Since its formation in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has slowly begun to establish itself as an important forum for the Eurasian region. As a club that has China and Russia and most Central Asian states as members, there is an obvious strategic dimension to the SCO. In the initial years, Moscow and, to a lesser extent, Beijing used the forum to re-inject a dose of Cold War politics into the region. At its 2005 summit, for example, the SCO asked the United States to set a date for the eventual withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. A lot of water has flowed down the Oxus since then. Now that the U.S. has said it hopes to end all offensive operations in that country by 2014, the Shanghai grouping realises it needs to step up to the plate to ensure Kabul has the capacity to deal with those who challenge its authority. Terrorism and Islamist extremism pose a critical challenge to Russia and China and both know the consequences of instability in their wider region. This is where the SCO has an important role to play. The regional format allows its members to involve themselves in economic and even security-oriented initiatives without reviving uncomfortable memories, as in the case of Russia, or triggering unnecessary rivalries, as in the case of China, India, and Pakistan.
If the SCO can be faulted, it is on its excessively cautious approach to membership. Most groupings go through three stages: a rush of recruits, followed by brief consolidation, and then further expansion. But the Shanghai club closed its doors too soon, holding India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia as observers for the better part of a decade. India's attitude, of course, did not help matters. Whether for fear of offending the U.S. or out of a misplaced sense of grandeur, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh preferred to keep his distance from the SCO. The Yekaterinburg summit of 2009, which he attended personally, marked a change. This was also the time South Block realised it needed to get serious about the organisation. Last year, a formal expression of interest was made and now that the SCO, in its summit this week in Astana, has reached agreement on the criteria for membership, India is likely to join soon. It is crucial, though, that New Delhi takes a constructive and long-sighted view of the opportunities the SCO provides for integration of South and Central Asia rather than looking forward to pushing an agenda narrowly focussed on terrorism. SCO members do not need to be reminded at every meeting about the safe haven Pakistan provides to extremism. India's agenda for the grouping must be broader than that.
The article was corrected for a factual error.