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SCO Expansion: What Does It Mean?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a regional security bloc of the most unlikely nations of Asia is all set to expand to include India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan within its fold. During the Heads of State Summit of the SCO that was held in July 9-10, 2015 in Ufa, Russia, the SCO opened its doors to India and Pakistan who are expected to become full members of the regional forum by the next Summit meeting in 2016. 

The SCO when it was formed by China and Russia in 1996 along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, was not considered a regional forum of much significance, especially when compared to other regional platforms. It was believed that this security bloc was created by Beijing and Moscow to deter and discourage the West from gaining a foothold in the Central Asian Region (CAR). By insulating CAR from the West, Beijing and Moscow hoped that the SCO would help them to submerge  their differences and strategic perceptions thus paving the way for them to cooperate in this region.

Over the years, the SCO has been gaining some importance though it has not been able to undo its image of being a Sino-Russian platform that would dictate the nature of events in the CAR. These Republics have been perceived as benign partners in this Sino-Russian construct. Nonetheless, the interest expressed by India, Pakistan and Iran in joining the SCO and the belated acceptance of the same by SCO is not to be considered a non-event for a few very important reasons.

The SCO as its stands today, consists of those nations that are considered as totalitarian regimes or at best guided democracies with poor track record on human rights and development. Russia and China are presumed to be revisionist powers that are out to rewrite the global order. And in this light, the expansion of the SCO sends out mixed implications since the new members, though not completely satisfied with the existing international order, have found ways and means to work within the existing system. Thus their inclusion into this regional organisation could contribute significantly, even though it may be too early in the day to appreciate the role that the new members of the SCO would play. For the aspiring members SCO could become the platform to vent their frustrations with the existing world order and for SCO, these nations could act as a morale booster in challenging the existing global security and strategic architecture. Needless to point out, the geographic contours of this regional forum would make it a near Pan-Asian organisation which in its own is a significant since Asia, unlike other continents has failed to create a pan-continental umbrella organisation like the African Union or the European Union. 

The SCO as of now has not been seen as an important regional forum globally even by its member nations, primarily for three reasons. Firstly, the inherent differences of the members, wherein China and Russia are more equal than others. Secondly, the CAR is still hyphenated with Russia first, followed by China and thus not studied as a region independent of its neighbours. Finally, the Chinese thirst for resources from the CAR region has been independent of the SCO since the existing commercial and trade-related engagement with these nations has been outside the SCO framework. Russia, on its own has sponsored Eurasian Customs Union with few of the SCO partners but again independent of the SCO.  Thus the possibility of SCO evolving into a regional/multilateral trade platform is as of now,   a non-starter. 

On the question of SCO expansion, the inclusion of Mongolia was a given, since Mongolia’s sole neighbours are China and Russia, the lead members. With respect to India, Pakistan and Iran, currently observers (but future members by 2016), the question of their inclusion is a different ball game.  These three nations could impact and influence the SCO in more ways than one. For a start, India and Iran, along with China share a common streak in their non-conformist approach towards the current global order, since they aspire to play a greater role in international affairs.

The second significant issue at hand is that these three nations along with China and Russia are better placed for engaging Afghanistan when the United States-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) start to limit their security commitments. In fact Iran, India and Russia have cooperated in the past in supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Thus there is a convergence of common interest in seeing a stable Afghanistan - a paramount concern for all SCO members; including the CAR nations who eventually bore a fair amount of brunt as a consequence of the Afghan turmoil. The inclusion of Pakistan could possibly pave the way for external, geopolitical reconciliation that could mean a brighter future for Afghanistan. SCO’s role could be that of a platform that could address, if not manage the existing geo-strategic conflict in Afghanistan, where both India and Pakistan are jostling for influence. 

The third aspect of the SCO is the sheer geographic space its covers. If one includes the list of current members, along with observers, dialogue partners and prospective partners of the SCO, this regional grouping will cover not only a very large area but one that is also turbulent and sensitive. In this regard, Turkey, a NATO member has already expressed its interest to join the SCO and Azerbaijan has been made a new dialogue partner. This by and large covers much of the Eurasian landmass and all the major hot spots in the region, including parts of West Asia , Eastern Europe (which is a sensitive subject for Moscow), Central Asia and Afghanistan. Added to this is the South Asian dynamics and associated issues. 

 Though the charter of the SCO is primarily focused on security (counter-terrorism), enhancing cooperation in the energy sector and trade, along with addressing the issue of drug traffickingare other significant charters of this organisation. The importance of these three issues is of varying degree of concern for SCO members and observers. The energy aspect and its export is the main stay of Russian and Iranian economy while India and China are starved for the same. On the question of terrorism, the past experience of these nations is limited to a narrow facet of ideological/ theological violence. With the advent of the Islamic States, these nations would have to recalibrate their approach in tackling this variant of theological violence. With he rise of the Islamic State in West Asia, terrorism, once again is an issue of concern that will directly affect all nations in this region, including SCO associates. The Islamic State, unlike its predecessor is in a position to rewrite the existing geostrategic discourse and also the global order and that could adversely impact the aspiration of most SCO members. This would be either by altering the security dynamics of the sub-regions that constitutes the SCO or by superseding existing issues by repositioning Islamic State variant of terrorism as the core of regional discourse. Either way, given the past experience of SCO members, a theological-based violent movement would be counter-productive for the future of these states.

However, the expansion of the SCO when taken along with other developments portrays a different picture.  The Chinese-sponsored Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank and the New Development Bank initiated by BRICS’s are clearly reflective of a counter to the existing Trans-Atlantic dominated global order. The willingness of both Russia and China to co-opt with other nations could be the beginning of rewriting international norms and practices. This is because the SCO taken along with BRICS is by and large a platform for revisionist nations who feel the need to have a greater say in this world. Needless to say, both China and Russia along with India and to a lesser extent Iran have realised that cooperating and alignment are the preferred path for advancing one’s national interest rather than perusing an insular approach towards foreign policy. A similar pattern can be seen in the rise of the United States in the post-war period wherein Washington-sponsored alliance networks catapulted the United States into the position of  the sole super power of the world.

The author is Associate Fellow at CLAWS. Views expressed here, by the author, are personal.

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