Members of the U.S. Congress and European leaders fear that an economic and security group led by Russia and China will emerge as an anti-democratic rival to the West, but analysts warn against confrontation.
The two central players in this debate are the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a 56-member group that grew out of the Cold War, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a six-member group that is a product of the post-Soviet reality. China and Russia are the driving forces behind the SCO, which has four former Soviet states from Central Asia as the other members.
The four countries -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- also are members of the OSCE. Kazakhstan is aiming for the chairmanship of the European security group in 2009.
The SCO, which held a summit in China last month, invited Iran and India as observers, and offered Tehran full membership, raising suspicions in the West that the group was trying to expand its influence and grow as a counterweight to Western institutions such as the OSCE. Iran, part of what President Bush has called an axis of evil, is in a standoff with the West over its nuclear program. India increasingly is becoming a close ally of the United States and recently signed a landmark nuclear cooperation agreement with Washington.
Speaking at a Capitol Hill meeting in late June, OSCE Chairman Karel De Gucht said he has concerns about the SCO, which was formed in 2001.
"In our organization, all states adhere to common principles, which is the cornerstone of our vision of stability," said Mr. De Gucht, who also is the Belgian foreign minister.
"[The SCO is] developing a philosophy on stability, but ... the role of common principles -- democratic principles, that's what we're talking about -- to put it mildly, is not that big," he said.
Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican and chairman of the Helsinki Commission, described the SCO as "a collection of largely authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes with little tolerance for human rights."
Although Mr. De Gucht said this wording was too harsh, he added, "I think there is a serious fear that in the minds of some participants, they see it as a competitive organization to the OSCE. I think it's true."
SCO member countries deny any anti-Western agenda.
A senior adviser in the Russian Embassy who asked that his name be withheld, said that he was disturbed by these comments and that Mr. Brownback's view was "totally the wrong picture."
"We are transparent and compete with no one. Do you see any threat here? Why all this talk about threats?" he said.
In Beijing, a Chinese government press statement quoted President Hu Jintao as saying the SCO "has always been an open organization that is not exclusive and targets no third party."
Kyrgyz Embassy official Kainar Toktomushev said: "I do not see why our relations with the West should be damaged because we are a member of the SCO. The SCO respects democratic principles, and we want expanded ties with Western countries, especially America."
Lionel Beehner, a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, said touting Iran as a potential member may be responsible for the growing concern in Congress about SCO.
"It was a great [public relations] move. There's no way Iran will ever join. But I think it drew a lot of attention and got them in the headlines. And people started to think, 'What kind of a group is this that Iran wants to join?' " Mr. Beehner said.
Frederick Starr, chairman of the Johns Hopkins University's Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, said U.S. concern also might stem from fear of Russian influence within the group.
"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has really been the champion of confrontation [with the West]," said Mr. Starr, referring to recent sparring between U.S. and Russian officials over energy policy. At the SCO summit, Mr. Putin proposed the creation of an "energy club" within the SCO.
The Russian Embassy senior official said, "This energy idea is no threat. It is quite natural for these states to work together."
Roman Vassilenko, press secretary at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington, said Kazakhstan's position as a member of both the OSCE and the SCO proved that any Western fears were unfounded.
"We are a committed member of both groups, and we don't see them as being mutually exclusive," he said.
Mr. Vassilenko said Kazakhstan's bid for the OSCE chairmanship, which will be decided in December, could be a key for the West to find a bridge to the SCO.
"If Kazakhstan gets the chairmanship, it would be a great way for the West to increase its clout in our part of the world. The OSCE has never placed the chair east of Vienna," he said.
Mr. Vassilenko also said SCO members from Central Asia would welcome OSCE election observers and would not see their presence as meddling. Elections in many former Soviet states of Central Asia often are seen as less than fair by Western monitors.
"We have seen much improvement from one election to another because they give us advice on how to make things work better," Mr. Vassilenko said.
Mr. De Gucht suggested patience and flexibility in dealing with former Soviet republics and noted that transitioning from communist economic and political systems would take time.
Mr. Brownback, however, proposed a tougher approach: "Liberty is a gift for all of us to participate in, not just for those in Western countries or with certain ideologies. We have never given up on that concept. That's why it's important to pressure groups like the SCO to endorse that concept."
In terms of how the West -- specifically the OSCE -- should approach the SCO, analysts suggested avoiding confrontation.
"These countries will act in their own interests. If the U.S. or the OSCE were to decide to take on the SCO, that would be just what it needs to get going. It would strengthen it," said Paul Wolf, a lawyer and researcher who travels extensively in Central and Eastern Asia.
He said there was little reason to fear the group: "They aren't doing anything. They're having meetings."
In regard to endorsing democratic principles, Mr. Starr said, "Russia and China don't do that at home, so what makes anyone think they'd do it anywhere else?"
Mr. Beehner agreed that a confrontational approach would lead only to alienation, as SCO member states have reasons to distrust the West.
"These leaders are afraid of what they see as Washington-based efforts at regime change," he said.
Mr. Starr and Mr. Vassilenko suggested a different approach to assuage Western fears of the SCO.
"What the West needs to do is support some of the healthy alternatives to the SCO in the region. The SCO should not be allowed to become a monopoly organization," Mr. Starr said.