If there is a symbol of the intent of the 'Shanghai Co-operation', it's in the photo-op of Russian president Vladimir Putin shaking hands with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao on the red carpet in the Great Hall of the People.

Putin's attendance at the summit in Beijing comes just weeks after he told Barack Obama, the US president, he was simply too busy to be present at the meeting of the G8 held in the US.

The Russian leader has never shied away from expressing desire to forge a separate path, and to challenge what is perceived to be Western hegemony over world affairs.

That the grouping of nations involved in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation [SCO], is to be a counter to NATO, will be put to the test this time around.

Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has been invited as a first-time guest to the meeting of Central Asian states.

China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are full members. India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan are observer nations.

Maintaining 'stability', and combatting 'terrorism' has always been a focus for the SCO, and the challenge is whether it can offer Karzai solutions to the security vacuum that will be left by the withdrawal of the US forces, slated for 2014.

In announcing it will pledge to be more involved, China has floated the idea that it could provide training for some Afghan forces.

But the scale of any effort, say experts, will likely be small compared to that of NATO.

Beyond geo-politics, there is a great degree of self-interest here.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has expressed concerns that the Western pullout has allowed 'extremism' and 'terrorist activities' to grow in Central Asia.

Beijing, for example, is concerned that a total breakdown of security, could lead Afghanistan to yet again be used as a training ground for forces, which could look to undermine its control in Xinjiang, the troubled Muslim region of China.

China also has iron-ore, copper and mineral interests within Afghanistan itself, estimated at more than a trillion US dollars. And in recent days Chinese officials have attempted to negotiate with elements of the Taliban to reach some diplomatic solution.

The weight of any effort at 'stabilisation' will likely fall on two observer nations to the SCO: Pakistan and India. Both have expressed a desire to play even larger roles, if allowed to be full members of the organisation.

The concern over the traditional animosity between the two, and mediating a way forward that avoids rivalry, is a challenge that both Chinese and Russian officials are well aware of.

That the members of the SCO are taking a more unified stance on world affairs is demonstrated by Russian and Chinese moves to block resolutions at the UN Security Council.

This has been seen in the case of Iran and its nuclear programme, and in their refusals to condemn Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad and his government for severe human rights abuses - positions that have angered Arab and Western nations.

Putin, in an article he wrote for Chinese state-run media, said he believed that the SCO plays a 'constructive' role on the international stage.

The true proof of that will be whether the SCO states can make a difference in their own backyard, with the most troubled central Asian nation: Afghanistan.