SCO Fails to Solve Its Expansion Dilema
Richard Weitz «View Bio

For the second year in a row, the existing members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) declined to allow new countries to join the organization as members or formal observers. The stated reason - that SCO members need more time to define the legal issues involved in expanding further - sounds implausible. A more likely reason is that expanding the institution would present serious problems for the SCO. In addition, none of the existing membership candidates is an obvious choice for full membership.

BACKGROUND: The SCO currently has a complex organizational structure with participating countries arranged according to the three general categories of full members, formal observers, and `guests of honor` selected by the rotating host government of the annual SCO leadership summit. The current roster of full members includes only those six states that joined the organization at its founding in 2001.

In June 2004, Mongolia became the first formal SCO observer. At the organization`s July 2005 summit in Shanghai, India, Iran, and Pakistan achieved formal observer status as well.

The specific rights and duties of SCO observers have never been made clear. Their status appears to grant them the right to attend major SCO meetings (such as the annual leadership summits), but not the right to vote when decisions are made. In addition, the representatives of the full SCO members often hold meetings among themselves that exclude observer participation. At the most recent Bishkek summit in August 2007, for example, the heads of the six full SCO members met first among themselves before inviting SCO observers as well as the honored guests to join them in an expanded session.

The precise number of countries seeking to obtain full membership or observer status in the SCO is also uncertain. Immediately before the June 2006 Shanghai summit, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Li Hui claimed that `a lot of countries in Asia and other continents have applied, demonstrating the SCO is broadening its influence.` In August 2007, Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry official Astanbek Osmonaliev likewise said that a number of governments were requesting at least observer status. In both cases, however, the SCO members declined to expand the number of formal members. The putative reason was that the members had not yet worked out the legal basis for such expansion.

At present, the leading membership candidates are the four SCO observer countries plus Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. None of these candidates is an obvious choice. The most enthusiastic aspirants for full membership, Iran and Pakistan, are the least desirable entrants. The potentially most valuable new members, India and Turkmenistan, remain ambivalent about their ties with the SCO. Turkmenistan is not even a SCO observer and would have to leapfrog over the others in order to gain full membership.

The Mongolian government has not indicated any strong interest recently in becoming a full SCO member. In any case, most existing members appear to consider Mongolia too distant from Central Asia to warrant full membership. In contrast, Afghanistan`s proximity to the other SCO nations has created problems for any membership aspirations its government might entertain. The other countries attribute many of their security problems to the narcotics traffickers and terrorists based especially in southern Afghanistan.

Of the remaining countries, Iran and Pakistan seem most eager to become full SCO members. Iranian and SCO objectives overlap in several areas, especially energy. Yet, any proposal to grant Iran full membership would prove highly controversial given Iran`s policies toward Israel, nuclear proliferation, and regional terrorism. Thanks to strong Chinese backing, Pakistan received formal SCO observer status at the same July 2005 summit as Iran. The other governments, however, appear to worry about Pakistan`s links with the Taliban insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan and other regional extremist groups.

IMPLICATIONS: Besides the problems with each of the plausible candidates for new membership, however, the entire process of expanding the SCO could entail additional drawbacks. The tremendous disparities in existing members` populations, geographic size, military strength, and economic resources have already made it difficult for SCO nations to negotiate and implement effective cooperative measures. The SCO still lacks the internal cohesion and capabilities found in strong multilateral security institutions such as NATO and the EU, whose members share a common ideology (a commitment to liberal democracy) as well as common security concerns (counter-terrorism). The need to reconcile conflicting national laws, regulations, and standards has repeatedly delayed the implementation of many SCO agreements.

Current SCO members disagree over such important issues as the desirability of a Western military presence in Central Asia, the extent to which governments should assist another member state to suppress domestic unrest, and the SCO`s role in traditional defense matters. Further expansion could easily widen the range of views held by SCO governments on these contentious issues.

For example, granting Afghanistan, India, or even Pakistan full membership to the organization could exacerbate differences regarding the desirability of the long-term role of the U.S. military and NATO in Central Asia. These governments rely on the considerable Western military presence in Afghanistan to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban and its regional terrorist allies. Giving India and Pakistan full membership, moreover, might require the SCO to address Kashmir and other divisive South Asian issues.

Insofar as the SCO continues to expand the degree of cooperation among members` military forces, transforming the current observer countries (expect perhaps Mongolia) into full members could complicate mutual defense cooperation since they lack the common Soviet military legacy found in Russia, China, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In addition, Afghanistan, India, Mongolia, and Pakistan all have close or improving ties with Washington, especially in the defense and intelligence field.

Two problems arise in the case of offering Turkmenistan full membership. First, the current government has not yet made a decision to break completely with former President Saparmurat Niyazov`s principle of eschewing formal membership in the SCO. Second, the SCO`s current group of formal observers - India, Iran, Pakistan, and Mongolia - might not welcome Turkmenistan`s immediate membership status. For these reasons, one would expect Turkmenistan either to receive designation as a formal SCO observer itself or, building on Berdymukhamedov`s attendance at the Bishkek summit, to gradually expand its engagement with the institution by cooperation on energy, counterterrorism, or other issues of mutual interest.

Since such considerations have led the existing full SCO members to continue their moratorium on new members, they have tried to provide observer countries increased opportunities to participate in the organization`s activities. A few days before the Bishkek summit convened, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov told the media that the SCO had no intention to turn into a `closed club` and that, among its members, there was a `readiness to expand mutually advantageous cooperation with the observer states in various areas.` To assist this process, the governments were `working on a mechanism for SCO dialogue cooperation with all interested countries and multilateral structures.` Losyukov proposed a wide range of areas for possible functional cooperation, including those dealing with security, economics, and humanitarian issues.

In his formal address at Bishkek, Russian President Vladimir Putin itemized a number of specific projects where Russia “would welcome the involvement of observer states.” His list included a planned SCO disaster prevention center, a virtual SCO University, and various projects in the public health, transportation, information, and telecommunications sectors. Putin also discussed the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, calling on the SCO to “lay down a legal framework for developing contacts with SCO observer countries.”

CONCLUSIONS: Energy seems an especially promising area for future cooperation with some other non-member countries. At Bishkek, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that “it is quite possible that the energy club being created will be open to companies from observer countries.” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reaffirmed Iran’s interest in helping create a regional “energy club.” Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri of Pakistan, representing another SCO observer nation at the summit, also expressed his country’s interest in participating in regional energy cooperation. Even India, which has distanced itself from the SCO’s security and political initiatives, still seems interested in cooperating with the organization in meeting its energy needs. Not coincidentally, the Indian delegation to the annual SCO summit was headed, for the second year in a row, by its petroleum minister, Murli Deora.

Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of Program Management at Hudson Institute. This piece was published in the September 19 issue of the CACI Analyst.