Though the memorandum on the obligations for India and Pakistan to hold membership of the SCO was signed at the SCO Tashkent summit in 2016 but the official declaration was made on 14th March 2017 during the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s regular press conference in Beijing. Prior to this, on 13th March, the Secretary-General of the organization Rashid Alimov, also posted on Sina Weibo about the expansion plan of SCO in coming June. Although it is expected that permanent membership of the SCO will help bolster mutual trust and improve relations between Pakistan and India, which in yield would be beneficial for the regional prosperity and development, however, the expansion will also have some serious implications for the existing members and SCO itself which need to be examined.
In the West-dominated world order, the Eurasian bloc has always tried to establish "balance of power" through the expansion of regional organizations and the emergence of SCO was the outcome of one of these attempts. The organization, originally named as Shanghai-Five, is a Eurasian political, economic, and military organization founded in 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. However, after the inclusion of Uzbekistan in 2001, it was renamed to its current name.
The primary objective behind the formation of the Shanghai-Five was to "peacefully resolve the boundary dispute, which existed among China and the five countries and to ensure stability along the borders". Once the borders were worked out more or less along the agreed upon lines, the member countries started to maneuver along the expansion of the organization in terms of its membership and execution. Currently the goals of the organization are to (i) strengthen relations among member states; (ii) promote cooperation in political affairs, economics, trade, scientific-technical, cultural, and educational spheres as well as in energy, transportation, tourism, and environmental protection; (iv) safeguard regional peace, security, and stability; and (v) create a democratic, equitable international political and economic order.
For Pakistan, the proclamation of the full membership of the SCO has come at the time when the country is already seeking to forge trade links with Central Asian countries. The permanent membership will foster deeper socio-economic connectivity between Pakistan and Central Asia, inviting the business community of both sides to invest in each other’s agriculture, mining, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing sectors. Furthermore, it could open doors for Pakistan’s moribund energy sector to avail cheap power supply schemes from Kyrgyzstan, a country that has significantly ramped up its energy sector as a consequence of the two-decade development of its large hydroelectric power resources. Moreover, the area is plentiful with the natural gas resources, a readiness that could also be savored by Pakistan in future.
SCO expansion and Pakistan’s inclusion in the organization will prove beneficial for these Central Asian members as well. Most of these central Asian countries are landlocked, but they could convert their perceived disadvantage of being landlocked into an asset by constructing a web and network of roads, railways, highways, oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing from East to West and North to South to connect industrial and production hubs with consumer markets. With Pakistan already having Karachi as its major port can act as a “zipper” for the region, allowing these countries to use its ports and territory for such purpose. Furthermore, under the project of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan is building Gwadar as the next important port city in the region. The port is located near key oil shipping lanes from the Persian Gulf, thus it will provide closest access to the sea to Central Asian Republics for oil and other imports. The project also targets to construct the network of roads and rail to carry goods from the Persian Gulf to China and Europe through Silk Route. Therefore, there could be a mutual agreement between Pakistan and these Central Asian countries to expand this economic network of rail and road tracks in Central Asia, in order to ensure the smooth transit of goods across these countries and to provide the economic channel for the scientific-technical, educational and cultural exchanges. And what not. With Pakistan’s vast experience in the context, new measures and joint ventures could also be taken for countering violent extremism in the region.
From India’s perspective, SCO membership would open a new opportunity to reconnect with Eurasia after a century of disruption. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the SCO-BRICS Summit 2015 that membership of SCO would be “a natural extension of India’s ties with member countries.”
SCO could offer India with some unique opportunities to get constructively engaged with Eurasia to address shared security concerns, particularly for combating terrorism and containing threats posed by ISIS and the Taliban. India could also benefit from stepping up cooperation, especially by tapping into the existing SCO processes such as the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) that shares key information and intelligence on the movements of terrorists and drug-trafficking. Likewise, participation in the SCO’s counter-terror exercises and annually conducted military drills could benefit Indian armed forces to understand the operational tactics of other militaries which could also instill greater confidence at the regional level.
Importantly, the rapidly growing India is one of the biggest energy-consuming countries in the world. The Central Asian region possesses large resources of oil and natural gas reserves. Therefore, once the SCO membership is under the belt, India would seek the gateway to Central Asia's humongous energy fields. Moreover, at times when India is seeking for a permanent seat in the United Nations (UN), it is important to strengthen its historical and regional links with the Eurasian countries.
For SCO, roping in India and Pakistan adds fresh vitality, providing greater voice and status to the grouping, which has hitherto remained China-centric previously. After Pakistan and India inclusion, SCO has now become one of the biggest organizations in the world that is a voice of half of the population of the world.
Now let’s consider the other side of the coin as well. Was the accession of membership of both Pakistan and India at the same time coincidental or consequential?
Well, the sources say that Russia traditionally pushed India’s case for full membership. As India’s entry to the SCO in 2017 would lead to even “closer Russian-Indian cooperation”, opening gates for collaboration in civil nuclear energy, partnership in the natural gas, petrochemicals sector and liaison in the space sector. The Russian decision to back India was also supported by Kazakhstan and Tajikistan who have close ties with India. Now China, being the most influential member of the organization, felt being cornered because of the inclusion of India and the growing proximity between India, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Thus, China started supporting Pakistan’s entry into the SCO as a "balancer" against the weight of Russia and its allies-India, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Does this mean that Pakistan and India permanent membership is going to bifurcate the SCO into groups?
Keeping Pakistan and India refractory relations in mind, it does seem like that both the countries will find a new platform to blather banal allegations over each other just like they recently did in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 34th regular session in February 2017. Therefore, the quirky relations between Pakistan and India could shift to the SCO platform. As the hostilities between the two countries have always had a Central Asian dimension. On one hand, India is building its relations with Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to import petroleum, natural gas, and uranium from the region. On the other hand, Pakistan is working with Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan on the CASA-1000 Project to transmit electricity from Central Asia to South Asia. Moreover, through Quadrilateral Traffic in Transit Agreement (QTTA), Pakistan is setting a deal with Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, China and Kazakhstan to facilitate the transportation of goods and flow of traffic from Central Asia to South Asia and China. Consequently, both countries view Central Asia as a strategic clamp with which to exert pressure on each other from the rear. Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, have also described the entry of India and Pakistan to the organization as “time bomb.”
Alexander Gabuev, head of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Region program of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has also impugned the expansion of SCO by saying: “The SCO is changing quantitatively but not qualitatively. Its population, territory, and share of global GDP are increasing, but the main problem is that this regional organization lacks a specific function to deliver something tangible”. He believes that the “New countries are seeking to join not because of the great prospects, but for fear of falling behind the powers of continental Eurasia already inside. That is the main motivation for India and Pakistan to join the SCO as well”
Furthermore, it could also dilute the organization member’s already meager powers. That is precisely the reason that there was news last year that the existing Central Asian members will block the entry of India and Pakistan in the organization. But their approbation to the expansion of the SCO has scotched all the rumors. However, the risk that the inclusion of India and Pakistan will take the spotlight away from Central Asia and other more urgent matters remains. This may also result in the alteration of the initial structure and concept of the organization, after which Central Asia will find it harder to advance its own positions and to cooperate on regional issues.
So, what is to be done now?
India and Pakistan should take a cooperative position in the organization if they want to genuinely exploit opportunities that SCO membership may offer. Both countries should certainly join SCO with a fresh mind without any ambiguity. Also, China and Russia will now have to accept to run a mature role to make sure both Pakistan and India comply with the norms of SCO and do not demur the organization's original purpose and role. Furthermore, all the existing and new members should work to recast the organization as a more comprehensive regional forum. There is a need to regulate the organization as a vehicle for any kind of substantive regional integration or cooperative problem solving rather than making it an emblematic club of like-minded members who do nothing except talk about how much population, land and global GDP they control.