When members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization convene June 9 in Tashkent for their annual summit, it is already apparent that expansion will be a major topic of discussion.
That expansion is an issue that won’t go away testifies to the fact the SCO, in its nine-year existence, has firmly established a reputation as being a force for stability in Central Asia. The three most prominent SCO observers are Iran, Pakistan, and India, and all have previously indicated interest in gaining full membership. Iranian membership is probably a bridge too far, given the recent tension in Tehran’s relations with Moscow, as well as the continuing controversy enveloping its nuclear program. But it is possible that both India and Pakistan may gain admission.
India and Pakistan seem likely to be admitted together, or not at all. While Moscow had been lukewarm to Pakistani membership in the past, the idea now appears to have Russian support. This fact can only galvanize India to follow suit, lest it hand a diplomatic advantage to its longtime rival.
There also is some reason to believe that Uzbekistan, as host of the conference wants to get SCO observer states, especially Iran and India, more involved in discussions of Afghan stabilization efforts. In that light, giving India full SCO membership makes sense. Such a move by India would send a signal that New Delhi intends to raise its profile in Afghanistan-related discussions. This would very likely cheer Russia and China, as both Moscow and Beijing urged India, during a trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting in 2009, to take greater diplomatic interest in stabilizing Central Asia.
Some of the same considerations apply to Pakistan’s potential admission as a full SCO member. Pakistani membership in the SCO has long been impeded by Islamabad’s perceived connection to the Taliban, as well as its uneven ties with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration. Moscow has long suspected Pakistan’s reliability, but now seems convinced that Islamabad is dedicated to cooperating on questions of terrorism, extremism and secessionism. Other motives may be behind the Kremlin’s apparent policy reversal. Previously Moscow viewed Pakistan as the most dangerous nuclear proliferation threat on the planet. But now it is eagerly trying to sell Pakistan nuclear reactors. Support for SCO membership, then, may be a bid by Moscow to enhance its ability to win atomic energy-related contracts.
Beyond the ongoing interest in full membership, perhaps the most striking evidence of the SCO’s maturation is the fact that the United States is publicly showing interest for the first time in what the group is up to. Uzbekistan is assisting US participation in the 2010 summit. For years, Washington kept its distance from the SCO, but it will have representatives in Tashkent for this year’s summit. It’s willingness to engage the organization is certainly connected to Afghan stabilization efforts, but it is also a reflection of a stronger US-Uzbek strategic relationship. It is too soon to say whether the United States will formally recognize the SCO as a major security provider in Central Asia, but there is no question that the group led by Moscow and Beijing is coming of age.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.