- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2007

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — When the presidents of 10 countries gather today to map out their strategy for the security of Central Asia, there will be one major player conspicuously missing: the United States.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is holding its annual summit here, just a few miles from the Manas Air Base that the United States uses to support its operations in Afghanistan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the presidents of the five post-Soviet Central Asian states and Mongolia all will be in attendance, as will senior officials from India and Pakistan.

But no American officials will be taking part in the summit, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek said.

The group, which was founded in 2001, includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia are observers.

It has yet to truly form a cohesive identity, and thus far has taken on the character of part security alliance, part economic cooperation organization.

Nevertheless, the high-profile guest list and intense media interest — there are 500 accredited reporters covering the summit — attest to its increasing clout in a region fiercely contested for political influence and for its substantial reserves of oil and gas.

Although most of the countries in the SCO have friendly relations with the United States, the group is dominated by China and Russia. It is generally viewed in the west as a mechanism by which China and Russia can counter U.S. influence in Central Asia.

At its summit two years ago, the SCO took a shot across the bow to the U.S. presence in Central Asia by asking that the United States issue a timetable for when it plans to leave.

At that time the United States had an air base in Uzbekistan as well. But Uzbekistan forced the United States to leave in late 2005.

Now Manas is the only base available to U.S. forces in an SCO member country.

“There’s little likelihood that the U.S. will be inducted into the SCO as observers any time soon. For the Russians in particular, the SCO is seen as a club outside of U.S. influence,” said Sean Roberts, Central Asia fellow at Georgetown University in Washington.

Nevertheless, the question of what to do with the SCO seems to have vexed Washington. Some hawks see the group as a nascent “anti-NATO” one, but that would be an overreaction, Mr. Roberts said.

“I don’t think that U.S. now has a coherent stance towards the SCO,” he said.”The U.S. should be concerned about the role of the SCO as a counterbalance for the international ideals of democratic governance in the region, but the U.S. really should not be concerned about the potential for the SCO to be a military bloc.”

It’s not clear what the summit might produce. Iran, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Mongolia have expressed interest in becoming full members of the organization, but Chinese and Russian officials said in the days before the summit that no new members would be admitted.

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