India and Pakistan are set to become full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — a regional security group that comprises Russia, China and four Central Asian republics. Analysts say that the group’s expansion to include South Asia does not come without implications.
The process of the regional rivals joining the SCO is expected to begin in the remote Russian city of Ufa later this week, when both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, attend the group’s 15th meeting.
India applied to become a full member of the SCO last year, while Pakistan’s request has been pending for years. Both countries are currently observers.
Besides Russia and China, SCO’s members are the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Analysts say expanding membership of SCO to India and Pakistan will recast the group as a more significant regional group by taking the spotlight away from it as an organization led by Russia and China.
Manoj Joshi, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, notes the peculiarity of India’s inclusion.
“Actually, in a peculiar way, the Indian membership will actually balance the group. If China and Russia are seen as kind of anti-American, India has got good ties with the United States. In that sense India’s presence will add clout [to the SCO and] will balance out any kind of anti-Americanism that may be there in the SCO,” says Joshi.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister, Cheng Guoping, says the admission of India and Pakistan will play an important role in SCO’s development.
While some analysts like Joshi view the SCO as a talking shop, others say the ambitious China-led group wants to be a regional counterweight to Western alliances.
India’s quest for SCO’s membership is driven by its aim to increase engagement with the resource- and energy-rich Central Asian republics, where China already has a huge presence.
To emphasize its desire for more trade and investment with Central Asia, Prime Minister Modi is stopping in all its five Central republics - Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan (a non-SCO member), Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, during the current tour that will take him to Ufa.
India’s quest for access
India wants access to Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves, and Kazakhstan’s oil and uranium. But this has been hampered by its lack of connectivity to the landlocked region, which is just a three and a half flight hours away, but where getting cargo container service is a huge logistical hurdle.
For example, a plan to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India, through Afghanistan and neighbor Pakistan, has been pending for a long time.
Phunchok Stobdan, a former diplomat and senior fellow at New Delhi’s Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, says India has a long road ahead.
“India has the intention to be there, but the capabilities are not there. You can't now match with the Chinese in any case, both in terms of connectivity or direct access or in terms of the commitment, in terms of money. China is talking about spending $15-$30 billion on Silk Road project, and we don’t have any idea, we don’t have any concept of what we want to do in Central Asia,” says Stopdan.
Some analysts, such as Zakir Hussain at the New Delhi-based think tank Indian Council of World Affairs, hope India can overcome the disadvantages it faces in Central Asia when it becomes a member of SCO.
“It will have a rightful place in the region and it can sit and talk and discuss the common policies affecting all the countries in terms of benefits, in terms of losses. So India will automatically get a preference in the region. Getting membership of SCO will strengthen our regional grip, regional say in the region,” says Hussain.
This will be the first time that nuclear-armed Pakistan and India could be members of the same security bloc. Including both countries is seen as a balancing act – New Delhi is closer to Moscow while Islamabad is closer to Beijing.
Some analysts are not sure how the India-Pakistan membership will play out at the SCO. They point out that their bitter rivalry has long stalled progress of another regional group - the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
But Pakistani political scientist Hassan Askari Rizvi says that may not happen at the SCO, where, he says, neither country has engaged in confrontation.
“In the past we have seen that even as observers when there representatives would speak, they have avoided a direct or blistering criticism of each other at the Shanghai Cooperation Council. Hopefully they maintain that kind of posture and they use this forum to come closer to each other rather than engaging in a kind of polemics which will not serve the purpose of either the organization or of the two countries,” says Rizvi.
Rizvi says both countries have a stake in Central Asia, but they can be more constructive in the region only if their bilateral relations improve.
The gathering in Ufa may yield a tiny step in that direction. Reports say there could be a meeting on the sidelines of the SCO forum between the Indian and Pakistani leaders. The first interaction between them last year soon after Prime Minister Modi’s inauguration offered some hope, but relations have since plummeted.
The Chinese Vice Foreign minister, Cheng Guoping, hopes the SCO can play a constructive role in pushing for improvement in India-Pakistan ties.