SCO contemplates expanding membership

By opening its doors to India, Iran and Pakistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will increase its legitimacy and effectiveness among regional and international powers, and enhance its power posture in the international scene.

During the recent meeting of foreign ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi emphasized how the group has “actively pushed forward the regional cooperation.” He also reiterated that China would abide by its “policy of friendship and partnership with neighbouring countries.” This spirit of cooperation or what is referred in sections of media as ‘Shanghai Sprit’ was also reiterated during the meeting of defence ministers of the group held in last week of June 2013 in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. The widening of the SCO’s membership to include India, Iran and Pakistan will accrue numerous advantages to the group and strengthen its capacity to realise its goal of regional peace and stability.

The argument that the SCO needs expansion in terms of its membership has gained salience in recent months. Currently it has six members including Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, four observers including India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Iran and Afghanistan, and three dialogue partners including Sri Lanka, Belarus and Turkey. Since its foundation the group has played crucial roles in impacting regional politics by conducting regular exchanges among dignitaries, and also by conducting joint exercises such as Peace Missions to address the concerns of regional security and stability. Increasing membership will not only enlarge the base of the grouping, but will also increase its legitimacy and effectiveness among regional and international powers, and enhance its power posture in international scene. In this context, the argument for the elevation of observers into members has currently gained ground.

While dealing with Afghanistan, the expanded SCO will have more weight in addressing the issue than it has at the present moment. The potential new members, India, Pakistan and Iran have stakes in the conflict in this strategic country. Pakistan and Iran share borders with Afghanistan, and also both the countries have sectarian leverage in the country which was more explicit during its civil war. India has invested a part of its national budget and emerged as one of the biggest providers of development assistance in Afghanistan. A regional format for the resolution of conflict in Afghanistan will certainly take into account the interests of these countries. Their elevation in the SCO as members will help develop more comprehensive strategy to address the issue, and more importantly will help address the differences among them within the broader framework of SCO. The forthcoming summit in Bishkek in September 2013 will likely take into account this emerging dynamics and devise ways to expand its membership by including these countries.

An observation of the map of the Eurasian region, which includes the members as well as observers of the group, clearly shows the interconnectedness of the whole region. The famed Silk Road stands witness to this connectivity and places like Kashgar, Samarkand and Bukhara in the region were once centres of this Silk Road trade. This trade in the past spread as far as to India through Kashmir and to the west through Pakistan and Afghanistan and to east through Xinjiang. In the era of globalization, where connectivity and trade are hallmarks of development and interstate relations, the connections between the Eurasian countries are underdeveloped. At present, the Silk Road connections are dubbed as roads for terrorism and drug trafficking as they are not secure and used by terrorist networks and drug mafia. In the past, the connections not only carried trade but also carried religion and culture. Buddhism travelled to China from India through this Road, while Sufism travelled to India from Central Asia through this Road.

Hence, when the Chinese foreign minister emphasized last week that SCO needs to deepen cooperation in “political, security, economic and social fields” it is in full salience with this argument that the membership of the group needs to be expanded to include other countries of the region. This will facilitate trade and communication between the countries. Such an undertaking will have also another impact: it will reduce trust-deficit among the members, old and new, and help address contentious issues in an atmosphere of friendship and harmony.

In 2012 SCO member states hold the military exercises "Peace Mission". Video provided by the TV Channel "Zvezda".

For India particularly, the quest for membership assumes double significance. Besides being a power in the Eurasian region and having stakes in regional developments, India also enjoys special relationships with Russia and China. In various powerful groupings such as RIC, BRICS and G20 shaping international politics, all the three countries – India, Russia and China – are dynamic members. Indian membership in the SCO will further strengthen cooperation among the three countries, with implications for the region as well as the world. It will provide another platform in which three major powers in the Eurasian region will come together to build partnership while promoting common interests and addressing differences, and work collectively to promote peace and stability in the region and bring about greater economic development.   

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