Some see it as a NATO counterweight. Others call it a Club for Dictators - or at least near-dictators. Some consider it an anti-American stalking horse for Chinese and or Russian hegemony, with the potential to become "OPEC with nukes."
Whatever: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - a
so-called "anti-terrorism, anti-separatism, anti-extremism"
grouping, including China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which holds its fifth annual meeting
this week - definitely reeks of trouble for Uncle Sam.
Start with this: The "anti-terrorism" SCO has given observer status to Iran, the world's top state sponsor of terrorism - including an annual convention of just about every terror group on the planet.
Then consider the wider strategic implications. Beijing and Moscow are using the SCO as a tool to eliminate U.S. influence in the Eurasian heartland - the home to half the world's population, a key front in the War on Terror and the location of key world energy supplies.
The SCO formally agreed at last year's summit to reverse America's post-9/11 military presence in Central Asia. Soon after, Uzbekistan closed Karshi Khanabad airbase to U.S. forces. Now the rulers of Extortistan - er, Kyrgyzstan - are trying to raise the price of the U.S. lease on Manas airbase rent from $2 million to $200 million a year.
The United States has asked to participate in some meaningful way in the SCO since 2005, such as observing meetings or military exercises - and been flatly denied.
The SCO has offered observer status to India and Pakistan as well as Iran, and discussed full-membership for all. Iran and Pakistan are keen to join - and may be offered the chance later this year.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may push for membership at this week's session - it would help scuttle U.S. and European Union pressure over Tehran's nuclear program. (He's unlikely to get the green light - just yet.)
In many regards, he'd fit right in: You won't hear any awkward questions about democracy or human rights at the SCO - not a peep about oppressed Uighurs, Tibetans and Chechens, or about last year's crackdown in Andijan, Uzbekistan.
As Beijing and Moscow see it, keeping authoritarians in power in Central Asia (and elsewhere) not only ensures stability along the two powers' periphery, it also helps silence those annoying calls for greater political and social freedom at home.
Then there's the security angle. A quick glance at the map shows that Muslim Central Asia is in China and Russia's backyard. Some might even call it their soft underbelly - one that needs protecting, especially from Islamic extremism.
In April, the SCO announced "anti-terrorism" exercises next year in Russia. According to Guo Boxiong, vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission, these will demonstrate the SCO's growing role in maintaining regional security.
The $64,000 question - of course - is how much further will the Chinese-dominated SCO's regional-security role grow?
But security interests extend beyond Central Asia, too. Beijing would like to use the SCO's "anti-separatist" provision, particularly with the backing of Russia, to dissuade Taiwan from declaring independence - and deter U.S. intervention.
Russia's Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is none too happy with Washington, democratic revolutions or NATO expansion (especially to include Ukraine). Russia may be looking to create a "new and improved" Asian Warsaw Pact, wielding large armies, big economies, nukes - and lots of oil/gas.
Don't forget economics. Central Asia has massive oil and natural gas reserves - and with nervous consumers looking beyond the volatile Middle East, it's in Russia and China's interest that Central Asian oil/gas flows either east to China, or west through Russia. A 1,000-kilometer oil pipeline is already operating from Kazakhstan to China; a gas pipeline and joint ventures are under consideration. Non-SCO member Turkmenistan has just signed a similar oil-pipeline agreement with China.
What's Uncle Sam to do? First, keep the SCO from cementing as a full-on alliance. Remind the smaller fry that their history includes long periods of Russian/Chinese domination - and that the embrace of the Bear or the Dragon can mean years of "unpleasantness."
Next, become the region's "third big neighbor," cherry-picking SCO partners off through high-level visits, security assistance (e.g., joint exercises/training) and energy cooperation (e.g., opening Caspian transit routes).
Moscow and Beijing are using the SCO to advance their influence across the Eurasian heartland, and to create a "new international political and economic order" to their liking - with little room for free markets and even less for free thought. If the United States (and other free nations - hello, India, Europe and Japan) don't answer up, it's not just U.S. influence that will get shut out, but democracy and economic access as well.
Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."
First appeared in the New York Post