The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its annual summit in mid-August, providing the occasion for another round of hand-wringing over whether an anti-Western bloc has emerged. Those dark speculations are exaggerated. Indeed, the rest of the world should support efforts to increase counterterrorism capabilities in Central Asia and the region’s integration into the global economy.

The SCO was formed in 2001 and its members include China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Mongolia, Pakistan, India and Iran are observer countries. It was founded to fight the three “isms” — extremism, terrorism and separatism, and originally focused on law enforcement and security cooperation. It has since evolved to include cultural and economic cooperation, but its primary concern continues to be security issues.

China and Russia appear to be driving forces behind the group, and some worry that the Moscow-Beijing axis aims to produce a political-military institution that would counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and act as a shield against the spread of values the Western bloc represents. Critics point to summits dominated by criticism of unilateralism — sometimes referring to unspecified “powers,” sometimes targeting Washington by name — and the invitation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to observe despite his country’s standoff with the IAEA. The call, two years ago, by SCO leaders for the United States to remove its bases from Central Asia was seen as a move to reduce potential American interest in the region and a real indicator of the group’s priorities.

SCO leaders deny the charge. When asked point blank if the SCO was a counterbalance to NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin disagreed. “The military aspect is not dominant and not the main thing. . . . The SCO is an organization that deals with questions of a political character and an economic character . . . and the economic aspects are at the forefront.”

That may be the Russian hope, but the military dimension is prominent. The highlight of this year’s meeting was the first joint antiterrorism exercise that practiced a response to a militant uprising. It included 7,500 troops, dozens of aircraft and hundreds of armored vehicles. That drill coincided with another Russian exercise and the announcement by Moscow that its fleet of aerial bombers would resume long-range patrol flights, suspended since the end of the Cold War.

While Mr. Putin and Mr. Ahmadinejad no doubt enjoy tweaking the U.S., the other SCO members are not prepared to follow them down the path of confrontation. China and Russia have embraced a strategic partnership, but the Beijing leadership recognizes that its national interests require a productive and positive relationship with Washington, not one dominated by hostility or antagonism. Even more important, there is no love lost between Russia and China. Both accept the need to work together, but neither much trusts the other. Their bilateral relationship and the SCO provide opportunities for cooperation — as well as friction. Rhetoric notwithstanding, each country sees Central Asia as vital to its own national security and is eager to maximize its own influence in the region.

In this light, the most important part of the SCO is likely to be efforts to promote economic development and integration into the regional and global economy. Decisions regarding energy resources are especially critical. Central Asia has extensive energy reserves. China — like Japan — would like guaranteed long-term access to them, while Russia wants its pipelines to remain the primary vehicle by which those reserves make it to global markets. The U.S. backs plans to build pipelines that would bypass Russia. In their joint statement, SCO leaders called on member states to cooperate on energy issues and create a unified energy infrastructure. The presence of the Turkmen president at the summit, although his country is not a member, is another sign that energy cooperation will be a focus of future SCO activity.

The prospect of a natural gas cartel has long been a dream of energy producers. The geographic distribution of those supplies has blocked that plan, but agreement among SCO members could be a first step toward that goal. Here, Chinese interests differ substantially from those of other SCO states and could hamper any institutionalized production system. Moreover, Central Asian governments may welcome Russian support but they also fear dependence on Moscow.

On all counts, then, the centrifugal forces in the SCO are not to be lightly dismissed. Yet cooperation to fight terrorism and promote economic development is much needed. Other governments should back those efforts, rather than hedge against the fanciful rise of a new force in international politics.

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