Why watching war games is a waste of energy

By Bronwen Maddox (THE TIMES, 17/08/07):

Is Russia managing to build a rival to Nato? More than you would have thought last year and more than is comfortable in Europe and the US.

The summit yesterday of Russia, China and their Central Asian neighbours was dubbed the “anti-Nato” by Izvestia, the Russian daily newspaper, and it has a point. Iran, as an “observer”, added a new and menacing tone to the group.

Russia’s main frustration in its ambitions for the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), as the 11-year-old group is formally called, is that China wants the club to focus on economics and energy more than security and shares none of Russia’s delight in picking a fight with the US. Even so, the group could clash with the West over Central Asian energy supplies.

The SCO’s deep interest in Afghanistan is an even surer conflict. The West’s best hope is that the tensions within the group stop it doing anything coherent.

The SCO emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union to tackle border disputes between Russia, Central Asian states and China. Its members are now Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia have joined as observers, and the leaders of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan attended this year as guests.

After the summit in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, the leaders of the six members will go to Chelyabinsk, in the Russian Urals, to watch war games between their joint forces. That blunt expression of common interest is almost refreshing, a blast of crisp air with the authentic chill of the Cold War, compared with the cloying barbeques and summer sports with which President Bush has been courting potential friends.

The West has had no great need to take the group seriously. The irascibility that these leaders display towards Europe and America they also turn on each other. But this year’s meeting shows more focus than usual. The West’s worries should be:

The SCO says that it wants to play a bigger role in helping Afghanistan and fighting drugs trafficking. Its members have even more self-interest than the US in this conflict, and all the advantages of proximity;

The group wants Kyrgyzstan to expel the US from its air base in Bishkek, although Ednan Karabaev, the Kyrgyz Foreign Minister said, before the summit that it was not seeking closure because the base was important for helping Afghanistan;

This year, Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan signed a deal to expand a Soviet scheme for delivering gas from the Caspian region. This could challenge Western plans to open new supplies, independent of Russia, by routing exports across the Caspian Sea. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh President, said that the group “should create an ‘Energy Club’, which . . . could become one of the key elements of Asian energy strategy”;

Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the Iranian President, used the summit as another chance to hit out at US plans for a missile-defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia and Iran are vocal allies on this point.

The US, which sees the system as a defence against missiles from Iran, yesterday formally bestowed on Israel an unprecedented, $30 billion (£15 billion), ten-year military aid package, partly because of the threat from Iran.

Yesterday’s belligerent talk, led by Russia, with Iran as its enthusiastic echo, was the spirit of the SCO that President Putin has wanted to cultivate. But for all the threats, China’s restraining influence was evident. Few analysts expect Iran to be made a full member of the SCO in open challenge to the US, something that China does not want.

Out of all the West’s worries about the SCO, the greatest should be control of energy supplies. The war games, at the moment, are a showy distraction.