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Is Expansion on the SCO Agenda?

Meena Singh Roy is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 22, 2008

    The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is no more a curiosity and has become an important element of contemporary international relations. Since 2005, it has emerged as an influential regional body in Eurasia impacting the political, security and economic developments in this region. The last SCO summit, held in Bishkek on August 16, 2007 focused on issues of countering terrorist threats, boosting security cooperation and developing energy resources within the SCO framework. The summit concluded by signing a treaty on “good-neighbourly relations, friendship and cooperation.”

    The next annual summit is scheduled for August 28, 2008 in Dushanbe. It is expected to be attended by the leaders of member states and the leaders of the four observer states. The Presidents of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan have been invited to participate in the summit. The participation of President Hu Jintao and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the eighth SCO summit meeting has been confirmed.

    Earlier, on July 25, SCO Foreign Ministers reviewed the progress made since the Bishkek Summit last year and proposed the agenda and documents for the forthcoming summit. While Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi emphasised on strengthening political consultations and cooperation among members and urged them to enhance cooperation in the areas of agriculture, transport, investment, finance, disaster management, health and tourism, the Kyrgyz Foreign Minister talked about the necessity of cooperation in energy and implementation of transport projects. The Tajik Foreign Minister recommended enhancing cooperation with international organisations and implementing the partnership mechanism.

    The most complex issue before and after the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) meeting has been the issue of expansion and the widespread speculation about granting full membership to Iran. Tajikistan has openly favoured Iran’s request for full membership. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi also hinted at increasing cooperation with Tehran by stating that “Beijing is interested in promoting cooperation with Iran within the framework of the SCO.” Speaking on the issue of accepting new members, he said, “A legal document for accepting new members to the SCO is in stage of compilation and it will be discussed in the future SCO summit.” However, after the CFM meeting on July 25, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed that the issue of Iran joining SCO was not discussed. Despite Pakistan’s and Iran’s repeated attempts to acquire permanent membership in the organization, their request has not been entertained. India and Mongolia have been cooperating with the SCO as observer states without showing any desire to acquire permanent membership.

    The other important issue for the SCO has been defining a clear role for observer states. So far, the role and obligations of the observer states have not been formulated and details on their functioning are yet to be finalized. However, it is expected that these states would be engaged at multiple-levels to cooperate within the SCO framework. In fact, the SCO has maintained a moratorium on new members for two years. It has also made it clear that at this point in time there are no plans to bring in any new states, though it is open to cooperation with observer states and other interested countries. On the issue of cooperation with observer states, SCO Foreign Ministers agreed to deepen pragmatic cooperation with them in areas of common interests. It was suggested that cooperation with observer nations in areas like economy, energy, and banking can be strengthened.

    During the CFM meeting, SCO members have agreed on the regulations on partnership dialogue within the SCO framework. Once these regulations are approved, they will allow the states interested in interacting with the SCO to cooperate with the organisation in various ways. Such a mechanism will enable a country or an international organisation to acquire the status of dialogue partner in the SCO. However, the rules and procedures for granting such a status will be finalised by a special agreement of member states as per the SCO Charter. During this meeting, members also agreed on some specific documents to address the issues of combating terrorism and crackdown on illegal trade in weapons in a more effective manner.

    On the issue of expansion, Secretary General Bolat Nurgaliyev revealed that though SCO documents have not set any timeframe for considering applications for full membership, countries with observer status can participate in all types of activities. At present, there is a difference of opinion among member states on the issue of expansion. While accepting that expansion is an important issue, members feel that maintaining efficiency would remain the key factor while considering bids for full membership.

    Although China and Russia have major commercial interests in Iran, yet they have been cautious in accepting Iran as a full member in the SCO. Despite widespread speculation, Iran’s full membership in the SCO remains a remote possibility at least in the short term. This can be attributed to Tehran’s difficult relations with the West and Israel over its controversial nuclear programme and its alleged support to the radical group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Moreover, Moscow and Beijing while welcoming close cooperation with Tehran do not wish to antagonise Washington by bringing in Iran as a permanent member in the SCO.

    What emerges from the meeting of CFM is that while member states want greater cooperation both among themselves and with observer states, they are not yet ready to open full membership to other states. It is important to note that both China and Russia are not very keen on enlargement at this point in time. During the third SCO forum meeting, Mr Li Yongquan, Executive Member of the Council of China Centre for SCO Studies, articulated the view that enlargement is unlikely because SCO is a regional organisation and there are some problems among member states which need to be resolved before taking up the issue of full membership for observer states. However, there is a huge potential for economic cooperation with observer states. Under these circumstances it is expected that during the upcoming SCO summit, there is a possibility of introducing the status of “SCO dialogue partner”.

    A careful analysis of developments within the SCO indicates that over the years its focus has shifted from settling border issues to security and now to economic cooperation. There has been greater emphasis on enhancing cooperation in social, cultural, and educational areas. There is widespread belief that the future of SCO will depend on how successfully it is able to deal with the issue of economic cooperation in the Eurasian region. Despite the necessity of cooperation in the economic sphere, the fact remains that long term economic cooperation has weak links in Central Asia. Therefore, economic cooperation within the SCO framework is likely to take more time. It would also be difficult because the SCO lacks funds to implement various economic projects, there is lack of interaction at people to people level, and finally, the SCO is not doing enough on financial cooperation. Such cooperation is more on paper or at a bilateral level.

    The forthcoming SCO summit is likely to focus on economic issues, the situation in Afghanistan and review the recent crisis in Georgia and its implications for the Eurasian region. The security situation in CIS countries and Western particularly American support to bring these countries within the strategic fold of NATO is likely to draw attention. The issue of enlargement will certainly find some place, but it is unlikely that members would agree to expand the organization beyond the existing six members.