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China summit seen as counterpunch to US moves

Pool / Reuters

Chinese President Hu Jintao greets Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday.

BEIJING – Will an international summit hosted by China that includes major “movers and shakers” in Asia, including Iran, Russia, India and Afghanistan, lead to an eastern version of NATO? 

“Absolutely not,” Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping told NBC News. 

Cheng was speaking at a media event as some 16 heads of state and top officials, representing more than half of the world’s population, have gathered as members, observers and dialogue partners of the innocuous-sounding Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an economic and anti-terrorist security bloc initiated by China and Russia in 2001.

The meeting comes as China’s rising profile has raised questions about a possible power struggle between the U.S. and Beijing, with the recent Asia tour of U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta highlighting America’s effort to strengthen military alliances and partnerships in the region.

And as a sign of efforts to dilute U.S. influence, the summit granted observer status to Afghanistan on Thursday, a move should position China and the bloc to cultivate ties and play a greater role in the impoverished war-torn country even before NATO ends its military mission by 2014.

Already, Chinese firms have moved into Afghanistan, with designs on the country’s untapped trillion-dollar mineral and energy resources. 

Granting observer status and inviting Afghan President Hamid Karzai will help to strengthen “political, economic and civilian cooperation between the SCO states and Afghanistan,” said Cheng at the media event. 

Pool / Reuters

Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit leaders and observers gather for a family photo, (from left to right)India's External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Mongolia President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Sharshenovich Atambayev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmon, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing June 7, 2012.

“No military alliance” but…
When NBC News asked Cheng if the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would become an “eastern NATO” or a military alliance in the future, he very firmly downplayed the possibility.

“The main purpose is politics, economics and security and under no circumstances will the SCO become a military organization,” he said.. 

“But I personally think that, as the international environment becomes more complex, the SCO should enhance its cooperation with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), for the sake of peace and stability in Central Asia,” he added. 

It’s extremely rare for Chinese senior diplomats to offer their personal views to foreign media, and Cheng’s pronouncements may be China’s trial-balloon for new security thinking. 

The Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which China is not a member, is a defense alliance formed in 1992 by Russia and former Soviet Republics, which Russia has been trying to reinvigorate in recent years, with stronger military contingents to counter the “eastward expansion of NATO,” among other threats. 

By using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a vehicle to coordinate closely with the Collective Security Treaty Organization, China may be hoping to benefit from stronger military ties with Russia, while avoiding the pitfalls of a formal military alignment. 

Alexey Druzhinin / AFP - Getty Images

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao shake hands before a meeting at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Beijing, on Thursday.

“It is my personal view,” Vice-Minister Cheng emphasized to NBC News, “but I will try to push for it."

“The peace and stability of Central Asia is related to China’s core interests, we will not allow the unrest in West Asia and North Africa to spread to Central Asia,” he said, referring to the threat of Arab-style upheavals.

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“America should not worry”
“I don’t think America should worry about China’s Central Asia strategy,” said Professor Shi Yinhong, a leading international affairs expert at Renmin University, one of China’s top research institutions. 

“There is no possibility for SCO to become a formal military alliance like NATO, but there can be greater security cooperation among SCO’s member-countries,” he told NBC News. 

Nonetheless, Shi conceded there are “some elements" of counter-balancing strategy in China’s latest moves.   

“China has neither the stomach nor the power to confront America’s strategic advantage in East Asia, but China has the capability to improve cooperation in Central Asia,” he said. 

“China’s difficulty in East Asia is a motivation for China to do good diplomacy in Central Asia, otherwise things will become very difficult for China,” he explained. 

Researcher Horace Lu contributed to this report.