For the first time in almost a decade, the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) leadership summit decided to admit another formal observer, Afghanistan, to its ranks. The leaders attending the June 6-7 summit in Beijing also let Turkey join Belarus and Sri Lanka as a formal “dialogue partner”. Even so, the SCO has not fully overcome its expansion dilemma.
The SCO designated its first formal observer, Mongolia, in June 2004, after having finalized regulations on the observer status earlier that year. India, Iran, and Pakistan became observers at the 2005 summit in Shanghai. Other countries have since expressed interest in becoming formal observers. But the SCO has not yet moved forward in accepting new participants—until now.
Has the SCO finally broken its expansion impasse? Probably not—since the SCO again failed to promote any existing observer countries to full membership. Iran, India, and Pakistan lobbied hard for such status, but were again blocked, probably by host nation China, with no timetable when they might finally enter.
In their declaration announcing the SCO’s establishment in June 2001, the six founding governments declared that, “On the basis of consensus, it shall admit as its new members those countries which recognize the cooperation purposes and tasks within the framework of the organization… and whose joining will facilitate the realization of cooperation.”
Despite this, the SCO has never accepted another full member. The current roster of members includes only those six states that joined the organization at its founding: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Until recently, the stated reason the organization has not acted on their applications or designated any new members is, despite several years of discussions, that SCO governments have been unable to define a legal basis for increasing the number of members.
In the past, the SCO had established formal partnerships only with other multilateral organizations. The Yekaterinburg summit decided to grant Belarus and Sri Lanka the “dialogue partner” status. These partners cannot sign SCO documents or participate in SCO decisions; they can only offer advice in areas of cooperation specified in a memorandum.
The June 2010 SCO summit in Tashkent formally agreed on the minimum eligibility for full membership: the state has to be located in Eurasia; already have observer or partnership status within the SCO; have diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian ties with all existing SCO members; and not be subject to UN sanctions or in a state of armed conflict with another country. Yet, the SCO governments claimed they needed another year to finalize a memorandum detailing the commitments of states seeking full SCO membership. The group formally approved the commitment memorandum at the 2011 Astana summit but have since cited other reasons for delaying any membership decisions. In Beijing, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the next SCO summit, which will occur in the Kyrgyz Republic next year, would finally resolve the general financial, legal, and administrative procedures for admitting new members into the organization.
But the real reason the organization has never admitted a new full member has been the members’ recognition that expanding the SCO could further could exacerbate several of the organization’s fundamental problems. Differences in these countries’ populations, geographic size, economic resources, military power, and geopolitical orientation have already complicated the negotiation, approval, and execution of SCO policies. Adding new full members exacerbate these strains. In other words, cooperation is hard.
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 risks exacerbating current divisions among SCO governments.
And transforming current observer countries into full members could complicate mutual defense cooperation within the SCO as well, since the new entrants would lack the common Soviet military legacy found in Russia, China, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Plus, Afghanistan, India, Mongolia, and Pakistan all have military and intelligence ties with Washington.
Nor is any existing observer country an obvious choice for full membership. The most enthusiastic aspirants for full membership, Iran and Pakistan, are the least desirable entrants due to their links to regional terrorism and relatively weak economies. The potentially most valuable new member, gas-rich Turkmenistan, has not shown any interest in joining the SCO. Turkmenistan still adheres to a formal position of neutrality regarding regional security issues. Those SCO observers that have unsuccessfully sought full membership during the last several years might not welcome Turkmenistan’s receiving such a status ahead of them.
Membership expansion could also complicate the SCO’s nonproliferation stance because several candidates for full membership—India and Pakistan—possess nuclear weapons that were acquired outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or appear to be seeking them.
SCO officials and supporters worry, too, that expanding the number of state members with voting rights could make the SCO more bureaucratic. More members would make it more difficult to achieve a consensus. The organization’s consensus rule gives any current member the right to veto, including admitting new members or observers or dialogue partners, though Russia and China are clearly the most influential members in shaping SCO policies. Until now, while Beijing and Moscow have been able to agree which applications for full membership to reject, they have yet to concur in favor of any applicant.
Russia and China have apparently decided that Mongolia cannot join the SCO anytime soon. In addition to its being a geographic outlier, NATO’s recently expanding ties with Mongolia have attracted unfavorable commentary in the Chinese media, which accuses Mongolia of cultivating ties with NATO to balance and enhance its leverage with Beijing and Russia as part of its “third neighbor” policy. Mongolia has supplied troops to the NATO-led operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan, attended the recent Chicago summit, and become the first nation to receive an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program from NATO.
China and Russia also oppose allowing Iran to join the SCO. Its full membership would be seen as a provocative and gratuitous anti-Western move by an organization seeking to downplay earlier Western angst that it might become an anti-NATO of the east. President Hu Jintao again used the occasion of a bilateral meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to lecture the Iranian leader about Beijing’s opposition to Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons. China and Russia have cleverly managed to deflect Iran’s membership aspirations by enacting a rule that no country under UN sanctions can become a full member of the organization and then voting for UN Security Council resolutions imposing such sanctions.
But Beijing and Moscow have disagreed about the applications of India and Pakistan. Russian officials have set aside their traditional wariness of Pakistan and been open to allowing both states to become full members. But the Chinese government has reportedly blocked India’s application, even though this move effectively denied their regional ally Pakistan such a promotion since the consensus is that both countries need to be treated equally to avoid exacerbating their regional rivalry. Chinese officials presumably oppose India’s gaining international stature through full membership in the SCO (or on the UN Security Council). And at the same time giving India or Pakistan full membership, for instance, might require the SCO to address Kashmir and other divisive South Asian issues.
The Central Asian governments are probably unenthused about adding new full members since their individual influence could decline as it is diluted within a larger group. They would also have to share development funds, SCO posts, and other concrete institutional benefits with any new members. In addition, whereas it is now the focus of SCO attention, new members might direct the SCO’s gaze away from Central Asia. For example, accepting Iran would move the SCO more deeply into Middle
Eastern issues. Promoting India and Pakistan could make the SCO an organization focused on South as well as Central Asia.
Instead of expanding the number of full members, existing SCO governments have created these new affiliate categories (“observer countries,” “dialogue partners”). Existing members have sought to give other SCO affiliates, especially observer countries, greater opportunities to participate in the organization’s activities.
This approach could usefully allow affiliates to take advantage of assets and resources by engaging them in SCO projects. For example, the new arrangement could create opportunities for Afghanistan and Turkey to discuss the optimal regional security framework that will emerge once NATO combat forces stationed in Central Asia leave. The new policy also partly compensates those countries that have tried but failed to elevate their status within the SCO. Yet, at some point the frustrated membership applicants may lose interest and focus their multinational institution-building efforts elsewhere.