Pakistan, India joining China-led grouping

Analyst: Shanghai Cooperation Organisation growing in influence

India and Pakistan are set to become full members of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) after its leaders adopted memorandums admitting the two South Asian countries at their summit yesterday.

The two states will become full members at next year's summit of the political and security grouping, which ended its two-day summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, yesterday, media reports said.

This marks the first time the Eurasian grouping is expanding its membership since its founding in 2001. Other members are Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikis- tan and Uzbekistan.

Analysts say the inclusion of the two populous southern neighbours marks an important milestone. "This shows that SCO is expanding not just in size, but also in its international influence," said Professor Yu Jianhua, deputy director of the Shanghai-based Centre for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

The inclusion of India and Pakistan will enlarge the grouping to cover more than 40 per cent of the world's population, over a vast stretch of the Eurasian continent.

The SCO is a spin-off from the Shanghai Five, formed in 1996 to resolve border issues between China and its neighbours from the now-defunct Soviet Union. China and Russia are in favour of adding new members, but observers say they have different expectations of the pace and speed of expansion.

On Thursday, the grouping rejected Iran's bid to join despite a request from Russia, said Reuters. While it is unclear if China blocked the bid, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last month Beijing preferred to focus on getting India and Pakistan on board before considering other candidates.

"Beijing doesn't want the grouping to grow too quickly, but Moscow supports a faster expansion," said Russia expert Zhao Huasheng from Fudan University, adding that Beijing feels a bigger organisation may lead to lower efficiency.

"The SCO should take a measured approach in admitting new members, or else it will result in a huge impact on the structure of the organisation, just like in the case of the European Union," Professor Zhao added.

On the security front, India and Pakistan's accession will help strengthen the SCO's ability to combat threats such as terrorism in the Eurasian region, said Prof Yu.

"As victims that have suffered for years, they are determined to foster closer cooperation with the existing SCO member states to eradicate these threats," he added.

India and Pakistan's membership comes as China and Russia are courting both states through their signature economic initiatives - China's Silk Road Economic Belt and Russia's vision of a greater Eurasian partnership.

Prof Zhao pointed out that these two initiatives should be viewed as complementary rather than in competition, for both Beijing and Moscow have indicated that they are looking to see how the two can be integrated.

But the two South Asian states' membership is not without problems. The constant bickering between the two sides, especially over security matters, could bring added complexity to the dynamics of the grouping, observers said.

And given China and India's border conflicts as well as the issue of the Dalai Lama, it remains to be seen how such matters could be dealt with under the "non-interference" principle adopted by SCO members, Prof Yu added.

Separately, China, Russia and Mongolia signed a development plan on Thursday to build an economic corridor that will boost transport links and economic cooperation among the three neighbours, Xinhua news agency reported.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'Pakistan, India joining China-led grouping'. Print Edition | Subscribe