WASHINGTON, September 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (Republican, Kansas) titled the hearing: "The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Is It Undermining U.S. Interests In Central Asia?"
A U.S. expert on the region, Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the committee the answer is "no."
Brownback concluded by saying the SCO is worth watching closely in case it takes an "aggressive trajectory."
"The existence of the SCO will never serve U.S. interests, but it need not directly hinder them," she said. "It's easy to criticize the SCO as a union of nondemocratic states. But I would argue that these states are not bound together by their common interest in keeping member states from becoming democracies. They are bound together by a shared set of security interests and a shared set of perceived risk."
Olcott acknowledged that the SCO's annual meetings have in recent years become a forum for member states Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to vent their frustration with U.S. foreign policy, but she said the virulent anti-Western rhetoric that sometimes results is more posturing than a reflection of actual policy.
In response, Brownback noted that the SCO summit in July 2005 called on Washington to set a deadline for the withdrawal of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia. The United States at that time had two military bases in the region, one in Uzbekistan and one in Kyrgyzstan. That call reinforced the suspicion, he said, that one of the SCO's underlying purposes is to weaken U.S. influence in the region.
India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan are observer members of the SCO, and Brownback told the committee that Iran -- who he called "the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism" -- wants to be promoted to full-member status.
But Olcott said an expansion of the SCO is unlikely for several reasons. She called the group's economic mission "ill-defined" and said until a more concrete strategy is agreed on, the organization is not likely to add new members who may end up competing with Russia and China for the rich natural resources Central Asia has.
Within the existing group, she said, SCO members are likely to become increasingly important economic partners for each other, especially in the area of energy. Olcott said Russia and China are already competing for the oil and gas reserves of Central Asia -- and China -- in particular, looks to the region for help with its energy and security issues.
The mutual advantage the SCO provides its members in this area begins to diminish, she said, if it begins to admit other large oil- or gas-producing states like Iran, or states with large competing markets, like India.
But she added that because China and Kyrgyzstan are already members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) -- and Russia and Kazakhstan have WTO ambitions -- the SCO isn't likely to evolve into an exclusive regional trade organization of its own.
Not Promoting Human Rights?
Moving to other potential spheres of influence, Brownback expressed deep concern about what he said is the SCO's negative impact on democracy and human rights in Central Asia.
"In a glaring challenge to the aspiration of the region's people for freedom and representative government, the SCO's executive secretary has been quoted as saying 'the time for color revolutions [such as those in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan] in Central Asia is gone,'" he said. "In fact, Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, has sought to use participation in the SCO as a way to overcome isolation [after Andijon]."
Olcott responded by saying that China, at least, has little interest in the domestic politics of Central Asia, except as policies relate to the treatment of ethnic minorities like China's Uyghurs.
"This is the one place where the Chinese government has placed very serious pressure on the Central Asian states to restrict the political rights and to outlaw, in particular, the Uyghur groups," she said.
But she warned against a U.S. policy of trying to interfere in the relationship between Central Asia and China.
China Behaving Thus Far
"It is not in U.S. interests to create chasms in the relationship between the Central Asian states and China," she said. "The Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in particular understand that there is no way that the fate of their countries can be fully separated from that of China. For now, at least, China is behaving responsibly in Central Asia. Beijing sees the SCO as a way to parry Russian influence and, even if only indirectly, to keep the states from becoming exclusively European in outlook."
As to the Central Asian states' relationship with Russia, Olcott described it as "useful." She explained that the SCO provides Central Asian leaders with a "buffer" they can use to balance Russian and Chinese influence in the region.
She told the committee that one Central Asian foreign minister told her, in private, that the biggest advantage his country gets from membership in the SCO is a way to "oppose Moscow" when there is a clash between his country and Russia on a given issue. When that happens, they bring it to the SCO and it becomes a topic for all members to discuss, which effectively neutralizes Russia's position.
And to further allay the committee's fears of extensive cooperation on security matters, Olcott said Russian suspicion of China runs very deep, and there is a limit to how much security cooperation can actually exist between SCO members.
"The security goals of Russia and the SCO do not fully overlap," she said. "And Russia itself would be very uncomfortable with intelligence sharing between the Central Asian states and Beijing, if all the SCO members were to share intelligence. I'm sure some limited intelligence sharing goes on, but not the kind of intelligence sharing that goes on between Russia and the Central Asian states."
Also testifying was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher. He told the committee that U.S. policy in the region is to treat all five Central Asian nations as sovereign and independent states. The United States' overall goal, he said, is to support the development of stable, democratic nations integrated into the world economy and cooperating with each other, the United States, and U.S. partners to advance regional security and stability.
That strategy involves three aspects, he said: fostering security cooperation, expanding commercial and economic opportunity, and promoting internal political and economic reform.
State Department Not Troubled
Boucher said the United States has been trying to forge ties in several areas to Central Asia -- economic, security, and political -- and strengthen relations between the region and Western groups like NATO, the EU, and the OSCE.
"We're promoting multiple linkages to the world in-region," he said. "We think a country should never be left with one option, one market, one trading partner, one vital infrastructure link. More choices for them means more independence. More independence means more opportunity to exercise their own sovereignty. And that's our goal for the countries of Central Asia. We'll continue to pursue it by working with the countries individually and with the multilateral organizations that share our goals in Central Asia."
Brownback asked Boucher about the SCO's "vocal opposition to the exportation of democracy." Boucher responded by saying the SCO has a policy of "cooperation without questions" by its members.
He said the SCO "gives them a club to go to and be happy with each other and not face any criticism."
When Brownback asked whether this is an attempt by the Chinese to "get a leg up on [the U.S.] economically" by not asking any questions of leaders who oppose democracy and human rights, Boucher said he does not believe so. He said for China it is "business as usual" to pursue its economic interests anywhere in the world it needs to without regard for how a given economic partner treats its citizens or runs its government.
When Brownback quoted a U.S. expert as saying that the SCO is "the most dangerous organization Americans have never heard of" and that it is "more than just an economic organization, the SCO is a potential Warsaw Pact," Boucher said he doesn't see it that way. The countries of Central Asia, he said, have options and opportunities and can get out of any organization just as they got in.
But when Brownback concluded by saying the SCO is worth watching closely in case it takes an "aggressive trajectory," Boucher agreed.