Motivations and Implications of SCO Expansion: a Look at India and Pakistan

By Diana Gapak

SCO members map
Map showing SCO members and observer states.

The conclusion of the 14th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit hosted in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on 11-12 September 2014 resulted in the signing of key documents that set out procedures for accepting new members, including requirements that applicant states need to fulfil in order to achieve full SCO member status. Consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the SCO has not expanded since its evolution from the “Shanghai Five” in 2001. Despite this, discussions relating to SCO membership expansion, specifically in relation to India and Pakistan’s potential entries, have been on the SCO leaders’ table for a number of years. However, it was only at the recent SCO summit that the organization’s leaders have come closer to agreeing on the admission process for new members.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular supports SCO expansion. At the Dushanbe summit, he proclaimed the progress over SCO membership enlargement to be of great importance, emphasizing that when Russia takes the SCO chairmanship at the next summit in Ufa in 2015, it will make a concerted effort to ensure the organisation maintains momentum behind SCO expansion.

According to Jabin Thomas Jacob, deputy director of India’s Institute of Chinese Studies, defining procedures for SCO expansion is indicative of the increasing influence the organisation holds. So what is the driving interest behind SCO member states, especially China and Russia, the organisation’s dominant players, in admitting extra-regional actors? In particular, how does the potential entries of India and Pakistan impact SCO members and the organisation overall?

The motivations of China and Russia behind SCO expansion

An expanded SCO body could provide a platform for broader economic and security cooperation within the Asian region, something which both China and Russia are actively seeking to develop and lead.

For Russia, its deteriorating relationship with the West has shown the former’s need to deepen relationships with new allies. The Indian Ministry of Commerce has observed that “with the Ukraine crisis souring Russia’s relations with the EU and the US, Russia is keen to channelise (sic) some of its investments into friendlier nations such as India”. The SCO can provide a platform for India and Russia to engage in mutually beneficial cooperation. India is looking to achieve more secure and diversified energy sources and Russia is looking for new energy export markets beyond Europe. For instance, in October this year the Russian oil company Rosneft offered Indian multinational ONGC Videsh Limited a 10 per cent stake in its Vankor oil fields project in Siberia, a deal which is still under discussion. In addition, some reports have suggested that the Russo-Chinese gas pipeline could be extended into India.

There is also a security agenda. SCO membership enlargement would massively expand the overall land mass and population under the organisation. China would be able to expand its scope as a regional security provider in addition to Russia’s more traditional role in this area.

For China, the potential admission of Pakistan as an SCO member is useful for Beijing’s fight against religious extremism both within the country and the overall region. Negotiations over Pakistan’s SCO membership underscore the prominence of the strategic partnership between Islamabad and Beijing. According to Sun Yuxi, China’s newly appointed Afghan special envoy, Pakistan and India are instrumental in safeguarding peace, fighting terrorism and aiding Afghanistan’s reconstruction. A Sino-Pakistani partnership within the SCO structure would allow China to deepen its cooperation with Islamabad in order to tackle what it considers to be the “three evils”: separatism, extremism and terrorism, especially since Beijing believes that the Uighur separatist groups within its borders have links with Afghani extremists.

SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in September 2014.
SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in September 2014. Source: http://defencetalk.net

The impacts of India and Pakistan’s entry into the SCO

The potential entry of India and Pakistan into the SCO would not only have a significant effect on the economics and security agenda in the organisation, but also increase the SCO’s potential to be a vehicle for change in the region. India and Pakistan’s admission into the SCO would be a positive step to improving connectivity, integration and stability across a wider region. If the SCO could help mediate the hostile Indo-Pakistan relationship towards one that is more peaceful and cooperative, it would undoubtedly increase the organisation’s legitimacy. Moreover, if such a development led to broader security cooperation on Afghanistan between India and Pakistan, this would greatly enhance the SCO’s list of tangible achievements. Considering that India is one of the United States’ closest political allies, its SCO membership would also help to alleviate existing perceptions that the organisation is merely a loose collection of non-western states.

Nevertheless, improving cohesion between existing and potential members will have to be the key focus, and will be a significant challenge, of any enlargement. SCO expansion will require a consensus in political will and determination by both new and old members to ensure smooth induction into the SCO’s framework and agenda. Given the existing rifts amongst some of the current SCO member states, adding new bilateral dynamics, such as the India-Pakistan relationship to the already complex member base, may challenge future progress in economic and security cooperation. Russia and China are particularly keen to bring these two countries into the SCO, but it is a challenging objective, particularly given that the SCO’s successful expansion will be a measure of the organisation’s legitimacy.

Diana Gapak has just completed an MA in Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is a UK-based analyst with an interest in geopolitics, business, security and social issues in Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus. She can be contacted at gapakdi@gmail.com

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