China and Afghanistan are expected to deepen ties when they sign a series of strategic agreements during this week's annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Set to begin Wednesday in Beijing, the SCO meeting will focus on membership expansion and more security and economic collaboration among the members, said Beijing's Foreign Ministry's spokesman Liu Weimin. The current members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
"China is looking forward to outcomes including making the SCO a harmonious region," Liu said, adding that the organization will make a formal decision on accepting Afghanistan as an observer member state.
In previous statements, China and Russia have supported Afghanistan's admission, which in the words of a Chinese official "will help the SCO counter terrorism, separatism and extremism."
India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan already have observer status, which allows them to take part in sideline consultations during SCO meetings.
China is also expected to sign a series of strategic agreements that will raise its profile with Afghanistan, following a decade in which Beijing stayed largely on the sidelines of the U.S.-led war against the Taliban.
Raffaello Pantucci, an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at London's King's College, said the shift is driven in part by U.S. plans to begin withdrawing combat forces from Afghanistan. "The realization slowly sinks in that the United States might be off in 2014," he said.
Pantucci said that by admitting Afghanistan as an observer, the SCO member states would be acknowledging the limits of the organization's ability to deal with terrorism in the region. "The SCO perceived that it has not done much, so this is a sort of visible statement saying, 'Yes, we recognize this and we will do more.'"
Beijing regards the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a platform for its battle against separatism in the westernmost areas of the Xinjiang region.
In the decade since the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was established in 2001, member states have carried out various military and counterterrorism drills, and held regular meetings of foreign affairs, defense and law enforcement officials.
Chen Yurong, a researcher at a leading government think tank in Beijing, said regional stability is the main goal of the SCO but that its member nations mainly build ties through dialogue.
Many Chinese scholars see the organization as an example of "new regionalism," which China is championing as an alternative to what it perceives as Western hegemony.
"The SCO includes countries that, as it is, have no economic clout to speak of, yet they are equal," Chen said.
Some analysts regard the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a more fractured organization, with China and Russia competing for strategic primacy in the region.
Pantucci, who has been traveling in Central Asia and conducted research on Chinese interests and influence in the region, said he noticed a divide between Russia and China's aspirations for the group.
"I think we are beginning to see [from the Russian side] some sort of attempt to push back on the SCO and sort of what it means for Central Asia vis-a-vis Russia."
Pantucci explained that Russia is more interested in promoting organizations where Moscow takes the lead such as the Eurasian Union, an economic group proposed by Putin last fall.
"You are going to create an economic area, which borders with China and includes all the Central-Asian countries," said Pantucci. "This is going to have some serious implications for trade across the borders, because it will immediately erect quite high tariff barriers."
It is still unclear whether the Eurasian Union will be established and whether it will include China, as some Russian scholars have suggested.
Beijing, meanwhile, is expected to continue promoting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization regardless of Russia's stance.
"[The SCO] has done some baby steps in the direction of becoming a regional entity at least," Pantucci said, "but at the moment who has actually put money into this thing is actually the Chinese."
This year Turkey has applied to become a dialogue partner, while India, Pakistan and Iran have for some time been seeking full membership. Iran's application has been denied because of ongoing sanctions levied on the country by the United Nations, while China and Russia have expressed different levels of support for India and Pakistan.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.
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