[The author was one of the delegates present at the SCO summit in June 2016]
Though Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was launched fifteen years ago, recently it has gained momentum and has drawn keen attention of the West due to its fast growing strength and reputation of a serious organization. It is seen by some as a counterbalance to the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Nevertheless ‘Eastern NATO’ is a misleading title to describe SCO as media has tried to portray it. No doubt SCO has started making its presence felt, it has not shown any intention to emerge as an ‘Eastern NATO’.
Founded in 2001, the Beijing-based SCO is a political and security organization comprising so far of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Military cooperation between the member states involves intelligence sharing, counter-terrorism operations in Central Asia and joint work against cyber terrorism, among other things.
The sixteenth meeting of the Council of Heads of Member States, Observers and Guest States of SCO convened at Tashkent under the Uzbek Chair on 24th June 2016 was important because, among other issues, the most important development was the last leap to grant full membership to Pakistan and India. The Heads of States discussed in a constructive and friendly atmosphere the main results of the 15 years-long activities of the SCO and exchanged views on a wide range of issues. They noted that the SCO has consolidated as a significant and influential player in the international arena. The Tashkent Declaration summed up the deliberations of the moot, highlighting that the SCO has developed into a highly efficient and open multilateral organization. Salient points of the Declaration are as follows:
- Reaffirmed that the SCO is open for accession by interested states which meet the criteria and conditions laid down by the Organization.
- Signing of memoranda on obligations of India and Pakistan to obtain the SCO member state status is an important stage in the process of expanding the SCO.
- Noted that obtaining the full member status by India and Pakistan shall increase the potential of the Organization.
- Welcomed the signing of memoranda on granting the SCO Dialogue Partner status to the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Republic of Armenia, the Kingdom of Cambodia and Nepal.
- Reaffirmed that the activity of the SCO is not directed against other states or international organizations.
- Called for the continuation of improvement of the mechanism of regular consultations with the observer states and dialogue partners.
- Noted the Action Plan 2016-2020 for the implementation of the SCO Development Strategy towards 2025 will intensify cooperation among member states.
- Called for improving tourism among SCO member states. Reaffirmed implementation of SCO Charter and other documents for the joint struggle against terrorism, separatism and extremism.
- Called for the early adoption of the UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
- Noted the significant development of trade and economic relations and investment cooperation within the SCO framework.
- Reaffirmed the support for the initiative of China on the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt.
- Emphasized the need to promote multilateral cooperation in transport sector and facilitate the formation of international transport corridors, which must become a connecting link between Asia and Europe.
- Next Summit would be held at Astana in June, 2017.
In the economic field, the leaders agreed to strengthen coordination to efficiently deal with the issues relating to the regional economic and financial development. Joint programs would be implemented in the fields of transportation and communication etc. to boost trade and investment to improve the competitiveness of the member countries.
The most practical step taken at this session was the signing of MoO which paved the way of full membership of Pakistan. Pakistan will now attain the status of full member in 2017. One of Putin’s senior advisors reportedly commented, “The process of accepting Pakistan and India into the SCO will enter the final stage and we expect that at the next summit in Kazakhstan, Pakistan and India will be finally admitted into the SCO ranks.” This is first expansion of SCO since Uzbekistan joined what had been known as the Shanghai Five in 2001.
While commenting on this development Putin said, “Indeed, as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization expands its areas of operation and its membership through the participation of the powerful countries I have just mentioned, it turns into a very powerful international association that commands respect and is relevant both in the region and worldwide.”
The smaller member states of the SCO welcomed the inclusion of Pakistan and India, as it provides them greater opportunity to enhance their trade and investment flows. With the latest expansion, the SCO will include countries encompassing over 40 percent of the world’s population. Chinese President Xi said, “With significantly extended opportunities for cooperation, the SCO’s role and influence are increasingly growing.”
Pakistan considers that full membership will enhance its stature in the regional and international arena. Moreover it would strengthen its counter terrorism efforts and increase its cooperation in security related matters with the member states. Furthermore it will provide a useful platform for greater interaction with Russia and China.
The member states of SCO expressed great concern over the spread of “Three Evils Forces” i.e. terrorism, extremism and separatism. Pakistan has already made it part of its National Action Plan to eliminate these three evil forces. Pakistan also thinks that simmering instability in Afghanistan is a source of insecurity in Pakistan and the region as well. SCO can be a forum to address this issue.
In the wake of SCO summit, Pakistan’s ministries of culture, trade & commerce, science & technology, education, energy, transportation have been directed to explore ways and means to enhance cooperation in the respective fields with all member states.
While Pakistan is exuberant over its full membership status of SCO, it is mindful of the US concerns over SCO. It will therefore make conscious efforts to allay its apprehensions as it had alleviated the trepidations of China when Pakistan had joined SEATO and CENTO in 1950s.
Pakistan is desperate and determined for its economic revival. It believes it has made solid starts in the right direction, with China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) being considered a game changer in this realm. SCO’s membership will further solidify Pak-China relationship and Pakistan would tread China’s ‘One Road One Belt’ route with speed and aplomb. Can Pakistan perform a balancing act between its pivot to the east and its relations with the west, is a question that time will only tell?