PRAGUE -- Riding on the momentum of U.S. President George W. Bush's 'war on terror', China and its Central Asian neighbors have begun cooperating in the name of regional security.
So far, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- which groups China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan -- has shared information, staged some joint military exercises, and set up an anti-terrorism center in Tashkent.
But experts warn that such 'anti-terrorism' moves also serve another purpose for Beijing -- that of keeping the lid on Uyghur independence activists in its northwestern region of Xinjiang, many of whom engage in non-violent opposition to Chinese rule.
Last year, Kyrgyzstan deported two young Uyghurs to China. The Chinese authorities tortured and killed them.
In July 2004, a series of explosions rocked the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) recorded the following interview with a local resident:
Resident: There was an explosion. Are you a journalist?
Resident: One man blew himself up over there.
RFE/RL: Did you see it?
Resident: When I came he had already blown himself up. I came five or ten minutes after the explosion.
RFE/RL: Did people die?
We are in full solidarity with China in the fight against the three evils -- international terrorism, extremism and separatism.
Resident: One person died.
Suicide bombers attacked the Israeli embassy, and the state prosecutor's office on the same day. Uzbek authorities blamed radical Islamist groups for the blasts, which killed seven people, as well as for an earlier wave of violence in March that left nearly 50 people dead.
They also presented the violence as part of global terrorism, saying the attackers may have had links with al-Qaeda.
China has also blamed a series of bombings and assassinations in the late 1990s on separatist Muslim Uyghurs, also alleging links to Osama bin Ladin.
"We are in full solidarity with China in the fight against the three evils -- international terrorism, extremism and separatism," Uzbek President Islam Karimov told reporters on the eve of an SCO summit in June.
In Uzbekistan and in other Central Asian countries there are a number of independent Uyghur organisations which deal with their cultural, language, human rights and national dignity issues. Local governments that are getting assistance from China now will be trying to close them down.
At the same meeting, the group's members pledged to unite and step up regional efforts against terrorism and extremism. So far, experts say that's meant some intelligence sharing, treaties allowing joint criminal investigations, and military exercises.
In 2002 Kyrgyzstan became the first foreign country to hold military maneuvers with China. The following year, there were exercises involving SCO members in Kazakhstan and China. China has also called for international help in pursuing Uyghur independence activists overseas.
In recent years, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have both deported Uyghurs at China's request. "There are laws in the world according to which criminals must be held responsible," Li Hua, first secretary at the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, told RFE/RL in a recent interview.
The trouble is, says regional expert Niklas Swanstrom, some of those deported may be innocent. "When a country comes and says: 'Hand over the terrorists,' it’s really hard to say, 'No, we're not going to do that.' But in many of those cases, they are not necessarily terrorists."
Sadyk, a Uyghur living in Bishkek, told RFE/RL earlier this year that such deported Uyghurs are in grave danger. "Last year, Kyrgyzstan deported two young [ethnic Uyghurs] to China. The Chinese authorities tortured and killed them. Then they gave their bodies to their parents in Kashgar last September, saying disease had killed them."
Uzbek independent analyst Kamron Aliyev says central Asian authorities will seek to clamp down further on Uyghur groups in order to foster good relations with China.
"In Uzbekistan and in other Central Asian countries there are a number of independent Uyghur organizations which deal with their cultural, language, human rights and national dignity issues," Aliyev said.
One of the main characteristics of these states is that they are suspicious of each other, which is an obstacle to a deep seated shift in attitudes to transnational threats such as terrorism and drug trafficking.
"Local governments that are getting assistance from China now will be trying to close them down. Governments will try to restrict freedom of their activities. We can expect that Uzbekistan's security service will be conducting talks with China on these issues."
But other analysts say there will be other factors limiting the extent of cooperation between China and its Central Asian neighbors.
"One of the main characteristics of these states is that they are suspicious of each other, which is an obstacle to a deep-seated shift in attitudes to transnational threats such as terrorism and drug trafficking," Jane's regional security expert Alex Vatanka told RFE/RL.
"They are suspicious of the Chinese and I think they're trying to balance the Russians, the Chinese, the Americans against one another and -- given the poverty of the region -- maximize benefits to themselves."
"So far they seem to have done an OK job, but nothing is standing out as a prime example of how regional cooperation has achieved specific objectives. As far as pan-Islamism goes in the region, the threat is today what it was two, three years ago," Vatanka said.