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Central Asia: 'Shanghai Five' To Admit Uzbekistan As New Member

The presidents of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are meeting this week in Shanghai for a summit of the group they formed in 1996 -- the so-called "Shanghai Five." The group has already achieved its original goal of demilitarizing the Chinese-CIS border. Now it has set itself a new task: combating international terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. This new focus is highlighted by the group's expected admission of a sixth member, Uzbekistan, this week.

Prague, 14 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- This year's "Shanghai Five" summit returns this week to the city where it was created in 1996. Gathering in Shanghai today and Friday, the presidents of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are expected to admit a sixth member -- Uzbekistan. In so doing, the regional group will readjust its focus to what members are calling the battle against international terrorism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told Chinese media earlier this week that Uzbekistan will participate in this week's summit as a "full-fledged member." Putin emphasized Uzbekistan's importance in the group, saying greater collective efforts were needed to stave off growing problems in Central Asia:

"It should be noted that the region appears to already have sufficient problems, and the potential for conflict there is very high."

The Shanghai Five was originally formed to reduce military forces along the border between China and the CIS. The reductions were needed as much for budgetary purposes as they were for building trust between the neighboring countries, and were a success on both counts. After military cutback agreements in 1996 and 1997, the five members went on to seek new avenues of cooperation to build on their early progress.

An agreement on fighting terrorism was reached at the rotating summit held in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek in August 1999. China had already launched several campaigns to crush an independence movement led by Muslim Uighurs in its western Xinjiang Province. Russia at that time had troops fighting Islamic separatists in Daghestan and was on the eve of its second Chechen war, which Moscow has described as a fight against Islamic religious extremists. Kyrgyz troops had just started fighting Islamic militants in the southern part of their own country.

The militants in Kyrgyzstan were mainly citizens of Uzbekistan looking to overthrow the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The militants' declared goal is the likely reason Karimov was invited to attend, as an observer, last year's summit in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. It also explains this week's expected invitation to Uzbekistan to join the Shanghai group.

Russia's continuing conflict in Chechnya and the Chinese government's battle with Uighur separatists will both receive attention. Both Putin and China's President Jiang Zemin see their domestic problems as part of a much wider network of international terrorists who all have training bases in Afghanistan.

The member nations may have a harder time finding common ground when it comes to economic issues. Although each has bilateral trade agreements with the others, all publicly support the idea of creating a trade zone stretching from China to Russia's western borders in Europe. But it is difficult to see what China -- a leading contender for entry into the World Trade Organization, or WTO -- would gain from a trade zone including countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The proposed trade zone would also cause problems in organizing tariff and other regulations. Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- along with Belarus -- already form one such economic partnership, the Eurasian Economic Community. And the three Central Asian states, together with Uzbekistan, form yet another, the Central Asian Economic Union. Both blocs have their own regulations which do not always jibe with those of the larger organizations like the WTO, which all but Kyrgyzstan, already a member, aspire to join.

There will be other topics discussed at the summit as well. China and Russia are expected to seek, and receive, support from the other members in denouncing U.S. plans to either amend or withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and develop a missile defense system. And a traditional ritual of the summits is to include a call for a peaceful solution to the conflict in Afghanistan in the final statement.