The conventional notion that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is an anti-US organisation appears to be changing. Thus, US assistant secretary of state for south and central Asia, Robert O. Blake not only acknowledged during his recent visit to China that the SCO is a relevant regional organisation but also stated that the US would be interested in cooperating with it. As he noted, “In Central Asia the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation seeks to bolster security, economic and cultural cooperation between China, Russia and Central Asia. We see the potential for greater U.S.-China dialogue on areas of mutual interest such as counter-narcotics and counter –terrorism in support of the SCO’s effort.”1 This is a clear shift in the American view on the role of the SCO. Although the United States has not taken a decision to seek a formal status within the SCO either as an observer or as a dialogue partner, it seems to be inclined to cooperate with China in Central Asia by supporting the SCO’s efforts. This change in the US view assumes importance in the run-up to the forthcoming annual summit meeting (June 2011) of the SCO in Astana, Kazakhstan, where the focus is likely to be on regional security, membership expansion and economic cooperation.
India had joined the SCO as an observer at the fifth summit meeting held in July 2005 in Astana. Given its historical links with Central Asia and its secular polity, growing economy and a strong IT sector, India has much to contribute to the economic development of the region. And it has consistently articulated its desire to play a meaningful and constructive role in the SCO. It was in 2009 at Yekaterinburg, Russia, that an Indian prime minister participated in a SCO summit for the first time. In the past few months, Indian officials have clearly stated that India is not only willing to play a greater role in Central Asia but is also interested in becoming a full member of the SCO. To add substance to India’s growing focus on this strategically important region, Dr. Manmohan Singh will be visiting Kazakhstan in April 2011. This will be followed by the visit of president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, to Delhi in May. India is also planning some more high level visits to other Central Asian countries in the next few months.
India’s inclusion as a full member of the SCO is backed by Russia and the Central Asian countries. In June 2010, the Russian ambassador to Uzbekistan, Alexander M. Kadakin, stated: “Our position has all along been that we want India as a full-fledged member of the SCO.”2 During a SCO conference in Almaty on February 22-23, 2011, Russian participants again reiterated their support for India’s inclusion as a full member at the Astana summit . But will new members be included at Astana? Are there rules for admitting new members? Is there consensus among SCO member states for admitting new members? And what would be the advantages and challenges for India in becoming a full member?
The June 2009 summit at Yekaterinburg instructed a special expert group to draft a set of regulations for admitting new members. Although the draft produced by this group was discussed and the criteria and regulations for admitting new members was approved at the Tashkent summit in June 2010, the final technical document is yet to be adopted. As per the statute, any country wanting to join the SCO must be located in the Eurasian region, must have diplomatic relations with all SCO member states and must already be an observer or a dialogue partner. Further, it must maintain active trade, economic and humanitarian ties with SCO members, it should not be under UN sanctions, and it should not be involved in an armed conflict with another state(s). Finally, a country wishing to join the SCO must send an official request to the chairman of the council of the SCO heads of state through the chairman of the SCO council of foreign ministers.3
Though the procedure for admitting new members has been approved, it does not mean the organisation’s automatic expansion. The decision to accept a new member will need the consent of all existing members. Therefore, the approval of the statute merely creates a legal basis for countries to seek full membership. Moreover, the moratorium on new members is still in place.
During a media interaction at the end of the February 2011 Almaty international conference, SCO Secretary General made it clear that countries wanting to join the organisation should make positive contributions to it and not inject negativity. Earlier, during the course of this conference, it was pointed out that the SCO is an open organisation and its expansion is inevitable, although some technical issues need to be addressed first. In the current context, India, Pakistan and Mongolia are eligible for full membership, but Iran is not because of existing UN sanctions against it. While Mongolia has been a potential candidate for full membership, it prefers to continue as an observer and mainly seeks cooperation in the transportation and energy sectors. Both Afghanistan and Turkmenistan are part of the region and are welcome in the SCO, but they have not shown any interest in joining as either observers or full members.
The Chinese viewpoint on admitting new members, expressed during the SCO conference in Almaty, merits some attention. Chinese experts contended that the expansion of the SCO was inevitable, though, at the same time, they favoured a slow and cautious approach. Moreover, China would want the agreed-upon procedures to be observed. In this context, they raised some fundamental questions: Why should the SCO expand? What is the objective? And what does the SCO charter say about expansion? These, in their view, are some important questions that need to be discussed within the SCO framework before new members are admitted.
Russian experts, on the other hand, argued that augmenting financial resources is the main reason for expanding the SCO. At the moment, the organisation has a budget of some $4 million, which is not sufficient for financing various projects. China has promised $10 billion for projects but with the precondition that all the material used will have to be bought from China. The other reason for expanding the SCO, in the Russian view, is the need for reforming the organisation.
The lack of consensus among SCO member states about the timing of inclusion of new members, final approval of the technical document on inclusion of new members and other related issues thus make the inclusion of new members at Astana unlikely. However, the technical document on the procedure for including new members is likely to get cleared at Astana.
India is yet to formally apply for full membership. Before New Delhi formally does so, it must evaluate the advantages and challenges it may face as a full member. The first and foremost advantage of full membership will be greater visibility in the affairs of the Eurasian region. In addition, full membership will also provide a forum where India can constructively engage both China and Pakistan in the regional context. Most importantly, cooperation in the three crucial areas of energy, transportation and counter-terrorism cooperation can be facilitated through full membership in the SCO. On the other hand, India will have to face the challenge of playing second fiddle to China and Russia, which have been the leaders since the SCO’s inception. Moreover, given China’s domination of the SCO, India’s ability to assert itself will be minimal. India will also have to contend with China's use of the SCO for enhancing its own role not only in the Eurasian region but also in Southern Asia. In return for granting India full membership in the SCO, China may seek full membership in SAARC. What are the implications of China’s entry into SAARC? Moreover, India will have to deal with the China-Pakistan nexus in the SCO, especially given the complementarity in Chinese and Pakistani interests in the Central Asian Republics.
Given the uncertainties about the inclusion of new members and the lack of consensus among member states, India must proceed cautiously on the issue seeking full membership. It should wait till the final technical document on admitting new members is adopted. In the meantime, India must reenergise its efforts as an observer state to cement ties and engage with other members on issues relating to energy, connectivity and terrorism, drug trafficking and instability in Afghanistan.