As Iran, Russia, and China meet in Kyrgyzstan at a security conference with four formerly Soviet Central Asian countries, America's spreading military power has been at the top of the agenda. It appears to be a matter on which the three powers are in agreement: America's supposed military supremacy cannot go unchallenged.
In his speech Thursday to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinjad attacked US plans to deploy missile intercepting technology to Eastern Europe, saying the US plan could threaten much of Asia's security, the Associated Press reports.
The U.S. says it wants to deploy missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic to deflect potential threats from Iran. But Russia has objected to the initiative as a threat to its own security and the balance of forces in Europe.
Ahmadinejad said "these intentions go beyond just one country. They are of concern for much of the continent, Asia and SCO members."
Bloomberg reports that Russia and China are worried about the United States perceived sole superpower status. The two nations are willing to do business with Iran in order to change the balance of the world security order that they feel is badly out of whack. Another important subtext to the conference is that Russia and China are seeking to present themselves as potential developers of Central Asia's vast oil and gas reserves without carrying the political package with them that doing business with the US sometimes brings.
China and Russia, which are competing with the West for access to Central Asia's oil and gas reserves, are positioning the SCO as a counterweight to the U.S., said Andrew Kuchins of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
``Russia and China never tire of reiterating their commitment to a multipolar world and opposition to a unipolar one,'' he said in a telephone interview. ``The SCO is a manifestation of that in Eurasia.''
The SCO in 2005 called for a timetable to end the U.S. military presence in Central Asia. Within six months, Uzbekistan ordered out U.S. forces stationed at its Khanabad airbase. The U.S. has a remaining airbase in Kyrgyzstan, which is used to support operations in Afghanistan.
On Friday, the attendees at the conference will observe unprecedented war games between the participants' militaries – the first on Russian soil involving cooperation with China, once a rival of the Soviet Union – that the country's leaders hope will solidify their burgeoning military cooperation in the face of US concerns, reports the Agence France-Presse.
Speaking in a new conference centre built by Chinese contractors under the shining backdrop of the snow-covered Tien Shan mountains, Russia's Putin described the SCO as a budding force.
"Year after year the SCO becomes a more significant factor in strengthening security and stability in the Central Asian region," he said.
Many analysts see the SCO as an anti-Western club aiming to stem inroads by the United States and its allies, as well as the NATO military alliance, in an oil- and gas-rich region that China and Russia consider their backyard.
"We are convinced that... any attempts to resolve global and regional problems alone are useless," (Russian President Vladimir) Putin said, in a barely disguised swipe at Washington.
Lionel Beehner, until recently a writer for the Council on Foreign Relations, argues on his blog at Huffingtonpost.com that the military efforts between the three powers so far look like a nascent attempt to build something like the Warsaw Pact for the modern world, but that Iran's deepening involvement is in question.
… [I]s this a serious alliance bent on rivaling NATO, a neo-Warsaw Pact for the post-Cold War era?
Not yet. But that does not make it a benign organization to be brushed aside either. Indeed, the SCO is emerging as a powerful player in a region teeming with terrorists, drug pushers, and oil pipelines. Meanwhile, the orientation of the group's members are increasingly aligning to project a more united front that is, if not hostile to, then outwardly suspicious of U.S. military, economic, geopolitical and -- some might say -- neo-imperialistic interests in the region
If enlarged to include the group's four observer states -- Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan, and India -- currently under consideration, the SCO would dwarf NATO's size and be home to large amounts of the world's natural gas and nuclear ammo.
Yet Tehran is not expected to get its wish for full membership into the Shanghai club -- at least not yet. For the moment, neither China nor Russia has indicated any interest in adding more members to the SCO's rosters, particularly ones with unpredictable foreign policies like Iran.
Back in the Cold War era, NATO was often described as a way to keep the Germans down, the Americans in, and the Russians out. The SCO, it might be said, is meant to keep the Russians down, the Chinese in, and the Americans out. Throw the Iranians into that mix, and all bets are off.
Meanwhile the Ria Novosti Russian government-owned news agency reports that Moscow is interested in adding Turkmenistan to the Shanghai group's roster and quoted a Russian deputy foreign minister praising the importance of Iran's regional role.
"The SCO has an objective interest in Turkmenistan as a regional nation," Andrei Denisov said in an interview with the Vremya Novostei popular daily. "In principle, Turkmenistan could apply for core membership in the organization."
The SCO currently has a moratorium on its expansion. The Russian diplomat said this move was designed to consolidate ties within the organization and to decide on ways of cooperation with other interested
countries. Denisov said the moratorium was not politically motivated, "The SCO ... remains open to cooperation with all interested countries and international organizations."
When asked whether the alliance's ties with Iran, which Western countries suspect of pursuing a secret nuclear program, compromised the SCO, Denisov said Iran was an equal and respected member of the international community. He also said the Islamic Republic was present in the region as an energy producer and a vital transportation hub.
China's state-owned media has been typically reticent about digging into the significance of the event, sticking to platitudes, as the China Daily's front page story on the conference illustrates.
[Chinese President Hu Jintao] said opening-up and deepening cooperation with other countries and international organizations will help SCO build a sound external environment conducive to its development.
We will stick to peaceful cooperation as well as multilateralism when concerns from other parts of the world towards SCO, especially towards Central Asia, are increasing," Hu said.
"We will support all activities that benefit regional peace, stability and economic progress and will help preserve the solidarity and security of its member countries."
The use of the world "multilateral" has emerged in the discourse of both the Chinese and Russian states as a criticism of America's alleged unilateral efforts, like the American invasion of Iraq, which both countries opposed.