Pakistan and India were accepted as full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) on 24th June after the two countries signed the memorandum of obligations thereby triggering the final process towards full membership that is expected to take till 2017 to be completed.
Its five founding members include China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with Uzbekistan joining five years later in 2001. At present, Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia have observer status while Turkey and Belarus have dialogue partner status.
Significantly the United States applied for observer status but was rejected in 2005 prompting analysts to maintain that the SCO may have been established to limit interference by a power outside the region in conflicts within the region, reminiscent of US military engagement in Afghanistan, or to offset Nato which formed the major portion of ISAF forces operating in Afghanistan till 2014.
This view is strengthened by the SCO leaders portraying it as a new model of cooperation in international relations – a partnership instead of an alliance reflecting a multipolar world order as opposed to a unipolar world order based on US hegemony and unilateralism, as per a 2015 European Union briefing.
The EU briefing on the SCO dated June 2015 states that “the SCO brings together six countries with very different military, political and economic weights: two nuclear and ‘UN veto’ powers – China and Russia – and four smaller Central Asian countries with considerable conflict potential (ethnic, border and water conflicts) and which constitute a buffer zone between China and Russia’s regional interests.
The SCO co-operative framework was designed to accommodate this considerable asymmetry in power levels between SCO members and their different political systems, ideologies and religions”.
In this context, it is fair to assume that with the full membership of Pakistan and India into the SCO in 2017 – countries with considerable potential for conflict on a range of issues not excluding Kashmir – the organisation would provide the two protagonists with a forum to debate/resolve their differences on an equal footing.
This perception is supported by the SCO charter which states that the SCO’s main goals and tasks are “to strengthen mutual trust, friendship and good neighbourliness between the member states; to consolidate multidisciplinary cooperation in the maintenance and strengthening of peace, security and stability in the region and promotion of a new democratic, fair and rational political and economic international order; to jointly counteract terrorism, separatism and extremism in all their manifestations, to fight against illicit narcotics and arms trafficking and other types of criminal activity of a transnational character, and also illegal migration.”
Additionally, the SCO is unique as per the EU briefing, in that it balances Russian and Chinese power – two major regional powers as well as international players but embraces the principles and values largely inspired by China’s foreign policy thinking which has shaped a multilateral leadership model based on a “normative culture of inclusiveness and flexibility similar to the co-operative culture prevalent in the ASEAN – as an alternative to Western norms and values”.
The SCO charter also envisages encouraging “efficient regional cooperation in such spheres as politics, trade and economy, defence, law enforcement, environment protection, culture, science and technology, education, energy, transport, credit and finance and also other spheres of common interest; to facilitate comprehensive and balanced economic growth, social and cultural development in the region through joint action on the basis of equal partnership for the purpose of a steady increase of living standards and improvement of living conditions of the peoples of the member states.”
In 2014, the SCO members agreed to facilitation of international road transport, which brings to mind the vision of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to revitalise the ancient Silk Road connecting China, the Russian Federation, Central Asian countries and Pakistan supported by projects under way as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.