Asian bloc's expansion may widen cracks between China, Russia
Accession of India, Pakistan to SCO adds new wrinkle to group's politics
ISSAKU HARADA, Nikkei staff writer
ASTANA -- The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is set to accept India and Pakistan as full members, a move intended to enhance its influence as an alternative to the West. But with core members China and Russia already on different pages, this growth could magnify divisions within the bloc.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other SCO leaders gathered here in the capital of Kazakhstan for a two-day summit that began Thursday, with the addition of India and Pakistan expected to be approved Friday. The countries will be the first to join as full members since the organization's formation in 2001. The group currently consists of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The leaders will likely also discuss the future accession of Iran, now an observer state, and others. Another key item on the agenda will be working together to address the global spate of terrorist attacks by extremist groups. Members intend to affirm their commitment to deepening cooperation against terrorism in a joint declaration Friday.
The Kremlin welcomed the SCO's new additions in a statement Wednesday, saying the expansion should take the group's activities to a qualitatively new stage and strengthen its authority within the international community.
After the addition of India and Pakistan, SCO members will account for 20% of the world's gross domestic product and 40% of its population. The inclusion of South Asian countries extends the bloc's geographical reach throughout Eurasia, aside from the European Union. The group could work to heighten its influence as a rival to the West, including by offering membership to Turkey, an SCO "dialogue partner" whose campaign to join the EU has stalled.
Yet any such efforts will be hampered by China and Russia's increasingly divergent views on the SCO.
Russia has encouraged India to join the organization amid concern about China wielding its economic might to gain influence in Central Asia -- Moscow's backyard. Bringing India into the fold would dilute Beijing's clout within the group. India is also a key buyer of Russian weapons and nuclear power equipment.
Wariness toward Beijing is pushing New Delhi toward Moscow as well. India has vocally opposed a key part of China's Belt and Road Initiative that passes through an area of Kashmir administered by Pakistan but claimed by India. New Delhi boycotted the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in May, yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended a meeting of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in Russia this month.
India likely also hopes that membership in the bloc will give it a greater voice on issues related to Afghanistan, an SCO observer state.
Going it alone
China drew its ally Pakistan into the group as a counterweight to Russia and India. But the reality is that Beijing is losing interest in the SCO.
Xi released an unusual statement Wednesday detailing his objectives for a four-day state visit to Kazakhstan wrapping up Saturday. The bulk of the statement was devoted to the friendly relationship between the two countries, including with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative, while making only passing mention of the SCO.
Though the SCO was once China's gateway to Central Asia, Beijing's influence in the region is now rising steadily on its own. The leaders of SCO members Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan attended the Belt and Road Forum.
The group is making little headway on economic issues, with a regional development bank proposed by China stymied by a wary Russia. Beijing has bypassed the SCO and worked one-on-one with other countries on economic matters, parlaying these partnerships into the Belt and Road economic sphere. China also worries that Russia could try to stoke anti-American sentiment within the organization, running counter to Beijing's desire for a stable relationship.
The friction between India and Pakistan could further bog down the SCO's work. Decision-making is already slow, since all members must come to agreement on matters as a rule. Adding the fractious relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad to the mix could further hamstring the SCO's efforts to expand its influence on the international stage.