PRAGUE, September 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The prime ministers of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and the Uzbek deputy prime minister met in Dushanbe today. They were joined by representatives from SCO observer nations Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan.
At the top of the SCO's agenda is improving transportation and energy links between the member states. It is a formidable task in terms of distance and geography. Roads, railways, and pipelines must transit through some of the highest mountains in the world, across deserts, and via the relatively easier vast steppes.
Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov spoke about the priorities that participants at today's session discussed for SCO cooperation in the coming years.
"In particular, in the spheres of transportation and communications, the fuel and energy sectors, tourism, and trade," he said.
A communique signed by the participants at the end of today's meeting stated that the SCO's priorities in the near future will be energy, transportation, and telecommunications. The communique spoke of the impending creation of the "SCO Energy Club," a point Kazakh Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov said could be the solution to the energy problems of the all the SCO members.
"We defined again the priority connected to the development of our relationship in the field of energy, in the [energy] transit potential of our states," Akhmetov said. "Special attention, as I proposed, will be paid to energy security and I believe this issue will be among the most important in the economic development of our nations."
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov spoke of the need to build new gas transit corridors in Central Asia and to develop the hydroelectric potential in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and export some of that energy to different regions of Central and South Asia.
Back To Economic Policies
The ministers discussed improving road links between the countries and tightening coordination between the customs agencies of the six countries.
Today's SCO meeting brought focus back to one of the organization's original priorities. When the group was created in 1996, five years before Uzbekistan joined, the main goal was to create confidence-building measures along the Sino-CIS border.
The first agreements the participants signed covered the withdrawal and scaling back of military forces along that common border. This proved so successful that the group continued meeting and placed a new emphasis on economic cooperation. Economics took a back seat as the group's focus turned to the battle against international terrorism.
The group did mention the need for further cooperation in battling terrorism and the growing narcotics trade. On the latter point, Fradkov noted the importance of Afghanistan's participation in the SCO.
Analysts may in the future recall today's session as a defining moment in China's influence in Central Asia. Certainly Tajik and Chinese media made much of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit to Tajikistan. Ahead of today's meeting of ministers, Wen and Tajik officials discussed the upcoming joint military exercises their countries will hold. China held its first ever joint military exercises with Kyrgyzstan in 2002 and with Kazakhstan earlier this year. Wen seemed to have something to say on every point at the ministers' meeting.
The group concluded by saying they would meet again next year in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.
(Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
Soldiers conducting the first-ever SCO joint antiterrorism exercises, held in Kazakhstan in August 2003 (TASS)
NATO'S EVIL TWIN? At an August 3 briefing at RFE/RL's Washington,D.C., office, Central Asia experts Richard Weitz and Daniel Kimmage discussed the emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multilateral body that comprises Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In addition, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan have observer status in the organization.
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