The Status of Shanghai Cooperation Organization Membership of India and Pakistan

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Context

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded in 2001, is primarily concerned with issues of Central Asian stability and security. It was initially formulated to resolve border disputes and was known as Shanghai Five. It has six members now: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan. Currently, the SCO has four observer states — India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan. Afghanistan is invited to meetings as a guest. The SCO describes the main threats it confronts as being terrorism, separatism, and extremism.

While the SCO has carried out several joint military exercises, it nevertheless denies that it has a military orientation. A statement issued at the time of its creation emphasized that SCO “is not an alliance directed against other states and regions and it adheres to the principle of openness.” However, some observers still call it the NATO of the East, describing it as a traditional military alliance and a possible counterweight to NATO’s perceived threat to Russia and China. Furthermore, a force that would contain possible conflicts in the region, which could otherwise allow the United States to intervene in neighboring states.

The organization has gained much importance in the backdrop of recent developments in the region, particularly Afghanistan.

Analysis

Pakistan and SCO

Pakistan has an observer status in SCO and is seeking full membership. The country feels the alliance is important for it for several reasons. Policy planners in Islamabad believe that American forces would not stay for long in Afghanistan. Once the NATO and the US leaves, the SCO would be in a key position to influence politics in the region. Additionally, Islamabad is facing acute shortage of energy resources while the Central Asian members of SCO control huge oil and natural gas reserves. Moreover, with the focus of the alliance on the threat from terrorism and extremism, Islamabad’s believes that its request for full membership merits a greater chance.

Pakistani officials also point out that the SCO has initiated over 25 large-scale projects related to transportation, energy and telecommunications and as such the alliance could offer a lot in terms of investment in these sectors. They also point out that the Chinese offered a support of US$10 billion to member states in attempts to stabilize their economies.

However, the SCO members realize that Islamabad, while carrying out the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, has become a key strategic partner of Washington and a major ally of NATO. As such, Pakistan’s request for membership would be considered with suspicion and misgivings. Moreover, Russia as a prominent SCO member prefers India over Pakistan as a full member of SCO. On the other hand, the Chinese with traditional animosity towards India, would favor Pakistan over India. This clash of interests within the SCO would hamper the entry of the two countries, especially Pakistan.

India and SCO

India also has an observer status in SCO and has never actually tried to join the alliance. However, things are changing. Some experts claim that India may have had tied itself to closely to the US policy on Afghanistan, while the situation is not shaping up the way New Delhi would have hoped. With Washington seeking greater role for Pakistan in the region, New Delhi is coming around and showing more enthusiasm for SCO. India now appears to be aligning its Afghan policy with Russia, China, Iran and other Central Asian states. However, the SCO member states would not be comfortable with the US-centric Indian foreign policy. At the same time, it would be difficult for the alliance to ignore the opportunities India presents because of its size and location. The alliance would also face a challenging task of balancing the India-Pakistan rivalry.

While the present six members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have usually adopted a common position on matters of strategic stability and balance in the region, the entry of Pakistan, India or Iran may complicate the positions of alliance for the aforementioned reasons.

Whatever the case may be it is apparent that despite a strong desire from Pakistan, Iran and possibly India to join the SCO as a full member, the alliance is likely to take a long-term view of the regional and global politics. The decision by SCO to put the membership issue on the backburner reflects this strategy. The SCO will most likely allow time to take its course and for NATO to make its own mistakes, as oppose to making any hasty decisions that complicates the global balance of power. At the same time, countries desiring full membership will also continue to use SCO as leverage and a hedge against the NATO alliance.

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