In my last article I had stated that the main interest of the countries of the region in the deliberations of the SCO summit would be the manner in which they handled the question of the granting of membership to the four countries-Pakistan, India, Iran and Mongolia – which now have observer status and the granting of observer status or more to the new applicant, Afghanistan.
It seems however that at the Summit while the matter was discussed and while there was a sense that the membership expansion would provide a significant boost to the SCO effort to combat the “3 evils” there was some measure of hesitancy about approving the membership requests until more time had been spent by the countries in question on meeting the criteria that the foreign Ministers had laid down in their May meeting and which had been approved by the Summit. In a sense the Summit took the view that procedural considerations required that a final decision on this matter be put off until the next Summit in 2012. The Declaration said that Member states pledged to strengthen cooperation with observers and dialogue partners, whose potential would provide a huge driving force for further strengthening the SCO but did not go further. Why did this happen?
Some reports suggested that the SCO Summit participants were anxious to ensure that all applicants were treated equally and that if membership was to be expanded such expansion should cover all observers who had sought membership. The last information that I have seen suggests that at the Summit perhaps because of hints from the member states Iran did not apply for membership and Mongolia for its own reasons also chose not to do so.
This left two countries, India and Pakistan. Pakistan of course had applied for membership and this request was reiterated in the speech that President Zardari made at the Summit. The Indian Foreign Minister, who represented India at the Summit, also made clear India’s anxiety to join the group. Both countries I understand were told that while the criteria for membership had been decided the members wanted to further consolidate the organisation before taking on new members.
The true reason, however, lay elsewhere. In an interview to the news agency Interfax as quoted by Xinhua, a member of the Russian delegation suggested that “the unsolved territorial problem between India and Pakistan is the main barrier to their accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization”. Paradoxically the same source also suggested that their desire to become members may stimulate their own efforts to settle the border dispute and went on to assert that “ the SCO is playing an irreplaceable role because it stimulates and encourages direct and more intensive talks on all outstanding issues”. There is of course no doubt that the interests of the two countries as also of the region dictate an early settlement of this dispute, which has brought years of misery to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. It would certainly be good if the SCO can provide an impetus to the two countries to hasten the process of settlement but it seems unlikely that the incentive of membership of the SCO alone would provide the spur if other factor do not work in the same direction.
Why did Iran not apply or why was it indicated to Iran that such an application would not be welcome? With Iran being under UN sanctions SCO current members are not certain about what sort of all round cooperation would be possible if Iran were to become a member. There is also some apprehension among the Central Asian States about the degree of influence that some factions of Iran’s rulers may seek to exercise in Central Asian countries where they have in the past enjoyed a degree of cultural and religious affinity.
Be that as it may it seems that for the moment membership will remain confined to the original members but there may be an expansion in the observer list since it seems that all members are anxious that Afghanistan which has in the past attended the summit as a “special guest” should be accorded this status. It is noteworthy that the Declaration at the end of the Summit said “The SCO backs the efforts to build Afghanistan into an independent, neutral, peaceful and prosperous country. Realizing peace and stability in Afghanistan constitutes an important part of maintaining regional and global security, the SCO will continue to help the friendly Afghan people rebuild their country,"
It did not however as it had done in 2005 call for setting a deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Instead it stressed that military means alone could not solve Afghanistan's problems and that attention must be first paid to its social and economic issues, including reconstruction of transportation and social infrastructure. It called upon member states to work together with international institutions and other parties to take part in economic reconstruction programs in Afghanistan. Commenting on President Karzai’s request for the granting of observer status to Afghanistan President Medvedev said, "Afghanistan is our neighbour, whose cooperation with the SCO could be stronger. I understand all participants in the forum agree with that."
The Declaration issued by the summit was largely inward looking focusing on what the SCO vision should adopt, on the 10th Anniversary of the founding of the Organisation, and what path the member states should chart a for the next ten years of the organisation. In this vision for the future the anti drug campaign and greater economic cooperation figured just as prominently as the “3 evils” that had to my mind prompted the setting up of the organisation. On the security cooperation aspect there was a call for SCO to further improve its security cooperation mechanism and enhance its members' interoperability to fight "the three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism and extremism as well as other menaces like narcotics and multinational organized crime. On the economic front President Hu Jintao called upon the member states to further expand economic cooperation, facilitate trade and investment, promote connectivity in transportation, energy and telecommunication infrastructure and steer the region toward economic integration, and promised that "China will continue delivering preferential loans to other SCO members. This was obviously a reference to the $10 billion loan facility that China had offered to its SCO partners when the global financial crisis had created difficulties within the region as much as in the rest of the world.
On international issues the most notable point in the SCO declaration was the assertion that “The unilateral and unlimited build-up of missile defence by a single state or by a narrow group of states could damage strategic stability and international security.” While some would interpret this as a reiteration of the long held opposition by Russia and China to the so-called missile defence that the United States is building with bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, to other observers the emphasis on “unilateral” and “unlimited” suggested that Russia and China along with their SCO partners wanted to keep alive the prospect of the cooperative construction of a defence shield which would then ensure that the nuclear deterrent of the two countries vis-à-vis the United States remained intact…
All in al the SCO summit could be termed a success at forging closer relations in a region where the expansion of cooperation poses many problems on such issues as the harmonising of customs regulations or the division of water resources etc. As these closer relations develop and as SCO expands outward, which it is bound to do, these problems will become easier to address.