The six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which could play an important role in stabilising Afghanistan after the drawdown of foreign troops, opened its doors for India's membership at its 10th anniversary summit being celebrated in the heart of the Great Steppes on Wednesday.
Besides Afghanistan, India feels an expanded SCO could encourage Pakistan to weed out terror outfits based on its soil as well as promote connectivity that in turn could boost economic activity.
These points were made by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna during his intervention at the SCO summit that was attended by nine heads of state, including the Presidents of Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan.
Lauding the SCO for its “constructive and forward looking role in contributing towards peace in Afghanistan,'' Mr. Krishna hoped that by becoming involved with the SCO, Afghanistan could become the geo-strategic bridge between Central and South Asia as well as a trade and transit hub. Afghanistan is poised to be upgraded from Dialogue Partner to Observer that would give it access to all discussions of importance at the SCO.
The SCO consists of Russia, China and four Central Asian countries (barring Turkmenistan). India, Pakistan and Iran are among those with Observer status. All these nations virtually ring Afghanistan that shares ethnic linkages with most of them.
As officials explained, after Afghanistan becomes an Observer, South Asia would become contiguous to Central Asia in the SCO. This would help all neighbouring countries achieve the two aims they desire in the region for Afghanistan — the country becomes a geo-strategic bridge as well as a terror free zone. India has already been involved with the SCO's Regional Anti-terrorism Centre (RATS) and some intelligence-sharing is taking place. “We told them about the obvious fact of the terror machine being based in the neighbourhood,'' said sources in the government. “We see the RATS as an important regional answer to the terrorism challenge,'' said Mr. Krishna.
On Pakistan, officials said India had so far been working through the United States to pressure Islamabad into folding up the militant organisations that were operating with the benign acquiescence of the administration in Islamabad or the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi.
The SCO has the potential to be an additional forum through which Pakistan could be urged to rein in those spouting hatred and violence against those not in agreement with their end goals. Besides, as neighbours, these countries could develop sustainable economic linkages that would help Pakistan in the long run. “It will be different when Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, for instance, tell Pakistan to dismantle the terror infrastructure,'' said the sources.
Without mentioning any country, Mr. Krishna hoped that the SCO region would emerge as a terror-free zone, free of safe havens and sanctuaries for terrorists.
India, as do many other countries in the region, feel that the SCO, along with countries to the west, would be able to more comprehensively tackle the problem of Islamic militancy attempting to make inroads not in just Af-Pak but the entire arc that begins much further up in the north in an area called the Ferghana Valley, which was artificially divided in the 1920s into three Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. This division did not take into account the scenario of divided clans and ethnic communities when the three provinces were converted into nation-states following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This marks a departure from India's lukewarm attitude towards the SCO as it thought the body to be China dominated and, during the Bush years, tended to bait the West. For four years, after India became an Observer at the SCO, its delegation was led by the then Petroleum Minister Murli Deora. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did attend the Yekaterinburg summit in 2009, but he had few options because a back-to- back BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) summit at the same venue was also scheduled.
This attitude changed and a senior Foreign Ministry official told Beijing last year about New Delhi's eagerness to join the SCO. This happened around the same time India wrote to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, requesting the then SCO Chairman to consider its request for membership.
Since then, Mr. Krishna has attended the two summits that have followed to signal India's keenness to join the SCO.