The 2007 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization reaffirmed the spirit of cooperation among member states, while offering several governments an opportunity to take shots at the ongoing US presence in Central Asia.
"Stability and security in Central Asia are best ensured primarily through efforts taken by the nations of the region on the basis of existing regional associations," summit participants said in a joint statement issued at the conclusion of the August 16 gathering in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.
Most international headlines focused on the thinly veiled swipes at Washington taken by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. "We are convinced that ... any attempts to resolve global and regional problems alone are useless," Putin said. Meanwhile, Ahmedinejad, who was in Bishkek as an observer, derided the "threats of one of the [international] powers to deploy elements of antimissile systems in several areas of the world."
The SCO, which implicitly opposes the US military and political role in Central Asia, hosted several heads of state as guests, including Ahmedinejad, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. The United States sent no representatives to the summit, and the US Embassy in Bishkek closed for two days while the summit took place.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormick could barely disguise his disdain when discussing the SCO summit, in particular the group's decision to entertain Iran as an observer. "If they [SCO leaders] want to associate with them [Iranian officials], that's up to them," McCormick said just before the summit's opening.
When several of the presidents in attendance, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, went to Chelyabinsk, Russia, to watch the final day of large-scale SCO military exercises, Putin used the occasion to drop a bombshell: Russian strategic bombers, he said, would resume regular long-range patrols for the first time since the end of the Cold War. "Starting today, such tours of duty will be conducted regularly and on the strategic scale," Putin said. "Our pilots have been grounded for too long. They are happy to start a new life."
US officials, again, responded with pique: "If Russia feels as though they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that's their decision," McCormick said.
The question of how to approach the SCO seems to be vexing Washington. Some hawks see the group as a nascent "anti-NATO," but that would be an overreaction, suggested Sean Roberts, a Central Asian affairs fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
"I don't think that the United States now has a coherent stance towards the SCO," he said. "The United States should be concerned about the role of the SCO as a counterbalance for the international ideals of democratic governance in the region, but the United States really should not be concerned about the potential for the SCO to be a military bloc. The conflicting security interests of the member states
oshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.