China and Russia head new trading bloc

The leaders of six nations led by China and Russia signed an agreement today on promoting trade and combating Islamic militancy.

The leaders of six nations led by China and Russia signed an agreement today on promoting trade and combating Islamic militancy.

They hailed it as a step toward building a new economic and security bloc in Central Asia.

But after two days of talks in Shanghai, questions remained about their ability to counter US and European influence in the region.

The agreement called for more open trade and investment and stronger security ties between the six members of the new regional group, to be called the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

The new group will replace the Shanghai Five, a loosely knit forum created in 1996 to resolve border disputes and fight rising Islamic militancy. Uzbekistan joined as the sixth member.

The group also includes the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Joint efforts against separatist groups were at the centre of today’s agreement.

Central Asian governments, including China, are grappling with religious rebel groups, many receiving arms and training from the Taliban, Afghanistan’s extremist Islamic rulers.

‘‘The cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism is the instability in Afghanistan,’’ President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan warned in a speech during the signing ceremony.

The leaders said they discussed setting up an anti-terrorism centre agreed upon last year.

Beijing and Moscow view the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a way to offset growing US and European investment in the region.

Russia in particular hopes to regain more influence over Central Asian republics that became independent with the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Russia and China are also united in unease over what they see as America’s dominance of world affairs and Washington’s plans to build a missile defence shield.

China Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Deguang stressed the peaceful intent of the new group in promoting economic cooperation, exploitation of natural resources and countering religious separatism.

‘‘It’s not a military alliance, as in the Cold War,’’ Zhang said.

After signing the agreement, President Jiang Zemin heralded creation of a ‘‘brand new multilateral cooperation organization on the Eurasian continent.’’

Russian President Vladimir Putin called stronger economic ties a key aim.

‘‘Cooperation in the economics, trade and culture is far more important than military cooperation,’’ he said.

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