Leaders of Central and South Asian nations are arriving in Bishkek to attend the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The fact that the presidents of all six member states are scheduled to attend is just one of several indicators of the organization's rising regional importance.
As the hosts wrapped up final preparations, an element of uncertainty has surrounded this year's summit. There have been hints that the meeting could make a splash by announcing an accession blueprint for potential new members, such as Iran and Turkmenistan. Or the summiteers could announce the creation of a natural gas cartel. Another possibility is an agreement on counter-terrorism information security.
Some analysts believe that such ambitious projects may be foiled by the conflicting interests of SCO member states, in particular the two largest, Russia and China. The only thing that seems certain so far is that the summit will issue an "agreement on long-term friendly neighbor relations," in the words of Kyrgyzstan's foreign minister, Ednan Karabayev.
"There is talk that Russia would really like to make a significant geo-political statement through this summit, but it is questionable whether the members can agree on such an issue in order to provide a joint statement," said Sean Roberts, Central Asia Fellow at Georgetown University. "It's more likely that the summit will issue some vague statements about the need for the international community to respect the sovereignty of states and to prevent intervention in the internal affairs of the region."
The presidents of the six SCO member countries Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan all are attending. In addition, the presidents of Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Mongolia are scheduled to participate, along with the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan.
Iran, Turkmenistan, India, Pakistan and Mongolia all have expressed interest in becoming full members of the SCO. But officials from China and Russia have said that new members will not be admitted at this summit, saying that the mechanism for adding new members has not yet been worked out. Adding more members may also dilute the organization's anti-US orientation, as none of the aspirants with the notable exception of Iran share China and Russia's determination to limit US involvement in Central Asia.
Beijing and Moscow at present likely see Iranian membership as problematic. The chief concerns of Chinese and Russian leaders are that extending membership to Iran would be interpreted as an endorsement of Iran's nuclear program. Beijing and Moscow also worry about entanglement in a possible US-Iranian confrontation, as Tehran, if it were an SCO member, could invoke a mutual defense clause in the event of a potential US attack on Iranian territory. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The participation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov are attracting the most attention. For Berdimuhammedov, his presence in Bishkek is another sign of his increasingly active foreign policy, notwithstanding his stated desire to continue his predecessor's policy of neutrality.
"I'm sure that Berdimuhammedov would very much like to be included in the SCO
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.