President Vladimir Putin opened the 2015 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit by announcing the acceptance of Pakistan and India as members. He said Belarus would obtain observer status, joining Afghanistan, Iran and Mongolia, while Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia and Nepal would be welcomed as “dialogue partners.” The SCO leaders have expressed hope that Iran also would soon become a member, but said Tehran first needed to reach an international agreement on curbing its nuclear programme.
“It is obvious that together we can more effectively resist crisis events in the world economy and finance, more easily overcome restrictions and barriers of various kinds,” Putin said while talking about plans to deepen economic and trade ties. SCO is building a “harmonious region” in keeping with the Shanghai Spirit that promotes mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diverse civilizations and pursuit of common development. After the current tranche of expansion, this organisation is poised to play a constructive role in South Asia as well.
Pakistan’s full membership was approved by SCO’s Council of Heads of State on July 10. Pakistan will now have to fulfil certain statutory and legal requirements before the country formally becomes a full member. Pakistan has for long been trying to become an SCO member state. It believes its membership will enable it to diversify its foreign policy and enable it to play a more effective role in the stability of the region.
With the development of Gwadar Port, Pakistan can become an energy and trade corridor for SCO countries. Chinese assistance in developing connectivity infrastructure in Pakistan, developing Gwadar Port and Kashgar as special economic zone, upgrading KKH and linking Gwadar with Kashgar and Central Asia via KKH are in step with SCO‘s efforts to create trans-continental overland connectivity.
Since its inception in 2001, the SCO has become a regional force and has been gaining importance in Asian dynamics. SCO is a permanent inter-governmental organization. Its main objectives are: strengthening mutual trust and good-neighbourliness among member countries; promoting effective cooperation in political, trade, economic, scientific, technological and cultural fields, as well as in education, energy, transport, tourism, environmental protection, joint promotion and maintenance of peace, security, and stability in the region; striving towards establishment of a democratic, just and rational new international political and economic order etc.
Over the years, the SCO has played a positive role in reducing tensions, settling border disputes, maintaining stability and developing cooperation between member states. Within the SCO framework, and as a result of the joint efforts of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a 3000 km border dispute along the Sino-former Soviet border has been resolved. It is rare that border disputes that have caused turbulence for several centuries are settled in a surprisingly short span of a few years.
SCO’s policies and programmes are in consonance with Pakistan‘s long term objectives of promoting peace and stability in the region, containing and eradicating the menace of terrorism from the region and working with the members to build stronger and more productive relationship in the future.
Chinese vice FM Cheng Guoping said that India and Pakistan’s joining the SCO will play an important role in the SCO’s development. It will have a constructive role in pushing for the improvement of bilateral relations. Moreover, current situation of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan has added a new dimension to Pakistan-Central Asia ties, particularly in the context of difficult India-Pakistan relations. Cheng said: “As the influence of the SCO’s development has expanded, more and more countries in the region have brought up [request for] joining the SCO…India and Pakistan’s admission to the SCO will play an important role in the SCO’s development. It will play a constructive role in pushing for the improvement of their bilateral relations.”
China is playing an active role in bringing stability to Afghanistan. Alongside the US, China participated in the first ever declared direct contact between the Taliban and Afghan government, held in Murree, Pakistan. Chinese interest in Afghanistan also stems from an urge for stability of Western China, especially the Xinjiang region, which is intricately linked to the security and stability in Afghanistan. Now, increasing number of political observers are looking towards SCO for its role in Afghanistan.
Two of its founding members — Russia and China — are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Now, with addition of Pakistan and India, SCO has four nuclear weapon capable states of Asia as its members. The forum is not an alliance directed against any other state or region. Over the last decade, its activities have expanded to include military cooperation, intelligence sharing, aimed at joint counterterrorism exercises. In recent years, the organisation has also been attending to economic issues, in particular concerning energy security which is a matter of great importance not only for its members but for the whole region. With remaining observer and dialogue nations gaining full member status in due course, the SCO might well evolve into an even more important player in world politics and go beyond its regional reach.
However, there are reservations as well. “Not sure whether the SCO will become clumsier or less efficient (after the two countries India and Pakistan join). The guiding principles of SCO say, it will be built on consensus. Like ASEAN+. If the differences between India and Pakistan are brought to the forum….see what happened to SAARC,” Hu Shisheng, director at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations and South Asia expert told Hindustan Times. “They cannot bring bilateral differences (to SCO). Otherwise, the group will become dysfunctional. The focus should [be on] adding value to the forum. Not the other way around. That is the genuine hope of the old members,” Hu added. Pakistan considers SCO as the most significant organisation in Eurasia that has the potential of bringing stability to South Asia sub-region as well.
Chinese officials have said that the entry of India and Pakistan in the SCO will help to fight terrorism in the region, stabilise Afghanistan and potentially even reduce Indo-Pak tensions. “India and Pakistan’s admission to the SCO will play an important role in the SCO’s development. It will play a constructive role in pushing for the improvement of their bilateral relations,” China’s vice-foreign minister Cheng Guoping said.
In Western countries SCO, is sometimes called ―Eastern NATO. This is not correct. In fact, it is far from the truth. While SCO countries have some military cooperation and a few joint military exercises have also been conducted, SCO has no standing army, it is certainly not like NATO, or even like the erstwhile ―Warsaw Pact.
It is interesting that the Shanghai Five mechanism was started with the purpose of reducing border tensions by cutting down troops, for which they had signed “Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions”. It started as an organisation to meet security concerns, border tensions, border disputes, cross border smuggling, terrorism, extremism, separatism etc. Gradually it moved towards political issues, economic and cultural cooperation. Most other regional organisations including EEC, ASEAN, SAARC, ECO, started with the agenda of economic cooperation and some of these have gradually moved to political and security cooperation.
With its expansion programme, SCO is set to become an Asia focused organization with global outreach. SCO has sufficient space to consolidate its performance in the areas of non-traditional security concerns facing the Asia continent. Climate change adaptation, disaster management, drug trafficking and disease mitigation are some of the areas where SCO has unchallenged turf. In the long term it could go on to set up an Asian parliament and a conflict resolution mechanism. Pakistan has indeed eased the moment by becoming a member of SCO.
[A variant of this article carried by The Nation on July 13, 2015.]
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy