With India, Pakistan and Afghanistan lining up for membership, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a common platform of China, Russia and four Central Asian republics, is set to emerge as a regional body with increased clout.
Established in 2001, SCO member-states now cover a contiguous area of more than 30 million square kilometres spread over Asia and Europe with a population of nearly 1.5 billion. The South Asian countries’ entry will raise the area and double the population.
However, it is not area and population that will make the enlarged SCO a powerful institution but the region’s strategic significance. It will be a regional forum without the participation of any western nation, including the United States.
The tenth annual SCO summit, held at Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, last week laid down the norms for membership and negotiations for admission of India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia, all of whom are now observers. Iran’s entry has to wait as the SCO charter does not permit admission of a state facing United Nations sanctions.
There is no knowing how long the negotiation process will last but India is hoping the enlarged SCO will be in place before 2014, the deadline set for withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. The SCO is already playing a constructive role in that war-ravaged country and the inclusion of India and Pakistan will enhance its ability to ensure the country’s stability.
The Astana declaration, issued at the end of the summit, envisages a neutral Afghanistan. It was the erstwhile Soviet Union’s violation of its neutrality, which had been respected by the Tsar of Russia and the British rulers of the Indian subcontinent, that landed the landlocked country into the mess in which it is today.
Significantly, it points out that the Afghan problem cannot be solved through military measures alone and demands that attention be paid to social and economic issues, particularly reconstruction of transportation and social infrastructure.
Formal assertion of the principle of Afghanistan’s neutrality by the group, which includes both Russia and China, is significant in the context of reported US attempts to establish military bases there under cover of a defence shield before the planned pullout. It needs to be endorsed by Pakistan and India.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who attended the summit, asked the US to respect the country’s sovereignty. With civilian casualties in western air strikes on rebel forces on the rise, he has lately been talking of the risk of allies turning into an occupation force.
Condemning the US missile defence programme for the region, the Astana declaration says one-sided and unlimited development of such systems by one state or a small band of states can damage strategic stability and international security.
Western alarm over these formulations was reflected in media reports which projected the enlarged SCO as a rival to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which serves as an arm of the US. There have also been suggestions that the group is seeking dismantlement of the western bases in Central Asia and establishment of a security system without US participation.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who was at the summit, did call for a security alliance of former Soviet republics and China against the west. However, there were no takers.
China dismissed western media reports as reflective of the mindset of the United States, which does not want anyone to challenge its position as the world’s policeman. Writing in the Communist Party newspaper, a commentator stated that the SCO charter casts no obligation on member-states to provide military assistance to one another.
However, the charter does not preclude military co-operation. The group’s proclaimed objectives include fighting the triple evils of terrorism, regional separatism and religious extremism. Since its inception 10 years ago the SCO has conducted as many joint exercises to fight terrorism, drug traffic and organised crime. Lately it has also turned attention to areas such as checking money laundering and ensuring security of major international activities.
India’s desire for full membership of the SCO stems from the hope that it can benefit from the group’s anti-terrorist programme. Such sentiments may be there in sections of the Pakistani establishment too. However, given the character of the terror groups operating in the two countries, there are limits to the benefit that can flow from it.
But there are economic and political dividends to look forward to. The SCO plans to become a free-trade area by 2020. By that time the movement towards a multipolar world may have also gained momentum. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 20, 2011.