolves and new
security threats emerge.

To be sure, it is premature to call the SCO the second
coming of the Warsaw Pact. After all, its members are
far from a monolithic bunch. But the group's influence
is undoubtedly increasing, as is its potential to pose
greater havoc for U.S. interests in a region where
Washington is already losing clout.

Back in the Cold War era, NATO was often described as
a way to keep the Germans down, the Americans in, and
the Russians out. The SCO, it might be said, is meant
to keep the Russians down, the Chinese in, and the
Americans out. Throw the Iranians into that mix, and
all bets are off.