Regional cooperation aimed against separatist groups and U.S. domination were the themes struck at this years summit of the Shanghai Five -- an informal association grouping Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Here is a look at some of the issues linking and dividing the members:
Prague, 25 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- This years meeting of the so-called "Shanghai Five" in the Kyrgyz capital this week did not yield any major breakthroughs. None were planned.
But the leaders of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan appeared intent on sending two important signals to the world. The first is that separatism will not be tolerated. The second, as far as China and Russia are concerned, is that bilateral relations are warming, guided by the old saying: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
The "Shanghai Five" grouping was named after the Chinese city where the five countries signed a treaty in 1996 on easing border tensions and boosting ties. At that gathering, they also signed a declaration opposing separatism, specifically aimed at Uighurs fighting for independence in Chinas northwestern Xinjiang province.
This year, the issue of separatism has intruded anew, with the crises in Kosovo and Dagestan. There have been other crises, too. In recent weeks, tensions between China and Taiwan have flared over the status of the island, which Beijing claims as a renegade province. And even as the summit opened, Kyrgyz troops were battling ethnic Uzbek infiltrators in the south of Kyrgyzstan.
But it was NATOs intervention in Kosovo and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade which has most marked the past few months and which soured Washingtons relations with both Moscow and Beijing, driving the leaders of those countries into a pragmatic embrace.
The only all-encompassing document to emerge from the Bishkek meeting was Wednesdays declaration, which called for greater regional cooperation and joint efforts to combat terrorism, illegal migration, and drug trafficking. The declaration also stressed the Shanghai Fives commitment to counter perceived U.S. domination.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov alluded to this, in his talk to reporters:
"In the world today, there is an active struggle to establish a new world order. As you know, Russia, China and many other states want to see a multipolar world."
In a more direct swipe at the United States, Chinese President Jiang Zemin said hegemony and the politics of force were on the rise. He condemned what he called "forms of so-called neo-interventionism." Russian President Boris Yeltsin, too, said he was in a combative mood, especially, as he put it, "against Westerners."
On the summit sidelines, Yeltsin and Jiang had a private meeting. Ivanov said the two leaders discussed "further practical steps in the development of a strategic partnership in the international arena."
The two countries have recently discussed arms deals and Russia has long-range plans to sell natural gas to China, but the fact remains that both countries remain far more reliant on their trade ties with the United States and the West than with each other.
Peter Ferdinand, an expert on Sino-Russian relations at Warwick University in England, tells RFE/RL that part of the problem is the restricted type of trade in which Russia can engage China:
"The sorts of things that Russia has to offer to China tend to be either energy--and China could be in the market for that--or raw materials. Its not manufactured goods, apart from arms. So that kind of constrains the extent to which this trading relationship can develop in the future."
As far as geopolitics is concerned, China and Russia retain alliances with each others' adversaries. Beijing remains close to Pakistan while Moscow cultivates its ties with India. In their relations with the United States, Ferdinand says neither Russia nor China is prepared to suffer permanent harm for the sake of a closer Sino-Russian union:
"The trouble is that both countries also want to have good relations with the United States, and even though there are various deals that they could do with each other, that isn't likely to stand in the way of attempts to get China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) or for Russia to achieve arms negotiation successes with the United States."
Leaders in the two countries, along with those in Central Asia, do share a common fear of Islamic fundamentalism. They want to contain the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan and ensure that the Uighur movement for independence from China remains stifled. These are unifying factors, but what concrete policies will emerge from this shared interest remains unclear. Steps taken so far have been limited. At this years Bishkek summit, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan signed an accord reaffirming their existing borders.
And on the sidelines, the presidents of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan met to discuss the hostage crisis now unfolding in southern Kyrgyzstan. At last report, between 50 to 300 gunmen thought to be Uzbek militants were holding several settlements and hostages, despite attempts by Kyrgyz troops, backed by the Uzbek and Tajik militaries, to dislodge them. The rebels slipped into Kyrgyzstan from neighboring Tajikistan and that countrys president, Imomali Rakhmonov, pledged on Wednesday to temporarily close the border to ensure the rebels cannot be re-supplied.
Looking at the long term, the Shanghai Five is an apt name, says Peter Ferdinand. With Russias economic woes set to last for the foreseeable future and Chinas fortunes continuing to look rosy by comparison, he expects Central Asian countries to draw closer to Beijing. But he notes that their strategic interest lies in carefully balancing ties with China and Russia -- something of which they are well aware:
"I think over time there will be a gradual opening towards China [on the part of Central Asia], not least because its the Chinese economy which is growing and its the Russian economy which continues to stagnate or decline. Since these countries need to find ways of developing trading relationships -- and they certainly need to find ways of exporting their own energy out of the region -- there will be a general balancing which will lead them to want a greater emphasis on relations with China. But they also know that China is a bear that could suffocate them if they become too close."