India and Pakistan join Eurasian club
The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation has embarked on a big enlargement process that could transform the club that includes China, Russia and four central Asian countries into a security and economic grouping stretching from eastern Europe to southeast Asia.
SCO leaders decided on Friday to admit India and Pakistan as members and made Belarus an observer — a status that could eventually be upgraded to membership.
They expressed support for Iran’s application for membership once Tehran reaches a deal on its nuclear programme with international powers, indicating that the procedure towards membership could begin as early as next year.
In addition, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia and Nepal were made “dialogue partners”, a looser form of association with the group, which focuses on jointly fighting security threats such as terrorism and also aims for closer ties in trade, education and scientific research.
The expansion marks a big diplomatic achievement for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who hosted the summit in the southern Urals city of Ufa, as it allows him to demonstrate that western sanctions have failed to isolate Moscow internationally.
It also creates a forum for security talks and economic integration spanning a vast geographic area in which neither the US nor the EU has substantial influence, but which includes several countries of global strategic significance.
The development comes as Moscow is pushing for a new international security order. Mr Putin has said that the principles laid down in the Helsinki Accords, a cold war-era agreement designed to ensure security and prevent conflict in Europe, have been disregarded in the process of Nato enlargement and US hegemony. Some Russian officials have toyed with the idea of a new Eurasian security architecture and believe that the SCO could play a role in this.
“This summit opens a new stage in SCO development,” said Mr Putin. Cheng Guoping, China’s deputy foreign minister, said the expanding SCO was set to “play a growing global role”.
The SCO was founded in 2001 for the primary purpose of settling border issues between China and its central Asian neighbours. But since most of these have been settled, it has evolved to focus on common security threats as well as efforts to develop the lagging economies of central Asia.
Pressure for enlargement has come mainly from Russia and from China, while the group’s central Asian members have been more cautious.
Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan, which takes over the SCO presidency from Russia after the summit, emphasised that the group must not under any circumstances change into a military bloc against any other group or country. He also urged the group to address its smaller members’ concerns that the inclusion of India and Pakistan would change the internal balance of power.
Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, held talks on the sidelines of the summit for the first time for more than a year, amid continued tensions on the border of the two nuclear powers.
The SCO is also set to become the platform for negotiating China’s and Russia’s partly competing regional economic integration projects. Group members are expected to negotiate common positions on how to implement the Silk Road Economic Belt, a Chinese plan to develop central Asia through massive infrastructure projects linking it to Europe.
China and Russia agreed to co-ordinate this plan with the Eurasian Economic Union, a common market created by Russia.