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LONDON — When I was in Moscow a few months ago I got into an argument with a retired high-level NATO official.

I was arguing that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), despite its humble origins, had become an important multilateral institution of global geopolitical significance.

My case was based on the way in which the organization’s 2005 summit meeting in Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, called on the United States to remove its troops from Central Asia, with observer countries India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia raising no objections.

I also drew attention to the joint Russia and China military exercises held in China last July under the auspices of the SCO and in the presence of senior defense officers from the organization countries.

The ex-NATO official didn’t buy my argument, saying he thought that the SCO was an irrelevance on the international stage. I wonder if he still thinks that?

Not a lot of people know what the SCO is. It was set up as the Shanghai Five by the Chinese after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This left China with three new borders with newly independent Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Disputes over those borders were left over from Soviet times, as was the continued dispute with the fifth member, Russia, over its 4,300-km border between Russian Outer Manchuria and Chinese Inner Manchuria.

A series of confidence-building measures, like moving troops away from border areas, led to successful negotiations over border lines. China was also interested in working with the Central Asian countries on counterterrorist activities, on the development of their markets for Chinese goods and on getting access to their deposits of oil and gas.

Although Uzbekistan does not have a common border with China it was invited to join as a full member.

Mongolia was also invited to join, but it only took on observer status (Afghanistan was invited but refused). After Uzbekistan joined, the Shanghai Five was renamed the SCO at a founding summit meeting in Shanghai in 2001.

It was also given a formal constitution, a Beijing-based secretariat and an antiterrorist unit based in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.

Initially Russia did not take the Shanghai Five and later the SCO all that seriously. It kept a watching brief on Chinese activities in its Central Asia backyard.

At various points it dampened ambitious Chinese plans to expand the activities of the organization, for example into developing a free trade area. Two things changed all that — the arrival of U.S. troops into the area after 9/11 and the purchase by China of oil fields in Kazakhstan.

Since 2003 Russia has been taking the whole thing more seriously and working with China to expand its scope and agenda. It took the lead in pressing for the membership to be expanded by inviting Iran and India to join as observers in 2005, in response to which China insisted that Pakistan be invited, too.

They both agreed that America’s strange request for membership in 2005 be turned down.

In January this year the secretary general of the SCO, Zhang Deguang, told the West not to worry about the SCO, there was no legal basis for its expansion, he said. Then in April, he reversed this position; suddenly the legal problems and lack of rules fell away and he announced that Iran, India, Pakistan and Mongolia would be invited to become full members at the July 2006 summit meeting to be held in Shanghai. I wonder who leaned on him?

After Zhang’s announcement, Iran started crowing. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mohammadi was in Moscow the week after the announcement and expressed the opinion that this newly expanded grouping of autocratic and dictatorial states (India aside) would “make the world more fair.”

He also talked of the oil- and gas-producing countries getting together to coordinate their activities as energy-producing countries by forming an “Iran-Russia oil and gas arc.” An OPEC with nuclear weapons?

The expanded SCO would have four of the world’s known eight nuclear powers, and probably the most warheads; no wonder then that Iran would like to join that group.

There is no doubt that China is the driving force in the SCO. In his 2006 “state of the union” speech on May 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not mention the SCO in the section on foreign policy. He did talk about the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Union State with Belarus, the Eurasian Economic Community and the Common Economic Space.

These are all attempts by Putin to try to re-establish some of the glories of the Soviet Union. Not all of Russia’s ex-colonies take these groupings seriously, or even belong to them. And just as the British Commonwealth does not have the key Western player in it, the U.S., none of these Russia led groups has the key “eastern player” in it, China. Russia is having to increasingly accept that its ability to project its power onto the world stage is dependent on working with China, having decided to move away from its leaning toward the West toward a tilt to the East.

While it is easy to understand why Russia now accepts that it must walk with China, it is less easy to understand what India is doing among these states whose only common denominators are a communist past or present and autocratic to ruthless dictatorial governments. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even went to Tashkent at the beginning of May to have dinner with President Islam Karimov, just about the most autocratic and dictatorial head of state in the SCO. Why? Just being polite to another club member?

I wonder if the NATO people still think that the SCO is an irrelevant organization? I don’t.

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