ALMATY, JUNE 9 (The Bulletin) — India and Pakistan joined the Russia and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), pushing the military-economic group beyond Central Asia for the first time.
The SCO, set up in 2001 after Uzbekistan joined what had been called the Shanghai Five, now covers 3.1b people — nearly half the world’s population.
For Central Asia, the geographic focus of the SCO, the ascension of India and Pakistan confirms it as a fulcrum of world diplomacy and also pulls South Asia tighter into its economic sphere.
After its annual 2-day summit meeting in Astana, the SCO said: “The heads of state highlighted the historical significance of the SCO’s enlargement. They believe that granting full SCO membership to India and Pakistan at the current meeting of the SCO Heads of State Council will facilitate the further development and enhance the potential of the SCO.”
The success of the SCO has crept up on Western governments. It has largely been built on China’s drive into Central Asia.
Russia, through its Soviet legacy, has more access points into Central Asia than China and has largely used the SCO as a meeting place and for developing military ties. China, though, has used the SCO to dispense everything from cheap credit to infrastructure deals and military know-how and sees it as a vital cog in its ‘One Belt. One Road’ strategy focused on developing trade corridors to Europe.
Sheng Shiliang, a researcher at the Xinhua Center for World Affairs Studies, told Chinese media that SCO expansion was important to China.
“The SCO has never been just a security group from the beginning. The Belt and Road Initiative offers a timely and convenient framework for the SCO members to facilitate connectivity and ultimately, achieve free flows of goods, capital, service and technology,” he said.
For India and Pakistan, joining the SCO will increase their presence in Central Asia. Over the past five years, India has been trying to catch up with China’s progress in the region. It wants to develop markets and buy up energy projects.
Pakistan has developed links mainly through the TAPI gas pipeline, which will run from Turkmenistan and also through the CASA-1000 electricity scheme which will send power generated by hydropower stations in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The only country in Central Asia that is not a member of the SCO is Turkmenistan, which has traditionally taken a more isolationist neutral stance to international organisations.
Russia has said that it wants Iran, an observer member, to join the SCO.
— This story was first published in issue 332 of the weekly Central Asia & South Caucasus Bulletin (formerly called The Conway Bulletin)