DUSHANBE -- Seeking to counterbalance Western powers, Russia and China are moving to expand an organization they founded in Asia by welcoming major regional player India as a prospective new member.
Launched in 2001, the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization also includes the central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It promotes cooperation in areas ranging from anti-terrorism measures to the economy and culture. Adding India could boost the organization's influence, particularly in regional security issues.
India said Friday that it has formally applied for membership. The country now holds observer status but is looking to step up engagement with the organization, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said at the SCO summit.
SCO leaders agreed on requirements and application procedures for new members earlier that day, with such nations as India and Pakistan in mind. Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the summit that his country would support expanding the SCO through various means. Central Asian members, which receive aid from China and Russia, backed the move as well.
The SCO had previously hesitated to promote observer countries to full-fledged members and has not added any official members since its founding. But both China and Russia have vested interests in bringing India into the fold and boosting the organization's status in Asia.
China has been placing greater emphasis on India of late out of growing concern over American and Japanese influence in South Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met in Brazil this July and agreed to strengthen economic ties. On a visit to India this coming Wednesday, Xi is expected to discuss that nation's bid to join the SCO.
For Russia, India is a major arms importer. The two countries agreed at a summit last October to strengthen military and economic ties. "As the host of next year's SCO summit, Russia aims to elevate its national standing by brokering India's entry into the organization," a diplomatic source said.
Friday's summit also touched on the situation in Syria. In a joint declaration, the SCO called for continued dialogue within the country and political and diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis -- a clear reaction to the U.S. decision to expand airstrikes on Islamic militants there.
SCO members also agreed to cooperate on the construction of infrastructure, such as roads and railroads. China suggested that it will provide $5 billion in loans for multinational projects. Members also agreed to smooth automobile transportation between China and Europe through Central Asia.
In addition to leaders of the official member states, representatives from observers Mongolia, India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan attended the summit.