There has always been a serious consideration for the expansion of the
SCO in all the previous summits, where Russia has been more vocal in
granting full membership status to the observer countries.
A meeting of the Defence Ministers of the SCO member countries held in
the last week of April in Moscow decided to invite observer states —
India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia — to take part in military
activities of the six-member organisation, which unites Russia ,
China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
again a part of Russia’s efforts to facilitate their eventual
integration in the organisation as full members. The SCO expansion has
been an issue of heated debate ever since the organisation’s
establishment in 2001. Russia has strongly supported India’s
membership, while China effectively blocked it by insisting on
simultaneous admission of India and Pakistan. Moscow also favoured
Iran’s membership, while Beijing was not in favour of it. A compromise
was worked out in 2005 when India, Iran and Pakistan were granted
observer status in the SCO. Mongolia became observer somewhat earlier,
while Afghanistan received the informal status of a special guest. In
2006 the SCO announced a temporary moratorium on the admission of new
members till it works out criteria and procedures for further
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts to facilitate the SCO expansion
continued. At the summit meeting in Dushanbe in September 2008 the SCO
agreed to promote closer interaction with the observer nations.
Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev said the observers would be invited
to participate in the organisation’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure
(RATS), as well as in the meeting of transport and trade ministers.
The SCO leaders also decided to hold special meetings with the heads
of state of the observer nations on the sidelines of the SCO annual
The work with the observer states will be elevated to a qualitatively
higher plane and will be organised so as to allow their views to be
taken into consideration, the SCO leaders said in the communique on
their summit in Dushanbe.
The SCO leaders further agreed to set up a working group to study
political, legal, organisational and financial aspects of the
organisation’s enlargement as a step towards lifting their moratorium
on admission of new members.
In an effort to extend the SCO’s regional and global reach, the
Dushanbe summit instituted the status of dialogue partner in addition
to the institute of observers. The SCO leaders approved the rules and
procedures for granting the new status to international organisations
and individual countries.
The invitation to the observer states to join the defence and security
activities of the SCO is a further step towards their greater
integration into the organisation. While Pakistan and Iran are likely
to embrace the offer, as both countries have long been campaigning for
upgrading their status to full membership, the reaction of India is
awaited. Till now India has been reluctant to become involved in the
SCO security arrangements. The SCO essentially is not a military block
like NATO, although, it has been steadily expanding its security and
military agenda. In August 2007 the alliance held its first
large-scale military exercises involving thousands of troops, hundreds
of tanks and dozens of aircraft. It has since been decided to stage
joint war games every other year.
The Special Conference on Afghanistan, held in Moscow on March 27th,
reflected the growing clout of Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation
Organisation in the region. The conference was organised by the SCO,
which comprises six full members — Russia, China, Kazakhstan,
Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — and four observers, India,
Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia. It was remarkable for a broad range of
participants from outside the organisation. They included U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Secretary-General of the Organisation
for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mark Perrin de
Brichambaut; U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central
Asian Affairs Patrick Moon; and NATO Deputy Secretary-General Martin
Howard. There were also representatives from the Group of Eight
countries, the European Union and the Organisation of the Islamic
Conference. Afghanistan was represented by Foreign Minister Rangin
Dagdar Spanta. Altogether, 36 countries sent their Foreign Ministers
and other officials to the conference.
It was for the first time the SCO drew so much attention from the
world, said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy Satinder
Lambah, who underlined the non-confrontational character of the
conference, describing it as a smooth operation. It was also for the
first time that senior officials from the U.S. and NATO were invited
to an SCO meeting. Moreover, they formally recognised the SCO as a
major player in efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
A unanimously adopted joint declaration said: “The participants also
noted that the SCO was one of the appropriate fora for a wide dialogue
with participation of partners on the Afghanistan-related issues in
the context of joint efforts of the international community and
Afghanistan and for practical interaction between Afghanistan and its
neighbouring states in combating terrorism, drug trafficking and
This marked a volte-face of the U.S. view of the SCO as a hostile bloc
and rival in Central Asia. Mr. Patrick Moon, was all praise for the
SCO’s efforts in Afghanistan. “These are positive steps and we will
look at where we might be able to contribute,” he said of a joint
action plan adopted by the SCO and Afghanistan at the Moscow
The plan sets the stage for the SCO playing a high-profile role in
Afghanistan. Russia and other SCO members have long argued that
Afghanistan’s neighbours should have a stronger role in dealing with
the grave security threats emanating from that country. Afghan drug
traffic has become the most serious threat to the security of Russia
and countries of Central Asia. The efforts being taken to fight this
evil are insufficient, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the
conference, calling on the U.S.-NATO coalition forces to step up
The SCO-Afghanistan Action Plan calls for joint operations in
combating terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime; for
involving Afghanistan, in a phased manner, in the SCO-wide
collaboration in fighting terrorism in the region; and for inviting
relevant Afghan bodies to take part in joint law-enforcement exercises
by the SCO. It also provides for stepping up the training of drug
agencies, combating laundering of drug money and improving border
controls. These measures should help to set up anti-narcotics,
anti-terrorism and anti-laundering security belts around Afghanistan.
The plan reads like a road map for bringing Afghanistan into the SCO
Interestingly, India’s envoy, in his address, directly appealed for
granting SCO membership to Afghanistan. “Afghanistan’s membership of
SAARC and other groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation
will renew and reinforce Afghanistan’s linkages with the countries of
the region,” he said. Afghanistan joined SAARC in 2007, but it is
neither a member nor observer in the SCO, though it is part of the
SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group established in November 2005 to provide
a mechanism for SCO member-states to jointly contribute to
reconstruction and stability in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid
Karzai attended all SCO summits in recent years.
The idea of Afghanistan joining the SCO would be anathema to the U.S.,
and President Barack Obama’s proposal to create a NATO-dominated
contact group with Afghanistan as part of his new strategy for the
region is seen as an attempt to dilute the influence of the SCO, even
as he has invited its members to the new group. However, at the Moscow
conference the U.S. envoy joined the other delegates in vowing support
for the SCO-Afghanistan Action Plan. The declaration said the
participants in the Moscow conference “expressed the intent to explore
the possibility of aiding [the] implementation of the Action Plan.”
Analysts linked the dramatic shift in Washington’s position, in favour
of sharing its responsibility for Afghanistan’s security with the SCO,
to the failure of the U.S.-led military operation. The U.S. and other
NATO countries have already secured transit routes across Russia and
the Central Asian states for non-military supplies to their forces in
Afghanistan, and Moscow suggested it could allow shipment of military
cargoes as well.
The Moscow conference was a diplomatic coup for Russia and the SCO.
Coming just over a month after Kyrgyzstan decided to shut a major U.S.
airbase, the Afghanistan conference reiterated the SCO’s position that
while it is opposed to the expansion of U.S. military interests in
Central Asia, it is willing to expand cooperation with the U.S. and
NATO in Afghanistan, even as none of the SCO members is prepared to
send troops to Afghanistan. The conference reinforced the SCO as the
leading regional security force.
(For more updates on the SCO watch this space after the next annual
Summit to be held in June 2009 in Yekaterenburg, Russia)