The meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states wrapped up in Astana on April 21. The participants confirmed the unanimous decision to grant full-fledged membership to India and Pakistan at the SCO Astana summit on June 8-9, 2017.
The SCO was established in 2001 as a multi-purpose regional organization active in three main fields: economic, military-political and humanitarian. The SCO members now are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Belarus are the SCO observer-countries, while Azerbaijan, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Armenia, Cambodia and Nepal are dialogue partners. Although Russia and China are the most important SCO members, the organization operates by consensus.
Since its formation, it annually brings together heads of states to discuss regional security issues and inter-regional cooperation. The SCO is gradually moving to the establishment of an economic integration union, including the creation of a free trade zone, bank and fund for development and strengthening of transport cooperation. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Silk Road Fund and Silk Road Economic Belt projects have been launched to this end. Since its establishment, the SCO has concluded several wide-ranging agreements on security, trade and investment, connectivity, energy, the SCO Bank, culture, etc.
Meanwhile, Iran looks to be the next candidate in line for the full SCO membership. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for Iran's speedy accession to the organization. He expressed hope that the upcoming summit would launch the procedure to admit Iran into the organization as a full member. If Iran joins the group, the SCO would control around a fifth of the world’s oil and represent nearly a half of the global population.
With the Iran nuclear deal in place and international sanctions lifted, there is no hurdle on the way to membership. The move would make Iran a partner of Russia and China, the two leading powers in the organization. The move is opposed by Tajikistan. Russia-mediated talks are on the way to remove the reasons for the objections.
Membership of India will add significant heft and muscle to the SCO, particularly in the backdrop of the global economic slowdown. India is the fastest expanding global economy today with an annual GDP growth of 7.5 percent. It represents the third largest economy ($8 trillion dollars) in PPP terms and 7th largest ($2.3 trillion dollars) in nominal dollar terms.
The Pakistani economy is the 24th-largest in the world in terms of purchasing power and the 41st-largest in terms of nominal GDP (World Bank). It is ranked among the emerging and growth-leading economies, and is backed by one of the world's largest and fastest-growing middle classes.
Granting New Delhi and Islamabad the status of full SCO member states in the near future will make the organization a global (Trans-Asian) political structure. It will boost the group’s potential and provide a fresh impetus to further securing its role on the regional and international arena. The accession will bring together three largest and most powerful Eurasian states and four nuclear powers. With the integration of new members, the group will unite 50 percent of Eurasian territory, 43 percent of the population on the planet and 24 percent of global GDP. Just think about it! The SCO will become a regional organization covering the widest land area with the biggest population in the world.
True, India and Pakistan have a history of conflict and are at loggerheads over security issues. The membership will help build bridges. The territorial disputes and nuclear arms will remain, but the very fact of being united in the same organization pursuing common goals will help them start a dialogue. For instance, all SCO members are interested in addressing the problem of Afghanistan. India and Pakistan can make a big contribution to finding proper solutions.
The fantasy of Indian and Pakistani military participating together in a joint SCO military exercise would become reality and a landmark event. Having joined, both countries will enjoy greater access to resources and energy import projects within the grouping’s framework. They will play their cards strongly with other multilateral donors including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank.
The two nations are seeking greater engagement in the Eurasian region. Central Asian countries are rich in hydrocarbons to make them attractive for energy-starved India and Pakistan. Both New Delhi and Islamabad are pushing ahead with infrastructure projects aimed at deepening their connectivity to the region. India is developing the Chabahar port in Iran that would grant it land access to Afghanistan and Eurasia. Islamabad is resting its hopes on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a plan to develop Pakistani infrastructure and broaden economic links with the help of China.
The new members’ accession could be a prelude to the formation of large Eurasian partnership. Over the 16 years of its existence, the SCO has become a consolidated, full-fledged, and very influential international association fully independent from the influence of the West, offering an alternative to the outdated vision of a unipolar world dominated by the US.