Asian security group gains legal status


ST.PETERSBURG, Russia, AP

The leaders of Russia, China and four Central Asian nations on Friday anointed their security group as a full-fledged international organization and vowed to strengthen their cooperation against terrorism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also used the regional summit to reassure China that his efforts to build closer ties with the West do not threaten Russia’s burgeoning ties with Beijing.

Putin, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and leaders of former Soviet republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan signed the charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — a document that will give the group formal, international legal status.

The six leaders also agreed to set up a joint regional anti-terrorist structure headquartered in Kyrgyzstan.

“We bear a special responsibility for security and stability in Central Asia,” Putin said.

The group, which was set up in Shanghai in 1996, initially included five nations and called itself the Shanghai Five. Last year it embraced Uzbekistan and renamed itself to reflect more ambitious goals.

The original group was created to help defuse tensions along China’s 7,500-kilometer (4,600-mile) border with the other member nations. Recently, it has increasingly focused on combined efforts to fight extremism, terrorism and separatism.

Russia and China, which have dominated the group, have described it as an important tool to increase stability in Asia and foster the concept of a “multipolar world” intended to offset perceived U.S. global domination.

But the shared domination of Russia and China over strategically placed, resource-rich Central Asia ended after Sept. 11, when Putin gave a quick blessing for the U.S. military deployment there for operations in Afghanistan.

The U.S. push into the region has troubled China, which expressed support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism but remains nervous about the American military presence near its borders.

Putin sought to assuage China’s concern about the U.S. military presence in the region, saying in an interview this week that the U.S. military presence in Central Asia was key to defeating Islamic terrorists who threaten to destabilize the entire region. He said that Russia no longer considers the United States a rival, but a partner in its relations with other ex-Soviet republics.

Uzbekistan has treated the Shanghai group with increasing neglect since its relations with the United States improved dramatically thanks to its offer to host U.S. troops last fall. Some analysts say Uzbek President Islam Karimov is increasingly looking to the United States as Uzbekistan’s chief protector and trying to distance his nation from Moscow and Beijing.

During Friday’s summit, however, Karimov hailed the group as an important part of the global effort to combat terrorism.

Putin also sought to soothe Beijing’s uneasiness about increasingly warm ties between Russia and the West, which helped him reach a nuclear arms deal with the United States and a cooperation agreement with NATO in recent weeks. Putin held a separate meeting with Jiang on Thursday.