Central Asians group to counterweigh US

Russia, China, and four republics meet to expand solidarity and oppose separatism.

As President Bush tries to sell the idea of a missile defense shield to American allies in Europe, the leaders of Russia and China met yesterday and gave a thumbs down to the controversial US plan.

The Shanghai meeting of Russia, China, and four Central Asian nations is an effort to develop an organization that could one day offer a modest geopolitical counterweight to Western alliances. Its timing and substance are considered significant, with Russia and China already drawing closer after signing a number of bilateral agreements this year.

Begun in 1996, the "Shanghai Five" is regarded as a foreign policy innovation by President Jiang - an effort to create a multilateral grouping, something slightly out of step with China's traditional insular approach to outside relations.

The forum "is China's attempt to break out of its old foreign policy isolation," says Cheng Li, professor at Hamilton College in New York, author of a new book on Chinese leadership. "The group will become quite important if the US puts NMD on line. That would make an alliance between Russia and China quite likely."

In a statement that included a desire for the two countries to work "constructively" with the US, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in Shanghai, "Our views on [US national missile defense] fully coincide with China's." President Putin is scheduled to meet Mr. Bush tomorrow in Slovenia.

A Chinese spokesman in Beijing told reporters, "China and Russia hold relatively the same position on the American plan to develop NMD."

A US missile shield would make China's nuclear deterrent obsolete, according to Chinese officials - and both Russia and China argue it could start a dangerous arms race in Asia.

China already relies on Russia as its main supplier of both conventional and high-tech weaponry, including destroyers currently deployed along the Taiwan Strait.

At first, the Shanghai Five was designed as a talking shop on minor issues of borders and territory among China and its Central Asian neighbors. Yet in a few short years, the group has begun to address political and military questions, and shared problems like organized crime. This year the meeting focuses on what from Beijing's perspective is the problem of Islamic fundamentalism, and what spokespersons for the six state leaders present agreed to call "terrorism, extremism, and separatism."

A report on domestic conditions issued in Beijing's top party circles two weeks ago devoted two chapters to Muslim separatists in the far west province of Xinjiang. That province shares a border with Afghanistan, and most experts think some militant training of young Chinese Muslims is conducted in the Islamic schools of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Leaders in Beijing worry about an Islamic cabal along its western border that would create momentum for Muslim separatism.

This week the Shanghai Five accepts a new member, Uzbekistan, to join Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and China, and will meet under a new name, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Reportedly, India and Pakistan are both interested in joining, possibly by the next year's meeting in Moscow.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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