(photo credit: AP [file])
Iran's president urged China, Russia and other Asian nations on Thursday to combine their economic and diplomatic clout to bolster the region's resistance to the United States.
Amid a deepening feud with the West over Iran's nuclear program, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the appeal at a summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, which groups China, Russia and nine Central and South Asian nations.
Noting that the group comprised some of the world's biggest energy producers and consumers, Ahmadinejad said greater cooperation among members would produce a powerful bloc.
"It can turn the SCO into a strong, influential economic, political and trading institution at both regional and international levels and prevent the threats of domineering powers and their aggressive interference in global affairs," Ahmadinejad said at an open session.
Ahmadinejad's remarks were the most strident, but not the only call for the grouping to stand up to the West and emerge as an alternative to US-led multinational organizations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called for closer military ties to combat terrorism. Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov criticized unnamed outside interests for sowing discord in the region.
The rhetoric seemed likely to heighten concerns in the administration of US President George W. Bush that the Shanghai grouping is emerging as an anti-US bloc. It also comes as divisions sharpened in the UN Security Council with China and Russia resisting US and European initiatives to pressure Iran into freezing its uranium enrichment program.
Russia and China dominate the Shanghai grouping, which started tentatively a decade ago but has since gathered momentum and members. A strengthened SCO would be a new twist on a Cold War idea when the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong's China sought to join forces against the West.
But despite the occasional jab, the group largely steered away from controversy. At the open session, leaders did not directly address the Iranian nuclear dispute, nor did a communique released afterward. They did not renew a call, issued a year ago, for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from bases in Central Asia.
Leaders of the core members - China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - signed an agreement on information security and laid out plans for the next three years for fighting terrorism and separatism, a key mission of the group. Their officials also signed documents on banking cooperation and defense.
But the leaders defended the group's embrace of Iran, which is an observer nation, as a positive force for stability in the region.
"Our organization has been an important force that promotes peace, security and development in this region," Chinese President Hu Jintao said to the group, the leaders arrayed around tables in a large circle in a meeting hall beside Shanghai's Huangpu River.
On a more discordant note, summit participants noted with alarm Afghanistan's rising prominence as a source for narcotics and the role of coalition troops there.
Uzbekistan's Karimov indirectly criticized the US-led forces in Afghanistan for failing to stop the drug trade and improve security in the country.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, however, said the continued presence of international forces was necessary to allow Afghanistan to rebuild from decades of war and civil strife.
"I have full confidence the countries in our region will concur with me and continue to support us," Karzai said.
While security issues produced friction, summit leaders agreed that future stability in the region relied as much on economic opportunity as counterterrorism. China's Hu called on SCO countries to simplify customs rules, improve transportation links and reach agreements on protecting investments in each other's territories.
Hu's comments highlighted China's growing role as an economic force in Central Asia as both a consumer of the region's oil and gas and as an investor. He said that China had made good on a pledge two years ago to provide US$900 million (â‚¬716 million) in export credits to SCO countries.